Jansen Vander Meulen '19
Since President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November’s presidential election, commentators and politicians have sounded the alarm about Russia’s malicious involvement in American politics. Often abbreviated simply as “Russian hacking,” the Russian effort to undermine Americans’ confidence in the recent election was much more than that. It amounted to a sophisticated campaign of disinformation and strategic hacks, with the aim, according to a report compiled by the Director of National Intelligence, of electing President Trump and “undermin[ing] the US-led liberal democratic order.” Moreover, according to the same report, Russian involvement in the 2016 election was personally ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately for fans of the US-led liberal democratic order, Mr. Putin is just getting started. This year alone, several major American allies will hold national elections. Most importantly, France will elect a new president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term. In both of these countries, friends of Mr. Putin will seek office, and Mr. Putin’s propaganda machine promises to be active.
In France, the main center-right party has nominated for president former Prime Minister François Fillon, a rock-ribbed conservative and friend of Mr. Putin’s from their concurrent terms as prime ministers of their respective countries. Mr. Fillon is thought likely to make it to the final round of France’s election. If polling is to be believed (a big “if” in the Age of Trump), it is quite possible he will face off against the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. Ms. Le Pen has effectively rehabilitated the image of her formerly Holocaust-denying, anti-Semitic party, but she remains on the fringe of European politics. Her party supports withdrawal from the European Union, stripping “extremist” Muslims of their French citizenship, and an end to multiculturalism. In an election between Mr. Fillon and Ms. Le Pen, the once-dominant French center-left would face its Scylla and Charybdis, forced to choose between a Thatcherite budget-slasher and a nationalist demagogue. Worse, both are sympathetic to Mr. Putin, and may contribute to his main European project: the weakening of the European Union.
Germany’s prospects are not so dire, but trouble is brewing for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ms. Merkel has held power since 2005, and seeks a fourth term in this spring’s elections. As Germany’s first Chancellor born in the formerly-communist east, Ms. Merkel is the champion of Europe’s liberal order. When the Syrian migrant crisis began, she announced Germany would welcome refugees. Welcome them it has. In 2015 alone, Germany accepted more than one million Syrian refugees. While still widely popular with the German people, Ms. Merkel’s popularity has taken a serious hit since the beginning of the refugee crisis. On the electoral front, she faces a new challenge from the right-wing populist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which rose to prominence in the wake of Ms. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees. In local elections in late-2016 in Ms. Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the AfD pushed the long-dominant Christian Democrats into third place. Worryingly for fans of the Merkel-led European liberal order, the AfD has made strong overtures of friendship to Mr. Putin. Marcus Pretzell, the party’s leader in North Rhine-Westphalia and a member of the European Parliament, recently traveled to Russian-annexed Crimea and sat on a panel with numerous Russian leaders under European and American sanctions for their role in the annexation of Crimea, widely-regarded as illegal by most American and European observers. There is talk that Mr. Putin’s Twitter trolls, most recently engaged in pro-Trump, anti-Clinton activity, have converted to anti-Merkel accounts, a sign that Mr. Putin’s disinformation machine will next target Europe’s Iron Chancellor. While the AfD lacks the electoral strength of America’s Republicans, opponents of Mr. Putin ought not to underestimate him. A year ago, very few thought Mr. Trump would become President of the United States. It is not absurd to think Putin could topple Ms. Merkel, too.
Having achieved his objectives in the United States and the British referendum on European Union membership, Mr. Putin has now set his sights on the core engines of the European project: France, Germany, and their alliance that brought Europe together. Should he succeed in electing an ally to head either or both states, Europe and the West should beware. An invasion of one of the Baltic states cannot be far over the horizon, and with it comes the great test of the Western alliance.