Infiltrating Europe: Russia, Turkey, and European Insecurity


This is the first in a two-part series examining European perceptions of two resurgent Eurasian states – Russia and Turkey – in the context of their efforts to destabilize the European Union. The first part will consider the role of the populist right in mobilizing public sentiment and shaping Europe’s response to Eurasian encroachment, while the second part will examine how the consequences of European policymaking induced the shift in the foreign policy of both revisionist states towards the European Union.

Turkey and Russia represent two extremes in the discussion of the future of the European project. Turkey is a Muslim majority state at Europe’s geographical periphery seeking EU membership despite its history as a distinct transcontinental civilization that challenges European identity both culturally and normatively. Russia is an aspiring regional hegemon and revisionist power that explicitly rejects the internationalist socio-political order the EU has sought to consolidate, but bears closer affinity to Europe both historically and culturally. Both Turkey and Russia have come to employ Trojan Horses to exploit Europe’s current political crisis in an era where proliferating cosmopolitanism has raised fundamental questions regarding national identity and state sovereignty. Turkey exerts leverage over Europe through its enduring position as a member of the ‘Western alliance’, and its gatekeeper role in Europe’s refugee crisis. Russia’s influence is seen through both its exploitation of Eastern Europe’s resource dependence, and its expanding values-based soft power capabilities. A crucial factor in determining the European Union’s response to this pressing existential geopolitical challenge has been the role of the populist right in redefining European identity. While the European populist right has repeatedly opposed Turkey’s integration into the EU, it demonstrates strong sympathy towards Russia and endorses EU-Russia rapprochement. The central question this thesis proposes is what accounts for variations in the European response to coercive infiltration by Russia and Turkey? The expectation would be that a comparison of the relative threat posed by Russia and Turkey would lead Europe to approach Russia with greater scepticism due to its demonstrated willingness to use its extensive coercive military capabilities to project power and influence. By examining the role of the resurgent populist right in European agenda-setting and the strategies of infiltration employed by Russia and Turkey, this paper will determine that variances in the accommodation of Russia and Turkey are not determined by a comparison of perceived threat, but by the degree of alignment with the national ambitions of each nation.

‘European Nationalism’ and the Rise of Populism

Euroscepticism and resurgent far-right populism has proven a powerful force in the direction of European foreign policy towards neighboring regional powers Russia and Turkey. While a disparate movement, the populist right is largely united in its opposition to Turkish accession to the EU based on ‘culturalist’ notions of what qualifies as ‘European’ – founded primarily in religious, linguistic, and historical identity.[1] Opposition to Turkish accession, however, is not the exclusive domain of populists; both the left and right of Europe’s political mainstream question Turkey’s candidacy on the grounds of its poor human rights record and faltering process of political reform. Even liberal elements within the European elite entertain these ‘culturalist’ propositions that the populist right embraces.[2] Frits Bolkestein (then EU Commissioner for the Internal Market) once famously asserted that “if Turkey accedes to the EU, then this would mean that the efforts of the German, Austrian, and Polish troops that resisted the Ottoman Turks’ siege of Vienna in 1683 would be in vain”.[3] The populist right, expanding on this representation of cultural incompatibility, frames Turkey as a “diluter of European cultural homogeneity”; Turkey as a source of both labour migrants and regional refugees opens the prospect of producing an influx of Muslim migrants who bear with them illiberal values of which are inherently anti-European.[4] ‘Islamophobia’ has served as a platform of unification for some of the most notoriously Eurosceptic populist right parties in Europe. The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy and the Europe of Nations and Freedom groups within the European Parliament, for example, represents a union of Europe’s political forces that have coalesced around the platform of sovereign nationalism and de-integration. This coalition includes representative of Lega Nord (Italy), UKIP (UK), the Slovak National Party (Slovakia), the Danish People’s Party (Denmark),[5] the Freedom Party of Austria (Austria), and the National Front (France) among the more notable members.[6] As conditions in Europe evolved, particularly with primacy of the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis, increasingly the unifying ideology of these groups has oriented itself towards anti-Muslim immigration.[7] Expectedly, these anti-Islamic sentiments have produced a unified position of opposition to the accession of Turkey to the European Union; with Turkey positioned as a “Muslim Trojan Horse”.[8] It is important to note, however, that while opposition to Turkish integration may be best articulated through culturally-exclusivist formulations of identity, civic frameworks and (ironically) a “nascent European identity” are significant supplementary factors.[9] By opposing integration traditionalists seek not only to preserve national cultural homogeneity, but to ensure the independence and sovereignty of national institutions by preventing the preponderance of European power while simultaneously defending the civilizational distinctiveness of ‘Europe’ as a (Christian) regional identity.

The Perceived Threat of Turkish Accession

In order to assess the extent to which right-wing populism has been responsible for producing pressure within the EU to defect on its negotiations on Turkish accession, it is important to determine the extent to which populists are able to mobilize public sentiment. In practice, the far-right varies on the spectrum of fringe party to governing body. What is consistent, however, is public opinion in Europe towards (Muslim) refugees and immigrants. In the absence of comprehensive longitudinal surveys on European attitudes towards Turkey, polling regarding opinions on Muslim migration and refugees (considering Turkey’s role as both a continental bridge for regional migrants, and a source of labor immigration) will serve as a proxy for this variable; it represents the perceived distrust of Turkey as a strategic partner given its role in exacerbating pressure on refugee/migrant inflow countries, the competitive threat Turkey represents as a large labor market that can outcompete other European states, and the belief in the inherent incompatibility of Muslim and European civilizational norms. A Pew Research Centre report in mid-2016 on 10 European states note several important trends throughout Europe.[10] First, the majority of respondents in all countries surveyed believed Muslim migrants would refuse to assimilate and remain distinct from society at large. Second, the majority of respondents in all countries (excluding France and Spain) believed Muslim refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism in that country. And third, countries above the EU median on a measure of national identity demonstrated the highest levels of hostility towards Muslim migrants in Europe. A critical point to note is that in nearly every measure, most respondents who held these views did not identify with their nation’s far-right parties (excluding Poland and Hungary, where populist parties were in office and enjoyed high public support).[11] What this indicates it that the anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiments that inform the policy positions of Europe’s populist right parties are now held by a majority of European citizens. With these ideologies penetrating the political mainstream, the concerns articulated by populist movements have been legitimized. Limited electoral successes thus yields disproportionate influence over policy, and even where electoral success is unattained, populists exhibit a high capacity to mobilize the public and set the national agenda through their penetration of mass media.[12] While part of the European political mainstream has maintained openness to Turkish accession on the grounds of its commitment to multiculturalism and the belief that Europe could bolster democratization in both the nation and the region at large, the increasing influence over both domestic and regional policy by the populist right has produced strong internal objections to Turkish accession. This involuntary defection on Turkey’s candidacy has produced significant blowback in Turkey that has led to the consolidation of a process of democratic backsliding, and the positioning of Turkey as a geopolitical rival to the European order.

Russia’s Alternative Geopolitical Order?

While the populist right has employed the rhetoric of nationalism, sovereignty, and anti-expansionism to mobilize the European public against the accession of Turkey for fear of cultural dilution and social incongruity, these same positions have been utilized to justify EU-Russia rapprochement. Despite Russia’s more recent history of illiberal anti-Europeanism, the populist right has largely embraced the Russian Federation. It is important to note that this embrace has not been so much in terms of strategic or economic allegiance (although it does sometimes manifest itself in this form), but namely in the affinity between populist right parties and the ‘ideology’ Russia propounds vis a vis sovereignty and nationality. This is reflected in public opinion polling throughout Europe. Eurobarometer found that Cyprus, Bulgaria, Greece, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, and Italy have populations of which the majority held positive views of Russia.[13] More notable, however, were the improvements in positive public perceptions of Russia that have occurred within a year. Corroborating the results of the Eurobarometer poll with Pew Global’s perceptions on Russia poll conducted in the previous year, favorable views of Russia increased from 2015-2016 in Italy by 20%, Poland by 12%, the UK by 9%, and Spain by 6%. These trends correlate with the resurgent populist trends across Europe. The countries that exhibited an increase in positive perceptions of Russia also expressed not only the most Islamophobic and anti-migrant sentiment, but polled above the EU median on questions pertaining to national identity. Across the European Union more generally, this trend is reflected in the fact that the majority of national respondents viewed globalization as “threatening” national identity, that more than half of respondents believed their voice did not count in the EU, that most Europeans tended not to trust the European Union, and that an increased sense of pessimism surrounded the future of the EU.[14] Interestingly, despite the enmity between the two countries embedded in both history and contemporary security challenges, Poland exhibited the second highest improvement in public perceptions of Russia.[15] This is not necessarily indicative of a declining perception of the security threat Russia poses, but a stronger affinity with the cultural and political values Russia has consciously projected through both soft power, and coercive economic and military means.

This soft and hard power projection has been notable in states exhibiting strong sympathy towards Russia; a manifestation of the Russian “Trojan Horse”. Cyprus has allowed Russia’s use of its Mediterranean ports for refuelling, Hungary signed a deal making Russia its exclusive provider of nuclear fuel, and Greece has signed a pipeline deal that circumvents Europe’s attempts to reduce dependence on Russia and diversify gas supply. The populist right’s support for Russia has been overt, with representatives from Jobbik (Hungary), the National Front (France), Ataka (Bulgaria), the Austrian Freedom Party (Austria), Lega Nord (Italy), and the Polish Self-Defence Party (Poland) present as observers in the Crimean referendum.[16] At the popular level, a YouGov survey on support for potential new EU members found without exception a preference for the accession of Russia over that of Turkey.[17] Outwardly, this populist embrace of Russia appears to be counterintuitive. Pew Global revealed in 2015 that not only did most Turks want to join the EU, but most had an unfavorable opinion of president Erdogan, a negative view of national government, and believed that democracy was desirable; indicating a genuine embrace of European socio-political norms within the Turkish public. On the other hand, Russia’s Yuri Levada Analytical Centre found in 2016 that the majority of Russians held negative views of the European Union, that over the course of the last decade Russians had increasingly viewed great European powers (primarily Germany and France) as hostile towards Russia, and opposition to joining the European Union had more than doubled.[18] Furthermore, Russians exhibited high levels of approval of non-democratic political institutions (presidency, security services, and military), and opposition to European conceptions of ‘democracy’.


The question then emerges; what accounts for the positive shift in perceptions towards Russia in Europe? The answer is revealed largely through the lens of the populist right’s nationalist rhetoric. Huntington (1996) posited that civilizational identities would produce the most salient political categories in a post-material age where “dislocation and alienation create the need for more meaningful identities”.[19] Europe has emerged as a “postmodern state” built on “overlapping sovereignties”, independence, normative foreign policy, and social heterogeneity.[20] In opposition to this, Russia’s fixations are largely material; promoting a world order based on nation-state sovereignty, non-interference, realpolitik, and the national community. What Russia appears to offer to those disillusioned with the EU is a “geopolitical alternative” to the integrative mission of the union, promising a political restructuring that returns sovereignty to national communities.[21] This is consistent with findings by Pew Global that show most Europeans object to an “even closer union” and exhibit a preference for the restoration of powers to national governments.[22] Summarized, the resurgence of nationalism and growing anti-immigration and anti-Islamic sentiments become effective proxies for measuring dissatisfaction with the direction of the EU, and correlate with direct measures of distrust in European institutions. These nationalist forces that fuel populist opposition to Turkey are the same that have produced sympathy towards Russia as an alternative model of national sovereignty in the era of rampant globalization.


[1] Tocci, N. (2008), Turkey’s European Future: Behind the Scenes of America’s Influence on EU-Turkey Relations, New York University Press: New York

[2] Dolezal, M. (2012) “Restructuring the European political space: the supply side of European electoral politics” in Kriesi, H., Grande, E., Dolezal, M., Helbling, M., Höglinger, D., Hutter, S., & Wüest, B. (2012). Political Conflict in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[3] European Voice (2004), “Turkish Accession: Why Frank Discussion is Vital”, European Voice, 10(30), 9 September 2004, last accessed on POLITICO on 9/4/17:

[4] Aydin-Düzgit, S. (2012), Constructions of European Identity: Debates and Discourses on Turkey and the EU, Identities and Modernities in Europe series Palgrave Macmillan

[5] European Parliament MEPs, Political Group: Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy

[6] European Parliament MEPs, Political Group: Europe of Nations and Freedom

[7] Hafez, F. (2014), “Shifting borders: Islamophobia as common ground for building pan-European right-wing unity”, Patterns of Prejudice, 48:5, pp. 479-499

[8] Mudde, C., (2016), On Extremism and Democracy in Europe, Taylor and Francis, Florence

[9] Hoglinger, D., Wuest, B., Helbling, M. (2012), “Culture versus economy: the framing of public debates over issues related to globalization” in Kriesi, H., Grande, E., Dolezal, M., Helbling, M., Höglinger, D., Hutter, S., & Wüest, B. (2012). Political Conflict in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[10] Wike, R., Stokes, B., Simmons, K. (2016), “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs: Sharp ideological divides across EU on views about minorities, diversity, and national identity”, Pew Research Centre: Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping the World, July 11, 2016, accessed 9/4/17:

[11] Stokes, B. (2016), “Europe’s Far-Right Anger is Moving Mainstream”, Foreign Policy, December 19, 2016, accessed 9/4/17:

[12] Camus, J., Lebourg, N., & Todd, J. (2017), Far-Right Politics in Europe, Harvard University Press

[13] Eurobarometer 451, Future of Europe (October 2016)

[14] Standard Eurobarometer 86, Europeans and Political Institutions

[15] Orenstein, M. & Kelemen, D. (2017), “Trojan Horses in EU Foreign Policy”,  Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 87-102

[16] Orenstein, M. (2014), “Putin’s Western Allies: Why Europe’s Far Right is on the Kremlin’s Side”, Foreign Affairs, March 26, 2014, accessed 10/4/17

[17] Smith, M. (2016), “Turkey less popular choice to join the EU than even Russia”, YouGov Eurotrack Survey, August 3rd 2016, accessed 10/4/17:

[18] Levada Analytical Centre (2016), Russia’s Friends and Enemies

[19] Huntington, S. (1996), “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”, Simon & Schuster

[20] Klinke, I. (2012), “Postmodern Geopolitics? The European Union Eyes Russia”, Europe-Asia Studies, 64:5, pp. 929-947

[21] Klapsis, A. (2015), An Unholy Alliance: The European Far Right and Putin’s Russia, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

[22] Stokes, B. (2016), “Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit”, Pew Global

Image source: Wikimedia Commons/ (cropped)

About the Author 

Alexander Galitsky is a junior fellow at the ERA Institute. His research interests include geopolitics, conflict resolution, and human rights.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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