Does Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin Vote in Europe?

The question of a possible preference of the Russian regime for a certain potential French far-right candidate has fueled recent debates and could do so again in the coming weeks and months. I think it is important that these discussions, based on facts and arguments, remain free and open. I am trying here to revisit some fundamental, if not vital, questions: how do the Kremlin’s political choices manifest themselves in Europe and in the democracies? How does it try to interfere in the electoral processes of democracies?

Let’s be clear: Vladimir Putin does not vote in Europe, nor in any democracy. Or more precisely, he “votes” in many ways and the electoral process itself is only one of the many ways in which the Kremlin intends to influence the political life of democratic nations. The issue for the Russian regime is not necessarily to have in power a candidate who espouses all its theses—which is the case of almost all far-right political leaders in Europe and elsewhere—but a team that acts in the direction of its interests or, moreover, more often than not does not act, i.e., does not oppose its aggressive or criminal actions as firmly as it should.

In some cases, the choice is relatively simple. Thus, in the United States, the Kremlin needed, in 2016, to get Donald Trump elected, whom Putin had clearly identified, even beyond a possible kompromat, and above all to defeat Hillary Clinton. We know that this operation was rather conclusive, but it was not successful in 2020. In Germany, Russian proxies launched a systematic campaign to denigrate the green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, who had expressed positions that were uncompromising with Kremlin policy. Many felt that, even though the Kremlin had in the past supported the far-right AFD party and, before that, the anti-migrant movement Pegida, its real candidate was Armin Laschet, who was considered to be the most compliant with Putin’s regime and the weakest, and therefore the most easily influenced. In France, everyone remembers the Macronleaks operation and the rumors complacently relayed by certain Russian state media against the candidate Emmanuel Macron, which he vituperated in front of Putin when he received him in Versailles. The Russian president had chosen the “man to kill” and we know that he had a marked preference for his friend François Fillon rather than for Marine Le Pen simply because she did not seem to be able to win. In other countries, the choices were also clear: if possible to favor the extreme right or parties directly considered as “pro-Russian”, but if necessary to choose a “second best”.

For the 2022 presidential election in France, the Kremlin’s choices or non-choices could be in the same vein: no doubt far-right candidates who totally embrace Moscow’s views would be preferred by the Kremlin, and will be pushed so as much as possible, but this does not mean that they will be supported, as more moderate-looking candidates have multiple advantages; making the pro-Kremlin line more acceptable to the public and at first less visible, making the Putin regime itself look moderate and normal — which can hardly be the case if it is too much associated with the far-right — and being promised to be more durable. Finally, the Kremlin needs above all a candidate who — ideally — would question the European Union’s sanctions policy, but who would in any case aim to continue the “dialogue” with Russia and would not go too far in condemning its crimes and external aggressions. For this, he has several candidates on the market. Favoring far-right candidates and giving a wider echo to their words has another advantage: it accentuates the division of society, reinforcing the conspiracy in which these candidates willingly move, including sometimes in the anti-sanitary pass or anti-vaccine rhetoric when it is not about NATO and Syria. This does not mean that these are the people privileged by the Kremlin in a scenario that it would consider realistic.

Of course, one has to distinguish between the Kremlin’s rhetoric inside Russia and outside. The former is aimed at showing the more impressionable public — especially the elderly and poorly educated, at least those who do not have wide access to social networks — that the theses favorable to Putin’s regime are gaining ground abroad. It is a sort of adjuvant to his internal narratives. This is why we can expect to see more and more websites, various groups, and publicists praising far-right candidates, echoing their words, especially if they echo the nationalist, anti-migrant, and even anti-Semitic discourse of the Russian far right, which is well regarded by the government, even if the Kremlin knows how to distance itself from it when it is useful. The ideological groups linked directly or indirectly to the regime are different, even if their discourse always ends up with the same result. However, precisely these statements of entities widely tolerated and often encouraged by the Kremlin, which say, in a certain way, what the Kremlin cannot express directly, do not constitute a “vote” for a simple reason: they do not reach the public of the states concerned and remain for internal use.

Therefore, as much as we must pay special attention to the manipulation of information by the Russian authorities, to the way they disseminate their theses, but also try to eradicate in the opinion and among media personalities any resistance, and to their attempts to discredit this or that candidate, we must not imagine a linear “vote” of Vladimir Putin for this or that candidate for the sole reason that he or she would subscribe to his theses. In any case, we cannot easily conclude that there is a linear choice for another reason: the election is only a moment during which the Kremlin’s propaganda or interference can be exercised, but the endorsement is just as important. If we have to criticize and condemn extremist candidates, it is first of all for the ideology they carry, for the absolute regression they would bring in terms of values, but also in terms of consideration for the country abroad, for the indignity that is theirs, and certainly from this point of view, for their constant propensity to support regimes that are not only foreign, but also criminal.

To sum up, the risk is perhaps less about the favor given to one or more candidates who take up — as disgraceful as it is — the Kremlin’s discourse than about the influences that can be exerted, by ideology or interest, in the shadow of personalities who have the ear of power. The circles in Paris and Moscow that are trying to do everything possible to lift the sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, advocating a “reengagement” and increased investment by France in Russia, are perhaps more useful to the Kremlin than an incandescent candidate. These influences are less visible as is the soft propaganda I mentioned here, but they are probably otherwise corrosive and dangerous to our security and principles. We should not let the tree hide the forest.

International and security affairs analyst, former head of department at the General Planning Commission, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, author of three official reports to the government and 22 books, including Quand la France disparaît du monde (Grasset, 2008), Le Monde à l'horizon 2030. La règle et le désordre (Perrin, 2011) and, with R. Jahanbegloo, Resisting Despair in Confrontational Times (Har-Anand, 2019)

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