From Russia, with an agenda

Dr Oliver Hartwich
29 June, 2021

At least the old Cold War made for better entertainment. Exchanges of captured spies at dusk at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge. Double and triple agents infiltrating the highest echelons of power. Dead letter boxes, hidden wristwatch cameras and miniature key chain revolvers.

No wonder the fascination with the superpowers’ secret activities created a whole new genre of literature and James Bond movies.

Europe’s new cold war is different. The Russian state is still targeting Western politics, but it does so quite openly – and with much more conventional means. Like a new TV station. Or more-or-less hidden donations to political parties.

Russian interference in Western politics is nothing new, going back to the original Cold War. It rose to prominence again in the context of Donald Trump’s election campaign 2016, which led to the Mueller investigation that almost raised more questions than it answered.

However, rarely has Russia’s interference been so blatant and open as in its use of its government-funded broadcasting services RT News. As an English-language TV station, it has been operating since 2005. It has since added Arabic, French and Spanish to its languages.

RT’s latest expansion plans are for Germany, where RT so far has only had an internet presence. It now seeks to become a full TV channel. There is, however, one major problem: State-owned media organisations cannot obtain a broadcasting licence in Germany, but RT has found a way around it.

The answer to RT’s problems could be Luxembourg. The small country between Belgium, France and Germany has a long history as a seat of broadcasting companies targeting other European markets. The most prominent example is RTL (Radio Television Luxembourg), which is active in markets such as the Netherlands, Hungary, Belgium and Germany.

Luxembourg’s special attraction to RT is its licensing procedure. Not just that it allows state-owned companies. The grant of a licence is also a political decision by the Government, not by a broadcasting authority.

Should Luxembourg go ahead with a TV licence for RT, the implications would be Europe-wide. Once granted a licence in any EU member state, RT could legally broadcast in all EU countries. It would even have a right for its TV programmes to be distributed in a European cable networks, not just by satellite.

To understand why Moscow has a great interest in getting the Luxembourg licence, check the stories on RT’s German-language pages. The menu is a mixture of pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, garnished with the odd conspiracy story.

So this week, for example, the RT website prominently features a story in which a leading social democrat public health expert warns of Covid-19 vaccines compromising the immune system. There is a report about Donald Trump’s speech labelling the US military leadership “woke and weak”. Another article claims the secret documents from the British “war ministry” (whose actual name is the Ministry of Defence) show that a recent confrontation between the British and Russian navies in the Black Sea was a British provocation.

With that much propaganda and misinformation, it is no wonder Western European governments are keeping a close eye on Russia’s media activities. Last week, a German newspaper quoted from a confidential report prepared for the German federal interior ministry. It concluded that Russia was behind “various hybrid activities directed against Germany’s interests that could disrupt social cohesion, trust in state institutions, the formation of political will, and electoral processes.”

In Germany’s general election campaign, RT is demonstrating how its activities can damage individual parties and candidates. Its stories currently target the Greens and their lead candidate Annalena Baerbock. Baerbock has previously spoken critically of Russia. Could it now be payback time?

For example, a lengthy opinion piece on RT takes aim at a speech Baerbock gave to the Atlantic Council. In that speech, she lays out her vision of a united Europe – hardly an unusual position for a German politician to take. But in RT’s interpretation, it becomes an attempt to create a Europe under German leadership – a Nazi policy with different means. That is an infamous lie.

Germany is not the only theatre for such Russian political activities. For months, there have been reports about a potential Russian connection to Italy’s far-right Lega party. Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini has always rejected these claims, but last week Italian magazine L’Espresso reported three senior Russians met one of Salvini’s confidantes in 2018 to arrange a deal, among them a Russian spy.

And would it be any wonder if Moscow supported the Lega? After all, the Lega is the loudest anti-EU force in Italian politics. If Russia wanted to destabilise Brussels, supporting the Lega would make sense.

Indeed, it is not the first time there have been rumours about financial support from Russia for far-right, nationalistic and anti-EU forces in the EU. In 2017, the BBC’s Panorama programme reported on Russian financial aid for France’s Front National party and speculated it was in return for the Front’s presidential candidate’s support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In a similar way, there has been much speculation, though no conclusive proof, that Russia interfered with the Brexit referendum. The Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament produced a report in July last year which concluded the British Government failed to take steps to prevent interference.

Germany’s far-right party Alternative for Germany has also repeatedly sent delegations to Moscow, though – just as the Italian Lega – it denies having financial links to the Kremlin.

What emerges from these various reports and activities is a picture of a new cold war. Through a combination of public, semi-hidden and secret means, Russia destabilises other European powers from within.

Moscow’s calculation behind these measures appears simple. The weaker other European powers, the less likely Moscow will be challenged in the pursuit of its interests. And since many European decisions require unanimity, having a Russian protégé in the government of an EU member state promises a great return on investment.

Russia’s new cold war against the West is probably not the sort of stuff that could be turned into spy movies. But on RT’s channels at least, you can watch it on TV. And soon in German, too.

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