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In Europe, Subtle Signs Of A Softening On Putin's Russia

There are still plenty in the European Union taking a hardline against the Kremlin. But a counter bloc is emerging from the corridors of the European Parliament.

Putin in Svtiltsa, Russia, on Jan. 19
Putin in Svtiltsa, Russia, on Jan. 19
Pavel Tarasenko and Yegor Fedorov

MOSCOW — European leaders continue to accuse Russia of spreading disinformation, with a recent European Parliament forum billed as a probe into the "efficiency" of Moscow's propaganda efforts. But the Jan. 17 debate also featured some members of Parliament who defended Russia, blaming Brussels for restricting freedom of speech and accusing Western countries of "paranoia."

In light of evolving positions in Europe about the issue, several Russian experts told Kommersant they do not foresee new restrictions of European policy in regards to Moscow.

The point of view of most of the European deputies has not changed since November 2016, when the European Parliament adopted a resolution charging Russian authorities with using "a wide range of mechanisms and tools, such as think tanks, foreign language channels, pseudo-information agencies and multimedia services, social networks and Internet trolls to attack democratic values, to divide Europe and make it seem like the EU's eastern neighbors have adopted a failing approach."

In the Jan. 17 debate European member of Parliament from Lithuania, Petras Aštryavičius, warned his colleagues: "Bots and trolls factories are at the service of Russian authorities 24-7, so this subject should not only come up in our discussions during presidential campaigns."

Danish Social Democrat Jeppe Kofod added: "Russian interference with elections is becoming the norm," citing Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Spain, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany and the UK as Russia's "victims."

Most of the false information is not illegal.

There is still no single approach to what is to be considered disinformation. The first meeting of the high-level expert group established by the European Commission was set up in Brussels on Jan. 15 to counter the spread of false information on social media and traditional networks. This group will have two more meetings before publishing a report on disinformation in April. One of the key tasks of the group is to create a definition of "false information."

As explained by the European Commissioner for Digital Economy Maria Gabriel: "most of the false information is not illegal," and therefore its dissemination does not violate the legislation of the European Union.

The Russian authorities have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, or any violation of European norms. For example, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that leaders of some European countries are using "unfounded rhetoric about Russian propaganda and hybrid threats' in order to justify their actions that violate basic democratic principles. On Jan. 15 at a press conference on the results of the year, Lavrov condemned "the attitude towards RT, Sputnik in the U.S. and France", as well as "the expulsion of Russian journalists and the shutting down of Russian channels in Moldova, Ukraine, Latvia and other countries."

At this month's debate in the European Parliament, such a position got some unexpected backing. Estonian MP Jan Toom said: "In my childhood, asking who is to blame, I always heard one thing: Western capitalism and Ronald Reagan. Now I constantly hear that everything is personally Vladimir Putin"s fault. I cannot agree with such a black-and-white approach."

Do not shift blame.

UK's Gerard Batten urged his colleagues "not to shift the blame for their own mistakes on Russia." He accused European politicians of wanting to distract citizens of their countries from serious problems like uncontrolled migration and the stagnation of the Eurozone. "Putin is not the reason for your unpopularity, you are," said the deputy getting applause from a number of his colleagues.

"People simply repeat the mantra that they have some evidence of Russia supporting Catalan separatists. But do they really? This is half-paranoia, half a political strategy aimed at preventing good relations with Russia," said the Spanish member of the European Parliament, Javier Couso Permuy, who occasionally appears on RT.

Other methods of countering Russian policies such as sanctions were also discussed during the debate. The first sanctions were introduced by the European Union in March 2014 in connection to the referendum in Crimea. Then, as the conflict started in Donbass in eastern Ukraine, a new package of restrictive measures arrived. In December, German Foreign Minister Zigmar Gabriel announced the possibility of lifting sanctions step by step as the Minsk agreements on Donbass were implemented. However, restrictive measures were instead extended again, now until July 31.

George Zakman, an expert on Moscow-European relations, told Kommersant that mutual sanctions of the Western countries and Russia have not caused the EU any serious damage until now. It "only lost 0.03% to 0.05% of GDP." At the same time, the expert warned about the risks associated with a new set of sanctions as it is being actively discussed in Washington. According to Zakman, damages for both sides would be especially significant if new restrictions affect the energy sector.

Business representatives also noted their worry about economic tensions between Russia and the West. "We do not support the idea of ​​imposing further sanctions by the EU and the U.S., as they will only bring new losses to both sides and intensify the confrontation, which in turn will impede with the search for a solution to the conflict," said Michael Harms, managing director of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations.

For now, new anti-Russian sanctions do not appear to be on the EU agenda. Fredrik Veslou, director of the "Greater Europe" program of the European Council for Foreign Relations, argues that the current regime of anti-Russian sanctions "fully reflects the fragile balance of views in the EU towards Russia between the "hawks' and the "doves."" Tipping that balance could ultimately play into the hands of the hawks.

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