Russia’s disruptive activities are only sometimes visible and apparent. Usually, a range of tools is used to gain influence, in which culture and religion play a more prominent role than traditional bribery, blackmail, or corruption.
In 2016, a Russian spiritual and Orthodox cultural center was opened in the heart of Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower. The 4,800 sq meter complex features the newly-built Holy Trinity Cathedral capped with five gilded domes; a parish center comprising an auditorium, foyer, offices, and apartments; a French-Russian primary school for 150 pupils; and a cultural center, including a bookshop, exhibition spaces, and a coffee shop.
Architectural, financial, and political disputes have also marred the construction project. French officials have expressed concern that the building is a stone’s throw from a sensitive government compound. As well as housing France’s supreme magistrates’ council, the neighboring Palais de l’Alma contains the Élysée Palace’s postal service and the private apartments of senior presidential advisers.
French media reports said that the country’s counter-espionage services had surrounded the building with jamming devices to prevent the Russians from using it for electronic surveillance.
Nonetheless, Nicolas Henin, French journalist and author of the book “Russian France: An Investigation into Putin’s Networks,” told RFI in an interview how, using this status, Moscow intends to wiretap French politicians.
Any state engages in lobbying for its interests, pursuing a policy of “soft power” to win public sympathy or gain the support of another country. “This is normal. This is one of the tasks of any diplomatic mission. The problem is that half of the staff of the Russian diplomatic mission in France are representatives of the secret services.
And this can no longer be called a policy of influence; this is interference. This is not open diplomacy and not work with external communications; it is called work to change public opinion, interference in the internal affairs of another country, and espionage”, Henin said in the interview.
The site on which the Russian church was built is adjacent to a building that houses essential government services. In particular – the postal service of the Elysée Palace, as well as the office apartment of the Secretary General of the National Defense of France. High-ranking counterintelligence officials interviewed for Henin’s book shared their fears that the center building would be used for espionage.
Both classic espionage with the presence of agents (other Moscow Patriarchate church buildings in France are known to serve as bases for Russian agents) and electronic intelligence with the possibility of intercepting communications. After all, this church is very close to the Foreign Ministry and not far from the Elysée Palace. There are reasonable fears that negotiations in these two important state buildings will be wiretapped from there.
Using the church as an agent is not new for Russia; it is a strategy. In October 2022, Insight News reported that the Russian Orthodox Church bought real estate properties with a view of military bases in Norway. Thus, in recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church bought several properties along the coast of Norway. National security expert Alpha Sefland Winge described the perspective from one of them as “uncomfortably good.”
But not only church institutions but also cultural organizations controlled by Russia pose a threat to France. For example, two investigations have been underway in Paris since 2021 for suspicions of corruption and influence peddling on the one hand and breach of trust and money laundering on the other hand, targeting the association Franco-Russian Dialogue. Furthermore, these investigations targeted a member of the French parliament from the RN party Thierry Mariani and the former centrist senator Yves Pozzo di Borgo.
This association is an official partner of the Russian House of science and culture in Paris – another governmental body of internal influence. For example, in April 2020 Russian House held a presentation of Russian writer Lev Danilkin’s book about Vladimir Lenin, in which the latter is described as a great strategist and thinker who managed to create a new type of state at a difficult time in history, to resist intervention and show mankind the way to a brighter future. In Danilkin’s version, Lenin is a keen traveler and cyclist, a philosopher and dreamer, a joker, and not a dictator. This narrative fits into the overall picture of official Russian propaganda.
In March 2021, the Russian House met with another odious Russian politician and writer, Zakhar Prilepin. On the website of the House, this news was titled: “At the presentation of his book Zakhar Prilepin told the audience of the Russian House in Paris about the war and peace in Donbas.”
Prilepin was a member of the banned Russian National Bolshevik Party and a supporter of the coalition The Other Russia. In July 2012, he published a short essay titled “A Letter to Comrade Stalin,” a Stalinist critique aimed against modern Russian “liberal society,” which was widely regarded as antisemitic. In February 2017, Prilepin gave a lengthy interview, revealing that he was leading a volunteer battalion in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (under efficient Russian control).
The battalion was the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion of the Special Forces of the Armed forces of DPR, commonly known as Prilepin’s Battalion; Prilepin claimed it had been created in July 2016 on his initiative and announced: “we will ride on a white horse into any town we’ve abandoned.” Prilepin further said he was second in command with the rank of a major.
Another compelling case should be noted in the context of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to the website of the Russian House, on December 21, 2022, the center hosted a ceremony to hand over a portrait of Russian journalist Daria Dugina. The painting by the Russian artist Yulia Mezhevikina was presented to the Russian Ambassador in France by the French architect and patron of the arts, Shanur Keshishyan.
Accepting the gift, the ambassador said: “I would like to thank you for your noble gesture. The death of the talented journalist shocked the whole of Russia. The memory of this brave girl will forever remain in the hearts of Russians”. Worth noticing that Daria Dugina was the daughter of the ideologist of the fascist concept of the “Russian world,” Alexander Dugin.
Daria worked as a propagandist and outspoken supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In particular, she stated that the evidence of the killing of Ukrainian civilians by the Russian army in Bucha was staged and repeatedly said that Ukrainians were not humans. In 2022 she fell under Western sanctions; her vociferous support for the invasion of Ukraine was called the promotion of online disinformation on the invasion. On July 4, 2022, the United Kingdom put Dugina on the sanctions list. She died on August 20, 2022, in a car explosion.
Yes, Russia is a country where intelligence services play an essential role. Democratic governments do not have this culture. European society is much more open, public security issues are less acute here, and even the Russian invasion of Ukraine, massive Russian war crimes, and genocide do not fully convince Europeans to act decisively.
This is why a democratic society is vulnerable to attempts of more or less covert aggression by the Russian authorities in Europe. It should be understood that this is not direct aggression but something like a multitude of small blows. This is hybrid warfare. And it does not matter who is threatening you – a military man with a gun, a diplomat with a briefcase, a writer with a book, or a monk in a cassock.