Since 2014, Russia has been trying to create the illusion of legitimacy for its actions on the territory of Ukraine: the occupation of Crimea, the creation of new republics that it later incorporated into the federation, and eventually a full-scale invasion. Not the least role in this is systematically played by “independent international experts” who are in fact European citizens paid by the Kremlin and those who are also responsible for Russian aggression in Ukraine.
WHY DOES RUSSIA NEED IT?
All criminal acts will have consequences. Of course, the Russian government also understands this, and therefore seeks to convince the world, which is not in the context of Russia’s relations with its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan), of the legitimacy of its open terrorism and aggression. Such a policy is recognized by the term “legitimization of occupation” and has many tools for implementation, which are constantly used by Russia.
The Kremlin tried to legitimize its presence in Crimea, and later in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, through the open expression of the will of the people, at gunpoint and with “little green men” in the so-called referendums and local elections. In this way, the occupiers wanted to gain international recognition of the occupied territories’ belonging to the Russian Federation, which provides many privileges: lifting of sanctions, new partnerships and, of course, freedom to commit further crimes.
The dissemination of propaganda about the just return of “historical lands” among its population provides the Kremlin with general support for the occupation, which helps to mobilize citizens, in particular to participate in the “SMO”.
In this case, an important criterion for recognition is “broad international support” – that is when foreign citizens, who are not formally interested in the parties to the conflict, participate in the processes.
The so-called “foreign observers” played a special role in the shameful “legitimization” of pseudo-referendums during the almost 10 years of war in Ukraine. Appealing to their participation in the elections, the Kremlin claims that the occupation “plebiscites” (voting on the state affiliation of a certain territory) comply with the international norms and standards. This maneuver brings two benefits to Russia simultaneously: convincing the West and Russians that Russia has support among politicians and journalists abroad, and convincing the European societies of the legitimacy of Russia’s actions: your compatriots are proving the legitimacy and fairness of these processes.
Russia claims the legitimacy of acts of expression promoted by Kremlin propaganda based on “international observers”. Therefore, they both – the Russian authorities and such “international observers” are responsible for the occupation of Ukrainian territories. All Putin’s international “friends” who visited the occupied territories in violation of the laws of Ukraine, helped to annex Ukrainian territories and became accomplices in Russian aggression.
INTERNATIONAL “FRIENDS OF PUTIN”
Since 2014, Russia has regularly invited European politicians, mainly from far-right and far-left movements, to create the illusion of international recognition, both externally and within Russia. At the same time, they were establishing connections and forming a network of influence in Europe. Despite a ban from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on visiting these regions without Ukraine’s consent, European Parliament members, including prominent French politician Thierry Mariani, went to the occupied territories, especially Crimea.
Below is a list of information on “international experts” who have visited the TOT of Ukraine to observe the elections since 2014, compiled by analysts of the USCC:
Thierry Mariani – French far-right politician, Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
He openly promotes pro-Russian narratives, recognizes the annexation of Crimea by Russia (calling it a “restoration of historical justice”), and advocates for the lifting of sanctions against Russia and the provision of humanitarian aid to the so-called DNR and LNR. Mariani is the co-chair of the “Franco-Russian Dialogue” association. He is one of the most frequent international politicians to visit the occupied Crimea, leading large French delegation in the summer of 2015, in spring 2018-2019, and in the summer of 2020. Ukraine imposed sanctions against Mariani and restricted his entry to the country. In 2022, it became known that the French prosecutor’s office opened two investigations in relation to the “Franco-Russian Dialogue” association and Thierry Mariani personally. The first investigation is on suspicion of corruption and abuse of influence, while the second is on suspicion of breach of trust and money laundering. In the same year, in the fall, information surfaced about his possible participation as an observer in Ukraine’s occupied territories, but due to pressure from the Ukrainian community, the visit was canceled, and Mariani was forced to deny such claims.
Hervé Juvin is a French pro-Russian politician who has been a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since 2019, representing the far-right party “National Rally” (formerly known as the National Front) led by Marine Le Pen. However, he was expelled from Le Pen’s party in 2022.
He was also a former member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Security and Defense. Juvin visited the occupied Crimea in 2020, along with a French delegation led by Thierry Mariani. Now he actively promotes Kremlin narratives regarding the war in Ukraine, claiming that peace in Ukraine can only be achieved through dialogue with Russia and, on the eve of the full-scale invasion, he called for recognizing the autonomy of the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, stating: “Clearly, a peaceful settlement is possible through a quick agreement by Kyiv to recognize the autonomy of the eastern regions.”
Virginie Joron is an MEP who was elected from the French far-right party “National Rally,” representing the far-right political group “Identity and Democracy” in the European Parliament.
She also visited the occupied Crimea in 2020 as part of a French delegation. In response, Ukraine imposed sanctions on her.
Philippe Olivier is a far-right French politician who is a Member of the European Parliament, representing the far-right political group “Identity and Democracy.”
He is a special advisor to Marine Le Pen. In 2020, he visited occupied Crimea, as part of a French delegation. He is sanctioned by Ukraine.
Jean-Lin Lacapelle is another French pro-Russian politician and Member of the European Parliament, representing the far-right “National Rally” led by Marine Le Pen.
He is a participant of the parliamentary group “Identity and Democracy” and is a member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defense. Like the others, he visited occupied Crimea in 2020 as part of a French delegation. He is under sanctions imposed by the President of Ukraine.
Béla Kovács – a Hungarian politician and former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) until 2019.
Now he is convicted of espionage in favor of Russia and financial crimes. Нe was one of the first, at that time, active parliamentarians to visit Crimea during the so-called “referendum” in 2014 and the pseudo-elections in Donbas in the same year.
Janusz Korwin-Mikke – a Polish right-wing radical politician, Euroskeptic, and MEP until 2018.
He refers to Ukraine as Poland’s main enemy, supports the lifting of sanctions against Russia, spreads disinformation regarding Russian crimes in the Kyiv region, particularly claiming that the crimes in Bucha were fabricated. He visited Russian-occupied Crimea in 2015 and faced no punishment. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs only condemned his actions, describing the trip as “highly irresponsible.”
In most cases, high-level MEPs and party leaders were cautious about not appeasing Russia and visiting occupied territories, fearing reputational damage and criticism. The majority of European politicians who violated Ukrainian legislation were relatively unknown to the public at the time or not very popular among their country’s voters. Among them, there was a significant number of German politicians from the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party (founded in 2013, a nationalist and right-wing populist political party whose ideology is opposed to European integration and NATO). At least 18 representatives of the AfD have visited the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories.
Markus Pretzell is a German politician who previously served as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a right-wing populist party in Germany.
He was also the leader of the AfD parliamentary group in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, from 2014 to 2017. In April 2016, he visited occupied Crimea, and there is information stating that his trip was funded by a Russian foundation. Additionally, Markus Pretzell is known for being married to Frauke Petry, a former leader of the AfD party who is also known for her pro-Russian views. She had visited Russia on several occasions with informal visits.
Gunnar Lindemann – a German far-right politician from the AfD. He has been a member of the Berlin House of Representatives since 2016.
In February 2018, Lindemann, along with seven other parliamentarians from the AfD, including two other members of the Berlin Parliament, Hugh Bronson and Harold Latch, visited Crimea. In the fall of 2019, Lindemann traveled to Russia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions with his 16-year-old son and fellow AfD politician Gennin Zoz. He actively promotes Russian narratives, accuses Ukraine and NATO of aggression against Russia, calls the war a “conflict,” and echoes Russian propaganda about bio-laboratories in Ukraine. In June 2022, Lindemann participated in an “Uprising for Peace” demonstration in Berlin, initiated by Sahra Wagenknecht and Alisa Schwarz, calling for an end to arms supplies to Ukraine and the start of peace negotiations. He is under Ukrainian sanctions and listed as a “Peacemaker.”
Eugen Schmidt – a German politician from the far-right AfD party, who has been a member of the Bundestag since 2021.
He visited Crimea in February 2018. Schmidt actively promotes Russian narratives, urging Germany to deny financial and military aid to Ukraine, claiming discrimination against Russians in Germany, spreading disinformation about significant anti-war movements within Germany, and providing comments to Russian media that further disinformation about the progress of the Ukrainian military. He also advocated the idea that Russia was not involved in the sabotage of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station. He is included in the “Peacemaker” list.
Stefan Köhler – a German politician from the far-right AfD party and a member of the German Bundestag since 2017.
He visited Crimea in February 2018 with other representatives of the AfD. He promotes Russian narratives about the war in Ukraine and European support for Ukraine, frequently cited by Russian media as a member of the German Bundestag. He is included in the “Peacemaker” list.
Roger Beckamp – a German far-right politician from the AfD, who has been a member of the German Bundestag since 2021.
He visited Crimea in February 2018 and is also included in the “Peacemaker” list.
Hugh Bronson – a German-British far-right politician from the AfD, and a member of the Berlin House of Representatives.
He held the position of Vice-Chairman of the AfD Berlin from June 2015 to November 2017. He visited Crimea in February 2018 and is included in the “Peacemaker” list.
Harald Laatsch – a German politician from the far-right AfD party, and a member of the Berlin House of Representatives since 2016.
He visited the occupied Crimea in February 2018 and is also included in the “Peacemaker” list.
The list of foreign nationals involved in the 2022 pseudo-elections was published last month by the Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security. Among those identified, there are people from 22 countries: politicians, journalists and civic activists.
Some of them call themselves as independent bloggers or journalists (Thomas Röper, editor-in-chief of the German pro-Russian publication Anti-Spiegel), while others are employees of Russian media or Kremlin-affiliated websites (Wyatt Reed of the Russian news agency Sputnik and Kristel Nean, spokesperson for the “MGB of the DPR”). Separate groups include politicians of the extreme right and left parties (Volker Friedrich, Karl Chapke, founder of the far-right organisation Prussian Society Berlin-Brandenburg), and failed separatists, such as Giorgio Deschi, founder of the separatist movement Liberation of Trieste. These individuals were observers at the elections in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine (hereinafter – TOT), which took place on 8-10 September 2023.
INDECISION AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
At one point, the European Union responded slowly and mildly to the blatant violations of Ukraine’s laws and the promotion of Putin’s propaganda by European politicians. These politicians faced no repercussions for their actions, except for Ukrainian sanctions in response to their illegal crossing of Ukraine’s borders. The EU’s response was flawed because, in essence, Russia was developing and deepening contacts with European politicians sympathetic to the Putin regime. This essentially formed a network of current and potential politicians or parliamentarians in various European countries willing to advocate for Russia’s interests on the European political stage.
For example, French politician Thierry Mariani, co-chair of the “Franco-Russian Dialogue” association, actively promoted Kremlin interests after his regular visits to Moscow and occupied Crimea. Within six months of his first visit to Crimea in 2015, Mariani proposed lifting European sanctions on Russia upon his return to the French parliament. His proposal was supported by both houses of the French National Assembly, with some amendments to maintain sanctions in a softened form. He was also among the few politicians who voted against a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His colleague and fellow facilitator of the legitimization of the occupation, Hervé Juvin, actively began promoting Russia’s interests and propaganda after visiting Crimea. Apart from his pro-Russian statements about peace and accusations against Ukraine, it’s worth mentioning that he was one of the 19 European parliamentarians who opposed the creation of a special tribunal to investigate the crime of aggression against Ukraine.
Not a very popular political force in the past, the AfD, most of whose politicians have travelled to the TOT of Ukraine since the beginning of Russian aggression, is now one of the highest-rated parties in Germany. Today, the AfD promotes Russian narratives among the German public. For example, at the AfD congress in Kaufbeuren, various statements were made about NATO’s guilt in the war, against helping Ukraine, refugees, reconciliation with Russia and anti-Russian sanctions.
“AfD systematically orients itself towards Russia. It is the long arm of the Kremlin, which purposefully promotes Russian propaganda and the nationalist, anti-Western ideology of the Putin ideologue Alexander Dugin. AfD rejects democracy, the rule of law, a free, liberal, rule-based order,” says Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee from the opposition party CDU.
The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has warned that the AfD is becoming increasingly extremist and anti-democratic. Thomas Galdenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the German Constitution, also expressed concerns: “The AfD is expressing far-right extremist conspiracy theories,” the lawyer says. A journalistic investigation revealed correspondence that may indicate influence from the Kremlin on the activities of AfD MPs through intermediaries in Berlin. And according to Corrective, the party’s programmes, inquiries and speeches record a systematic turn towards Russia, the use of the terms “Eurasianism” and “multipolar world” in the Kremlin’s interpretation.
Among German politicians, MP and former Bundestag Secretary of State Marco Vandervitz has recently called for a complete ban on the party, and he is supported by German society, which is creating petitions calling for the party to be banned.
Currently, the AfD has nine MEPs in the European Parliament, but expects to have as many as 20, amid rapidly rising popularity ratings. It is worth recalling that 6 out of 9 MEPs from the AfD voted against the European Parliament’s resolution of 16 February 2023 condemning Russia’s invasion and reaffirming the EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine. AfD politicians promise that during the European Parliament elections they will seek the “dissolution” of the EU or Germany’s withdrawal from it.
The EU’s indecision in 2014-2015 fostered a sense of permissiveness in Russia, which contributed to the outbreak of a full-scale war in 2022. First and foremost, this reaction was necessary for the security of Europe itself, which had turned a blind eye to the ties between European politicians and the Kremlin.
WHO WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE?
Some individuals who violate the law by crossing borders and assist in the occupation of sovereign territories have recently faced active opposition from Ukrainian communities in Europe and independent journalists.
For instance, Pavlo Sadokha, the Head of the Union of Ukrainians in Portugal, officially reported to local authorities and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Portugal about the participation of a city council member in Coimbra from the Communist Party, Manuel Pires da Rocha, as an observer in the illegal elections in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. The purpose of the report was to condemn the actions of the local council member and initiate an investigation into his potential legal violations.
Camelia-Dorina Pop, an observer from Romania, has also come under scrutiny for her support of Russian aggression. She has repeatedly acted as an “observer” from Romania in Russia’s pseudo-elections in Ukrainian territories and has close ties with pro-Russian circles in Italy while leading the Romanian diaspora organization “APSARUE.” After this information was revealed by the Romanian publication Podul.ro and their appeal to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Camelia-Dorina Pop’s organization was removed from the list of diaspora organizations recommended for cooperation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Romania. Additionally, the European Platform for Democratic Elections (a reputable independent European association) included Camelia Pop in its list of impostors in election monitoring.
Such trends indicate that it will be more difficult for today’s accomplices of the occupation to avoid punishment and publicity. However, society should also pay attention to those who had visited the occupied territories nine years earlier, violating the laws of Ukraine and laying the groundwork for a new stage of occupation.
In September, in a joint statement, the Head of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe strongly condemned the illegal elections in the TOT of Ukraine and the actions of the Russian Federation. The same reaction of the West was observed after Russia’s illegal referendum in Crimea 9 years ago, which led to the subsequent prolonged occupation. However, no statement, let alone decisive action, has been made towards those EU citizens who have become complicit in Russia’s crimes and occupation in 2023. There was no proper response or reaction in the previous 9 years either.
As a result, Europe has received an extensive network of pro-Russian “observer” politicians who may pose a threat to the democratic structure of the European Union. The appropriate response to such challenges is to add the above-mentioned individuals to the EU sanctions lists. They should include all EU citizens who, since 2014, have visited the occupied territories in violation of the laws of Ukraine and undermined its sovereignty.