US intelligence services have warned allies that Russia might try to hack their elections, with France and Germany already under attack.
“We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes,” the US services said, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The US services – the CIA, FBI, and NSA – spoke out in a report published on Friday (6 January) on last year’s American elections.
They said that Putin ordered an “influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” and that it was seen by Russia as “at least a qualified success” because of its “perceived ability to impact public discussion”.
Putin favoured Donald Trump, a Kremlin-friendly populist, who won and who takes office on 20 January.
The US warning comes as France and Germany prepare to elect their future leaders.
The results could help end EU sanctions on Russia. If the far-right Marine Le Pen won in France, they could also destabilise the EU.
In the US vote, Russia used a combination of cyberattacks, state propaganda, and internet trolls.
The US report said Russian military intelligence hacked and leaked compromising material on Trump’s opponent, that state media RT and Sputnik spread pro-Trump propaganda, and that state-linked trolls and bots propagated pro-Trump fake news.
They said Russian hacking began six months before the US election and that Russia’s efforts represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations”.
France and Germany said over the weekend that they were already under attack.
French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his ministry had suffered 24,000 attacks last year, double the number in 2015.
He told Le Journal du Dimanche, a newspaper, that “the risk which weighs upon our democratic life is real” and that it would be “naive” to think France was immune to what had happened in the US.
Thomas Oppermann, the head of the centre-left SPD party in Germany, told the
Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper: “Targeted propaganda and hacker attacks from abroad will be a major challenge for the German election campaign.”
Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the BfV, said that the same “Russian sources” who hacked the German parliament last year also hacked the OSCE, a European security club, in December 2016.
France and Germany
Anton Shekhovtsov, a scholar of Russian affairs at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said that Moscow would not get involved in a “full-blown operation” to interfere in the French vote.
“Moscow seems to be satisfied with Francois Fillon [the centre-right candidate] and Marine Le Pen, who can be considered Kremlin-friendly politicians, being the two most popular presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election,” he told EUobserver.
He said Germany was “different” because chancellor Angela Merkel, a Russia hawk, was the most popular politician.
“Moscow will be trying to interfere in the German parliamentary elections this year, in order to boost the popularity of the far right Alternative for Germany… and thus weaken Merkel,” he said.
One EU source said Russia could use its US-style “playbook” in Europe.
He said Russia’s fake story in Germany last year, that migrants had raped a girl named Liza, was designed to test German defences.
“They saw the reactions of the media space and the authorities to such an information operation, they could accommodate their strategy based on this first effort,” the EU source said.
Mark Galeotti, a Russia scholar at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, told EUobserver “it is likely we will see further Russian attempts to meddle in European politics in 2017.”
But he said Russia’s US election operation “did not reflect some careful strategy, but was rather an opportunistic move whose impact seems to have taken even the Kremlin by surprise.”
Russia’s influence operations have also targeted other US allies, such as Sweden.
Martin Kragh, a Russia scholar at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, recently published a study on fake Russian news about purportedly leaked Swedish documents.
The “active measures” were designed “to hamper the target country’s ability to generate public support in pursuing its policies”, the study said.
The EU source said that Russia appeared to have the same capability for “significant escalation” of information warfare in Europe as it showed in the US.
“When you have a look at the last [Russian] budget, health expenses are cut again, but military expenses and media expenses are on the rise,” he said.
The US report said that Russia spends “$190 million a year on the distribution and dissemination of RT programming” alone.
It said RT was the most watched foreign news channel in the UK and that it beat US and British broadcasters, such as CNN and BBC, on YouTube.
Russian influence operations also include funding for anti-EU political parties, creation of pseudo-NGOs in Europe, and strategic business investments.
According to Nato studies, the soft power measures work in tandem with military harassment of Nato assets and threats of military action.
“It is almost brilliant. If you don’t find it scary,” the EU source said, commenting on Russia’s style of diplomacy.
He said the US election hack showed that it was “critical that political leaders are not afraid to name the aggressor” to the European public.
“Germany and France should at least make it public that they know about Russia’s activities; and that if they cross a certain line … they will pay for it,” he said.
Galeotti said that “we should not overstate the impact of Russian hacking and disinformation”, however.
He said that if mainstream EU parties regained the trust of voters then Russia’s actions would be less effective.
“The reason they have any real impact at all is the legitimacy deficit felt in the West. Address that, and there is little Moscow can do,” he said.
The Kremlin on Monday “categorically denied that Moscow had been involved in any hacking attacks”.
By Andrew Rettman, EUObserver