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We're All Russia's Neighbors Now

Estonians were getting hacked by Russia long before it was cool.

Ukrainians had to deal with Kremlin interference in their elections before it became trendy.

Georgia and Moldova had to live with disinformation, fake news, and active measures before these things became fashionable catchphrases.

It's a good idea to pay very close attention to what Russia does to its neighbors, because it often foreshadows things Moscow will later try out farther to the West.

"To try to understand Russia’s intervention and undermining of the U.S. election, you have to first understand Russia’s use of active measures to undermine Russia's own neighbors," Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Snopes.

"The most recent examples of that are not only in Ukraine but also in Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, and other countries in Russia’s periphery."

And in this sense, we've all become Russia's neighbors. We've all become Ukrainians, Georgians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians.

We're all part of Russia's so-called "near abroad."


Take cyberattacks, for example.

A U.S. Homeland Security official told Congress last week that Russian hackers targeted 21 state election systems during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Over the past two years, in addition to breaching the U.S. Democratic National Committee's e-mail servers, Kremlin-backed hackers have also been accused of targeting the Polish Stock Exchange, a German steelmaker, the Bundestag, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. State Department, and a French television station, just to name a few.

Estonians, however, got a taste of all this a decade ago, in February 2007, when a massive Kremlin-backed DDoS attack hit the websites of Estonian banks, media organizations, corporations, and government ministries.

Simultaneously, ethnic Russians, encouraged by Moscow, rioted in the streets of Tallinn, and members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi blockaded the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.

The cyberattacks and the rioting were ostensibly in response to Estonia's decision to relocate a Soviet World War II monument from the center of Tallinn.

But in reality, the Kremlin was sending a message that it was ready to play hardball -- and was road-testing strategies that would later be deployed farther to the West.

More recently, Ukraine has been Russia's cybertarget of choice.

Despite lingering suspicions of Russian involvement, it is still unclear who was behind this week's ransomware attack there and elsewhere.

But nevertheless, in a recent article for Wired, Andy Greenberg notes that cybersecurity experts "believe Russia is using" Ukraine "as a cyberwar testing ground -- a laboratory for perfecting new forms of global online combat."

Over the past three years, Greenberg writes, the country has been subject to "a digital blitzkrieg" and "a sustained cyber­assault unlike any the world has ever seen."

"A hacker army has systematically undermined practically every sector of Ukraine: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, energy," he writes. "Wave after wave of intrusions have deleted data, destroyed computers, and in some cases paralyzed organizations’ most basic functions."

In the most brazen assault, what appears to be a Kremlin-backed cyberattack cut off electricity to nearly a quarter of a million Ukrainians just before Christmas in 2015. Another attack hit Ukraine's power grid in December 2016.

Foreshadowing Election Meddling

Russia's attempts to interfere in foreign elections also didn't begin in the United States in 2016 or in France this year.

In Ukraine's 2004 presidential election, for example, a team of political operatives with ties to Vladimir Putin's Kremlin launched a massive campaign to discredit pro-Western opposition figure Viktor Yushchenko and assist pro-Kremlin candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

According to a paper by Taras Kuzio, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, "they sought to undermine Yushchenko’s credibility by producing fake leaflets, critical books, and pamphlets and by launching inflammatory television attacks."

Additionally, they "paid extreme nationalists to claim they supported Yushchenko and used the same groups to carry out terrorist attacks that were then blamed on Yushchenko."

Russia also attempted to disrupt Ukraine's 2014 presidential election when a pro-Kremlin group called CyberBerkut hacked the website of the Central Electoral Commission and altered its data to show far- right candidate Dmytro Yarosh -- who actually won less than 1 percent of the vote -- as the winner.

The hacking group, Greenberg writes, has "links to the Kremlin hackers who later breached Democratic targets in America’s 2016 presidential election."

For decades, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have lived with an onslaught of disinformation, fake news, and active measures aimed at destabilizing their societies.

In Georgia and Moldova, pro-Kremlin groups and the Russian Orthodox Church have long used so-called traditional values, such as opposing LGBT rights, to drive a wedge through society and isolate pro-Western elements.

It is a tactic that would later be replicated in Europe, with Moscow's backing of xenophobic and Euroskeptic forces like Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.

What happens to Russia's neighbors is often a harbinger. As Thomas Rid, a professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, told Wired: "They’re testing out red lines, what they can get away with. You push and see if you’re pushed back. If not, you try the next step."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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