Russia gambles on populist parties in anti-EU drive
From the far right to the radical left, populist parties across Europe are being courted by Russia's Vladimir Putin who aims to turn them into allies in his anti-EU campaign.
The Front National ( FN) in France, Syriza in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary may be the most famous ones but they are far from being alone. Some, like Britain's UKIP, have adopted a "benevolent neutrality" toward Putin.
They are united in their objective to "challenge the EU," and this in turn aligns them with Russia's wish for a "weak and divided Europe," explains Hungarian political analyst Peter Kreko.
In the longer term, the Kremlin banks on these parties' accession to power to change Europe and separate it from NATO and the United States.
"Moscow wants to establish long-term alliances with all those loyal to Russia," says Russian analyst Konstantin Kalatchev of the Political Expert Group.
These parties also help to promote the Kremlin's internal communications. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, self-proclaimed "monitors" from the FN and Austria's Freedom Party (FPO) told Russian TV that due process had been followed.
FN's Russian Money
A whiff of the Cold War pervades "this outdated Communistera style of spreading propaganda and finding allies," said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist of the French extreme-right.
But there exists, nevertheless, "a community of shared values," he argued, including opposition to gay marriage, an issue that fuels the idea of a decadent Europe — "a hot topic in Moscow."
Russia's seduction strategy is also aimed at factions of the European left. "In Germany, the left is the biggest critic of Merkel's Russia policies," notes Kalatchev.
One of the benefits of closer ties with Moscow could be financial support. The FN recently received a loan worth nine million euros (US$9.8 million) from the Czech Russian Bank.
French news website Mediapart reported this week that hacked text messages exchanged between Russian officials proved there was a link between Russian financing and party support for Putin.
FN president Marine Le Pen has rejected the allegations as "delirious."
Despite lingering suspicions, there is no further proof of direct party funding, even if the WikiLeaks affair revealed that the U.S. ambassador in Sofia had expressed worry about possible Russian transfers to Bulgaria's ultranationalist Ataka (Attack) party.
With Moscow, against Kiev
Ataka leader Volen Siderov launched his 2014 European election campaign in Moscow, just as the Ukrainian crisis erupted.
A majority of European populist parties have sided with Russia over Ukraine.
The FN, for instance, has repeatedly described the country's east and Crimea as Russia's historical cradle.
New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras flew to Moscow in May 2014 while he was still opposition leader. The visit came two months after Crimea's annexation.
His far- left Syriza party illustrates the blurring of political etiquette whenever Moscow is involved.
Greece's Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, a former communist, was photographed in 2013 with Russian ultra-nationalist Alexandre Douguine, an influential promoter of a Russian-led Eurasian alliance between Europe and Russia.
Yet, now that Tsipras and Kotzias are in power, their party no longer advocates Greece's exit from NATO.
But Greece could still "paralyse" Nato by vetoing military action against Moscow, warns former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
However, for now the Kremlin and its populist allies have been unable to break Europe's unified pro-sanctions stance against Russia.
The populist parties also failed to form a cohesive political group in the European Parliament in 2014.
But the Kremlin's right-wing strategists have long-term ambitions, according to Kalatchev.
In their eyes, "now is the time to create links with those who could become useful in the future. It's the dawn of a new Europe."