Investigating Russia’s role and the Kremlin’s interference in the 2019 EP elections
Political Capital and its research partners (Jonas Syrovatka, Adam Lelonek, Grigorij Meseznikov) explored the narratives the Kremlin used to influence public opinion in Europe and, in particular, the Visegrád Group between 1 January 2019 and 30 June.
We used media monitoring software to identify the main narratives spread by official Kremlin mouthpieces and local pro-Kremlin media, focusing on how Russia-related issues (e.g., Ukraine) and EU institutions are depicted. Moreover, we seek to formulate policy recommendations to aid the fight against disinformation.
- The EU and the 2019 European Parliamentary elections are certainly potential targets for the Kremlin’s meddling efforts, which was acknowledged by European institutions well in advance. There is reason to believe that as a way to better represent its national interests with regards to the EU, Russia possesses a desire and ability (using current 21st century technologies) to influence the upcoming EP elections. However, it must be emphasized that national general elections are more likely targets for the Kremlin, as it is easier to influence EU decision-making through a group of pro-Russian governments in the Council of the European Union. Moreover, the decentralized EP elections are technically more difficult to influence. Still, Moscow could benefit from amplifying its voice in the EP and create the illusion that it had a strong impact on the EP vote.
- Some pro-Kremlin messages (e.g., the US is using the EU to force its will on other countries, and the CIA is behind Euromaidan) might resonate with the audience in at least some of the EU member states. The EP elections provide a great opportunity for spreading such narratives, but the effects of pro-Russian disinformation will be impossible to accurately measure.
- Kremlin-backed media is mainly focusing on discrediting the West in general, sometimes without even mentioning Russia. The narratives we found on RT and Sputnik English were remarkably consistent in some cases, suggesting that with regards to certain issues relating to key Russian national interests (e.g., Venezuela), the Kremlin is trying to persuade the audience on the validity of its own views. The Kremlin’s relative lack of focus on the EP elections was highlighted by the fact that official Russia-backed media did not directly target the European Union as frequently as it did the US and NATO. However, when they did address topics related to the EU, they almost exclusively promoted the views of anti-EU actors. The coverage of local portals was varied in terms of their preferred topics: Hungarian disinformation media focused heavily on the EU, while the bloc was, similarly to what we observed on RT and Sputnik, relegated to secondary importance behind anti-West messages in the Czech Republic.
- Russian decision-makers aim to weaken and fragment the EU to gain more influence over what occurs on the continent, while some internal actors in EU member states want to achieve the same goals for ideological reasons. This essentially prompts the convergence of anti-EU narratives in official Kremlin-backed and local disinformation media.
- Anti-EU messages are often combined with even more prevalent anti-West messages. The Kremlin considers the EU to be the extended arm of the US in international relations, which is another reason why it wishes to hinder the European integration process. Consequently, disinformation directly targeting the US, NATO, pro-Western politicians and Western democratic norms can be considered to be attempts to influence the political orientation of Europeans in general, which can also affect voting intentions in EP elections: anti-West narratives also promote the messages of Eurosceptic forces (e.g., as the only solution to avoid war with Russia).
- The presence of Russian narratives within the messages of Eurosceptic actors increases the Kremlin’s outreach in Europe considerably. At the same time, we can observe a bilateral transfer between the Kremlin and Eurosceptic actors when it comes to narratives. While official, semi-official Kremlin-backed media can influence local pro-Russian actors’ messages, the views of local actors also contribute to the official pro-Kremlin rhetoric.
- All in all, European pro-Kremlin, Eurosceptic actors (most of whom are likely to be “useful idiots” rather than Russian agents of influence) play a much more important role in spreading pro-Russian narratives in the EU than the Kremlin itself. Nevertheless, Moscow can be satisfied with this, as its narratives still reach the European audience and have an even larger effect through the former.