European Parliamentary Elections 2024: Russian Disinformation in Action

Written by Anton Khimiak, UCMC/HWAG analyst

Elections are times when democratic political systems are most vulnerable to informational attacks. The most recent example is the European Parliamentary elections. With the widespread adoption of social media in daily life, autocracies have gained an array of opportunities to disguise disinformation campaigns as internal political battles and disseminate narratives detrimental to the EU. Consequently, disinformation is playing an increasingly important issue in the sociopolitical life of a united Europe.

In this article, we will look at the Kremlin’s narratives that are deliberately spread among voters in EU countries. We will briefly examine the historical context of election-related propaganda tactics and identify potential directions for future disinformation campaigns.

Elections: A Window of Opportunity

During the 2019 European Parliament election campaign, Russian state entities used media and social networking platforms to spread false narratives that aimed to discredit the EU and exacerbate divisions among member states. Russian sources maintained that the EU is an undemocratic and economically unstable geopolitical entity, and they encouraged eurosceptic and populist voices to exacerbate tensions over issues such as migration and the rule of law. 

For example, Russian propaganda attempted to sow discord among EU members by spreading the message that countries such as Poland had little influence over the EU’s legislative process. At the same time, they emphasized that much smaller countries with representation in the European Parliament, such as Malta, Luxembourg, and Portugal, wielded significant political pull.

Russia tested a similar tactic during the 2016 US presidential elections, using disinformation to undermine trust in democratic institutions and sow discord in American society.

According to The Guardian, Russia spent hundreds of thousands of euros in 2023 to support several websites claiming to fight “Russophobia” and promote the “protection of the Russian language” in Europe. This strategy also includes the operation of “Russian Houses” in 18 European countries to promote Russian history and culture.

Social media and web resources are the most common applications of Russian informational tools in the EU. Such activities are typically carried out undercover, using front organizations and the media. 

Some of the most notorious “disinformation companies” include the LLC “Internet Research Agency,” which was linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late head of the Wagner PMC, and the Voice of Europe information network, which was founded in 2017 and allegedly overseen by Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian oligarch in exile with close ties to Putin. 

These so-called “troll factories” were established to spread Kremlin-favored narratives by impersonating real people and influencing public opinion on internet platforms. Voice of Europe, in turn, selectively provided additional platforms for pro-Russian politicians from European parties, such as “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), to express their Moscow-aligned viewpoints.

How Russia Set Up an Informational Beachhead for Disinformation

On the eve of the 2024 European Parliament elections, Russia used a variety of tactics, including creating “twin” websites that mimicked well-known media outlets and “sleeper” sites that began spreading disinformation closer to the elections. Leaders of Belgium and the Czech Republic, in particular, reported significant preparations for intervention. In the letter they wrote to EU leaders, they said

“The network’s activities are aimed, among other things, at facilitating cooperation between pro-Russian politicians in the European Parliament, helping to elect more pro-Russian candidates to the parliament, and appointing people active in this network as staff members of (newly elected) MEPs.”

Some of the main narratives targeted at the European public include the “inevitability of nuclear war in case of escalation” and systematic accusations against European leaders of “crossing red lines.” The nuclear blackmail was designed to instill fear in the citizens of European countries, prompting them to oppose support for Ukraine.

Goals of Russian Disinformation Operations

  1. Polarizing Society: One primary goal is to polarize society, which raises tensions and leads to violent incidents. 
  2. Promoting Pro-Russian Forces: Another objective is to increase the likelihood that pro-Russian or Kremlin-friendly forces will gain power. 
  3. Discrediting Anti-Russian Actions: Russia attempts to portray countermeasures to its interference as censorship and political repression.

Strategic Propaganda: Moscow’s strategy consists of persistently propagating a limited set of favorable narratives. The repeated telling of even the most unbelievable stories eventually leads a portion of the population to believe in these “fairy tales.” Russia increases its impact over time by constantly reinforcing these narratives.

Kremlin Propagandists React to Election Results

Kremlin propagandists gave varying assessments of the European Parliament election results, accusing the EU of being influenced by “Russophobic” forces. Simultaneously, some commentators continued to undermine leaders who have supported Ukraine’s resistance to Russia.

Valentina Matvienko, Speaker of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, stated: 

“The crushing defeat of the leaders of the major Old World countries—Macron and Scholz—and their parties in the pan-European parliamentary elections once again confirms their incompetence as both national and European politicians.”

Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued an official statement sharply criticizing the EU: 

“We must note that the European elections were held under conditions of severe restrictions, a lack of fair competition, a purge of alternative sources, and a rampant anti-Russian campaign. Political forces opposing the mindless confrontation with Russia, which harms the EU, were discriminated against, frequently facing direct pressure and harassment.”

The issue of Ukraine has also become a target of manipulation in the Russian media. Russia Today, a state-controlled media outlet that spreads disinformation to an international audience, reported: “More than 80% of candidates in the European Parliament do not support Ukraine’s accession to the EU without meeting all conditions.” This narrative sought to undermine support for Ukraine and portray European integration as fraught with challenges.

What’s next…

The European Conservatives and Reformists group increased its seat count by about a dozen over the previous term. Meanwhile, the “Identity and Democracy” group declined in size, owing primarily to the exclusion of Alternative for Germany, which had become too toxic for the faction. Overall, Russian media outlets welcomed the increased presence of right-wing populists in the European Parliament. This is especially true given the strong results of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the Austrian Freedom Party, and Alternative for Germany. Their political agenda mirrors the contradictions that Kremlin propagandists have long exploited.

For example, protests by European farmers against Brussels’ “green policies” laid the groundwork for blocking the Ukrainian-Polish border, which had a direct impact on relations between Kyiv and Warsaw and slowed the delivery of weapons to the front lines. As a result, Russian influence on EU policy is likely to grow, depending on how stable European institutions remain.

Moreover, some newly elected MEPs have already been seen cooperating with Russia. As a result, countering Russian influence will be a critical but difficult task for the new parliament, whose coalition will include pro-Ukrainian parties.

Furthermore, not all right-wing parties that won more seats are pro-Russian. For example, “Brothers of Italy” increased its representation by 18 seats, while the pro-Russian “Northern League” lost 21 seats. The fragmentation of the right-wing bloc may have a significant impact on pro-Russian parties’ ability to influence the EU agenda.

Analyzing Russian disinformation about the 2024 European Parliament elections highlights the importance of countermeasures in ensuring the integrity of European democratic processes. Strengthening institutional trust and expanding Europe’s role in countering Russian influence will ensure the EU’s long-term development.

Increasing EU citizens’ awareness of disinformation and encouraging critical thinking can help counter attempts at external interference in the electoral process. The European Union’s ability to resist disinformation and external influences will be critical to its future success in ensuring election transparency and fairness.