IN AN influential article in 2013, Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, described a new doctrine (often termed “hybrid warfare”) involving “information conflict” alongside diplomacy and military force to achieve geopolitical aims. To Americans, the Russian-sponsored hacking and distribution of fake news during last year’s presidential election were a shocking example of this strategy. Yet there is little new about it. The Kremlin has been using spooks and shills to sway Western politics since the days of the Soviet Union. The difference now is that the rise of social media and of populist politics, on both the right and the left, have provided new tools and allies to work with. With France and Germany facing elections this year, Europe expects to be the next target of what
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IN AN influential article in 2013, Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, described a new doctrine (often termed “hybrid warfare”) involving “information conflict” alongside diplomacy and military force to achieve geopolitical aims. To Americans, the Russian-sponsored hacking and distribution of fake news during last year’s presidential election were a shocking example of this strategy. Yet there is little new about it. The Kremlin has been using spooks and shills to sway Western politics since the days of the Soviet Union. The difference now is that the rise of social media and of populist politics, on both the right and the left, have provided new tools and allies to work with. With France and Germany facing elections this year, Europe expects to be the next target of what the KGB used to call “active measures”.
Russia has been trying to shape European politics for years, most visibly through old-fashioned propaganda. Two Kremlin-funded news organisations, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, launched French and German versions in 2014 and 2015. These pump out gloom about Europe, cheer about Russia and boosterism for pro-Russian populist parties. They sometimes lie. RT whipped up false tales about a Russian-German teenager, “Lisa”, supposedly raped by migrants in Berlin, in the hope of provoking anger among Germans of Russian origin at Angela Merkel’s refugee policies. Other reports insinuate or exaggerate. Sputnik has stirred rumours about the sexuality of Emmanuel Macron, a pro-NATO, pro-European Union candidate for the French presidency. It broadcasts rallies by PEGIDA, an anti-Islam movement, live and without commentary; the pro-EU “Pulse of Europe” marches receive no such publicity.
On their own, RT and Sputnik have very limited reach in Europe. When their stories catch on, it is often because they are amplified online by networks of conspiracy-minded activists, Russian trolls and “botnets” (clusters of fake, automated social-media accounts). Ben Nimmo, an authority on online disinformation, says many of the Twitter accounts that most keenly share RT Français and Sputnik France stories are “almost certainly automated”, so frequent are their posts. Whether they are French or Russian is unclear. Testimonies by former employees tell of a “troll factory” in St Petersburg that churns out anti-Western stories, comments, “likes” and shareable media.
A graver level of political intervention involves cyber-spying. In 2015 Fancy Bear, a Russian cyber-espionage group, broke into computers at the Bundestag in Berlin. They went on to target America’s Democratic Party, releasing hacked e-mails that damaged Hillary Clinton, the most anti-Kremlin candidate in the presidential race. In France that candidate is Mr Macron, and recently his campaign has also suffered hacks. “They said it clearly comes from Russia,” says a staffer, recalling a debriefing with French intelligence services. Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, reckons targets should expect any embarrassing files to appear on WikiLeaks, a whistleblowing website that likes to embarrass the enemies of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
Other Russian measures involve old-fashioned ideological patronage. Last summer Vladimir Yakunin, an ally of Mr Putin, launched a pro-Russian think-tank in Berlin. Moscow supports Zem a Vek, a magazine that peddles conspiracy theories in Slovakia. The Kremlin-linked First Czech Russian Bank lent €9m ($9.5m) to the National Front of Marine Le Pen (pictured). Rumours of Russian cash for nationalist parties in Italy, Greece and Hungary are more tenuous. But Ms Le Pen, Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League and Frauke Petry of Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) have received profile-boosting invitations to Moscow. All are Eurosceptics who want to lift sanctions on Russia.
The Kremlin’s objectives are clear. In France it wants a congenial president—Ms Le Pen or François Fillon, the centre-right candidate. In Germany it wants Angela Merkel gone, a strong AfD in the Bundestag and a government led by the Social Democrats, who are traditionally friendlier to Moscow. Either outcome might help loosen European sanctions and boost Russian economic interests, such as the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. They would also serve Mr Putin’s goal of sowing division in the EU and NATO.
“Active measures” are often ineffective. A recent claim promoted by Russian websites that Mrs Merkel had deliberately invited Islamic State into Germany got nowhere. Mr Macron brushed off the rumours about his private life. A Swedish version of Sputnik folded because of meagre interest. After the Lisa case, Germany made fighting disinformation a priority: on April 5th it published a draft law obliging publishers to nix such stories speedily.
Elsewhere, too, Europeans are pushing back. There is no evidence that Russians have hacked Western voting machines, but ballots in the Dutch election in March were hand-counted, just in case. In February authorities quickly smacked down fake allegations of rape by German soldiers in Lithuania. Le Monde, a French newspaper, and Germany’s Green Party are among several institutions to have launched fact-checking initiatives.
So Europeans should be wary, but not paranoid. Still, Americans have been fact-checking for longer than Europeans, and have hardly defeated fake news. If “information conflict” helps Russia-friendly candidates win elections, it will be because Europe’s bitter politics and anarchic media environment have prepared the ground.