• Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Russia works to subvert French support for Ukraine, documents show


Dec 30, 2023


STRASBOURG, France — From the top floor of the house he shares here with a senior Russian diplomat — to whom he rents the apartment below — the man who helped bankroll the French presidential bid of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has been working on plans to propel pro-Moscow politicians to power.

“We have to change all the governments … All the governments in Western Europe will be changed,” Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, a former member of the European Parliament for Le Pen’s party, said in an interview. “We have to control this. Take the leadership of this.”

For Schaffhauser, such ambitions are part of a decades-long effort to forge an alliance between Russia and Europe, the prospects of which, however distant, were shattered by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But now, as Kyiv’s counteroffensive — and Western funding for it — falters and as governments in Europe battle rising living costs, plunging approval ratings and the rise of far-right populists, Schaffhauser and his Russian associates see fresh opportunity.

Russia has been increasing its efforts to undermine French support for Kyiv — a hidden propaganda front in Western Europe that is part of the war against Ukraine, according to Kremlin documents and interviews with European security officials and far-right political figures.

The maneuvering — and Kremlin connections with a host of far-right parties across Europe, including in France — are worrying some European officials ahead of European Parliament elections in June. Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, warned at a conference this month that those elections could be “as dangerous as the American ones,” driven by “fear” in response to growing inequality and security threats. “Europe is in danger,” he said.

Miscalculations, divisions marked offensive planning by U.S., Ukraine

The Kremlin documents, obtained by a European security service and reviewed by The Washington Post, show that Sergei Kiriyenko, the first deputy chief of staff in President Vladimir Putin’s administration, has tasked Kremlin political strategists with promoting political discord in France through social media and French political figures, opinion leaders and activists. Those figures were not identified by name in the documents seen by The Post. Moscow’s goal is to undermine support for Ukraine and weaken NATO resolve, the documents show. The effort parallels similar interference in Germany, where the Kremlin has attempted to marry the far right and the far left in an antiwar alliance, The Post previously reported.

The talking points to be amplified by the Kremlin’s strategists included arguing that Western sanctions against Russia have damaged the French economy through a decline in trade, leaving the country at risk of falling into “the deepest social and economic crisis of recent years,” as well as asserting that the supply of arms to Ukraine has left France without the weapons to defend itself.

Several weekly “dashboard” presentations to Kremlin officials in 2022 show that Moscow thought France was vulnerable to political turmoil. Citing opinion polls, the strategists noted that 30 percent of the French retained a positive view of Russia, the second highest among Western European countries after Italy, while 40 percent were inclined not to believe reporting on Ukraine by France’s own mass media.

Later, in 2023, Kiriyenko’s Kremlin group ordered the strategists to promote messaging that would increase the number of those in France reluctant to “pay for another country’s war,” one of the documents shows. They were also told to increase “the fear of direct of confrontation with Russia and the start of World War III with Europe’s participation,” and to boost the number of those who want “dialogue with Russia on the construction of a common European security architecture.” The United States was to be described as using Ukraine as an instrument to weaken Russia’s position in Europe, the documents state.

The documents show that troll farms created by the Kremlin political strategists produced and published social media content and articles critical of Western support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. One note written by one of the strategists in June 2023 directed a troll farm employee to create a “200-character comment by a middle-aged French person” who considers Europe’s support for Ukraine to be “a stupid adventure.” The fictional French person was also supposed to argue that support for Ukraine is turning into “inflation … and falling living standards.”

Asked about the documents, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said they sounded like “no more than the latest fake or total rubbish,” partly because Kiriyenko focuses on domestic politics and partly because “it is clear to all analysts” that “the whole of Europe is suffering” from sanctions on Russia “and there doesn’t need to be any promotion of this.”

The Kremlin’s messaging has so far had limited resonance in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has been at the forefront of Europe’s efforts to support Ukraine and a majority of the population has backed him. But the visibility of pro-Russian accounts on social media is climbing in France, according to Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute for International Relations, and approval ratings for France’s far-right parties have been rising. Rhetoric from Russia allies like Schaffhauser — who maintains connections across the country’s far right — about the cost of the Ukraine war is increasingly being combined with the idea that it is an American adventure and that France needs to assert itself as a great power and restore relations with Russia.

For part of the French establishment, the vision of France leading a grand Europe together with Moscow is “a dream which will never go away,” said Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director at Le Monde and author of the recent book “Les Aveuglés,” or “The Blinded Ones,” about how France and Germany misread Putin in seeking to build close ties with him. “In this dream we are a big power and Russia is a big power and we are two big nuclear powers treating each other on an equal footing,” she said.

Moscow tries to fan tensions

At the end of June, after Paris erupted into riots over the police killing of a teenager of Moroccan and Algerian origin, a network of pro-Russian social media accounts became highly active, according to a study conducted by Alto Intelligence, a leading cybersecurity firm that tracks anomalous digital media activity across Europe. A tiny fraction of profiles — 1.2 percent — produced 30.6 percent of all digital media commentary on the riots. Among the most prolific accounts, 24.2 percent were injecting pro-Russian posts into the commentary. Most of the accounts were aligned with far-right French politicians such as Éric Zemmour or Le Pen, Alto found.

Concerns are also growing that the Kremlin could seek to exacerbate mounting tensions over the Israel-Gaza conflict, a senior European security official said, adding that Russia was willing to exploit a wide array of political issues.

In November, French officials said Moscow’s fingerprints were found on an attempt to fan tensions between France’s Jewish and Muslim communities, both the biggest in Europe, following Israel’s invasion of Gaza. A Moldovan couple was arrested for painting hundreds of Stars of David across the streets of Paris, and French officials said they believed the couple was acting on the instructions of a pro-Russian Moldovan businessman.

When France’s state digital watchdog detected more than 1,000 bots amplifying photos of those Stars of David, French authorities called the effort “a new operation of Russian digital interference against France,” and part of “an opportunistic and irresponsible strategy aimed at exploiting international crises to sow confusion and create tensions” in France and Europe.

The state watchdog, Viginum, said it had a “high degree of confidence” that the bots were connected to a Russian disinformation network known as Recent Reliable News, which produces content aimed at undermining Western governments’ stances on the Ukraine war. Viginum noted that one of the bots’ main activities was to redirect to RRN websites.

The RRN websites have also been a vehicle for a Russian operation known as Doppelgänger, which was exposed by French officials in June. It cloned and usurped the sites of well-known Western media brands such as France’s Le Monde — and, eventually, of the French Foreign Ministry — to produce fake content that included depicting Ukraine as a Nazi state and blasting sanctions against Russia as harming European economies. Viginum accused two Russian companies — Struktura and Social Design Agency — of being behind Doppelgänger.

Withholding support for Ukraine

After a six-month inquiry this year into foreign interference in the French political process, France’s Parliament focused in on the Kremlin, declaring in its final report: “Russia is conducting a long-term disinformation campaign in our country” that seeks “to defend and promote Russian interests and to polarize our democratic society.”

It also highlighted the role of Le Pen’s National Rally, finding that the party “maintains many privileged links with the Kremlin” and had effectively acted as “a communication channel” for its views.

At the time the report was published, Le Pen told reporters the inquiry had not found “a shred of evidence that would prove Russian influence over National Rally,” claiming that it had passed judgment on her political opinions and “not on any form of interference.”

The inquiry raised questions about whether National Rally, formerly called the National Front, had received “material support” from Russia in return for backing its positions, including through two loans organized by Schaffhauser to finance the party and Le Pen’s 2017 presidential campaign. The first loan, for 9.4 million euros in 2014, came directly from a Russian bank, while the second, for 8 million euros in 2017, was of more “mysterious” origin via an Abu Dhabi bank, the inquiry said.

A Russian bank gave Marine Le Pen’s party a loan. Then weird things began happening.

Sensing a change in the political winds after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen has become quieter on advocating closer ties with Moscow. Tarnished by the 2014 loan from Russia — which was paid back early, National Rally said in September — she has limited her comments mostly to the negative impact of sanctions on the French economy.

But National Rally has withheld support for Ukraine in several key votes in the French Parliament, either abstaining or voting against the measures, and voices in the party and elsewhere on the far right have in recent months become louder on the issue of Ukraine and restoring relations with Moscow.

Russia “is not going to drop the links they had” with National Rally, said Fiona Hill, a former director for Russia on the staff of President Donald Trump’s National Security Council.

Advocating for a cease-fire in Ukraine

One of the party’s most prominent voices on Russia is Thierry Mariani, a member of the European Parliament who was singled out in the inquiry for his “great ideological and political proximity” to the Russian authorities. The report especially noted his leadership of the Association for Franco-Russian Dialogue, a Paris think tank founded by the Russian government that the inquiry said has long been a hub for promoting Kremlin views.

The report also questioned Mariani’s frequent visits to Russia, and his role as an election observer rubber-stamping illegal votes held by Moscow-backed separatists in 2018 in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The report also noted that he led National Rally delegations to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. In connection with these visits, but without naming names, Nicolas Lerner, then head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, told the inquiry: “Some elected officials have clearly maintained clandestine relationships with [Russian] intelligence services.”

In the past few months, Mariani has become increasingly vocal against Western support for Ukraine, telling the European Parliament in October that sanctions against Russia had only created more enemies for the E.U. Later, in December, he gave an interview to the Russian state news agency Tass, calling Zelensky’s policies “state terrorism” and accusing the Ukrainian president of behaving “like a Mafioso, ready to eliminate those whom he considers a threat to his power.” Then, in a post on X, formerly Twitter, he wrote: “Europe will be paying for years to reconstruct Ukraine, whereas the United States will make money on the war to restart its economy.”

Ukrainian spies with deep ties to CIA wage shadow war against Russia

In an interview with The Post, Mariani sought to play down his Russia links, saying he had merely discovered an affinity for Russia in 1976 when he was 17 and his military school sent him there to study the language. But he insisted that sanctions against Russia were leading Europe into an “economic catastrophe,” and that things would only get worse if Moscow tightened its lock on global commodity prices with the expansion of BRICS — an alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that the Kremlin sees as anti-Western — with the addition of Saudi Arabia and Iran early in 2024.

Promoting a slate of new far-right leaders

For Schaffhauser — who faced special scrutiny in the parliamentary inquiry for his role facilitating the two loans for Le Pen — a primary objective is helping Moscow rebuild its connections to Europe.

Arguing that China poses an existential threat to Europe, he told The Post in a series of interviews that he is proposing launching a foundation with Moscow’s backing that would advocate for a cease-fire in Ukraine, with the Kremlin maintaining its grip on the country’s eastern regions in return for drawing closer to the West again and out of its deepening alliance with China. He also said he would promote a new slate of Western European far-right leaders ready to do business with Moscow, ahead of the E.U.’s parliamentary elections next year.

A senior Russian military intelligence officer, whom Schaffhauser said he’d been close with since the 1990s, has arranged for him to travel to Moscow in January to discuss these plans, he said. He added that he is due to meet with Sergei Naryshkin, an ally he first met when Naryshkin was speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament. He now serves as the country’s foreign intelligence chief.

Schaffhauser denied that he was acting on Russia’s behalf, saying he was acting in France’s best interests. But he receives regular funding and support from the No. 2 diplomat in Russia’s Paris embassy, Ilya Subbotin, who pays him every month to rent one floor of his Strasbourg residence. Schaffhauser said it’s a commercial arrangement, with the space rented through an agency to Subbotin, who was Russia’s top envoy to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg until its mission was shuttered over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Subbotin declined to comment.

The French parliamentary inquiry noted “the dense relational fabric” that Schaffhauser — a member of the European Parliament for Le Pen’s party from 2014 to 2019 — had built up over years of dealings between Russia and France.

At one point, over the summer, shortly after the June riots rocked Macron’s administration, Schaffhauser said he’d even been in talks with several former senior French military intelligence officers about how to bring a network of former French generals to power in case of crisis and political collapse in France. “We have to propose the best government for France, a shadow government … people who are really patriots,” Schaffhauser said.

In its report, the parliamentary inquiry warned of the propensity of former French officials, “particularly retired officers,” to echo Moscow’s positions and “develop speeches using Kremlin language.”

For Schaffhauser, the recent breakdown in the U.S. Congress on funding for Ukraine means “it is a good moment to find a solution” — for a cease-fire and rapprochement with Moscow. But as tensions rise across the West over the Israel-Gaza conflict, he warned, the Kremlin’s confidence is growing. “Now it is easy” for Russia to stir unrest, said Schaffhauser. Moscow does not have “big work to do. They are prepared.”

Souad Mekhennet in Washington contributed to this report.


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