According to the global political magazine, Politico, the Russian paramilitary group known as Wagner tried to interfere in the political system in Estonia, having schemed to support the far-right eurosceptic EKRE party ahead of the country’s 2019 European Parliament election.
The Wagner Group, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch affiliated with the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, is, according to Politico, a rogue military threat that could become a serious global challenge in years to come. The magazine says that now that the group has captured key cities for Moscow in Ukraine and is spreading its influence to Africa and other corners of the world, American and European allies are mobilising to thwart the group’s rapid expansion.
“For example, the Prigozhin network tried to interfere in the political system in Estonia, according to a strategy memo reviewed by Politico and corroborated by experts using open-source information,” the magazine reported, saying that Estonia is particularly wary of Russia meddling in the small country’s domestic politics.
Politico says Prigozhin’s operatives schemed to support the far-right, eurosceptic Estonian Conservative People’s Party, known by its Estonian acronym, EKRE, ahead of the country’s 2019 European Parliament election, according to one of the documents.
Campaigns against Kaljulaid and Kallas, lewd memes
“The cooperation started because EKRE wanted to be radically against the liberal parties, and they were happy to receive this very professionally prepared package,” Viljar Veebel, a researcher at the Baltic Defense College, told Politico.
To do so, the operatives planned to peddle some of the Kremlin’s favourite anti-Western narratives like “problems in Estonia because of the EU” and anti-NATO messages, along with campaigns against then-President Kersti Kaljulaid and the centre-right liberal Reform Party’s leader at the time, Kaja Kallas, who is now prime minister.
“The hashtag #ESTexitEU mushroomed on social media, according to Estonian propaganda researchers at Propastop. Lewd memes and caricatures of Kaljulaid also started appearing on Facebook, the Estonian news outlet Postimees reported.”
“Ultimately, it’s hard to measure the impact of the operation but experts said the efforts were small-scale and quickly disproven. Facebook and Twitter banned accounts associated with the network,” Politico said.
A persistent threat to Estonian national security
Harrys Puusepp, who is head of bureau of the Estonian Internal Security Service, told Politico the Wagner strategy for Estonia looked similar to previously drafted Russian propaganda projects for the country.
The real threat “[is] not about one project — the long-term effort, that is much more dangerous than any specific project,” Puusepp told the magazine. And “if we see a rise of populism in Europe, I think [Russian propagandists] understand that this might be a chance for them as well.”
Russian information operations are “a persistent threat to Estonian national security,” he added, describing attempts by the Kremlin and its backers to influence Estonia as “a regular Tuesday”.
The EKRE party declined to comment, according to the magazine. However, Moonika Helme, the wife of the former leader of the EKRE party, Mart Helme, and a member of the party and the current parliament, claimed on social media that the Politico article wasn’t mentioning EKRE at all.
Wagner may be designated an international terrorist organisation
“EKRE has been added to the text published by our media arbitrarily, probably for political reasons,” she wrote on social media. That claim, however, is false as Politico clearly mentions EKRE.
Henn Põlluaas, a member of EKRE and the former speaker of the Estonian parliament, told news portal Delfi that none of what Politico is claiming has happened. “EKRE has absolutely no relations or dealings with [Wagner], it’s literally complete bullshit,” he reportedly said.
According to Politico, diplomats from the US, Europe and Africa have met behind closed doors in capitals across the world to discuss ways to limit Wagner’s footprint. US officials are also debating whether to designate Wagner as an international terrorist organisation.
“Meanwhile, since Russia began targeting Ukraine, Wagner has recruited thousands of new troops to join its ranks on the battlefield, allowing the group to clinch military victories in the Donbas region, including the city of Soledar.”