In the past several years, Russia has been accused of meddling in elections in France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Greece and Hungary.
So while President-elect Donald Trump has labeled as “ridiculous” the allegations about similar Russian actions in the United States, he’s going against recent history.
European and U.S. intelligence agencies have long stated that Russians have tried to influence elections across Europe. The motivations are thought to run from a simple desire to change global perceptions of Russia, to an attempt to create enough discord that economic sanctions against the country will lack the unity to be continued, to a plan to undermine NATO and at least stop further expansion of the treaty organization.
Russians provided the right-wing nationalist Front National with $12 million in loans for their current campaign, routing the money through the same First Czech Russian Bank in Prague they used to get money to the party in the 2014 French elections. The money has helped the party, long a fringe group in French politics, into a position of strength.
Beyond that, Russians are thought to have helped the right-wing nationalist parties of Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece and the Northern League in Italy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech in October in Sochi, Russia, denied the notion of Russian propaganda interfering in Western elections.
“I would like to have such a propaganda machine here in Russia, but regrettably, this is not the case,” Putin said at the time. “We do not have mass media outlets such as CNN, BBC and others. We simply do not have this kind of capability yet.”
Last week, German Domestic Intelligence warned it was “monitoring an increase of cyber espionage in the political arena” to gather information that “could be used to discredit German politicians.” It warned of the creation of a Russian-created “echo chamber” intended to spread disinformation and “make the formation of domestic political opinions highly vulnerable.”
Bobo Lo, a Russia expert at the Paris-based French International Relations Institute, said in a telephone interview: “I don’t have any specific evidence that proves the Russians were involved in the hacking of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) or were trying to influence the U.S. elections, but it would not surprise me if they were. In fact, I’d be surprised if they were not involved.”
The most well-known example of Russian social media and media influence-peddling is the now quite famous St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, also known as the St. Petersburg Troll Farm. A defector from the farm gave a series of Western news outlet interviews in 2015 about her time working there.
Lyudmila Savchuk told the German magazine Der Spiegel that the hundreds of workers there spent 12-hour shifts furiously posting disinformation on Twitter and other video sharing and social media sites. In addition, they were required to comment on stories on “all major news sites.”
“There’s also a group that masquerades as journalists,” she told the magazine. Then, in June 2015, she addressed the fake news angle that makes up part of the current allegations against the Russians. In this case, the target was Ukraine. “They operate fake news portals that pretend to be Ukrainian news sites, with names like ‘Kharkiv News’ or the ‘Federal News Agency.’ We had video bloggers. Some made themselves look like members of the Russian opposition.”
A New York Times Magazine piece quoted her as saying, “The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.”
Lo said, “It’s no secret that the Russian government has been trying to change the public perception of Moscow. They aren’t having any luck with Western governments, so they’re sidestepping, telling people they’re being fed false information by their own governments and offering competing stories.”
An official NATO comment on the matter didn’t address Russia, but said member nations are in the process of beefing up cyber defenses.
“In general terms, we see more and more evidence of states being behind cyberattacks, including against NATO Allies,” the emailed statement read. “With regard to fake news and propaganda, we believe that open debate in our open societies, facilitated by a free media, is our best weapon against propaganda. Our basic principle is that NATO will not counter propaganda with propaganda but with factual and timely public information.”
Even so, the extent of the ethical breach of trying to use social media and traditional media to attempt to shape foreign public opinion is a bit unclear. The United States, after all, used Radio Free Europe to reach and influence a Soviet audience, and it remains in operation.
Regarding Trump’s notion that the Russians did not hand him the presidency, Lo said, “It’s a huge jump from saying they tried to influence the election to saying that they affected the outcome of the U.S. election.”
Steven Pifer, a Russia expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank, in a telephone interview cautioned against underestimating the efforts, however.
“It’s a form of hybrid warfare that Russia is conducting against the West,” said Pifer, who was based in Moscow for the State Department during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union ran a similar program. “The goals are many, but primarily it’s an attempt to undermine confidence in democracies and sow division among NATO nations. Of course, the bizarre thing to me is that it seems to be working. It didn’t work before.”
The primary question is why Russia would do what it appears to be doing. There are several answers, and the simplest is that they can.
Beyond that, in 2014, Russian invaded and occupied Crimea, a Ukrainian state. The international reaction has been a string of economic sanctions that experts insist are harming the Russian economy, and that over time could erode the popularity of Putin, and could anger his strongest, and wealthiest, supporters.
Lo believes Russian meddling has been part of a long game to sow discord among NATO allies and get them to turn their attention away from Ukraine and ease sanctions, or simply let them fade away.