As the truth about its spy activities unravels, Russia becomes a bigger problem for all Europeans – not just those in the east
The former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin once famously quipped: “We wanted the best, but it turned out as always.” When Dutch, British and US officials last week issued coordinated denunciations of Russia’s cyber-operations – whose targets ranged from sports anti-doping bodies to the international chemical weapon watchdog – it felt like Chernomyrdin’s saying had been given new meaning.
For all the efforts the Kremlin put into staging the World Cup earlier this year as a demonstration of Russia’s openness, news seems to keep pouring in about the blunders of its not-so-secret services. In the latest instalment yesterday, Bellingcat, an investigative website, published the name of the second Russian agent involved in the Skripal poisoning.
Official Russian reactions have ranged from denouncing a “stage-managed propaganda campaign” to sneering at “western hysteria about all-mighty Russian cyber-spies”. But for a Russian president who prides himself on efficiency and making Russia look powerful, it all smacks of a major setback.
As a teenager Putin was fascinated by 1960s Soviet spy movies. In the early years of his presidency his strong point was his efficiency. One of the reasons he became president in the first place was that he’d proven his worth to the Yeltsin “family” (as it was dubbed) while running the FSB secret services. His agents were ordered to ensnare the Russian general prosecutor Yuri Skuratov in a honey trap, so as to stop him investigating high-level graft. Soon enough, a video broadcast on state TV had thoroughly discredited the man.
All of this is to say: the press conference at which the Dutch government accused Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, of targeting the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons did not exactly fit Putin’s narrative of a resurgent Russia. The most hapless detail of all was that one of the GRU agents had kept a Moscow taxi receipt indicating that he had travelled to the airport from a street next to [the] intelligence agency offices.
For all the laughs, there’s a wider lesson to be drawn for Europe: Kremlin-fostered disruption can no longer be mostly depicted as a strategy aimed at keeping former Soviet satellite states under Moscow’s sway. Rather, Russia’s attempts to undermine institutions are now evident across Europe. Since the fall of communism, eastern Europeans have often felt that their anti-Russian mindset was caricatured by western Europeans as hysterical and obsessed with the neo-imperialism lurking in Moscow. After Estonia was hit by a massive Russian cyber-attack in 2007, few in Paris or Berlin worried the danger might one day extend further west.
Now, with the Netherlands so meticulously exposing Russian actions, it’s become ever clearer that even small western European countries with no history of tense geopolitical confrontations with Russia – not just “scare-mongering” eastern ones – can find themselves targeted.
There is no legacy of great power rivalry between the Dutch and the Russians. Nor is the Netherlands one of those of European countries that has historically suffered the worst of Russian or Soviet aggression, whether in world war two, during communism, or dating back even earlier. What made the Dutch a target is that they are responsible for the security of the OPCW, based in The Hague.
The Dutch aren’t alone in this reckoning. Earlier this year, Greece – a culturally pro-Russian, Christian Orthodox country – found itself having to denounce Russian meddling in its domestic affairs over the Macedonia name dispute. Likewise, Emmanuel Macron of France has gone on the record saying Russia seeks to “dismantle the EU” – a striking statement from the leader of a country that has traditionally tried to keep something of a special relationship with Moscow, if only in reference to Charles de Gaulle. Some analysts in Berlin also detect a tougher tone in Germany’s approach to Russia – with a new focus on keeping close to central Europe rather than trying to engage Moscow. The Russian agents caught in The Hague had plans to carry out further operations on a laboratory in neutral Switzerland – hardly a country one can claim to be part of Nato’s supposed humiliation of Russia.
When it comes to understanding Putin’s intentions, Europe’s old east-west dividing line is fast becoming irrelevant. What is likely to become more salient is a pattern the Kremlin has been busy cultivating: the ideological sympathy it draws from far-right populists across Europe, both east (Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) and west (Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache).
The long shadow of the east-west divide won’t disappear overnight: easterners who lived in “the captive west”, as the writer Milan Kundera once described the Soviet bloc, have memories others don’t. If anything, the 2015 refugee crisis made the east-west gap more visible. But as one high-level German official told me this week, Russia’s actions may well give a boost to European unity, rather than deepen disagreements.
It is now possible that western Europeans will feel a new closeness to those Poles and Balts who have long warned about Russia’s encroachments but felt (especially before the war in Ukraine) that they were crying in the wilderness. In the end, Russian spooks may well help bridge some gaps between European sensitivities. That’s not a spy movie Putin would enjoy.
• Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist