Headlines often don’t reflect the content of stories. Editors know that it’s the headlines that gather readers, and so they do their best to jazz them up so as to make the stories sound far more important or controversial than they really are. In the current frenzy of Russia-related fearmongering, this has meant that followers of the media have been subjected to a deluge of scary-sounding headlines making it seem as if Russians and their agents are spreading chaos everywhere, only to find on reading the stories that it’s a massive fuss about nothing and that substantive evidence supporting the headlines is almost entirely lacking.
So it is with the Atlantic Council latest report, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3, which is the third in a series purporting to expose high-profile Europeans who are subverting democracy from within as witting or unwitting agents of the Russian government. The title implies that the report is going to be full of hard-hitting revelations of politicians and journalists taking the Kremlin’s money, acting on its orders, and saying or doing things which genuinely threaten the European way of life. And indeed, on its website, the Atlantic Council tempts you to read the report by saying that, ‘the Kremlin’s tentacles do not stop in Ukraine, Georgia, or East Central Europe. They reach far and deep in the core of western societies.’ But the result is a disappointment. For what the report actually tells you is that in Northern Europe there is next to nobody questioning the prevailing narrative about Russia. A better title might be something like The Almost Absolute Conformity of Northern European Elites and the Total Absence of Russian Tentacles. No doubt, however, nobody would read such a thing, and so we get a big scary title instead.
The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3 looks at alleged peddlers of Russian influence in four countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. The introduction informs us that Moscow is engaged in a ‘continuous, multi-vectored and multi-layered effort’, which is ‘aimed at undermining democratic institutions’. To aid it, the Kremlin ‘has sought to cultivate and support a network of like-minded political forces’, which ‘pursue and advocate for the Kremlin’s interests’. These people, says the report, ‘undermine European interests, unity, and long-term security’, an inflammatory charge which I’m sure the people in question would reject.
So who are these ‘Trojan horses’? Well, it turns out that they are few and far between. In Denmark, writes the report’s author Alina Polyakova,
I have no knowledge of any Trojan horses, defined by a deceitful nature and subversive policies, serving the Kremlin’s agenda; if they exist they are not operating at a level high enough to warrant mention here.
The confession that there aren’t any Kremlin Trojan horses in Denmark does not, however, stop the Atlantic Council from disgracefully putting the photograph of one member of the Danish parliament, Marie Krarup, on the front cover next to the title Kremlin’s Trojan Horses, thereby implying that she is one. According to the report, Krarup’s sin is that although she is recorded as having said that ‘Russia has an autocratic and unpleasant political regime’, she has also added that, ‘It would be great if … the Danish … media would try to add more nuance to their coverage of Russia’. Nuance … how dare she! Fortunately, we are told, this shockingly bold call for more subtle thinking is out of line with the overwhelming mass of more sensibly inclined public opinion. ‘In general’, the report concludes, in Denmark, ‘the contours of public discussion leave little room for Putin apologists’.
Much the same is true of the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. The report says that there is some sympathy for Russia on the ‘political flanks’ in the Netherlands, but it struggles to come up with much beyond a single trip by politician Geert Wilders to Russia. The prime example cited of alleged Russian meddling in Dutch politics is the 2016 referendum on the subject of Ukraine’s EU association agreement. But the report fails to produce any evidence that the Dutch citizens of Russian and Ukrainian origin who campaigned against the agreement were in cahoots with the Russian government. The sole exception is a claim that one of them, Vladimir Kornilov, had ‘high-level contacts within the Kremlin, including nationalist Russian political philosopher Alexander Dugin and Putin’s advisor Sergey Glazyev’. In reality, as any half-informed commentator should know, neither Dugin nor Glazyev is ‘within the Kremlin’. One has to wonder who the real peddler of disinformation is – the Kremlin, or the Atlantic Council.
As for Norway, the report tells us that, ‘Norway’s small claque of Russlandverstehers is marginal’. There is, apparently, ‘no indication’ that any of the parties in the Norwegian parliament have ‘received Russian support or shifted Norwegian politics regarding Russia’. Beyond a few bloggers and the occasional ‘pro-Russian’ article in newspapers, voices challenging the mainstream view on Russia are almost entirely absent, so much so that ‘the most prominent Russian influencer in Norway’ is the Russian ambassador – a clear indication that the Russian government doesn’t have an army of Norwegian Trojan horses at its disposal. The section on Norway ends up with a rant about the Russian news agency Sputnik, again an obvious confession that native Norwegian collaborators are next to non-existent.
Finally, the report tells us that there ‘are no openly pro-Russian parties’ in the Swedish parliament, although some are supposedly ‘open to influence’, a sinister sounding phrase which suggests rather more than the evidence proves. The report identifies a few Swedish politicians and bloggers, mostly on the far right, who have expressed some sympathy for the Russian point of view, but it’s hard to see that they amount to much. After all, as Ms Polyakova tells us, ‘Geopolitically, Sweden is firmly oriented towards cooperation with its Nordic neighbors, the EU, the United States, and NATO’.
In short, after telling us that Moscow is engaged in a multi-layered campaign against Western democracy, and after leading us to expect an expose of a large network of Kremlin agents who are acting to subvert Europe from within, what the report actually reveals is that there are really very, very few people among the elites of Northern Europe who depart even a fraction from the current narrative that suggests that ‘Russia is the enemy’. It doesn’t take much to get labelled as the Kremlin’s ‘Trojan horse’ – even suggesting that a bit more nuance might be a good idea seems to be grounds for suspicion. Yet the Atlantic Council can come up with only a handful of names who are prepared to do even that. In that sense, this report is very revealing. Critics of Russia often complain that state control of the media leads to an absence of different viewpoints on key issues. Yet what we see here is that in parts of the Western world, there is an almost absolute conformity of belief among the ruling elite, a conformity so total that it’s doubtful that even a totalitarian state could match it.
Despite this, it seems that Atlantic Council feels that there is not too little, but too much, dissent. Pro-Russian views are ‘gaining traction’. Whereas once they were held by maybe 1% of elite opinion formers, now maybe they are held by 2%. We must act!! The danger is great. The fear is palpable. It really is amazingly silly.