The Weakest Link: Russian Influence Operation in the Netherlands Reveals Vulnerabilities in EU Foreign Policy Powers

European flags stand in front of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, May 2019.

The Dutch television news program Zembla recently uncovered WhatsApp messages appearing to show the new leading far-right populist in the Netherlands discussing payments he received from Russia. The politician in question, Thierry Baudet, rose to prominence in 2016 when he successfully led a referendum campaign against the European Union signing an association agreement with Ukraine. This coincided with the discussion of payments from Russia. The Dutch vote was seen as a huge victory for Russia; few knew at the time that it was also a win likely bought by the Kremlin.

The story began in 2013, when a popular uprising had exploded in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the corrupt, pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych unexpectedly rejected the initial association agreement with the EU. The protests in Kyiv turned into a revolution, toppling the Yanukovych government. Russian President Vladimir Putin then responded by invading Ukraine, leading to a bloody conflict that continues to this day.

After a new government was elected in Ukraine in 2014, Kyiv moved to strengthen ties with the United States and the EU, signing the association agreement with the EU later that year. The decision had widespread support in Europe, and most of the terms were provisionally implemented immediately upon the signing. However, as required under EU rules, each member state needed to ratify the agreement. Given its overwhelming support, this was seen as a mere formality.

In the Netherlands, however, a new law allowing for a referendum on such issues was invoked, and 300,000 signatures were collected for a petition calling for an advisory referendum. This effort was led by a right-wing think tank called the Forum for Democracy (FvD), headed up by Baudet. Since the 2016 referendum, Baudet has turned his think tank into a political party with a prominent voice in Dutch politics. A member of parliament himself, Baudet leads the FvD, which won two seats in the 2017 parliamentary elections and performed very well in the 2019 provincial elections.

Baudet is seen as a new kind of far-right populist. The 37-year-old likes to quote Latin and overlays a pseudo-intellectual veneer to his anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric. He is also ardently anti-NATO, anti-EU, and vociferously pro-Russian. He’s flirted with the idea of a “Nexit,” or the Netherlands following the United Kingdom out of the EU. He has even peddled in pro-Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation, including that the snipers who killed civilians in the streets of Kyiv during the Maidan Revolution were actually protesters themselves, not the pro-Russian government, or that it was Ukraine, not Russia, who sent provocateurs to the Netherlands to mess with the referendum.

Now, four years since the referendum, a Dutch television news program has uncovered internal FvD WhatsApp messages in which Baudet discussed receiving payments from a Russian operative with close ties to Putin. While Baudet denies the allegations and says that statements were part of a “running gag” and were “playful exaggeration,” this has caused a bit of an uproar in the Netherlands.

This has brought to light two important and interrelated concerns.

First, even the richest and most developed democracies in the world are susceptible to foreign political influence, and this influence extends far beyond disinformation campaigns. Very often in popular discussion, the concept of Russian election interference is thought of singularly in the context of social media manipulation or propaganda channels such as RT and Sputnik.

In reality, however, disinformation is only one of the many threat vectors for malign political interference from foreign adversaries. In fact, the most effective way to interfere in democracies is to support preferred political leaders and movements, including through the most straightforward means: funding them.

Unfortunately, identifying illicit financial support is infamously difficult to detect and reveal. One of the most well-known examples is the critical support that a Kremlin-linked bank in Moscow provided to the National Front, a far-right French political party. However, because the money was a loan, as opposed to a donation, the transaction was in line with French laws. Reporters have also uncovered evidence of suspicious financial transactions in the U.K. and Italy, and there are even reports of Russia funding neo-Nazi organizations in the United States. Some of these are part of current investigations by authorities, but much of these have yet to be fully uncovered. Even the Mueller report did not examine potential financial ties between President Donald Trump and Russia, outside of the Trump Tower Moscow project, despite public reporting on suspicious financial flows, leaving critical questions largely unanswered.

However, due to opaque financial regulations and gaps in political financing regulations, much of the details of these transactions remain unknown.

Second, and more broadly, however, the incident in the Netherlands lays bare a structural weakness in the EU’s decision-making structure, especially in terms of foreign policy. The need for unanimous ratification among all member states means that the EU—an entity that by all measures should be a leading global power—is only as strong as its weakest member state.

For example, while the association agreement eventually passed Dutch parliament despite the “no” vote and was ratified by the EU, it forced the Dutch prime minister to gain assurances from Brussels that the agreement did not mean automatic EU membership for Ukraine and that EU member states were not committed to financially support Kyiv. This weakened the symbolism of the moment and thus took a bit of the wind out of Ukraine’s sails as it was embraced by the EU at a geopolitically crucial moment.

This problem extends beyond Russian influence. For example, in 2016, the EU was forced to water down a statement on Chinese claims in the South China Sea—a key geopolitical contest in Asia—because Hungary and Greece, whose economies both benefit significantly from Chinese investment, blocked a stronger statement.

There are also political variables from country to country. Some allow referendums to influence important decisions; others have specific business interests they are pursuing; and some states still suffer from significant corruption that can serve as a vulnerability.

Imagine, for example, if the U.S. government made foreign policy decisions based on referenda in Missouri or the investment strategy of a South Carolina governor or a corrupt politician in Louisiana. The result would be that nothing of meaning would ever get done.

The exact details and extent of Thierry Baudet’s relationship with Russia has yet to be fully understood. But what has been revealed already highlights two key vulnerabilities for democracy in Europe and the strength of the EU on the global stage. If the EU wishes to be a world power—which it can and should be—then it needs to shore up these weaknesses. Otherwise, adversaries can continue to undermine it from within.

James Lamond is a senior policy adviser at the Center for American Progress. Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center.