Pre-election Pacifism: The Kremlin has signalled its readiness for peace talks as part of a strategy to support the pacifist rhetoric of the far right and far left ahead of the European Parliament elections

As the European Parliament elections, scheduled to take place in less than two weeks, approach, both right-wing and left-wing parties in Europe are increasingly adopting a pacifist agenda. This agenda subtly implies reducing support for Ukraine and pressuring it to cease hostilities and negotiate an agreement with Putin. This growing trend mixes Europe's war fatigue and scepticism about the possibility of a favourable outcome for Ukraine with the desire of extreme right and left-wing parties to play on these sentiments to strengthen their own position on the European political scene, and the deliberate efforts of the Kremlin and Russian security services to promote anti-war rhetoric in European political discourse. Mirroring Soviet strategies from the Cold War era, the Kremlin is simultaneously developing an offensive in Ukraine and partly sponsoring and partly manipulating the European ‘peace movement’. The forced leaks from the Kremlin about Putin's readiness for peace talks are likely designed to bolster European peace advocates on both the left and right flanks, helping to maximise their success in the upcoming elections.

‘Stop the EU madness’ urges a poster from the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which is leading in Austrian polls two weeks before the European Parliament elections. The poster depicts European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President Zelensky embracing against a disturbing backdrop featuring a tank, a helicopter, a syringe, wind turbines, and a ship carrying illegal migrants. The war in Ukraine is seamlessly integrated into the collection of ‘panic topics’ for right-wing European citizens. Party leader Herbert Kickl is one of the protagonists of a sensational Politico article about the Kremlin's infiltration of Austria's intelligence services. 

Russian military intelligence is exploiting anti-war sentiment in Germany to influence public opinion in the country and undermine support for Ukraine, the Bloomberg investigation claims. The agency reports that one of the German organisations targeted by the psychological operations unit of Russia's GRU is Alternative Future for Children (Alternative Kinder Zukunft, AKiZ). In June 2022, AKiZ opened a photo exhibition called ‘Children of War’ in Cologne which, according to the organisers, was meant to draw attention to the suffering of children in conflict zones. However, according to European officials, AKiZ used this exhibition to campaign against NATO and call for an end to arms supplies to Ukraine. The organisation's website promotes short films ‘dedicated to the memory of child victims’ who ‘were killed as a result of Ukrainian operations in Donbas’.

Germany, the EU's largest military and financial backer of Kyiv, has been hit hardest by Russian information operations aimed at fuelling public discontent over its support for Ukraine, Bloomberg has reported. In February, the French foreign disinformation watchdog VIGINUM identified signs of preparation for a major disinformation campaign in several European countries, including Germany and France.

The Kremlin's history of leveraging the European peace movement has deep roots. During the Cold War, amid the arms race, the Soviet Union regularly supported campaigns calling for nuclear disarmament in Europe and the removal of American nuclear weapons from the continent. Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine has presented European pacifist movements with a difficult choice: support military aid to the victim of aggression or adopt conciliatory anti-war positions, calling for peace negotiations.

Some German pacifist organisations, such as Osnabrücker Friedensinitiative, condemned the war and called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory in the early days of the conflict. Others limited their response to calling for humanitarian aid for Ukrainians, while a third group chose to play both sides, condemning both Russia and the West, writes political scientist Dmitry Stratievsky in Riddle. The latter camp includes a number of politicians from the Left Party, as well as the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, founded in autumn 2023 by the former leader of its parliamentary faction and named after her. Last year, Wagenknecht launched a petition calling on Scholz to facilitate talks between Moscow and Kyiv and organised an ‘Uprising for Peace’ demonstration in Berlin, demanding a halt to arms deliveries to Kyiv and talks with the Russian Federation. 

The Kremlin's strategy of using both far-right and far-left European forces to push an ‘anti-war’ agenda gained widespread attention thanks to a Washington Post investigation last year. The Post's journalists examined documents that included meetings held in the Kremlin to support and stimulate the anti-war movement in Europe, primarily in Germany, with the AfG and the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance as the main pillars. Steps proposed in this direction included placing graffiti across Germany suggesting that mainstream Western politicians are indifferent to the war-induced suffering of ordinary people, as well as organising anti-war rallies in German cities.

However, it is unwarranted to claim that all European political forces advocating for a reduction in support for Ukraine — which exist even in Poland — on both the left and right of the political spectrum are direct agents of Moscow. Rather, some European politicians outside the political mainstream are attempting to capitalise on war fatigue among the European public for their own ends by playing on anti-war rhetoric. According to a poll conducted in February in 12 EU countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), only 9.6% of respondents believe that Ukraine will win the war, while 19.5% think Russia will win, and 37.2% think the war will end with a compromise between the two sides. Meanwhile, 41% of respondents stated that ‘Europe should push Ukraine towards peace talks with Russia’ and only 31% thought that ‘Europe should support Ukraine's efforts to reclaim the occupied territories’. 

However, according to the Eurobarometer, 60% of respondents in all EU countries support the continuation of arms supplies to Ukraine, while 36% are ‘somewhat’ or ‘not at all’ in favour of this. The situation is significantly worse in the countries of Central and Southern Europe. There are approximately equal numbers of supporters and opponents of military aid in the Czech Republic (49% vs. 48%) Austria (49% vs. 48%) and Italy (48% vs. 50%). There is a slight majority of opponents in Hungary (45% vs. 52%). And, a significant majority of opponents can be found in Slovakia (40% vs. 53%), Slovenia (38% vs. 49%), Greece (38% vs. 57%) and Bulgaria (32% vs. 62%).

Much like during the nuclear arms race of the 1970s, the Kremlin partly sponsors and partly manipulates European pacifism. While deploying new types of missiles aimed at the European continent, the USSR fervently supported advocates of a ‘nuclear-free Europe’ in European capitals. As it intensifies its offensive in Ukraine on several fronts, the Kremlin orchestrated a leak about Mr Putin's willingness to negotiate an immediate ceasefire. Four different sources recently reported this to Reuters. These leaks, which do not commit to or specify any concrete terms for a ceasefire, are likely intended to bolster the ‘pacifist’ rhetoric of primarily right-wing European parties at a time when the European Parliamentary election campaign is reaching its climax.

Most analysts believe that the European Parliament elections are unlikely to overturn the centrist majority. Thus the Kremlin's goal is to achieve a situation in which the far-right and far-left receive more than a third of the votes, which would be the highest since the institution was founded in 1972 and would significantly complicate the decision-making process on issues of supporting Ukraine and its integration into the European Union.