MOSCOW — The official tone from the Kremlin on Monday, the day after the pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron was elected France’s president, was that Russia can work with anybody. But the snow falling on Moscow was perhaps more reflective of the damp chill in the Kremlin’s relations with Europe after yet another fruitless attempt to influence an election abroad.
For the last three years, since Europe slapped sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has sought to undermine and weaken the Western, trans-Atlantic alliance arrayed against it. Elections in particular have been viewed as a prime moment to try to exploit Western weakness — and openness — to help bring to power leaders more sympathetic to Russia.
France was the latest potential prize. Moscow backed one losing candidate after another, including an unusual, high-profile endorsement of the pro-Russia, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom French voters rejected soundly on Sunday.
On Monday the Kremlin tried to put the best possible outlook on the election of her opponent. President Vladimir V. Putin sent Mr. Macron a congratulatory message, expressing the desire to “overcome mutual distrust” and wishing him “good health, well-being and success.”
Never mind that before the vote Russian-state run media profiled Mr. Macron as probably gay, in thrall to Jewish bankers and among the enthusiastic “demons of globalization.”
Still, the nationalist, anti-globalization camp did not lose all hope. “In France the battle is lost, the war is not,” wrote Alexander Dugin, a central philosopher of the nationalist right who also lectures periodically in France. “Transnational (and transgender) elites defeated the people.”
Outside the ranks of Kremlin acolytes, however, political analysts aimed their criticism directly at Mr. Putin’s foreign policy, saying it was time to recognize that Russian attempts to influence elections abroad, including in the United States, were a disaster and damaging Russian interests.
“One more defeat for the Kremlin,” wrote Konstantin von Eggert, a program host and political analyst on the independent Dozhd television channel.
Last fall, the Kremlin thought it had found a natural ally in François Fillon, a conservative former prime minister chosen as the center-right candidate in the primaries. Long warm toward Russia and Mr. Putin personally, he called for ending the sanctions.
When a scandal sank his chances, the Kremlin turned to Ms. Le Pen. She has made no secret of her love for Russia, endorsing its annexation of Crimea. Her National Front had also received an $11 million loan from the now-defunct First Czech-Russian Bank in Moscow.
In March, while professing neutrality in the French race, Mr. Putin hosted her in the Kremlin, an unusual move for Moscow in the midst of an election campaign and effectively a Kremlin endorsement.
Then came accusations from the Macron campaign that Russia had hacked its computers. On the eve of the vote, a huge trove of stolen campaign emails was posted anonymously on the internet. French law prohibited any discussion of them in the final two days of the election, but Russia remains a prime suspect.
The leak did not seem to have much effect, landing with something of a thump in France. Even the main hashtag being #MacronLeaks, in English rather than in French, smacked of foreign meddling.
Mr. Putin, with his message of traditional family values and national pride, does have some support in Europe, particularly among far-right and populist movements, like the National Front as well as the Five Star Movement in Italy.
“In French terms, the alt-right and the far right overestimated the effect you can achieve through social media,” said Ben Nimmo, who studies disinformation and other online efforts for the Atlantic Council. “I don’t for a moment think that the game is over and I don’t think for a moment that the Russian disinformation campaign has admitted defeat.”
After the result emerged, much Russian coverage focused on the fact that one-third of the votes went to Ms. Le Pen, and suggested that the election was somehow tainted by many people casting either blank ballots or not voting.
Rossiya-24, the main Russian satellite news channel, kept repeating that Ms. Le Pen had achieved a “phenomenal result.” (Her party’s showing was its best ever but still well below the threshold that even her own advisers said they would regard as a success.)
Sputnik, a Russian government press agency, posted a story on its French service emphasizing that Ms. Le Pen would most likely emerge victorious in two voting districts. (The fact that Mr. Macron would take the other 99 came in the fourth paragraph.)
“The victorious defeat of Marine Le Pen,” read one headline on the French service of RT, the international TV service for the Kremlin.
Some mocked the French for their choice.
While much of Europe remembers the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany on May 8, Russians commemorate it on May 9, and generally believe that they receive insufficient credit.
“The French deserve the ‘elastic’ Macron; they must go through globalist hell,” wrote Daria Aslamova, a columnist in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular, pro-Kremlin tabloid. “They do not deserve democracy paid for by the lives of millions of Soviet soldiers.”
Given the Macron-bashing on Facebook, one music promoter in Siberia joked that Russia had finally found a substitute punching bag for President Barack Obama. “Judging by Facebook — all Soviet people have with relief and joy received the election of Comrade Macron to the vacant post of our Russian Obama,” he wrote.
Elsewhere in the Russian media there was some straightforward analysis of Mr. Macron’s prospects, including his desire to strengthen the European Union and to institute broad economic change.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were those who argued that Mr. Putin had not only failed to help elect a candidate sympathetic to Russia but, as in the United States and elsewhere, was effectively turning both politicians and the public against Russia.
“Macron was the most anti-Kremlin candidate,” Mr. von Eggert said in an interview.
Mr. Macron, like Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, essentially addresses Moscow as a problem rather than a partner, the analyst said, and Moscow’s recent foreign policy initiatives, from campaign meddling to sending its military into Syria, have brought little of positive substance for Russia.
“When you are talking about pro-Kremlin policy change, we have not seen much,” Mr. von Eggert said.
The Macron campaign was so incensed by the tenor of reporting by the Russian outlets Sputnik and RT that it banned them from some campaign events, provoking protests from Moscow.
Mr. Macron, in his debate with Ms. Le Pen right before the vote, vowed to take a harder line with Mr. Putin. While acknowledging that Russia had to be at the table to help solve problems like the wars in Ukraine and Syria, he underscored that its values were different.
“In no case will I submit to Mr. Putin’s diktats,” Mr. Macron said. “He will be a working partner on a number of regional issues, someone I will talk with, but with the awareness that on a lot of issues we don’t have the same values or the same priorities.”
After the French election, the next major vote in Europe will be elections in Germany in September. The Germans, too, have expressed concern about Russian hacking and possible influence among more than 3.5 million German-Russians repatriated from the Soviet Union, many of whom still watch Russian television.
Over all, experts said, Russia has been able to obtain a toehold in the influence game because it is addressing angry populations alienated by current governments.
“If our societies continue to stumble because we have a large segment of disaffected voters, Russia might be able to undermine the system that we built,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In many respects the best way to deal with Russia is getting our own house in order.”
- Published in World