Is Russian Interference the greatest Threat to Western Democracy?

By Richard Maher | (The Conversation) | – –

With important national elections scheduled this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European officials on edge about possible Russian interference are pursuing various measures to counter it. The Conversation

But with a daily onslaught of fake and misleading news, repeated attempts to hack computer systems of “anti-Moscow” politicians and political parties, their task is immense.

Russian efforts to tilt elections and national referenda to suit its interests are ongoing. According to a report released by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s influence on the 2016 US election, Putin’s government “has sought to influence elections across Europe”.

Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic security agency, also warned of “growing evidence” of Russian attempts to influence Germany’s federal elections, set for September.

Alex Younger, the head of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, finds “profound” the risk to British sovereignty posed by the kind of state-directed fake news, propaganda, and other acts of subversion the Kremlin routinely engages in.

Russia has denied interference in the US or European elections, and calls such accusations examples of rampant “Russophobia” in the West.

Undermining democracy

Disinformation campaigns, or what are also sometimes called “active measures” in the “information space”, have become an increasingly important feature of Russian military doctrine.

The goal of these campaigns is to weaken and undermine support for the European Union, NATO, and public trust and confidence in democracy itself. And with the rise of anti-establishment, anti-EU politicians across Europe, Russia has found an increasingly receptive audience for such operations.

Russian propaganda campaigns date back to before the Cold War. But the sophistication and volume of these efforts are greater today than in the past. The internet has opened up new modes and opportunities for Russia to influence foreign elections — and new vulnerabilities for democratic societies, for which the free flow of information is a fundamental feature.

There is evidence, for example, that Russia played a role in several key national referenda across Europe last year: in April, when Dutch voters rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine that would have led to closer political and economic ties; in June, when British voters opted to leave the EU; and in December, when Italian voters rejected constitutional reforms championed by then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leading to his resignation.

The results of each of these votes served Russia’s broad interest in undermining EU cohesion.

Russian interference in Western elections can take various forms. Its operators may disseminate false or misleading news via blogs, websites, and social media or hack into computer networks and email accounts to steal and then leak compromising information against politicians seen to be anti-Russia (for example, Hillary Clinton). At the extreme, hackers may rig computer systems to manipulate election vote counts.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns also aim to instil doubt, confusion, and cynicism in the democratic process, erode public trust in institutions and in the news media — even to the point of eliminating the very idea of “a shared reality”. This foments populist anger and anxiety.

Thus disinformation campaigns and cyberespionage are for Russia attractive means to undermine Western governments and societies.

They’re also hard to track down and stop, offering Russia plausible deniability. Russian officials can operate covertly and through intermediaries, making it hard to find conclusive evidence directly implicating top Kremlin authorities.

It is often not clear if hackers are working with clear directions from Moscow or if they simply share sympathies with the Russian government and are acting independently.

A clear and present threat

Dutch authorities are so concerned about the possibility that its election could be manipulated that the interior minister announced that ballots will be counted by hand in the upcoming national election. Experts had warned that government computer systems were vulnerable to attack and disruption by state actors.

Likewise, the German government has advised of the possibility of a Russian cyberattack against the country’s federal elections. Russia is already suspected of hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015. German officials also suspect that Russia was behind a computer hack last November that resulted in 900,000 Germans temporarily losing internet and telephone service.

Putin has a powerful incentive to undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been one of his most outspoken critics in Europe. She is also one of the strongest voices in favour of maintaining EU sanctions against Russia for its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who is running on a pro-EU platform ahead of French presidential elections in April and May, has accused Russian hackers of targeting him in an attempt to smear his candidacy. Richard Ferrand, the secretary-general of Macron’s En Marche party, has said that the campaign’s website and databases have been subject to “hundreds, if not thousands” of attacks from inside Russia.

An existential threat

Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, argues that Russian election interference and manipulation, if unchecked, could pose an “existential threat” to Western democracies.

European governments are taking various steps in response. They have tried to educate voters on how to identify fake news and have threatened retaliatory measures against Moscow if its subversive activities persist.

The EU has even created a team whose mission is to address “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” by weeding out false or misleading online news.

Despite the various successes it can plausibly claim, election interference can also backfire on Russia. US intelligence agencies have traced the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer systems back to the highest levels of the Kremlin and before leaving office in January, President Barack Obama imposed a range of sanctions and other retaliatory measures on Russia.

Such public hacking and disinformation campaigns have further damaged its relations with the West. Russia will now be the primary suspect for any electoral problems or irregularities in the future.

With Brexit negotiations, the rise of anti-EU and anti-establishment political parties, and the uncertainty surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, Europe already faces a precarious moment. But since Russian disinformation campaigns target the very foundations of liberal democracy, they represent something perhaps even more sinister, threatening, and potentially destructive than Europe’s many other troubles.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “White House staff told to save records on Russia”

10 Responses

  1. if countries believe Russia will interfere with their elections then they might want to consider it an act of war and act accordingly. Not with armies and such but the same things the Russians use.

    These countries might want to put more effort into making their citizens aware of what Russia is up to and ensure their computer systems are up to date regardless of the cost.

    Russia has unlimited resources to do what they want when it comes to these types of activities and unless other countries recognize this, they will loose. Its like China doesn’t have to invade a country, it just buys it up one property at a time. with Russia, they just play with the computers.

    It is in Russia and Trump’s best interests to have a divided Europe and to have “nationalist” parties in office. they will leave the E.U. thinking they are smarter and can handle Russia. Such are the egos of politicians. ?When you look at some of these nationalists you just want to shake your head. What a bunch of nut bars.

    liked the post

    • But this IS Russia’s Deep State capabilities being employed for a strategic objective. You act as if America has the only one. At some point, yes, our Deep State must be forbidden from its own activities along this line — but how is that to happen if our democracy is already dead? How are all the Deep States in all the multipolar powers to be controlled if we don’t recognize that Trump was the cybernetic equivalent of Hiroshima – and the arms race is already going full speed?

  2. Learning from a French intellectual, Bruno Latour

    He makes the claim that the most important political actor is The Climate Regime

    Climate change plays the same role that social questions and the class struggle played over the two preceding centuries.

    Let that sink in. Socialism. Racism. Sexism. World Wars. Terrorism, Sovereignty – since the earth does not have boundaries. A new political actor has change the game.

    Many, including Juan Cole, have pointed out that climate change has been a major force unsettling the Middle East and other regions.

    I begin with the simple idea that climate change and its denial have been organising all contemporary politics at least for the last three decades.

    Trump’s election is an attempt to extend climate denial for another 4 years.


    I begin with the simple idea that climate change and its denial have been organising all contemporary politics at least for the last three decades. Climate change plays the same role that social questions and the class struggle played over the two preceding centuries.
    We can understand nothing about the way inequalities have exploded for forty years, and the accompanying movement towards massive deregulation, if we don’t admit that a good part of the globalised elite had perfectly understood what was going on with the bad news about the state of the planet, which, thanks to the work of scientists, began to crystallise at the beginning of the nineties.

    Since the threat was real, the elites drew the conclusion that it would be necessary to adopt two opposing courses of action. First, give up the post-war liberal dream of a common world created by the modernisation of the planet—so, let’s cut ourselves off as quickly as possible, through deregulation at any price, from the rest of the inhabitants to whom we sold this dream of universality; secondly, systematically organise long-term denial of this ecological change, which nevertheless brings in not just the environment but what is called the Earth-system.
    (One can see in the case of Exxon-Mobil, which, at the beginning of the nineties, moved quickly from cutting edge scientific research on climate and the Earth, to the organisation of a denial of climatic change, a useful empirical benchmark to situate this transformation of liberal ideals).

    The grand EU project, with the important role of lowering boundaries, is in the balance and now that the US has gone rogue, they have to rely on themselves

    Politics, economics, religion, law, culture, etc. face major changes from The Climate Regime and unlike the potential risk after WWII which led to world wide nuclear weapons, trillions spent and ongoing wars, the real and present danger of The Climate has been denied.

    Even if the US descends into fascism, humans will have to return to the earth.

    “It is easier to imagine the end of the earth than the end of capitalism” is a quotation attributed to Frederick Jameson

  3. In before the denialists and apologists.

    The only way to get people to wake up to the problem posed here is not to single out Russia as being uniquely evil, but to accept that if one government has success with these methods, EVERY government must inexorably turn to them.

    Why? Because like drones, they’re cheap and they keep their own personnel out of harm’s way. Which means, non-governmental actors will be the next perpetrators and victims. You could argue that Israel or Big Tobacco/Oil paved the way, but the process of undermining what’s left of democracy through black propaganda is now free-falling off a cliff.

    When we recognize the threat as being like “nukes you can get away with” instead of a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories, then we have to think practical, not partisan.

    My contention is, the software of representative democracy has been hacked in a way that cannot be patched over. Higher levels of public awareness can combat the virus, but the whole problem is that modern bourgeois publics cannot maintain high awareness unless they’re motivated by anger – which right now favors the lying Right and is used by them to steamroll the rest of us with their zombie mobs from the whole fraudulent creation of the Tea Party to the beatings of dissidents in India. There’s no point in high passions unless the end game is a radical transformation of the system into something we can live with normally.

    It means, we have to reorganize government to either be much simpler or to be much more central to our daily interests. The methods for corrupting the representatives were perfected years ago; now the problem is that the slivers of reality that the voters still wrestle with – and then feed back to those representatives – are also corrupted beyond value. We can’t scare our representatives into doing the right thing because so much effort is now expended in misleading us about what is right.

    You can even say that there is no such thing as a public anymore, only multiple hostile tribes who cannot agree because they speak different languages, and can only use their representatives and what sectors of government they control as weapons against each other and everything. Which you are about to see in the responses to this post.

  4. laughable. Russia spreads fake news hmm? Well, Sputnik and RT sometimes lie. But the Western press has done it as well, and with far worse results. Its lies have pushed us into Iraq, Libia, Syria, the Balkans and Ukraine. I cannot think of any other reason why these people spread fear of Russia except that they are preparing themselves to the defeat of their sponsors and are looking for excuses. This anti-Russian hysteria is funny, if it were not so serious.

  5. The clear and present threat to our country comes from within. Couple the very effective “dumbing-down of America” with a group of white U.S.-born who can influence and guide a totally incompetent new POTUS by preying on his psychopathy to bring down our 238 year-old republic for their personal benefit and self-righteousness.

  6. Trump is not an ideologue. I suspect that starting in 2000, his ego allowed him to became involved in money laundering to save his business empire, then he opened off-shore accounts to hide profits for tax evasion purposes, and gradually also formed more unsavory overseas partnerships which engaged in violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. All this criminal activity would have been known by the KGB because it involved people in their sphere of influence. The US IC should have an army of forensic accountants looking into Trump’s past and current finances.

    The alt-right media has been steadily nurturing white supremacism, along with the fear-mongering Islamophobia industry, for the last 16-years. Trump with his limited cognitive ability for making rational informed decisions, and his celebrity status made him the perfect demagogue for the white supremacists to partner.

    As an international tax accountant, I believe that anyone running for US President should be subject to the same financial reporting disclosure laws for all their businesses as the SEC requires for publicly traded companies. It is not enough to simply see Trump’s personal tax returns. To ensure the integrity of the US Presidency, and to be able to enforce the emoluments clause, US law must require GAAP compliant full financial statements for all businesses held by a President and by anyone else who would not be under arm’s length transaction rules, whether family or business partners. This is very important.

    Finally, on another note, Rex Tillerson was head of Exxon Yemen starting in 1995 while President Ali Saleh was in power. The UN reported that Yemeni President Saleh amassed between $32-$60,000,000,000 (yes, that is BILLION) in personal wealth primarily from pay-for-play on oil contracts during his presidency in Yemen from 1990-2012. What is the likelihood Tillerson and Exxon did not violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in an oil market as corrupt as Yemen? How might this information affect US strategic political policy in State Department where former President Saleh is a major political player in the Yemen War, and in any negotiated settlement to end the stalemated armed conflict?

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