While we were distracted by ghastly developments in the United States, Vladimir Putin's 2017 campaign for Europe was getting under way in earnest this week. After his U.S. success, the Russian President appeared to launch a two-pronged assault on the stability of Europe.
On its eastern front, it took a violent form. Starting Sunday, after Mr. Putin's very cordial phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian forces began attacking Eastern Ukraine at levels not seen since the 2014 ceasefire: On Tuesday alone, monitors counted a record 10,330 artillery and rocket explosions, mostly Russian, in the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region.
This, military observers said, was Mr. Putin's new push to destabilize and gain influence over Europe's eastern flank while the U.S. net appears empty.
As Alexander Vershbow, until recently deputy secretary-general of NATO, told Foreign Policy this week, the Kremlin appears to be "trying to test the new [U.S.] administration to see if they distance themselves from Kiev, and tell [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko that he has to make the best deal with Russia." Even though NATO troops, including Canadians, are assembled in the region, the fear is that the United States will give Mr. Putin's incursions a pass.
The Trump administration seemed to confirm those fears. While Mr. Trump's UN ambassador Nikki Haley denounced Russia's intervention on Thursday, the President and his staff were decidedly silent. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer, when asked about this apparent Russian invasion, declined to mention Russia and mildly suggested the President would be "kept aware of developments."
On the western front, the Moscow incursion took a now-familiar political form. France's presidential election campaign was tripped up by the sudden leak of thousands of candidates' private e-mails, the largest pile of them from conservative candidate François Fillon. Mr. Fillon was, until recently, regarded as the best hope to defeat Marine Le Pen, the extreme-right candidate who is politically and financially backed by, and is highly supportive of, Mr. Putin. As was the case with last year's leak of U.S. Democratic Party e-mails, none of them appeared to contain anything very controversial or contentious, but their existence polluted the waters and added to Mr. Fillon's existing scandals.
Guillaume Poupard, head of France's National Information System Security Agency, noted a few weeks ago that France had blocked tens of thousands of hacking attempts originating in Russia and warned that this appeared to be an effort to harvest political e-mails: "We can't just act as if the problem does not exist. The attackers who influenced the American election could try to do it again in France. We must be prepared."
This is a big year for elections in Europe, with the Netherlands, France and Germany all going to the polls. The Dutch have already switched their voting system to one based on paper ballots and hand counting after security agencies warned of Russian hacking attempts.
The chaos serves the interests of those political parties – Alternative for Germany, France's National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom, Britain's UKIP – that regularly express support for Mr. Putin and his agendas, are endorsed and favoured by him, and sometimes receive explicit support from him. Their leaders all model their political agendas on Mr. Putin's combination of ultranationalist militancy, racial intolerance directed at religious minorities and opposition to the liberal-democratic institutions of international co-operation.
None of these extreme-right parties ought to have a political chance in modern Europe. And the odds are still against most of them. But, once again, their Russian backers are taking advantage of an empty net. Europe's mainstream political parties are almost all experiencing crises of leadership. Recent weeks saw France's centrist Socialist Party and Germany's Social Democrats choose leaders who appeal to members but have little mainstream appeal. They're following the lead of Britain's Labour Party, whose ineffectual Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, actually joined a Conservative parliamentary vote to initiate proceedings to leave Europe this week.
France's best hopes now lie with candidate Emmanuel Macron, an appealing liberal who is, however, running without a major party; Germany's hopes lie with conservative Angela Merkel, entering her 12th year in office. This failure of leadership, combined with Moscow's interference, has many Europeans fearing a repeat of Washington's disaster.