Putin welcomes Le Pen to Moscow with a nudge and a wink

Shaun Walker in Moscow

The expression said it all. Even by Vladimir Putin’s standards, it was a knowing smirk of epic proportions as he shook hands with Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin on Friday.

In his remarks, Putin noted that France was currently involved in an election cycle and that Russia did “not want to influence events in any way”. The sentiment sounded slightly less than genuine given that it came as part of a one-on-one Kremlin meeting with the far-right presidential candidate one month before the vote.

The mixed messaging appears to be a deliberate strategy, and is similar to some of the Russian rhetoric around the allegations that the Kremlin intervened to get Donald Trump elected. There is both an outburst of fury at those who would dare to voice such allegations, and a simultaneous revelling in them.

Back in December, Putin first said it was absurd to suggest Russia intervened on Trump’s behalf, but immediately followed up by saying “nobody believed in him, except us”.

Le Pen’s surprise visit to the Kremlin was accompanied by similar mood music. The website Life News tweeted an opinion column with the tag “Russia will help Le Pen win” and then deleted the tweet a few minutes later.

The news agency Interfax released a snap news item: “The Kremlin announces financing of Marine Le Pen’s election campaign by Russian banks.” Two minutes later there was another snap: “Correction: Kremlin announces it has no information about the financing of Marine Le Pen’s election campaign by Russian banks.”

This may well have been a simple slip-up, but the statement and swift retraction fit the pattern of Putin’s wink-nudge denial policy.

Whatever the veracity of claims that Russia has financed Le Pen in exchange for policy concessions, or of allegations of Russian links to Trump, the scandals are helping to make a useful political point for the Kremlin at home.

“I think by this point Russians probably know the names of the candidates in the French election better than they know the names of their own regional governors,” said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, noting the level of coverage on state television.

With the Russian economy still struggling, Putin has retained support among Russians due to his aggressive foreign policy moves in Ukraine. With a presidential election coming up next year, the image of Putin pulling the strings across the globe is a useful one.

While the Kremlin will always formally deny direct meddling, hinting at it helps prop up the idea of Putin as “the most powerful man in the world”, as a recent CNN documentary put it.

“He represents a sovereign nation ... a new vision ... a new world,” Le Pen said in Moscow shortly after meeting Putin. Expect to see those words featured prominently on Russian news reports.

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