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WASHINGTON – Russia is cultivating new European allies in its quest to create a barrier against purported NATO encroachment on its borders, joining forces with ultranationalist groups who stand to gain seats in the upcoming European Parliament elections.
That is despite the fact the ultranationalists generally support the interim Ukrainian government that ousted its pro-Russian president and generally oppose Russia’s recent takeover of the Crimean Peninsula.
European sources say the European ultranationalists and Moscow have been flirting with each other quietly for some years. Meanwhile, the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, has distanced itself from Moscow in response to the recent annexation of Crimea and the looming prospect of taking over eastern, if not all of, Ukraine.
However, the sources say there is no unified approach by the European countries on how to proceed against Russia. In addition, there are deep divisions in Europe over the rise of nationalist parties, made even worse by stagnant economic conditions.
Sources say Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the economic woes to his advantage, utilizing a political divide-and-conquer approach without an overt resort to his military.
Germany in particular does not want to upset its strategic relationship with Moscow.
“The European Union and its members will officially back the interim government in Kiev, but Germany and others will prioritize their economic relations with Russia, make quiet overtures to Moscow and ensure that the European Union stays below the threshold of issuing trade sanctions against Russia,” according to a report by the open intelligence group Stratfor.
The lack of cohesion in the EU is compounded by the rise of ultranationalist, or anti-establishment, parties throughout Europe which are capitalizing on social discontent with European governments.
European sources speculate that in such EU countries as Britain, France and Germany, rising ultra-nationalist parties will force mainstream parties to lean more toward their views and away from Brussels.
The views of the ultranationalists in the EU coincide with those of Putin. They include stricter immigration policies, concern about the threat of Islamist extremism, anti-U.S. influence in European affairs and opposition to a perceived U.S. strategy to encircle Russia by extending NATO to its boundaries.
The views of the European ultranationalists also tend to coincide with Moscow’s strategy toward Europe and the United States.
“Russia would like to destabilize and weaken the European political scene, and these parties are all anti-EU,” according to Peter Krakow, one of the authors of a report titled “The Russian Connection: The Spread of Pro-Russian Policies on the European Far Right” by the Hungarian Political Capital Institute.
“They want to burn down the house,” he said. “I think that’s the obvious goal. That, and weakening the European-American alliance.”
With European parliamentary elections in May, sources believe the ultranationalist elements in Europe will increase their numbers and status.
The Stratfor report added that “parties in several countries well-positioned to make gains in the coming vote are being increasingly open about their desire to act as an advocate for Moscow in Brussels.”
“I think we can be a good partner for Russia in the European Parliament,” said Filip Dewinter of the Flemish party Vlaams Belang of Belgium. “And Russia sees us as a potential partner.”