Last November, during Matteo’s working visit to Moscow, my boss arranged a private meeting with him, renting a room on the same floor of the Lotte Hotel to prevent the Western press from catching wind of the meeting.
So wrote Mikhail Yakushev, a Russian national, in a Microsoft Word document he emailed to himself on June 18, 2019. Yakushev is the director of Tsargrad, an organization in Russia that describes itself as a group of companies whose mission is “the revival of the greatness of the Russian Empire.”
“Matteo” referred to Matteo Salvini, the former Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister and current leader of the League, Italy’s nationalist and anti-migrant party. Now a senator in Italy’s upper chamber of Parliament, Salvini has been an avowed admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom in 2019 he labeled “the best statesman currently on earth.”
The documents and digital correspondence, obtained by New Lines from the London-based Dossier Center, in collaboration with Estonian news outlet Delfi, Italian magazine l’Espresso, German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and German public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk, offer documentary evidence of just how much a major European party known for its racist and xenophobic politics has relied on financing and strategic political support from a key proxy and influence peddler of the Kremlin.
As Moscow rounds out its first month of an illicit war in Ukraine undertaken on a flimsy pretext of “de-Nazification,” these communications show it is thoroughly aligned with a host of extremist right-wing politicians and activists throughout Europe who come far closer to satisfying the definition of fascism than does the embattled government in Kyiv.
Yakushev’s boss and the chairperson of the Tsargrad group of companies is Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian politician and business owner more commonly known as the “Orthodox oligarch” for his outward religiosity. Malofeev has been sanctioned by the EU and the U.S. for his involvement in the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukrainian control in 2014. Ukraine has accused him of financing illegal pro-Russian paramilitary groups.
In the document Yakushev sent himself, he expressed concern that the “situation had drastically deteriorated” and “now we cannot continue to have contact with Matteo.” According to the document, the contact between Salvini and Tsargrad had been Salvini’s adviser Gianluca Savoini, who had “lost his free access to his boss.”
In February, the Italian magazine l’Espresso published an investigation in which it revealed Savoini’s secret negotiations in Moscow with an apparent aim to acquire millions of euros’ worth of covert funding to the League ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in 2019.
As a result of that exposé, Yakushev’s document noted that Savoini was “under the watchful eye of the local [Italian] security services.” He pondered how to get in contact with Salvini, whom he always referred to by his first name, “so that he can allocate a reliable person to contact us, with whom we can communicate in Russia or anywhere in Europe.”
The same document described a plan to hold a convention in the fall of 2019 at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. The leaders of the European Parliament’s freshly created Identity and Democracy faction, uniting its far-right political parties, would be invited to attend. The meeting would be covered by the international press.
The event never took place.
In July 2019, BuzzFeed News published the recording of Savoini’s negotiations in Moscow, explicitly detailing plans of acquiring illicit Russian funding to the League. Soon afterward, Italian prosecutors in Milan opened an investigation, still ongoing, into Savoini.
Tsargrad and its officers in Moscow continued to act as the far-right parties’ contacts in Russia. They undertook clandestine measures to hide liaisons between European politicians and Aleksandr Dugin, Russia’s guru-esque philosopher of Eurasianism and an outspoken, longtime proponent of a Russian conquest of Ukraine. In some cases, the far-right parties sought advice from what they called their “Russian friends” to hinder anti-Russian proposals in the European Parliament. Tsargrad also served as an intermediary between the parties and Russia’s high-ranking politicians.
One plan cooked up by the organization in March 2021 envisaged establishing a network to be known as “Altintern,” possibly a play on the old Soviet portmanteau Comintern, which was short for the Communist International, a Moscow-based organ meant to recruit foreigners to foster Bolshevism and foment coups abroad. Among those slated to join were the constituents of the Democracy and Identity movement, which holds 64 of the 705 seats in the European Parliament and consists of members of the League and the National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, France’s reactionary and chauvinistic party headed by Marine Le Pen.
“Without our active engagement and tangible support for the European conservative parties, their popularity and influence in Europe will continue to wane,” stated an internal document created by Yakushev and circulated among Tsargrad’s officers.
The document cited the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, problems with mass vaccination programs in Europe and stalled attempts to get European licenses for Russian vaccines as the reasons to “resume steps to restore contacts with Euroskeptic parties.”
“We believe that at the moment there is still a possibility of restoring contacts for systematic work with Euroskeptics to counter Brussels’ sanctions policy,” the Tsargrad text read. “However, the resumption of work with them requires a fundamentally different level of confidentiality in connection with the strengthening of opposition to Russian influence on the part of Western intelligence services.”
The connections between Malofeev and Europe’s far right are well attested and go back years.
“Malofeev has carried out the Kremlin’s tasks, which have included interfering in the Bosnian and Polish elections,” according to Kalev Stoicescu, a researcher of Russian affairs at the International Centre for Defence Studies, a think tank in Tallinn, Estonia. “He has organized the meetings of European far rightists. He has mediated an 11 million euro [$12 million] loan from Russian banks to Marine Le Pen’s party.”
Stoicescu described Malofeev as an oligarch, a Kremlin agent and a fanatic “who is more Orthodox than the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Malofeev is outspoken in his contempt for LGBTQ rights and has coordinated with anti-gay American Christian groups.
It is unclear whether Tsargrad’s ambition to kickstart the creation of a pan-European network of far-right parties ever got under way. In July 2021, 16 right-wing populist parties from across the EU signed a declaration blasting EU integration. The process was led by the National Rally.
“The EU is becoming more and more a tool of radical forces that would like to carry out a cultural, religious transformation and ultimately a nationless construction of Europe, aiming to create a European Superstate,” the declaration read.
It also reaffirmed “our belief that family is the basic unit of our nations. In a time when Europe is facing a serious demographic crisis with low birth rates and aging population, pro-family policy making should be an answer instead of mass immigration.”
Many of the meetings the far-right parties were arranging with either Malofeev or other Russian political players were organized undercover. For instance, Savoini arranged a meeting in early 2016. “On January 28 there will be a great meeting of [the League] with Marine Le Pen, [Austrian far-right Freedom Party chairperson Heinz-Christian] Strache and other parties of the European group in Milan. As we said in December, we will even invite United Russia and Aleksandr Dugin,” he emailed to the Tsargrad email address of Daria Dugina, Dugin’s daughter. The event was supposed to include a private lunch “with Matteo, some important members of [the League] and our Russian friends.”
When the date of the event neared, Savoini sent another email, this time to Aleksandr Dugin himself. He explained that the League had fallen under the attack of the international media, which was reporting about Russia’s financing of the Italian party.
“We know that this is not true, but we must avoid the official presence at Jan 28 of Russian people that can cause other articles and international controversy,” Savoini explained. “[Dutch far-right politician Geert] Wilders’ party has officially requested that it is better that Russian personalities aren’t at this public meeting on the evening of 28.”
Savoini also asked Dugin if Malofeev would phone Le Pen, so “we can organize to meet her in the hotel on the morning of [January] 29 and not in public.”
In several emails there are discussions about top European far-right politicians meeting someone called “K,” which presumably stands for Konstantin Malofeev, in a hotel room in Moscow. In other cases, Malofeev’s underlings set up meetings for their European guests with Russian politicians such as Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia’s Federation Council, its senate. Kosachev is also sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU.
In January 2019 Savoini appears to have set up a trip to Moscow for German deputies from the neo-Nazi Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. “Mr. K will wait for you and Mr. Bjorn Hoecke in his office in Moscow at the end of January if you can,” one of his emails stated. “On the same day I will introduce you to Andrey Klimov, the chief of Foreign Relations of United Russia party [Putin’s party] and we will be hosted in the central office of the Party. Meeting with Mr. K will be private of course.”
Malofeev’s network was not only able to disseminate pro-Kremlin talking points all through Europe’s political landscape, but it also made amendments for different motions to be presented to either the European Parliament or national legislatures.
In March 2015, for example, Gabrielius Landsbergis, then a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament (MEP) and now the country’s foreign minister, prepared a motion critical of Russia in Brussels.
“The text is very bad,” wrote Claudio D’Amico, then the League’s foreign office head, in an email to Alexey Komov, the leader of the Russian branch of the World Congress of Families (WCF), a virulently anti-LGBTQ umbrella group favored by Salvini, who spoke at one of its conferences in the Italian city of Verona in 2019. The WCF is sponsored by Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin, yet another U.S.-sanctioned Russian oligarch. Formerly the head of Russian Railways, a state-owned rail monopoly, Yakunin is also a former KGB officer.
“Please send us as soon as possible your amendments that we will take in consideration to submit,” D’Amico wrote in an email obtained by the Dossier Center and examined by New Lines.
“We’ll send you our recommendations on the amendments to the text ASAP,” Komov replied.
The email exchange was also sent to Savoini.
“Perfect! Grazie Alexey! Send us amendments to the text, so we can make the ‘good fight,’” he answered.
Later in June, three of the League’s MEPs — Lorenzo Fontana, Gianluca Buonanno and Mara Bizzotto — called the motion “russophobic” and “suicidal” and voted against it.
In 2017, Savoini emailed Manuel Ochsenreiter, a now-deceased AfD-activist and Russian state media-hosted commentator that “our Russian friends want to manage the return of Syrian refugees from Europe back to Syria.” He asked Ochsenreiter to get more details from the AfD about the situation with Syrian refugees in Germany. “After knowing these things, we can organize an operational meeting in Moscow.”
Another terse document seen by New Lines was written by Ekaterina Minakhina, a Tsargrad employee, according to its metadata. Written in Russian in action-memo form and composed on Feb. 15, 2016, it targeted two European legislatures: Austria’s and Italy’s.
In the first section, “Resolution on lifting anti-Russian sanctions in the Austrian Parliament,” Minakhina names Johannes Hübner, a then-legislator from the Freedom Party of Austria, as a potential speaker.
She further outlines a media messaging campaign premised on the claim that “anti-Russian sanctions cause irreparable damage to the Austrian economy.” In what appears to have been a kind of fee-for-service bottom line, the document concluded that the cost of such an endeavor would be about $20,000 and, “in case of successful voting,” an additional $15,000.
Although this draft lacks context and further details, its apparent purpose came to the fore months later.
In June 2016, Hübner presented an independent motion in the Austrian Parliament for a resolution familiarly titled “Lifting of sanctions on Russia.”
“This policy of the European Union against Russia has caused considerable damage to the economy of the Republic of Austria,” Hübner declared on the floor of that chamber.
His motion was rejected.
The Italian proposal, which similarly called for a messaging campaign to argue that sanctions on Russia were “causing irreparable damage to Italy’s economy,” named Senator Paolo Tosato as a speaker. The estimate for this venture was given somewhat cryptically as “20,000 EUR + 20,000 EUR (contribution),” with an additional 15,000-euro kick-in in the event of successful voting. (New Lines was unable to determine who the extra “contribution” was to come from. One euro is worth about $1.10.)
A few weeks ago, on March 3, Salvini made an unexpected visit to Przemysl, a Polish city close to the Ukrainian border, purportedly in a pantomime display of sympathy for refugees fleeing from Russia’s war. Wojciech Bakun, the mayor of Przemysl, standing beside the former Italian interior minister, thanked Italian aid groups for helping the humanitarian crisis before mocking Salvini by holding up a T-shirt he notoriously wore in Moscow with Putin’s face and the words “Army of Russia” emblazoned on it. Bakun then invited the League leader to travel to the border “to see what your friend Putin has done.”
New Lines sent a detailed list of questions to Tsargrad about this investigation. After comparing our publication to the Nazi party’s Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, a spokesperson for the organization’s television channel wrote that “the true essence of the request is to activate the information provided by your intelligence agencies: the US, the EU and the UK. They have not hidden for a long time that they are helping the Ukrainian side. This means that they are directly related to the death of the civilian population of Donbass and the murder of Russian soldiers.”
The spokesperson then invited New Lines to meet in Moscow.