Accessibility links

Breaking News

Europe Bracing Against Risk Of Russian 'Influence Operations'

According to U.S. President Barack Obama, "open societies" are "more vulnerable" in defending against hacking and other possible Kremlin-directed manipulation campaigns (illustrative photo).

Accusations that Russia sought to undermine the U.S. political system have served as a warning signal to the European Union as it prepares for a big election year.

The message being sent is that the bloc best be prepared to ward off Russian influence ahead of a presidential vote in France, and general elections in Germany and the Netherlands in 2017.

Richard Youngs, an expert on democracy and EU foreign policy at Carnegie Europe, says that combating Kremlin manipulation of open societies and political systems requires more than just new controls against fake news, or improved technology against computer hacking.

"Today there is a big battle of ideas out there -- illiberal ideas against liberal ideas," Youngs said. "We need to see it much more in that context -- as a structural political problem -- and respond with a much more broad-ranging and analytic strategy to defend core liberal values in Europe that are clearly under threat through these tactics and other tactics used against Europe from outside."

As the hacking scandal continues to play out in the United States, Russian officials have rejected allegations of a state program to skew the U.S. presidential vote in favor of the surprise victor, Republic candidate Donald Trump, and have dismissed Western warnings about Kremlin disinformation campaigns.

Alina Polyakova, an Atlantic Council expert on disinformation and the EU, says Western democracies have long ignored, overlooked, or denied the existence of Kremlin "influence operations" -- a core part of Russian military doctrine that she says are aimed at achieving Moscow's geopolitical goals, without military intervention, "through the manipulation of media, society, and politics."

But she says they are now coming to terms with Russia's increasing influence within their politics and societies.

Trojan Horses

In a November 2016 report titled The Kremlin's Trojan Horses, Polyakova points to specific steps that can be taken to stave off political influence from Moscow.

"European policymakers can and should take common action to expose, limit, and counter Russia's attempt to use economic leverage and seemingly benign civil society activities to manipulate policy and discourse in open societies," Polyakova's report concludes.

The report recommends tightening legislation in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France regarding foreign contributions to political campaigns, and says that European intelligence agencies should be given clear mandates to investigate foreign funding of political parties.

It also calls for investigations into the sources of financial support for institutions and nongovernmental organizations that "seek to influence the broader narrative toward Russia and against the EU."

In late November, the European Parliament took one of those steps with a resolution calling for EU institutions to monitor the sources of financing for anti-European propaganda.

Youngs, of Carnegie Europe, says covert Russian financial influence has grown to the extent that it "may force European countries to look at political party funding" and develop "common rules at a European level so that external money isn't getting into domestic party campaigning."

Disinformation Tactics

The European Parliament also has called for strengthening an EU task force that highlights disinformation tactics -- a so-called "specialized strategic communications unit" known as

Youngs says the low-profile unit has provided a "good service of trying to correct misinformation," but argues that it hasn't led to a very critical diplomatic line from the EU because the bloc is still trying to maintain "some kind of positive engagement with Russia."

Others say countering Russian disinformation campaigns that manipulate mainstream and social media is complicated in open societies because of the need to protect freedom of the press and avoid censorship of the Internet.

David Lidington, the Conservative Party leader of Britain's House of Commons, says Russia has been employing "multiple, well-honed tactics of disinformation" for years.

In addition to tightening control of Russia's domestic media market and using its state media to spread Kremlin talking points abroad, Lidington notes that the Kremlin has created 'new aggressive [television] channels to confuse and disorient the international public" and "armies of online trolls whose sole jobs seems to be to use fake evidence to litter social media."

Lidington says Western democracies must "counter this disinformation campaign, not with propaganda but with the truth."

"We need to make our own population aware of the scale of the Russian disinformation," Lidington argues. "Where Russia's propaganda outlets break our laws, they should be made accountable and regulators need to keep a watchful eye, always mindful, of course, of the importance of protecting free speech."

'Special Challenges'

Outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama says the recent allegations of Russian hacking are "part of a broader set of concerns" about how to deal with cyberattacks that can affect infrastructure, the stability of financial systems, and the integrity of institutions like an election process.

Obama said on December 16 that "open societies" are "more vulnerable" than illiberal societies and face "special challenges" in defending against hacking and other possible Kremlin-directed manipulation campaigns.

The U.S. Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity on December 2 outlined a range of strategies to better protect against such attacks in the future.

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin late last year.
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin late last year.

But Obama said "it is difficult" because "the target of cyberattacks is not one entity, but it is widely dispersed and a lot of it is private" -- not a branch of government.

"We can't tell people what to do," Obama said. "What he can do is inform them and get best practices. What we also can do is warn other countries against these kinds of attacks."

Avi Chesla, head of an Israel-based cybersecurity firm called Empow, agrees.

Chesla says that what the international cybersecurity community is missing today is collaboration and cooperation between different countries.

Proactive Defense

Cybersecurity experts, he suggests, can better implement appropriate defense strategies when they've "done the forensics" and recognize the different types of tactics, procedures, and techniques used by different hacking groups.

He says sharing that information would allow cybersecurity experts in other countries to implement proactive defense strategies and significantly reduce the risk of those hacking attempts being used again.

Chesla says the alleged U.S. election hack has raised the EU's priority for addressing the threat of Russian manipulation campaigns.

But he thinks it is already too late to prevent hackers from gathering information likely to be leaked at strategic moments in the coming months in order to undermine European parties and politicians who oppose the Kremlin's agenda.

Chesla says those hackers probably already infiltrated European political networks at least a year ago -- including the 2015 infiltration of the German parliament's computer network blamed by German intelligence on Russia and some 24,000 "external attacks" on French networks announced on January 8 by the French Defense Ministry.

Avi says national governments also can improve security by designating political organizations, key political figures, and the computer networks around them as "critical infrastructure."

"Critical infrastructure is not only energy plants and things like that," Chesla said. "Once [political organizations and networks] are defined like that and the priorities are set accordingly, cybersecurity defense will be much better than what it is today."