The Dutch Rehearsal

Russia and the Ukraine Referendum

When EU leaders declined to start the accession process for North Macedonia and Albania, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who was singled out as the spoiler.

Just say Nee. 2016 Ukraine referendum, Amsterdam.
Just say Nee. 2016 Ukraine referendum, Amsterdam.

“France is undermining Balkan – and EU – stability,” opined  Jasmin Musjanovic, joining a chorus of Macron critics for dashing the hopes of Balkan reformists at such a critical juncture.

But alongside France, Denmark and the Netherlands rejected the opening of accession talks with Albania, too.

Notoriously sceptical of EU expansion, the Hague would not be convinced. On 9 October, the Dutch parliament had already decided to reject Albania’s bid to join the bloc, pointing to enduring corruption and a lack of judicial reforms in the former communist state.

The far-left and far-right opposition parties, Socialistische Partij (SP) and Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), had led the charge against accession talks, even with North Macedonia.

It was not the first time that the Dutch had thrown long-held European Union plans into disarray.

In a 2005 referendum, a majority of voters rejected the planned EU constitution. Already then, fears of further expansion into Eastern Europe and Turkey had played a role.

The most recent Dutch blow to EU expansion plans came in 2016 when a populist blog and web-community, GeenStijl (No Style) instigated a national referendum on the EU association agreement with Ukraine by collecting over 300, 000 signatures.

The referendum ended up mobilising a rag-tag coalition from across the political spectrum against the establishment.

In the end, with just 32% of registered voters casting their ballots, a majority voted against the proposed agreement in a non-binding referendum.

The Dutch government eventually overruled the referendum result when it signed an amended EU-Ukraine agreement in 2017.

“I thank all those who made it possible: those who stood on the Maidan and those who are working hard to reform the country for the better. This is a day of celebration for our European continent,” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.

But in the Netherlands, the referendum had left an ambivalent legacy: It signalled an alarming erosion of public support for European integration in one of the EU’s founding member states. It was an obvious foreshadowing of the Brexit vote that would take place two months later.

It was also, many analysts believe, the first indication of Russian disinformation campaigning in a major European poll.

Pointing out the proliferation of YouTube videos of Ukraine’s fascist Azov Battalion, burning Dutch flags and threatening voters with terrorist violence if they didn’t vote in favour of Ukrainian association, a Bellingcat report blames the infamous St. Petersburg-based troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, for the subterfuge.

Six months before the US elections, and the role that Donald Trump’s victory would play in publicising Russian social media warfare, the Bellingcat report was its own advance warning.

Even though the goal was different, the Ukraine referendum offered an ideal opportunity for a trial run.

The Moscow Connection

“The shoppers are startled by a siren, as a woman with a Russian accent begins shouting into a megaphone,” begins a feature on Russian information warfare in the Netherlands, in the centre-left Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad a year after the fateful referendum.

The article, part of a series on Kremlin agitation in the Netherlands, aptly titled Russian Influences, describes a surprising scene taking place two years earlier in the picturesque southern Dutch town of Eindhoven. A man wearing a white vest with slogans like “Tell us the Truth!” and “Join the Rebellion!” led a protest in a crowded shopping area.  In his hands are signs calling for “the truth about MH17”.

The Malaysian airliner in question, MH17, had been shot down in 2014 over the battlefield of Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 civilians, 192 of which were Dutch citizens.

Although Moscow blocked an official UN tribunal with its security council veto powers, international investigators soon blamed separatist fighters equipped with Russian anti-aircraft weapons.

The Kremlin refused to take responsibility. The controversy around MH17 became a focal point for pro-Russian activists and conspiracy theorists all over the world – and led to a new low in Dutch-Russian relations, which until 2014 had been largely harmonious, focused more on trade than politics. 

“Netherlands free, Netherlands free, Netherlands free!”, shouted Natalia Vorontsova at a July 2015 rally in Eindhoven. The scene is filmed by a Russian camera crew and replayed on RT and Rossiya24.

Vorontsova was not alone – and neither did her activities end on that day. According to a report by Marcel Van Herpen, for the Cicero Foundation, she would campaign against the association agreement with Ukraine in 2016, appearing at a No rally with Harry vanBommel, a Socialistische Partij MP.

Vorontsova was identified as a member of a network of pro-Russian activists that would play a role in Dutch politics in the coming years. “Whenever Russian interests are affected,” according to NRC Handelsblad, “these activists appear”.

Such interventions would be consistent, according to Van Herpen, with the increasing importance of influence operations to Russian foreign policy. Particularly in the Netherlands, which had become of greater strategic significance to the Kremlin since the downing of MH17.

The German Influence

Already in 2014, pro-Moscow activists had begun staging small protests in favour of Russia, in the Netherlands. The protests were often organised through Russian diaspora groups, among them, a German party called Die Einheit, which seeks to organise Russian migrants in Germany and according to NRC Handelsblad had opened a Dutch chapter in 2015 in Rotterdam.

These networks would spring into action again in the run-up to the 2016 Ukraine referendum. Together with several other Dutch activists, some of Ukrainian or Russian heritage, they would promote the No-campaign of the leftist Socialist Partij (SP).

In September of 2017, the New York Times published its own exposé, speaking of “fake Ukrainians” and “a group of Russians” who “tilted” the Dutch vote, raising the spectre of a Russian influence campaign coordinated with the SP. They formed “a gleefully contrarian group of émigrés whose sympathies lay with Russia”, according to the NYT.

The provocateurs “attended public meetings, appeared on television and used social media to denounce Ukraine’s pro-Western government as a bloodthirsty kleptocracy, unworthy of Dutch support”.

Moscow’s stake in the outcome of the referendum was obvious: The Kremlin was doing everything to prevent Kyiv from exiting its orbit.

Ever since Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union a struggle over energy routes and prices began, leading to Russia switching off transiting gas supplies, insisting on world prices, and eventually building new pipeline routes to Europe like Nord Stream 2.

Who would want to do business with Ukraine? Derailing the EU association agreement, with its trade and energy provisions, would make the NS2 project more attractive, particularly given Moscow’s mushrooming conflict with Kyiv.

After annexing Crimea in 2014, the Russian military had invaded Ukraine to prop up its separatist clients in the Donbas region, thus prolonging a war that is now going into its fifth year and has so far cost over 13,000 lives.

The Dutch “Nee” to the EU association agreement provided support for these plans and seemed to show that voters distrusted the new Ukrainian government.

Most importantly, the referendum result helped Russian media evolve its now-longstanding meme of an increasingly populist Europe rebelling against liberal democracy. This bolstered Moscow’s anti-Western propaganda efforts in the early years of the war in Ukraine.

NRC Handelsblad even went so far as to claim it had uncovered a Dutch network with direct connections to the Kremlin.

The German Die Einheit party, the newspaper argued, was at its centre, connecting it to both Russian politicians and the much larger Russian immigrant community in Germany.

In fact, Die Einheit had been radicalising Russian immigrants and Russlanddeutsche for years.

In the weeks leading up to the Dutch referendum, the case of the alleged rape of a 13-year-old Russian girl in Berlin rocked Germany. 

Die Einheit activists worked overtime, in conjunction with Russian state media, and even the Kremlin, to mobilise Russian immigrants to stage protests against the German government, with heavily racist overtones.

The effort was widely perceived as a brazen attempt to manipulate public opinion in Germany.  The girl, Lisa F., would later recant the allegation. But not before the damage was done.

Die Einheit leaders would subsequently usher their followers into the arms of the country’s largest opposition party, Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right nationalist front that, in addition to its Islamophobic, anti-immigration politics, strongly advocates closer cooperation with Russia.

German government sources suspect that Die Einheit, like many Russian diaspora organisations all over the world, is financed by Moscow.

In the Netherlands, however, which a mere 30,000 Russians call their home (compared to Germany’s 3.5 million), political organisations of this scale never took root.

Who’s to Blame?

The truth seems to be more mundane. As the New York Times itself admitted, “no one has yet come up with concrete evidence that the Russian state, rather than individual Russians, is working to skew” the Ukraine referendum.

Their actual influence, surmised the NRC Handelsblad reporters, was also hard to gauge: “This is a group of a few dozen people, who work mostly behind the scenes.”

The “Russians” told their side of the story, disputing certain facts presented by NRC Handelsblad.

Elena Plotnikova, who was one of the faces of the socialist campaign for the No vote, even filed an unsuccessful complaint with the Dutch Press Council because she felt maligned as a “Kremlin agent.”

Plotnikova insisted she was just a Dutch citizen exercising her right to political activism.

In 2017, the Dutch Deputy Premier and Minister of the Interior, Kasja Ollgren warned against ongoing Russian influence and intelligence operations in the Netherlands, highlighting, in particular, the use of social media to spread disinformation, for example about the MH17 tragedy.

Dutch intelligence agencies repeatedly warned of Russian covert activities, and in 2017 the Netherlands took the unusual step of letting all votes in its general election be counted by hand to prevent possible manipulation by “state actors.” But no evidence emerged since that would point to a significant role of the Russian state in directing or even inspiring the movement against the association agreement.

What at first glance appeared to be a dubious Russian-directed network turned out to be, upon closer inspection, a small sub-group of a wider Dutch movement against EU enlargement.

Since Trump’s victory in America’s 2016 election, there has been a wide debate in Western security circles about how to react to Moscow’s influence campaigns.

Russia expert Mark Galeotti has been one of the most important voices warning against thinking in a too simplistic framework of ‘Kremlin puppets’ and covert manipulation.

“Elevating Putin into the role of master puppeteer,” Galeotti argued in a recent opinion editorial for The Moscow Times, gives him “too much credit” – and risks underestimating the reasons why pro-Russian messaging resonates in the West.

“There are real reasons why people may be unhappy, why they are turning to populism and nationalism.” Framing them as Russian puppets, he explains, “is not going to win friends or influence people.”

 Nationalism is Nationalism

This was obviously true in the case of the left-wing effort against the 2016 association agreement. During its Nee campaign, Socialistische Partij rhetoric issued dire warnings of the dangers of integrating Ukraine further into the EU.

The association agreement, the party alleged, would mean “open borders for corruption” and force European workers to compete with poverty wages as the Ukrainian unemployed would “seek employment in Europe”.

More important perhaps than this flirting with anti-Ukrainian xenophobia was the SP’s critical position on the EU itself, which the party sees as an anti-democratic superstate enforcing neoliberal economic policies.

The Socialistische Partij – together with the far-right – had led the Dutch campaign against the EU constitution in 2005. Eleven years later, it saw the Ukraine referendum as another opportunity for its populist brand of anti-EU politics. SP leader Emile Roemer would later cheer that the referendum result “had again revealed the enormous gulf between politics and society”.

But there are legitimate alternative political viewpoints – and there is the realm of fascist ideology, of conspiracy theory and ‘trutherism,’ the latter of which seems to be integral to pro-Russian political movements all over Europe.

It is no coincidence that conspiracy theories are integral to Russian public diplomacy and global media like its RT news channel. They foster mistrust of consensus politics and a Manichean rejection of the Western world order, which is portrayed as a malign and oppressive force.

The DC Leaks website, for example, considered by the American government to have been a tool of Russian intelligence to influence the 2016 election, promised to reveal, in truther fashion, “who the real policymaker is” in the United States.

Washington, the website claimed, is fully controlled by “Wall Street fat cats, industrial barons and multinational corporations’ representatives.”

The Jewish investor and political activist George Soros is described as “the architect and sponsor of almost every revolution and coup around the world for the last 25 years” – a clear Antisemitic dog whistle.

Because of Soros “and his puppets”, the alleged Russian hackers went on to claim, the United States is “a vampire” of the world, not a beacon of democracy”. Soros’ “minions spill the blood of millions of millions of people just to make him even more rich”.

When the Socialistische Partij initiated its campaign against the Ukrainian referendum with a rally in Amsterdam, alongside its ‘Ukrainian’ representative Elena Plotnikova, spoke the retired professor of international relations Kees van der Pijl.

The left-wing academic had made it his life’s work to analyse the projection of Western capitalist hegemony in the world system from a critical perspective. In his retirement, however, he also emerged as an outspoken critic of Western policy towards Ukraine and Russia, and as a dubious opponent of the ‘official version’ explaining the shooting down of flight MH17.

What was left of his reputation, van der Pijl ruined when, in November 2018, he tweeted that “not Saudis, Israelis blew up the Twin Towers with help from Zionists in US government”.

Reaching Out to Russia

What characterises much of the pro-Russian movements in Europe is often a strange blurring of the lines between left and right, as elements of both ideological camps are mixed into a new, anti-Western formula which emphasises the importance of national sovereignty in the face of international, ‘globalist’ institutions.

This left-right convergence could be observed during the 2016 referendum as well: As polls show, supporters of both left and right-wing Eurosceptic parties decided the referendum result.

Geert Wilders Partij voor de Vrijheid campaigned for a No vote, too. As in 2005, the PVV was a bedfellow of the Socialistische Partij, who also rejected the EU constitution, albeit for different reasons. Wilders’ not only opposes the EU and its expansion. Like Germany’s AfD, he also supports closer ties with Russia.

Wilders blamed a reckless and aggressive EU foreign policy for the Ukraine crisis, and in 2017 criticised “Russophobia” in the Netherlands, arguing, that “Russia is not an enemy, and we shouldn’t make one out of it.”

In 2018, the PVV chief was criticised by relatives of victims of the MH17 tragedy after he repeated his calls for “partnership” with Russia during a visit to Moscow. 

Ultimately, however, Geert Wilders – the old guard of far-right populists – was merely a free rider of the referendum campaign. Its inception and frightening ideological legacy was the work of a new force in Dutch politics that coalesced around Thierry Baudet.

A failed newspaper columnist, Baudet was the far-right face of the No campaign. It was his entry into politics. Three years later, the small think tank he led during the referendum would transform itself into a political party, the Forum voor Democratie. The FvD captured 14% of the national vote in March 2019, making it the largest faction in the Dutch senate.

Despite his new-found stature in Dutch politics, Baudet is still a relatively unknown figure internationally. But without a doubt, he represents the latest step in the mainstreaming of far-right extremism in Europe. Baudet sees European civilisation as being in an existential crisis, undermined by subversive forces like “cultural Marxism” and  “diluted” by non-Western immigrants.

Diversity, in Baudet’s view is an instrument of hostile globalist elites in their fight against the nation-state: “It is so obvious that there is an agenda of de-rootment, there is an agenda of diluting of national identities which is strengthened, reinforced by the European Union,” he said in October at a conference in Los Angeles which united far-right figures from all over the West, including the AfD’s Marc Jongen.

In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, Baudet presented himself, like Wilders, as a realist seeking a sensible modus-vivendi with Russia.

“The association agreement provides Putin with an alibi for expansion. We’re warning against providing him with such an alibi,” Baudet told The Moscow Times in 2015.

But, as a typical far-right extremist, he also sympathises with the ideas of Russian imperialism, which present a strong Russian empire as the alternative to a Washington-dominated world order.

As NRC Handelsblad reports, Baudet has a close relationship with the fascist ideologue Alexandr Dugin, who called him a “rising star” and a great hope during the expected collapse of liberal civilisation.

During an EU elections debate in May, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called Baudet a “Putin lover.” Baudet had expressed doubt about Russian culpability for the downing of flight MH17, calling Ukraine “one possible perpetrator”. 

As the new head of the Dutch opposition, the FvD chief was feeling confident and speaking his mind. He was also reminding Dutch audiences of his ideological consistency, as a Russia sympathiser.

But Thierry Baudet is not just a Putin aficionado. His affection for Russia is part of a larger nationalist worldview, of which Russia is today’s most identifiable branded proponent.

Overt affection for Russia is part of a self-conscious attempt by far-right extremists like Baudet to build bridges with the most powerful nationalist country in Europe.

As Baudet said at the meeting in Los Angeles, “We should prepare for not just societal but political organisations. We should build networks, we should become friends.”

His reasons could not be more clear. Russia, according to his reactionary logic, is a better civilisational fit for Europe than the United States.

In light of such beliefs, it seems euphemistic to speak of Russian influence on European politics.

Moscow doesn’t have to directly fight initiatives it doesn’t like, such as the 2016 Dutch referendum. It can own them by way of inspiration. With a little push, here and there.

Photograph courtesy of Guido van Nispen. Published under a Creative Commons license.