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Moscow meddling: Does Vladimir Putin want to destabilise Europe?

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Moscow meddling: Does Vladimir Putin want to destabilise Europe?
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A contested parliamentary report examining alleged Russian interference in British politics has raised the taboo topic of Russian meddling in domestic European affairs, according to analysts.

The report by parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) examined allegations of Russian activity aimed at the United Kingdom, including in the 2016 referendum on EU membership.

It has been cleared by the security services but it has not yet been given approval for publication by Johnson's Downing Street office, meaning it cannot be released before a December 12 election.

Read More: UK government denies ‘sitting on’ report into Russian meddling in Brexit vote

For Gustav Gressel, acting director of the Wider Europe Programme at the ECFR. Russia meddles in European domestic affairs to try and destabilise the European Union with political parties that share its worldview.

"If you look into Brexit and the report of Russian interference during the Brexit referendum, you have tangible results on what Russian meddling can cause or what it can help to bring about.

"I don’t think they caused the Brexit but they try to help in the cause."

Igor Kovalev, a global politics expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, disagrees.

"There is no evidence that Russia interfered with the British will during the referendum," he said, adding that blaming Russia meddling was just a tactic used to take attention away from the Brexit debacle.

But Tara Varma, head of the ECFR in Paris, said Russia has been trying to destabilise Europe for a while.

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron directly called out Russia's alleged intervention in the French presidential elections during bilateral talks with Putin.

During a joint press conference in Versailles, Macron called Russian state-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik "agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda".

During the election campaign, Macron's team denied access to the Russian outlets accusing them of spreading "misleading information."

When asked about the alleged Russian hacking attempts to influence the French election, Putin stayed evasive.

“You asked the following: 'It is said that' there was ‘perhaps’ some interference by Russian hackers … How can I comment on such a thing?" he asked.

"Perhaps there were Russian hackers at work, perhaps not," Putin said.

What does Russia have to gain from interfering?

The Kremlin wants to undermine the EU political project because it goes against their vision of the world, said Varma.

"Putin's Kremlin has a "revisionist vision" of history, meaning they want to be the great power they were before the fall of the Soviet Union," she said.

The Russian elite still lives in a 19th-century ideology of great power competition where authoritarian powers like China represent the future, according to Gressel.

"All the liberal rule-based communities of independent sovereign states is an artificial construct that will not work and will not survive the coming century of great power competitions," he added.

Russia thinks Europe is too weak to be a superpower and not worth investing time on because it won't survive anyway, said Gressel.

Russia is just waiting for their time to come when the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) collapse, he added.

"If you remove NATO, a Russian expansion of influence in the West is quite possible," he said.

But Kovalev denied that Russia would benefit from the disintegration of the EU.

"In my opinion, Russia does not benefit from the collapse of the EU, because any disintegration, any divorce, any withdrawal of even one country from the European Union means the emergence of a new player in international relations and an increase in the number of players. It is easier to reach an agreement with one person than two."

He added that the collapse of the EU would only bring uncertainty to Russia.

"Russia is still a Eurasian country, it is important here that the first word is 'euro'. It is in Europe, and the tension on the border with Russia is certainly not in the strategic interests of our state."

How is Russia using Turkey to fragment Europe even more?

For the Russian objectives of assuring the survival President of Syria Bashar al-Assad and ending American presence in Syria, an alliance with Turkey was vital.

"The Turks were instrumental because they helped to put pressure on Washington, fomenting squabbles within NATO," said Gressel, "because they have two allies, US and Turkey, fundamentally imposing their viewpoints and military positions in Syria."

"They watched the squabble long enough and at the end, it got the result they wanted," said the policy fellow.

For Europe, the situation paints a grim picture because alienating Turkey too much may backfire and push them to open their borders with Europe, which could create another 2015 crisis, said the expert.

He added that European powers have failed to come up with a solution to prevent President Tayyip Erdogan from using the threat again and again.

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