Russia's top diplomat in Brussels says Moscow has no preferred candidate in France's presidential vote, despite Marine Le Pen's alleged Russian funding. He also denies allegations the Kremlin wants to destabilize the EU.
Don't believe the gossip and rumors and "anti-Russian rhetoric bordering on the verge of hysteria," urged Russia's EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov to reporters this week, underscoring the message delivered by the Kremlin that it has no intention to destabilize the European Union.
The ambassador kicked off his Brussels briefing by saying it was "in no way a coincidence" he had invited journalists to chat on World Press Freedom Day. (Reporters Without Borders ranks Russia 148th of 180 countries in terms of media-friendly legislation and protections)
He blamed European suspicions about Russia on "domestic political problems in the United States." "In view of last year's [US] presidential election, this has become a contagious thing," he lamented, "crossing the Atlantic and spreading across Europe."
Putin doesn't have a 'favorite'
With French voters set to choose their leader in Sunday's runoff election, Chizhov denied Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers either of the final two candidates. The statement comes despite allegations far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen has received Russian financing and that there's been an active Russia-linked disinformation campaign targeting centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron.
"As my president underlined yesterday at his press conference with [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel," Chizhov said, "Russia does not interfere in elections in other countries." He added there's no proof whatsoever that hackers in a range of places from Washington to Montenegro were destabilizing democratic processes at the Kremlin's command.
Following up his earlier sentiment declaring Russian respect for media, Chizhov said he was "appalled" to learn that Macron's campaign blocked RT France and Sputnik France, two Kremlin-controlled outlets, from his press pool. "This is not what we all expect is fair treatment of the media by politicians," the ambassador said.
Chizhov said it may "surprise" people to hear that "we want to see the European Union as a major player on the global scene both in terms of economy and in political terms as well." He suggested the EU and Russia are natural allies, "pillars of the same European, Eurasian Euro-Atlantic... civilization."
Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform (CER), says what surprises him is that Chizhov can say all this with a straight face.
Catch me if you can
"Basically the Putin approach [is that] unless you actually catch me with my hand in the cookie jar, I haven't stolen any cookies," Bond said. "Is he going to come out and say 'yes, of course, we interfere in people's elections'? He's doing precisely what I would expect him to do, which is deny, deny, deny. Does he care if people believe it or not? No, not especially."
But plenty do believe it, Bond notes, including journalists, and he says calling out the Kremlin is difficult for the British and American governments, still suffering from a credibility problem after proclaiming there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, a pretext for their invasion. In addition, he says even if a government does have compelling evidence, the need to protect intelligence sources may mean it can't be released.
Bond believes Putin may well want to root for Le Pen in the French vote, if he truly isn't already, because Macron has already taken a stand with the RT snub and is likely to go further to root out Russian interference. "He's got a strong incentive to say 'now's payback time,'" Bond said, "particularly because he will not want the [National Front] to do well in parliamentary elections, which you probably have to have at some point."
Renewing Russian restrictions
Chizhov said Russia would love to see Britain dump sanctions against Moscow as it leaves the EU, no longer bound by Brussels to punish the Kremlin for invading and annexing Ukraine's Crimea region and for the lack of progress on resolving the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. (The ambassador in fact refers to them as "so-called sanctions" because he says only the UN has the right to impose international measures.) Chizhov is clearly annoyed by the linkage of sanctions on Moscow to de-escalation of the fight between the separatists supported by Russia and the Ukrainian armed forces. The Kremlin denies providing direct support to the rebels.
Moscow has had little success so far in winning over EU governments that could oppose the repeated six-month prolongations of the economic restrictions. One experienced diplomat, former NATO Secretary General and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the EU is nonetheless opening itself to frequent discord by not extending the sanctions for a year at a time, as the US does.
"It would be a relief both for the EU and for member states not to discuss this on a constant basis," said Rasmussen, who is now a paid "special adviser" to the Ukrainian government. "The EU should not only maintain but also strengthen sanctions." Rasmussen also believes that in the Trump Administration, there's a growing understanding that "it is not irrelevant whether Ukraine goes east or west" and that "Putin doesn't share [Trump's] vision of Making America Great Again."
Cyber war alongside campaign battles
With the next big European election after France coming in Germany, the CER's Ian Bond says he thinks Berlin is ready to withstand the Russian onslaught that's already underway. He says the 2016 "Lisa case," spreading Russian-created disinformation, served as a good "wakeup call" and that the Germans have responded with more effective safeguards long before it's time to head to the ballot box.
But at the same time, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, says Russia-linked online invaders have already stolen "large amounts of data" in German hacks. Maassen openly says he expects the fate of that data will be a decision "made in the Kremlin."