Spies, agents of influence and disinformation: Russia redoubles its operations ahead of the European elections

A coordinated investigation between several countries into a Russian network that allegedly paid far-right MEPs has raised the alarm in the EU

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin in a helicopter flight simulator in Torzhok, in the Tver region of Russia, last Wednesday.Mikhail Metzel (AP/ LaPresse)
María R. Sahuquillo

Russia is using several tools in its hybrid war in Europe: espionage, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and influence operations to interfere and destabilize. A little more than two months before crucial European Parliament elections, the European Union has warned in several internal reports, to which EL PAÍS has had access, that the Kremlin is redoubling its efforts. Now, the latest coordinated operation by several European secret services against a Kremlin influence network has set alarm bells ringing. Under investigation is whether MEPs from far-right parties received payments for their “collaborations” with an article-publishing platform “promoting” Russian propaganda. Investigators believe that politicians from the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands and Hungary may be involved, but have not ruled out that the network has also been active with lawmakers from other EU member states.

“The use of coordinated networks and influential individuals to artificially disseminate and amplify misleading EU-related narratives, support for Ukraine, and other elements on social networks is being amplified,” says one of the internal documents seen by this newspaper. At the same time, Russia is trying to rebuild its espionage network in NATO-allied countries, which suffered a heavy blow following the expulsions ordered throughout the EU after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, EU sources have warned. The use of media, social networks and agents of influence is at the heart of the latest investigation that has rocked the European Parliament over the Easter vacation.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala announced Thursday the dismantling of a Russian influence operation working through an article platform called Voice of Europe, based in Prague, a city traditionally used by Russia as one of its hubs to conduct espionage across the European Union. The now-shut-down website disseminated interviews, analysis, and news-like articles with a clear far-right bias and riddled with disinformation and populist elements, according to its digital trail. According to an intelligence source, Prague believes that Kremlin networks used that platform as a vehicle to pay thousands of euros to European politicians, in cash or cryptocurrencies

Czech investigators claim that behind Voice of Europe are two oligarchs linked to the Kremlin: Viktor Medvedchuk, of Ukrainian origin, who has been involved in other disinformation campaigns in the invaded country and who is considered close to President Vladimir Putin, who is godfather to his daughter, and Artem Martzhevsky, as reported by Czech daily Deník N. Prague on Thursday included both men and Voice of Europe on its sanctions list for infringing on national sovereignty.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has also spoken about the case. “It came for example to light that Russia has approached MEPs, but also paid [them], to promote Russian propaganda here,” he told the Belgian Parliament Thursday. Neither De Croo nor the Czech secret services, which led the operation, have revealed the names of the MEPs under investigation. Voice of Europe has organized debates and conferences and published interviews and articles by deputies, MEPs and aspiring European legislators in the upcoming elections from the far-right parties Alternative for Germany (AfD), Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Italian League, among others.

The European Parliament is in contact with the national authorities investigating the matter and with the rest of the bloc’s institutions, said its spokesman, Jaume Duch. “We have been observing anti-European Union campaigns from Russia for quite some time. It is not unknown that a part of the ultra-right (and ultra-left) represented in the European Parliament have contacts with Russia and tend to defend their positions.” Polls on the upcoming elections show that the far-right parties will increase their power in the next legislature.

The Kremlin’s contacts or those of its satellites and affiliates — from oligarchs to media personalities — with far-right parties have been documented on several occasions. For some years now, Russia has been trying to present itself one of the bastions of what is considered the traditional family — formed by a man and a woman — and has also become one of the major disseminators of rhetoric against sexual and reproductive rights, elements that it uses to influence and forge ties with other European ultra-conservative leaders. Additionally, through some of its associates such as the oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, it has financed or supported anti-rights organizations around the world, including in Europe, says writer and activist Klementyna Suchanow, who has thoroughly investigated these Russian-infiltrated networks in analyses, books and articles. Her latest work is dedicated to Agency Europe, an influence group with related entities in 15 countries.

Undermining EU credibility

A few weeks ago, the European Parliament opened an investigation into the Latvian MEP Tatiana Ždanoka, who is also under investigation by Riga and has been cited in several articles over her contacts with the Russian secret services and suspicions she is an agent of influence for Moscow. The institution has also demanded a thorough investigation into Russian interference. The new scandal comes almost a year and a half after Qatargate, a scheme involving alleged bribes paid to members of the Brussels assembly to improve the public image of Qatar. Once again, the latest revelations could prove a blow to the credibility of the institution 11 weeks before elections that will be key to the construction of the future of Europe, of several of its large member states, and for the EU’s continued support for Ukraine.

These operations, explains a European intelligence source, can work on a double track for the Russian narrative: they are useful to the Kremlin while they remain in the shadows but also when they are uncovered, as then Moscow can then use them to further spread its message that democracy does not work and institutions are corrupt. “Russia is fishing in a river where there are already divisive, controversial, and disturbing issues and exploits them. It is not inventing anything new; it is using a breeding ground that already exists,” concludes the source, who has been studying the tools of Russian interference for years.

In addition, as the study of hundreds of intelligence reports by Professor Geir Hagen of the Norwegian Defense University shows, there are other keys to this hybrid warfare, involving tools to which the Kremlin lends more importance in the current scenario of isolation from the West and in which it has fewer and fewer traditional levers of pressure — for years it used cheap gas, for example. These include the media, social networks, management of territorial conflicts, information services, cyber operations and attacks, business, or corruption. Internal EU reports warn, moreover, that Russia is increasing its use of artificial intelligence to produce and expand such propaganda and disinformation material.

“Political disseminators”

With its main information propaganda organs blocked in Europe by sanctions due to the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin is using other methods, according to a European report. Some are news blogs or websites that take the form of a local news platform, but the dynamics are the same. In February alone, Viginum, the French agency that analyses foreign digital interference, identified 193 websites that aimed to disseminate information from Russia-friendly sources and Russian media and institutions.

In addition, the intelligence official notes, the Kremlin or its affiliates are reactivating their agents of influence, who are not only professional politicians at different levels but sometimes take the form of “political disseminators” or relevant commentators, who generally try to sell themselves as the critical voice of the real issues in the face of EU bureaucracy and the mainstream media: agents of influence who not only disseminate the Russia-friendly narrative, but also sometimes discourse that feeds conspiracy theories.

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