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The Kremlin has its watchful eyes set on the French elections

Andrey Shcherbak, Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg

The Ukrainian crisis, from the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea to the violent conflict in Donbass, has led to an unprecedented deterioration of relations between Russia and the West. As early as 2014, the West imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia. The Conversation

The logic behind these actions was straightforward and clear. Initially, the sanctions targeted higher Russians officials, freezing their assets and restricting their entry to Europe and the United States. Later, they were followed by “sectoral” sanctions that aimed to restrict Russian companies’ access to western technologies and investment.

The sanctions were meant to undermine Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy among the Russian elite and the general population, and have contributed to the economic crisis in the country.

The West thought that a “tattered economy” in Russia would force Putin to step back from his foreign policy strategies because of domestic discontent. It was naïve enough to expect the Kremlin to do nothing but sit and wait.

Russia’s counter-strategy in France

For the last few months, Moscow’s counter strategy has included building political alliances with “pro-Russian” political forces in the West as well as pro-Russian candidates running for top political position in countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

Russia’s unequivocal support for Donald Trump in the recent US presidential campaign was the first try.

Although I do not believe Russia directly intervened in the US presidential election campaign or that Russian hackers played a decisive role in it, I must admit that Moscow has never so directly interfered in a Western election before.

In the French presidential campaign, which officially started on April 10, the Kremlin has obviously decided to support the candidates from both the right and far-right – François Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

Both candidates have showed positive attitudes towards Putin and, most importantly, they advocate ending French support for sanctions against Russia.

François Fillon, for example, has garnered Moscow’s sympathy by repeatedly claiming that sanctions on Russia have no effect and by pushing the idea of officially recognising Russian jurisdiction over Crimea.

But Marine Le Pen – with her image of being a “Frexit” advocate and her commitment to anti-Americanism and populism – seems to be Putin’s best friend in Old Europe.

Her recent visit to Moscow, a meeting with Vladimir Putin and her talk in the State Duma are clear signals that she remains the Kremlin’s favourite.

Marine Le Pen visits the Museums of the Moscow Kremlin on March 17 2017.
Kremlin Press Office, CC BY

And even if, until now, there is no clear evidence of Russian hacking in the French election process, Russian involvement is well documented.

For Marine Le Pen, it includes media promotion and financial support, as well as informal contacts with top Russian officials and businessmen.

French turbulence

What the Kremlin could not have foreseen is the turbulence that has caused in the French election campaign. In particular, as François Fillon became engulfed in a corruption scandal, his chance of getting to the second round diminished significantly.

According to polls, Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister who runs on a centrist platform and would be a less helpful candidate for Moscow, could win in the second round against Marine Le Pen.

The Kremlin has clearly taken that into account. Last week, the French polling watchdog warned of news reports coming from Russia with the aim of trying to re-boost Fillon’s campaign.

As for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he seems to be a surprise for the Kremlin. Although he made a few pro-Russia statements, including criticising the new Ukrainian government and stating that he would support leaving the European Union and NATO if elected, Mélenchon’s political and ideological platform has nothing in common with Putin’s regime.

Emancipation, anti-capitalism and the expansion of the social welfare state absolutely contradict the Russian oligarchs’ wild capitalism, corruption and hypocrisy that are key features of Putin’s Russia today.

Remove sanctions, destroy European unity

No doubt, the key goal of any Russian interventionist strategy is to reduce the burden of sanctions. In the long run, the Kremlin also aims to undermine European unity and thus be able to work with a divided Europe.

It’s worth noting that all this is not just the whim of an autocratic leader. The Ukrainian crisis demonstrated that further EU enlargement to the East is unacceptable for Moscow and that the Kremlin would be ready to deter this perceived offence by all possible means.

For public opinion in Russia, the shift of previously pro-Russian – or at least neutral – regimes toward the West, together with the NATO’s “open door policy” is seen as a threat to national security.

Without resistance to EU and NATO expansion, many people in Russia believe that the country’s western border would be surrounded by hostile regimes repeatedly demanding deployment of NATO forces.

The Kremlin’s strategy might become successful due to the fact that many people in the EU – and we are not talking about the elites – are, in fact, opposed to the Union’s enlargement, as was shown when Dutch voters rejected a referendum on closer EU links to Ukraine in 2016.

And politicians representing such EU-skeptic groups surfing on the current nationalist wave are potential partners for the Kremlin.

Populism in France would be a win for Russia

The French election can be explored through another perspective as well.

One can argue that any further victory of right-wing populists in Europe will contribute to the legitimisation of the Russian political regime.

Putin’s agenda for his third presidency was built on so-called “conservative shift”, with an emphasis on “traditional values”, increasing the role of religion and the Russian Orthodox Church, and establishing the lower classes as the social base of the regime.

The latter is likely to align Russia ideologically with Brexit supporters, European nationalist parties and probably the French right populist electorate as well. Thus, Russian leaders repeatedly stress political parallels with the West.

In the long run, that would be the way to create a Moscow-based conservative “internationalism”, with the possibility of seeing Vladimir Putin as a symbol of resistance against America if his country’s current relations with the US deteriorates even further.

But wild accusations that Putin could steal the French presidential election are baseless. Any claims that the Kremlin – or any other foreign power – can have a significant impact on the will of French voters are certainly an exaggeration.

To quote Vladimir Putin himself regarding the US presidential campaign: “Is America some kind of banana republic? America is a great power.”

The same comment applies to France. But, depending on who is elected, the next French president could have a very different attitude toward Moscow. And even if Marine Le Pen loses the upcoming election – as she most probably will – her supporters will not disappear overnight.

The Kremlin has no power either to extend or reduce the right-wing electorate in Europe. But the Russian leadership is already engaged in long-term cooperation with politicians who represent this sector of the population.

Andrey Shcherbak, Senior Research Fellow, Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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