How Vladimir Putin is waging war on the West – and winning

Across the new Europe, a little bit of Russian influence is going a long way

Last month, the speaker of the Russian parliament solemnly instructed his foreign affairs committee to launch a historical investigation: was West Germany’s ‘annexation’ of East Germany really legal? Should it be condemned? Ought it to be reversed? Last week, the Russian foreign minister, speaking at a security conference in Munich, hinted that he might have similar doubts. ‘Germany’s reunification was conducted without any referendum,’ he declared, ominously.

At this, the normally staid audience burst out laughing. The Germans in the room found the Russian statements particularly hilarious. Undo German unification? Why, that would require undoing the whole post-Cold War settlement!

Which is indeed a very amusing notion — unless you think that this is exactly what the Russian speaker, the Russian foreign minister, and indeed the Russian President, a man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’, are in fact trying to achieve.

I concede that this plan does sound preposterous. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old Soviet empire is no more. Most of the old Warsaw Pact countries have joined the European Union and Nato. Central Europe’s transition from communism to democracy has been widely acclaimed as a huge success, and indeed is widely copied and studied the world over. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, even Romania and Bulgaria are all more open and generally more prosperous than ever before. Germany is triumphantly unified, and Europe is whole and free.

Can Vladimir Putin really pick all of this apart? Well, while most of us weren’t watching, he has certainly tried. We’ve spent the past decade arguing about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, almost anything but Russia. Meanwhile, Russia has been pursuing a grand strategy designed to delegitimise Nato, undermine the EU, split the western alliance and, above all, reverse the transitions of the 1990s.

Much of the time, they are pushing on an open door. The Kremlin doesn’t invent anti-European or anti-establishment ideas, it simply supports them in whatever form they exist, customising their tactics to suit each country. They’ll support the far left or the far right — in Greece they support both. Despite its economic plight, the new Greek government’s first act was not a protest against European economic policy but a protest against sanctions on Russia. Only then did it tell its European creditors that it might not pay them back.

If need be, Russia will court select members of the political and financial establishment too. In Britain, Russia has friends in the City, but also sponsors RT, the propaganda channel which features George Galloway and other titans of the loony left. In France, Russia keeps in close touch with industrialists, but a Russian-Czech bank has loaned Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front €9 million, with another €30 million said to be on the way.

Still, Britain and France are established democracies, each with a relatively strong political class and relatively solvent news-papers, and Greece is a longstanding member of the EU. With very little effort, the Kremlin can achieve a lot more in smaller countries where the political class is impoverished, the media downright broke and Europe still a new idea. On a recent visit to Prague, I was surprised to hear so much Russian spoken in the streets, and said so to a friend. He rolled his eyes: ‘Prague has become the poor man’s London.’ Russians who can’t afford Mayfair buy flats in the Baroque city centre. While there, they’ve discovered that the price of manipulating Czech politics is strikingly low.

Here again, they didn’t invent the Czech backlash against transition. Not everyone has got what they wanted in the past 25 years; the dissatisfied young don’t remember the bad old days. The Iraq war created disillusion with the transatlantic alliance, and the financial crash of 2009 created scepticism of the ‘West European model’ that the Czechs used to admire. Since 2013, when the Czech government collapsed following a bribery scandal, the Czech internet has heaved with invective and insult, attacks on ‘our corrupt political class’ and ‘two wasted decades’. In this atmosphere, a tiny bit of Russian media funding, especially in a country where most newspapers lose money, goes a long way. One former minister told me that the same Czech internet portals which attacked him — he says falsely — for corruption are now attacking Ukraine and supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

A little bit of money goes a long way in Czech politics too. The election campaign of the current president, Milos Zeman, was openly financed in 2013 by Lukoil, the Russian energy company. Since then President Zeman — who doesn’t, fortunately, control the government — has argued vociferously against Russian sanctions, dismissed the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a ‘bout of flu’ and invited western-sanctioned Russian oligarchs to Prague. Nor is he alone. In Prague, I was invited to debate a close associate of Vaclav Klaus, Zeman’s predecessor, who complained at length about the pernicious influence of Germany and the EU. I asked him whether German companies had ever paid for Czech presidential election campaigns, as Lukoil does. He couldn’t answer.

The EU doesn’t use anonymous trolls to manipulate the media, as Russia does all over central Europe. Nor does it fund any far-right political parties, as it does in Budapest as well as Paris. Nevertheless, Hungary’s centre-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, has adopted a piece of Russia’s anti-transition message too. Last year he secured a Russian loan — the details of which were secret — for the construction of a new nuclear power plant. A few months later, he told ethnic Hungarians in Romania that it was time to abandon western ‘dogmas and ideologies’ such as liberal democracy, the form of government which was, once upon a time, the central goal of Hungary’s transition. Infamously, Orban then explained that he preferred the ‘illiberal democracies’ of Turkey, China, and of course Russia. Putin is visiting Budapest this week.

As in Prague, the relationship between Russian money for Orban’s projects and Orban’s pro-Russian and illiberal views is murky. But other things besides money may be at stake. Orban is famously nostalgic for ‘greater Hungary’, which hasn’t existed since the first world war. A small slice of that fabled lost territory is now part of Ukraine — a point the Russian foreign minister also brought up, curiously, in Munich. Perhaps this was a hint: if Russia successfully partitions Ukraine, maybe Budapest will get a slice too.

Even if Hungary doesn’t, in the end, succumb to the charms of illiberal democracy, others might. In Serbia, which is not yet an EU member (and Russia would like to keep it that way), Russian firms control the most important oil and gas companies, and Putin was recently welcomed with the largest military parade in 30 years. Slovakia has a prime minister who flirts with hardline nationalism — he has said that his country was established ‘for Slovaks, not for minorities’ — and also feels doubtful about sanctions on Russia.

Even in Poland, probably the most successful nation in central Europe and the most reliably pro-Nato, internet trolls talk of a ‘disastrous’ 25 years, and mainstream opposition politicians in full campaigning mode have been heard to dismiss Poland’s ‘Third Republic’ — 1989 to the present — as a catastrophe. Those who consider themselves ‘losers’ of the Polish transition are a minority, but they do exist. No one is fond of Russia in Poland, but that isn’t the point: Russia doesn’t need Poland, Hungary or Slovakia republic to be ruled by pro-Russian governments. They just need anti-German governments in central Europe, or anti-western governments, or simply incompetent governments that can persuade the rest of Nato to throw up their hands and say ‘we won’t fight for these people’.

A Czech or Romanian government which would join the Greeks in opposing sanctions on Russia would also be useful. A Hungarian or Bulgarian government willing to torpedo any unified European policy towards Russia, especially one which concerns oil and gas, would be better still.

If a significant number of obstreperous central Europeans came to power, it isn’t at all hard to imagine how a chunk of central Europe could break off from the European Union. Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine how bits of what we used to call western Europe could break off from the European Union too. Greece is halfway there already. President Le Pen in France and a far-left Podemos government in Spain would also want to redraw the political map. And if the resultant economic and political crisis happened to hit Germany particularly hard, perhaps the Germans would decide to strike out on their own too, abandoning their European partners and the transatlantic alliance both.

If you were Vladimir Putin, wouldn’t you at least try it? There are still plenty of ex–Stasi informers in the eastern Lander, and plenty of former Russian agents. Nobody will notice if a few dodgy companies pay a few converted roubles into the accounts of Germany’s anti–European parties. Thanks to the Snowden affair, and the alleged bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s phone, the Germans are already pretty angry at the Americans. They’ve long since ceased to treat the British as serious geopolitical players. It wouldn’t take that much money or that many trolls to keep a drumbeat of anti-western, anti-American, anti-EU rhetoric going for a few years, as long as it takes.

We will know that it’s succeeded when the next Russian foreign minister declares the post-Cold War settlement null and void — and nobody laughs.

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