Russian Influence Activities in Europe: Some Swedish Linkages

Russian Influence Activities in Europe: Some Swedish Linkages

  • რიგა 2016
  • 24 ოქტომბერი, 2016
  • 18:00
  • ადმინისტრატორი

The role of covert influence activities as instruments of statecraft in global affairs, and the presence of Russia within this domain, has been discussed in the last decade by academics, journalists, and analysts in the wider expert community. A number of troubling events – the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) campaign against the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, over the so called ‘Lisa Case’ in January 2016; the abduction of an Estonian security officer by Russian special forces on 5 September 2014; and Moscow’s financial support for Marine Le Pen’s Front National – have challenged observers to rethink their understanding of Russia’s foreign policy strategy towards European Union member states. 

Two recent revelations regarding the Sweden Democrats, a Swedish anti-immigration party with a history in the far right movement, remind us that the challenge of outside attempts to influence decision making and public opinion is a pan-European phenomenon. On 27 August, The Guardian reported that Gérard Lopez, the chairman of Rise Capital, a Russian owned firm with business relations to Gazprom and other large Russian firms, had donated £400,000 to the Tories a few months ahead of the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Rise Capital, although the company conducts all of its business activities in Russia, is registered in Sweden. The company’s CEO, Carl Meurling (a Swedish citizen), has previously been associated with the Sweden Democrats, whose policies towards Russia he reportedly has tried to influence from the outside. Meurling currently has no official connections to the Sweden Democrats, but the donation by Lopez to the Tories establishes a link between Rise Capital and European party financing.

Meurling’s main linkages to the Sweden Democrats are related to a fraction which in 2015 was expelled as a consequence of an internal struggle for power, among them the former MP Eric Almqvist (who currently lives in Hungary) and Gustaf Kasselstrand (former leader of the youth party, SDU). Almqvist and Kasselstrand have openly supported Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and Kasselstrand currently works as consultant for another Russian company registered in Sweden, Agrokultura. Their relations to Meurling go back to 2011, when he offered the Sweden Democrats circa €330,000 in support for the party’s media project Samtiden.  

The second revelation regards a Swedish citizen of Russian origin, ‘Egor Putilov’, who according to media investigations has utilized at least five different identities in the last years. Before ‘Putilov’ was recruited by the Sweden Democrats in early 2016, he had worked as a journalist and travel agent. He originally established himself as journalist focusing on Russian foreign policy, covering among other things interesting linkages between the Swedish left and pro-Kremlin organizations such as Borot’ba in Ukraine (a disclaimer: I have met the man who calls himself ‘Putilov’ a few times. Those meetings were related to his journalistic work, which by and large holds water). For a short while he also worked for the Swedish Migration Agency, but in late 2015 he was forced to leave an educational programme with public broadcaster Swedish Radio when its security department discovered that his real identity could not be established. At about this stage, his professional focus shifted abruptly.

‘Putilov’ established himself as a blogger whose (very critical) articles on Swedish migration policy were widely shared by leading Sweden Democrats, among them MP Kent Ekeroth who manages a popular anti-immigration website, Avpixlat. ‘Putilov’ was revealed as a ‘disinformer’ in September 2016, when a provocative op-ed published in the newspaper Aftonbladet under a fake name was tied to his e-mail account (a link ‘Putilov’ has denied). Shortly after, it was revealed how in 2014, ‘Putilov’ had managed a Stockholm real estate sale worth circa €1.2 million for a Russian seller, profiting a handsome €600,000 in the process before taxes; ‘Putilov’ has not been able to explain the deal, and the Russian seller currently serves 12 years in jail (having reviewed the case carefully, it seems to me as if the Russian seller, who is a businessman, was caught up in a power struggle with local authorities in Saint Petersburg. His prison sentence has no visible connection at all to Sweden).

The ‘Putilov’ case remains to be fully understood, but we know that he continued his work as a blogger when he was recruited by the Sweden Democrats as parliamentary assistant, working with Ekeroth and others until he was forced to leave following the first media reports that he had published an article under a fake pen name. Ekeroth is an interesting character. He has regularly shared his views on migration with Russian broadcaster RT. In Europe, he has represented the Sweden Democrats in Marine Le Pen’s EAN network, and he has participated in European meetings with individuals linked to the Arktos Publishing house (the Swedish based publisher of fascist ideologues such as Alexander Dugin). The Sweden Democrats have distanced themselves from Russia’s foreign policy behaviour, but the wider European far right environment, represented by Le Pen, has actively supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In return, Le Pen has received financial support totalling €11 million from a Russian state bank (through an intermediary in the Czech Republic).  

Simple network analysis demonstrates the interlinkages between the European far right movements and Russian financial support. Sweden is not necessarily an exception to this rule. More importantly, a short analysis suggests the need for a pan-European approach to understanding how foreign influence activities in individual EU states are currently conducted. Networks, financial support and political organizations are tied together across several countries. In some instances, financial linkages are used to buy influence. In other instances, the networks extend also across ideological boundaries, as in the case with representatives of the European far left and far right cooperating and meeting at a pro-Kremlin Yalta conference in 2014. Not least, different ideological linkages and financial dependencies can be long term, creating security hazards and political risks far into the future.      

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