European leaders fear growth of Russian influence abroad

Angela Merkel criticises destabilising strategy by Vladimir Putin to spread ‘sphere of influence’ beyond former Soviet states

European governments are increasingly alarmed that Vladimir Putin is building on his destabilisation of Ukraine to extend Russian power and influence within the European Union, targeting the former Soviet bloc countries of central Europe and former Yugoslavia, all of which are in or seeking to join the EU.

EU foreign ministers mulled their next moves on the Ukraine crisis in Brussels on Monday after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, delivered her most robust and pessimistic public condemnation of Putin to date, warning that the Kremlin was seeking to spread its sphere of influence not only in the former Soviet states of Georgia and Moldova, but also to Serbia and Bosnia.

The foreign ministers decided to freeze the assets of and blacklist several more Russia-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine, although more substantial penalties for the Russian economy will probably have to wait until the new year.

Moscow has notched up notable gains in Hungary, an EU and Nato member, where the government negotiated secret loans from the Russians, awarded nuclear power contracts to the Russian state atomic conglomerate, and where parliament a fortnight ago gave a green light to Russia’s key gas pipeline project in Europe, defying blocking orders from Brussels.

In a foreign policy speech in Sydney on Sunday following the G20 summit, Merkel sounded deeply despondent about Putin’s policies and behaviour and gloomy about the prospects of forcing a strategic shift from the Kremlin.

“This is not just about Ukraine. It’s about Moldova, it’s about Georgia,” said Merkel. “If things carry on like this … we will need to raise the issue of Serbia, of the states in the western Balkans.”

It was the first time a European leader had warned that Putin was seeking to press Balkan states to his side in the worsening tug-of-war in Europe between Moscow and Brussels.

“The Ukraine crisis is truly not a regional affair,” she said, voicing incredulity that Putin’s campaign could take place 25 years after Europe’s division into two blocs ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It affects us all … how can something like this happen in the middle of Europe? Old thinking about spheres of influence, trampling international law, must not succeed.”

The chancellor, who grew up in communist east Germany in the then Soviet bloc, drew parallels between that experience and Putin’s current strategies.

The EU would not yield to Russian pressure, she stated. “Otherwise we would have to say: we’re too weak, look people, we [EU] can’t take any more in, we need to ask Moscow first if that’s okay. That’s the way it was for 40 years and I really don’t want to go back there.”

Merkel’s gloom was all the more striking for coming directly after she spent four hours in private with Putin at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Without aides or translators present, the two leaders talked until 0130 in the morning in Putin’s hotel, joined halfway through only by Jean-Claude Juncker, the new head of the European Commission.

Afterwards Merkel said that “nothing has changed”.

West European and American worries that Moscow is successfully buying, bribing or bullying support for expansionist influence within the EU is most apparent in Budapest, where Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, strongly opposes EU sanctions against Russia and is busy striking deals with Moscow.

The Slovak leader, Robert Fico, is also a sharp critic of EU sanctions. Slovakia and Hungary are EU and Nato members. Both are heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies. The same applies to Bulgaria, while Serbia, the Serbian half of Bosnia and Macedonia are all being wooed or intimidated by the Russians.

In a speech in July Orban denounced the west European democratic model as an obsolete failure and held up Putin as a template for a modern successful leader. In January he met Putin in Moscow secretly, secured a €10bn line of credit from the Russians, and awarded contracts to Moscow for the building of two new reactors at Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant. Hungarians found out when the news was posted on the Russian government website.

“That was the moment it became clear to Hungarians that Orban is friends with Putin. That was a big surprise,” said Bernadett Szel, an opposition MP who sits on the parliament’s national security committee but who has been unable to gain access to the contracts awarded to the Russians.

“Maybe it was unexpected that the deal was reached,” admitted Zsoltan Kovacs, an Orban spokesman, adding: “The contracts are signed.”

The Orbán government recently announced it is pushing forward with a Russian joint venture to build part of the Southstream gas pipeline, the key project pushed by the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, to pump gas supplies under the Black Sea and up into Europe via the Balkans, bypassing Ukraine.

The scheme is vehemently opposed by Brussels, which has already pressured Bulgaria into not taking part and is currently leaning on Serbia, which is negotiating membership of the EU. In September, days after meeting the head of Gazprom, Orbán announced that Hungary was refusing to “reverse-pump” Russian gas back to Ukraine, ditching an EU policy aimed at keeping Ukraine partly supplied should the Russians close the taps to Kiev.

“The worry that Hungary could be a Trojan horse for the Russians in the EU is just nonsense,” said Kovács.

But anxiety about Orban’s tilt towards Moscow has brought ferocious criticism of his democracy record from the Americans who blacklisted six Hungarian government officials for alleged corruption last month, uniquely for an EU or Nato government.

“The Americans have been worried for a long time,” said a European ambassador in Budapest. “Now they are getting vocal.”

Last month Putin went to the Serbian capital Belgrade where he was feted with a military parade. Energy supplies and debt owed on gas already supplied were used by the Russians to try to get the government in Belgrade to move ahead on Southstream, according to sources in Belgrade. The Serbs have stalled, playing for time or one side off against the other, with Brussels warning them that a green light would complicate the EU negotiations.

Hungary and Serbia are also said to have agreed to store large volumes of Russian gas, securing supplies for themselves should a recent Moscow-Kiev-EU agreement on energy provision and payments break down this winter and also enabling Moscow to maintain some supplies to Europe without pumping via Ukraine.

A German foreign ministry document, reported by Der Spiegel on Monday, warned that Moscow was using gas supplies and military ties to draw Serbia into its orbit.


Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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