Harry van Bommel, a left-wing member of the Dutch Parliament, had persuasive allies in convincing voters that they should reject a trade pact with Ukraine — his special “Ukrainian team,” a gleefully contrarian group of émigrés whose sympathies lay with Russia. They attended public meetings, appeared on television and used social media to denounce Ukraine’s pro-Western government as a bloodthirsty kleptocracy, unworthy of Dutch support. As Mr. Van Bommel recalled, it “was very handy to show that not all Ukrainians were in favor.” Handy but also misleading: The most active members of the Ukrainian team were actually from Russia, or from Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, and parroted the Kremlin line. The Dutch referendum, held last April, became a battering ram aimed at the European Union. With turnout low, Dutch voters rejected the trade agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, delighting Moscow, emboldening pro-Russia populists around Europe and leaving political elites aghast.
It is unclear whether the Ukrainian team was directed by Russia or if it was acting out of shared sympathies, and Mr. Van Bommel said he never checked their identities. But Europe’s political establishment, already rattled by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of President Trump in the United States, is worried that the Netherlands referendum could foreshadow what is to come.
With elections slated for France, Germany and possibly Italy this year, officials across Europe are warning that the Russians are actively interfering, echoing the Central Intelligence Agency’s assertions that Moscow meddled in the United States presidential election.
Norway announced this month that Russia-linked hackers had attacked government ministries and a political party. Britain’s defense minister has accused Moscow of “weaponizing disinformation.” German, French and Italian officials have also accused Russia-linked partisans of meddling.