Concern over Russian foreign interference is running high. As the argument over controversial Russian action during the 2016 United States Presidential Election continues, we should consider possible overt and covert Russian action during the recent 2017 French election, the upcoming 2017 German elections, and what strategic goals Russia is pursuing with such measures.
The integrity of 2016-2017 election outcomes have come under scrutiny due to possible Russian involvement. Russia has a history of operating systems of disinformation, undermining western democracies, and strategically affecting international politics through what is known as “Active Measures” (AM). Initiated during the Soviet Union through Lenin and Stalin in the 1920’s and then the KGB special department known as “Service A,” Active Measures, according to Roy Godson, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, were a combination of techniques to “propagate Russian, (formerly Soviet) ideas, political/military preferences and undermine those of their democratic adversaries.”
Today, Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence describe how modern Active Measures have grown to encompass the “totality of the Russian effort to interfere, mislead, misinform, outright falsify, influence… in state sponsored propaganda broadcasts on RT (Russia Today), in countless internet trolls, [and] fake or distorted news spread by fake news services.” Frederick Kagan of the Critical Threats Project and American Enterprise Institute also describes similar Russian measures of “reflexive control,” a doctrine that works to present a certain view of the world to an adversary and to ensure that this perspective will lead to a desired outcome.
Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the U.S. National Security Agency, testified that “Washington was ‘aware of Russian activity’ in the French election” that may have led to the release of campaign emails from Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign effort two days before the 2017 French election. Though American officials report that it is inconclusive whether the Kremlin ordered Russian intelligence agencies to hack the candidate’s systems, the leak “was conducted by ‘entities with known ties to Russian intelligence.’”
Putin had publicly shown sympathy for French presidential candidates other than Emmanuel Macron, yet after accusations of “Russian meddling” from Macron’s aides, Guillaume Poupard, head of the French government’s cyber security agency, stated that the agency “found no trace of a Russian hacking group in its investigations of a hack and document leak” and described the attack as “’so generic and simple that it could have been practically anyone.’”
In contrast, Daniel Rosenthal, fmr. White House counterterrorism and cyber security official, points out that Russia often seeks to “obfuscate” its role in cyber attacks by using methods similar to other actors to create confusion about responsibility.
Chairman Burr also stated, “Russia is ‘actively involved’ in the upcoming… German elections.” Concern over overt and covert efforts include caution against methods similar to those used in Montenegro and the Netherlands, like coordinated cyberattacks that prompted the use of paper ballots in the Montenegro election to assure integrity. Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service expects “further attacks” after already experiencing “increasingly aggressive cyber espionage,” such as email phishing attacks and disinformation.
When asked about Russian hackers’ involvement in French affairs and possible involvement in upcoming Germain parliamentary election, Putin stated that Russia has not interfered on a state level.
The end of the Cold War weakened Russia strategically and economically in the face of NATO and powers like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Russian confidence and nationalism waned along with economic stability after the Cold War and the resulting expansion of Western dominance. For Russia, Active Measures provided the “weak economy and insecure political institutions with a strategic and tactical advantage to affect significant political outcomes abroad”, including a restoration of the balance of powers through legitimacy, economic power, and strategic benefits.
Beyond illustrations of military power with the annexation of Crimea, violent conflict in Ukraine, and military support in Syria, the tool of cyber activity allows for purposeful disruption with minimal cost and commitment to create instability. Russia’s alleged operations affecting international elections could serve to instill distrust among democracies, guide the courses of Western powers, or mold states open to Russian economic and political partnerships.