Russia's relationship with the European Union establishment is at its lowest ebb for decades. However, its ties with some sections of European politics are getting stronger.
In March last year, when tensions surrounding Ukraine were at their highest, politicians from a mix of minority left-and right-wing European parties landed in Crimea. In their opinion, the Crimea referendum, in which 95.5 percent of those who voted said Yes to rejoining Russia, was free and fair. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which would usually have sent a team of observers, did not attend the Crimea referendum as it deemed it illegal.
As relationships between Russia and the West hit their lowest ebb since the fall of the Iron Curtain, concerns in the West are mounting that Russia may seek to destabilize other countries than Ukraine – and that it is doing this partly through the countries' minority parties.
The U.K. defense secretary Michael Fallon claimed Thursday in remarks to U.K. journalists that there is a "real and present danger" of Russia trying to destabilise the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – and that he is worried about "pressure" from Russia on these countries, all NATO members.
Among European Union members, Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been the strongest voices in favour of tougher action against Russia – partly for historical reasons, and partly because those leaders are wary of Russian-backed opposition parties in their own countries.
Added to that is the possibility Russia may step in to help Greece if it fails to secure a new agreement on its debt. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told CNBC in January that Russia would consider giving financial help to debt-ridden Greece.
How it works
There has been a well-established tradition of powerful countries developing links with parties in smaller countries. There was plenty of Western money given to new parties in eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example. But what form is Russia's support taking?
Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian-born researcher into the links between Russia and Europe's far right, told CNBC: "This is going on at quite a high level. Individuals can't really establish contact without approval from people who are well-connected to the Kremlin."
Support doesn't have to be financial. Party leaders can also be invited to meetings and give speeches in Russia, which can help give them a sense of importance outside their national borders.
"There have been suggestions for a number of years that the Kremlin has been funding parties in Central and Eastern Europe – there is an overlap of institutions and personnel. In Western Europe, financial support seems to be less of an issue, apart from the recent example of the National Front," Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at London-based think tank the Henry Jackson Society, told CNBC.
National Front, the French far-right party, confirmed in December that it took out a €9 million ($11.2 million) loan from Russian-owned First Czech-Russian Bank (FCRB), which was established in 1996 by the Czech government, but is now owned by Roman Popov, its former chairman and an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In France, one of the key figures is believed to be Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, who introduced Le Pen to Alexander Mikhailovich Babakov--one of Putin's main advisors, the former head of arch-conservative party Rodina and on the EU-US sanctions list over Ukraine. Another is Front National MEP Aymeric Chauprade, who was on the Crimea trip.
Schaffhauser did not respond to requests for interview.
"Aside from the gradual rapprochement that is accelerated as the Ukraine crisis unfolds, there is also quite clearly through the creation of these branches within FCRB, a strategy for reaching out to ultra conservative parties in European countries," Catherine Fieschi, director at Counterpoint, told CNBC.
In Germany, eyebrows have been raised over a meeting between the Russian ambassador and Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) – although AfD have denied that these were above the normal course of business. The left-wing Die Linke (The Left) has historically closer ties to Russia, and sent several representatives to the Crimea referendum.
In Italy, connections are being made between the Kremlin and eursceptic Lega Nord (Northern League), whose leader Matteo Salvini made a high-profile appearance at the NF conference late last year that included grooving in a nightclub with Le Pen.
The U.K. Independence Party, the U.K.'s eurosceptic challenger party, appears to be the main focus in that country. A UKIP spokesman said the party would never accept a loan from a Russian bank. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has regularly appeared on Russia Today, the Russian satellite broadcaster, and has said that Putin is the leader he most admires.
Who rules the heartland?
Just after World War 1, English academic Sir Halford Mackinder wrote: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World."
Mackinder's ideas helped inform the German Nazi Party's Lebensraum policy. And there are still some in Russia who believe him.
Among them is the influential Russian political scientist and founder of the Eurasia Party, Aleksandr Dugin. He argues that a new "Eurasia" should be established to combat what he calls "Atlanticism" (i.e. US influence). Dugin was one of the first prominent Russian voices to call on Putin to aid pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. He has lectured across Europe – and in Greece at the University of Piraeus, as part of a course taught by current Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.
Recent Russian actions in Ukraine suggest that those who agree with Dugin are gaining sway in Russia.
There is evidence of Russian support for right-wing parties in Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and of course Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has recently made strongly pro-Russia statements like: "Without co-operation with the Russians we cannot achieve our goals."
What’s in it for Russia?
As for Russia's motivation, destabilizing the European Union at one of the most vulnerable points – and when east-west relationships have soured -- is key. Opinion is divided over whether Russia is motivated by pragmatism or ideology – or a combination of both.
"This is part of a broad spread of measures designed to confuse and demoralize the opposition. This part is opportunistic, taking advantage of disillusionment with the existing political order in Europe. There is no ideological aim to this," Neil Barnett, the founder of risk consultancy and CEE specialist Istok Associates, told CNBC.
Russia rarely continues to back losing horses – as can be seen in the decline in relationships with the British National Party leadership as the party collapsed.
"The Kremlin isn't giving anything away for free. It will support who it sees has good chances on a national level in their country," Shekhovtsov said.
It goes without saying that Russia has historically strong links with Central and Eastern Europe, although these declined in the latter decades of the twentieth century as Soviet influence waned. This century has seen increased economic and political interest, with the Russian elite expanding its commercial presence in the region via privatizations in countries like Serbia, where Gazprom bought control of state-backed oil and gas company Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) in 2008. The now-abandoned South Stream pipeline was a key tenet of Russian influence in the area.
And Russia will go to great lengths to protect its military interests in the Black Sea.
There are also strong religious and cultural ties between Russia and many of these countries.
One key individual is young Russian tycoon Konstantin Malofeev, believed to be a key ally of Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's deputy prime minister and its former ambassador to NATO. The devoted Orthodox Church member, who is the subject of sanctions from the Western powers, has allegedly been supportive of Russian separatists in Ukraine – and has established contacts with several key Greek figures, including new Defense Minister Panos Kammenos.
The new premier of the People's Republic of Donetsk, Alexander Borodai, and Colonel Igor Strelkov (also known as Igor Girkin), former leader of the Russian separatists working there, used to work for Malofeev.
Malofeev did not respond to requests for an interview through his fund Marshall Capital Partners. In a rare interview with Western media, he told Slate in October 2014 that sanctions are a "very stupid instrument" and added: "Just as Christians in the West in Ronald Reagan's time helped us against the evil of communism, we now have to return our debt to Christians who are suffering under totalitarianism in the West."
The next milestone in this particular Great Game? The disputed territories of Ukraine are an ongoing flashpoint. To see how well the pro-Russian sentiment machine has done, watch what happens in July, when the next vote on the extension of sanctions is due.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the political party created by Aleksandr Dugin is called the Eurasia Party.
- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle