During last month’s “Putincon” pro-democracy conference in New York, several European and American politicians were represented as Vladimir Putin’s accomplises. Among them were French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, former Chanchellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder and former Prime Minister of Finland Paavo Lipponen.
Lipponen and Schröder share some similarities in their background: both are long-term social democrats and have deep financial ties to Russia’s Gazprom. During the Cold War, Lipponen was one of the most important pro-Soviet radicals among the youth politicians in his party.
In Finland, Soviet infiltration was much deeper than in Western Europe, because the country was forced to act within the framework of the so-called “YYA treaty”. The arrangement ensured that the KGB remained practically immune from judicial prosecution or other problems that might arise in achieving the Kremlin’s goal to create a political, social and economical network of influence. This was called “finlandization”, a phenomenom the West Germans were afraid of. According to archival sources, their fear was not without reason.
The USSR also used Finland to spread the ideas of “finlandization” among its Nordic and European partners. Within this system, social democratic parties held the key position. “Finlandization” produced a fertile historical launchpad for future “schröderization”.
Putin’s cronies and The Useful Idiots
In the days of The Soviet Union, unwitting agents of the totalitarian regime in Moscow were generally identified “useful idiots”. This “idiotism” was often ideologically motivated and its origins may be founded in real problems that existed among Western societies, such as social and economic inequality, crony capitalism or the shadows of imperialism. In West Germany, an unwilligness to recognizie the crimes of Nazism, at an individual level, was a significant factor when violent left-wing radicalism reared its ugly head.
However, not all those who collaborated with the Soviets were “idiots” Some of them completely understood the totalitarian nature of the Kremlin regime, but didn’t care and/or tried to harness the efforts of East Bloc intelligence agencies to their own advantage. These collaborators may have been left-wing politicians, but they were also influenced by money and even blackmail.
The rise of left wing radicalism provided new opportunities for Soviet/East German operations in Germany, Sweden and Finland – as elswhere in Western Europe and the “grey zone”. The efforts to destabilize and weaken the West were coordinated and had strong and clear cross-border elements. To understand the present “hybrid war”, we have to understand the international “active measures” of the Soviet Union.
The key roles of German, Swedish and Finnish social democrats
In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afganistan in the beginning of the 1980’s, the Kremlin clearly understood that arms reduction a matter of life and death for the Soviet regime. Soviet intelligence efforts were then concentrated to influence centre-left parties in Europe to help advance this policy.
Kalevi Sorsa, the long-term Prime Minister of Finland – a confidential contact for the KGB- was a key Soviet supporter of their arms reduction policy among members the Socialist International. According to documents, it seems he was used as part of a “whisperer” campaign towards other European socialist parties. Acting in cooperation with the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, they were the main architects of algining Europe’s socialist parties with Soviet interests. Even the KGB’s own reports reveal that Sorsa “works actively for us”. The ultimate goal seems to have been “finlandization” of West Germany, maybe even Western Europe as a whole. The following CIA reports concerning the Polish situation tell more than enough:
Through Kalevi Sorsa, the Kremlin also delivered messages to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who seems to have been aware of Sorsa’s role. Brandt states in his biography that Sorsa received inner circle information from Moscow. However, as the main architect of “Ostpolitik”, the Chancellor himself was under strict watch regarding his “toughness” toward the USSR.
The fact that the German, Swedish and Finnish centre-left parties remain the most pro-appeasement and/or anti-NATO establishment parties in the region today is not a coincidence- although the historical tradition of “non-alignment” shouldn’t be fully ignored as one of the explanations. After all, the longterm cultivation, carried out by the Soviet (and then Russian) intelligence organs and the lack of lustration of Soviet collaborators, are probably the most important reasons for such major differences when compared to other European socialists.
While information technology reduces the significance of the borders – which has been seen during the investigation of Kremlin meddling into the US presidential election – we should remember, that even during the Cold War there were pro-Russian active measures carried out from one Western country to another. The method gives plausible deniability to the aggressor, creating paranoia and damaging relations between natural allies.
As mentioned in a recent article, the former head of the KGB assasination department, Viktor Vladimirov, resided in Helsinki during 1970’s and 80’s. He was a close friend of president Mauno Koivisto, and seemingly supervised his way to power. The former head of the Finnish Security Police (Supo) Seppo Tiitinen – whom the British intelligence seems to have assesed as being vulnerable to Russian blackmail – permitted Vladimirov’s presence in Finland. The opportunities this presented to the KGB in a democracy with open borders, should be investigated, not just in Finland, but the whole European and Western community.
The importance of not being selective
While it is certainly important to openly discuss the Kremlin’s influence among different populist parties across Europe, we must also consider the attack against democracy and Western values as a whole. Russian intelligence doesn’t ride on one or two horses, but two hundred, if it has the resources to do so.
This method created “finlandization”: weakening pro-independence and pro-Western politicians by playing them against each others to make everyone compete for Soviet accaptance. With modern globalization, borders have less and less significance when it comes to intelligence operations, organized crime, corrupted trade deals etc.
However, it is essential to understand that both “finladization” and “schröderization” take place among elites. Not necessarily by weakening them, but by infiltrating them. Provocateurs, on the contrary, are often used when this tool is not available, and “the system” needs to be destroyed in order to achieve power.
To counter Russian efforts, we have to stop being selective in judging Putin’s assests in Europe. We can always discuss how deeply involved one was and what kind of responsibility should he or she carry, but first of all, we must remember that collaboration with the current Moscow regime, means collaboration with a regime that is aggressively spreading anti-democratic and anti-Western message and goals all over the world.
Analyzing and countering the European-wide, cross-border influence operations and “schröderization” needs to penetrate the deep into Europe’s political and societal power structures – the ”deep state”, if you will. Also, vetting the officials involved in such counter actions is important. For example, all personnell of The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, should give statements about their connections with “Putin’s accomplises” all over the world.
MEP Guy Verhofstadt wrote in his essay published by The Guardian:
“We need a comprehensive, Mueller-style, EU-wide investigation into the extent of Russian influence on our democracies, economies and political systems, which can set out credible responses. It is wrong that Russian billionaires can buy EU citizenship in Malta, launder money in London propertythrough shell companies and seeminglydonate to European political parties at will.
At the same time we have to overcome the current stalemate where EU-Russia contacts are frozen, but member states continue developing bilateral channels with Russia, often serving narrow national interests. The EU and Nato need to reopen channels of communication to reduce the risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations – as was the case during the cold war.
A new strategy could be built on the logic of the Helsinki process of the 1970s. A Helsinki 2.0 would strengthen European security architecture through opening up the perspective for a political and economic engagement with Russia. In exchange for full respect of the Minsk agreements, compliance with international law and also progress when it comes to free and fair elections and respect for human rights inside Russia, the EU would not only lift economic sanctions but progressively deepen political and economic cooperation.
This strategy would also make clear that our dispute is with the current Russian government, not with the Russian people. We should therefore open our universities and labour markets to the best and brightest young Russians citizens and unilaterally facilitate visas for Russian citizens. Support for independent civil society activists, the free media and NGOs in Russia should be enhanced.
Most importantly, we have to swiftly build a Defence Union, as a European pillar of Nato. For decades, we have relied on the US and failed to invest in modern defences and the integration of our capacities. Many European politicians refuse to make the case to the people for a European defence and security capacity, for fear of falling foul of the Eurosceptics that Putin sponsors; we find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle.
I hope the younger generation of current European leaders, from Emmanuel Macron to Leo Varadkar, will have the courage to be bolder and make the case for an integrated European defence.”
To create a European bulwark of freedom, we must investigate how Russian intelligence is able to operate so freely inside the European Union. Investigate, why Mr. Tiitinen – now writing his autobiography with journalist Pekka Ervasti, known for his connections with Finnish pro-Soviet radicals – allowed a Soviet wet operations master to act inside Finland. We must investigate the financial ties and transactions by politicians and “civic organizations”, not only from Kremlin and its close oligarch associates, but also from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and from Western cover companies. We must also investigate the relations between European far right parties and Finnish, Swedish and German social democrats.
Hopefully Mr. Verhofstadt’s initiative will be taken seriously.