Moscow’s meddling in Western elections likely won’t stop with its interference in America’s presidential campaign. Indeed, with European elections of considerable geopolitical consequence slated later this year, they’ll probably accelerate.
The threat is particularly acute in Germany and France, where right-wing candidates considered more Kremlin-friendly are advancing. Moscow is motivated to seek upheavals in Berlin and Paris because Germany and France have led European Union cohesion on sanctions against Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine.
The stakes are stark for the West, which needs to remain unified, said Kirsti Kauppi, Finland’s ambassador to the U.S. “It’s important that the U.S. and Europe see eye-to-eye on Russia,” Kauppi said in an interview after speaking at a Global Minnesota event last week. “There has to be differences in how we act, but it’s very important we agree on the fundamentals.”
The fundamentals on how Russia acts are quite clear. Moscow’s “arsenal of active measures is a way of influencing countries and politics and world events that don’t rely on conventional military forces but uses more underhanded, more hidden mechanisms and tools to influence elections and a narrative around special events,” said Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.
The Kremlin’s “tool kit of influence” includes hacking, disinformation, political influence and economic pressure, particularly on energy dependent eastern and central European nations, said Polyakova, who added that the use of disinformation has expanded dramatically in recent years, and can be seen in the spread of fake news, which “before it was the term-du-jour we just called propaganda.”
Germany is alert to Russia’s intentions, said Céline-Agathe Caro, a senior policy analyst for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “There is clearly a fear of election obstruction. … The German government has indications that Russia is trying to destabilize German society, to spread uncertainty, and also strengthen extremist groups that are more pro-Russian than the mainstream parties,” Caro said.
These extremist groups and other nationalist movements betray an intellectual inconsistency by stressing national sovereignty yet antithetically acquiescing to foreign interference in their internal affairs.
And there may be more at play. “To me that signals that there is something about the connection between these pro-Russian, far-right leaders and political parties and the Kremlin,” said Polyakova
Considerable political skill, as well as Germany’s continental clout in economic and diplomatic matters, has made German Chancellor Angela Merkel Europe’s leader — and thus maybe Moscow’s main focus. “Germany is a very important country in the European Union now, and Angela Merkel is a very important leader in terms of European integration, so of course she is a perfect target,” Caro said.
The ultimate targets, however, are European voters, already reeling from serial political, fiscal and social crises like Mediterranean migration, sclerotic economies, a jobless generation, and existential identity questions reflected in the Brexit vote.
The Russian disinformation campaign aimed at these stressed societies is designed to “confuse what is real and what is not, to crowd out the information space to such an extent with various theories and various stories that have a little bit of truth, a little bit of fiction, or just outright lies so they don’t know what to believe anymore,” said Polyakova, who added that the disinformation is disseminated so quickly in a social-media “amplification vortex” that it’s hard to trace back to the original source.
This amplification vortex comes amid a “continuous wave” of information accelerated by technological transformations, said Finland’s ambassador. “The information war that undoubtedly exists is one of the tricky issues,” said Kauppi. “Because it is not only about disinformation, it’s about also how the media environment had developed.”
A critical question awaiting Western democracies, said Kauppi, is “how do we make sure in this new information environment people get good information, and people continue to be interested in getting sound information — because our democracies depend so much on enlightened public opinion.”
Enlightened public opinion is possible via the very information-age tools deployed by Kremlin operatives. But instead of disinformation, factual, accurate journalism must carry the day.
And as it has been in the postwar era, transatlantic unity is a force multiplier.
“All the Western societies are faced with very similar challenges,” said Kaupi. “So it makes sense for us to try to analyze those things together and also collaborate to start to figure out some solutions.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.