The long read: From Russia with love – how Putin is winning over hearts and minds

Vladimir Putin has been quick to exploit the new fault line between the masses and the ruling European liberal elite - we examine how the Russian president has ruthlessly used soft power to win over legions of new supporters.

Russian anti-fascist activists protest near the venue of the International Russian Conservative Forum in St Petersburg, March 2015. About 150 representatives of Russian nationalist and right-wing European parties met to berate the West for its stance on the Ukraine conflict and sanctions against Russia. Aleksander Koryakov / Kommersant Photo via Getty Images
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What does the furore surrounding the alleged rape of an ethnic Russian teenager in Berlin have in common with a Moscow-linked bank’s controversial multimillion euro loan to France’s far-right National Front party? Western governments and the media have portrayed both events as two sides of the same coin: insidious examples of a new kind of Russian soft-power.

In January, Lisa F, a 13-year-old German girl of Russian origin, was declared missing by her family. When she reappeared a day later, Lisa’s aunt told journalists she had been abducted on her way to school, lured into a stranger’s car and raped by men who looked like asylum seekers.

Despite police claims that medical tests showed no evidence of sexual assault, an incendiary report on Russia’s state-owned Channel One broadcaster declared that “in Germany, migrants have begun to rape underage children”. Over the next two weeks, hundreds of protesters – many of them Russian-speakers – took to the streets in Germany chanting anti-immigrant slogans. They were joined by supporters of the right-wing nationalist Pegida party.

Russia’s links to the European far-right and other fringe political movement are not new. Over the past five years, Vladimir Putin’s government has provided moral and financial support to populists across the continent.

Last March, St Petersburg hosted a summit of about 150 representatives of extremist parties from all over Europe, including the British National Party and Greece’s Golden Dawn. The International Russian Conservative Forum’s stated goal is the defence of “traditional European values”. But it also opposes the international sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.

Such overtures appear to be bearing fruit. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, has called on the EU to “come to terms” with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Shortly afterwards, her party received a €9 million (Dh36m) loan from a Russian bank, with the promise of additional funds of up to €30m to help finance the 2017 presidential election campaign.

So worried are western governments by these developments that James Clapper, the United States’ top intelligence official, has reportedly opened an investigation into Russia’s ties to European political parties. But the growing romance between Moscow and Europe’s “outsider” parties cannot be explained by bribery and political skulduggery alone.

Writing in the Financial Times, veteran economics commentator Martin Wolf warned western elites against ignoring the plight of what he calls the "losers" of the economic system. Feeling "cheated and humiliated" by the West's social and economic status quo, large sections of the old working class are becoming seduced by politicians who "combine the nativism of the hard right, the statism of the hard left and the authoritarianism of both".

Wolf was referring to Donald Trump (US Republican), Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage (UK Independence Party). But there is no politician alive today who better combines and nurtures the compelling and contradictory strands of modern populism than Putin. In this, he has arguably been aided by a cloistered western elite that has refused to heed the calls of its most vulnerable.

The divide-and-conquer tactics that Putin has perfected were first pioneered by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Although Russia acted with relative impunity inside the Eastern Bloc, it could not rely on force to effect behaviour in the western world and so turned to ideology as soft power.

Through the 20th century, the main cleavage in western societies was the left-right ideological divide. Soviet leaders realised that becoming an international sponsor of socialism would give the USSR important leverage over its adversaries.

Western countries with strong communist parties – such as Italy, Sweden and France – enjoyed good relations with the USSR. In addition to providing trade benefits in the form of energy, agricultural and industrial contracts, these countries could be counted on to resist or dilute aggressive US attempts to expand its cultural and military influence.

Ideology was particularly ably deployed in the espionage field. The KGB recruited agents among brilliant students – ironically, mainly upper class and often from Cambridge University, a hotbed of communist philosophy in the 1930s and 40s. Many of them later infiltrated the top echelons of Britain’s political, scientific and intelligence establishments.

They included Kim Philby, the debonair double agent who headed British intelligence in Washington before escaping to Moscow. Others, like Klaus Fuchs, the gifted physicist who passed details of the atomic bomb project on to the Russians, and George Blake, another key Soviet mole inside MI6, were émigrés from Nazi-occupied Europe who embraced communism after experiencing the horrors of fascism and war. These men betrayed their countries for an idea.

Since 1991, the epic conflict between socialism and capitalism ceased to be the fault line of the world, bringing to an end Russia’s role as an ideological lodestar. Yet after two decades in the wilderness, Moscow once again finds itself at the front line of the defining struggle of the age.

In the post-Occupy era, the struggle is no longer between left and right but between the elites and masses. If that is something that western policymakers have taken a long time to grasp, Putin has seen it very clearly and has exploited it adroitly.

In time-honoured fashion, this outward focus has allowed the Russian government to deflect attention away from the country’s increasingly parlous economic state. The collapse of the oil price and devaluation of the rouble have threatened to derail Putin’s social contract with the public, who have tolerated political authoritarianism in exchange for ever-increasing standards of living.

In response to plummeting wages and a gaping budget deficit, Putin has attempted to fill the vacuum left in people’s wallets and fridges with a combination of military adventurism in Crimea and Syria and soft power manoeuvres in Europe. The strategy appears to have borne fruit. At over 80 per cent, Putin’s popularity ratings remain the stuff of dreams for any major world leader, let alone one presiding over the worst recession in two decades.

While the core tenets of Russia’s new world view – social conservatism, a veneration of state sovereignty, and a distrust of globalisation – are at odds with those of Europe’s liberal-minded governing elite, they are shared by a rising tide of the continent’s discontented. Russia has taken advantage of this development to deftly position itself on the side of the common man, increasingly adrift and marginalised.

The Occupy movement and the work of Nobel laureate economist Thomas Picketty have drawn attention to the glaring gap in wealth, income and opportunity between the 1 per cent and the rest of the world. But the issue goes far beyond economics. According to a survey cited journalist Gillian Tett, while about two-thirds of the world’s top 15 per cent have faith in major institutions, that figure falls to less than 50 per cent among everyone else.

Seemingly abandoned by their own governments, some of Europe’s disenchanted have started to support previously fringe extremist parties. They have also started to look to Putin for sympathy. Anti-immigrant protesters in Germany and France have been photographed with placards calling for Russia’s support. Moscow has more than obliged.

Such scenes have played particularly well for Russian domestic audiences. They not only boost national pride in Russia as a resurgent Third Rome that has come to save western civilisation from itself, but also act as apparent proof of Putin’s long-held axiom that however bad things may be at home, they are no better in the West.

During the Cold War, such “whataboutism” was used by the Kremlin to counter any criticism of Soviet policy with retorts about American slavery or British imperialism. The strategy remains an effective rhetorical weapon to this day. Whatever threadbare crowds of remaining anti-government activists are still occasionally allowed to protest in Moscow, they pale in the public imagination against the images, repeatedly shown on Russian TV, of thousands of Europeans angrily upbraiding their own governments and declaring support for Putin.

Three key flashpoints form the basis for the Kremlin’s assault on Europe’s liberal shibboleths: immigration, sovereignty and liberal values such as multiculturalism. On all these points, western elite opinion is fast becoming at odds with its working and lower-middle class voters.

The migration crisis has brought this to a head. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s unilateral decision – however enlightened – to open her country’s borders to millions of refugees from Syria and other Muslim countries rode roughshod over the wishes of a significant proportion of the population. The rise of ISIL and recent terrorist attacks in Paris have added an additional layer of complexity.

Where western governments and the mainstream media have sought to de-escalate tensions around immigration, Russia’s state-owned media has eagerly taken the low road. The Berlin rape case shares many parallels with another incendiary news report from the Ukraine conflict in 2014. In that instance, Russian media reported in grisly detail that Ukrainian officials had crucified a boy and murdered his Russian-speaking mother. As with Lisa F, the report provoked angry demonstrations by ethnic Russians. By the time independent journalists established that the story was a blatant fabrication, the damage had already been done.

By openly playing on people’s deep-rooted fears, Moscow appears to be gaining the upper hand in the battle for hearts and minds. Nothing better illustrates this than the difference between western media reports of the Lisa F affair and the comments left by readers. A typical piece on the BBC News website questioned the veracity of the allegations and blamed “Russia’s media propaganda machine”.

Yet reader reactions tell a different story. “Wouldn’t British people expect our government to get involved if it was a 13-year-old British child” asked one of the highest-voted commenters. Others blamed mass migration for the attack.

It would be rash to dismiss all these commenters as suckers for Russian propaganda or “trolls” hired by the Kremlin. As during the Cold War, Russia’s supporters in the West have been portrayed as useful idiots at best and fifth columnists at worst. But the fact that Moscow has preyed on popular grievances for its own ends does not make the grievances any less real.

This duality is summed up by an old Russian joke from the days after the fall of the USSR: digging through a rubbish bin for scraps of food, two newly-unemployed workers find a newspaper article with fresh revelations about Stalin’s crimes. “Everything the party told us about communism was a lie”, exclaims one. “Yes”, replies his friend. “Unfortunately, everything they told us about capitalism turned out to be true”.

However naive the Soviet Union’s so-called fellow travellers may have been about its own failings, the great struggles that animated the European left throughout the 20th century, from workers’ and women’s rights to decolonisation and the peace movement, represented the legitimate desires of great swathes of humanity. In fact, Europe’s modern welfare states could arguably be described as concessions made to these demands by governments desperate to stave off revolution.

Now as then, the ongoing success of Russia’s soft power is a symptom of real concerns that the West’s present-day leaders can ignore at their peril.

Vadim Nikitin is a Russian analyst and freelance journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, and the Moscow Times.