Today, US and European elections occur in a period of increased geopolitical competition but also against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile political and communications environment. The upcoming European elections are no exception: the threat of Russian interference is real.
Every election in the US and Europe since 2016 has come with a sense of foreboding. Political parties and security services fret about whether and how Russia will seek to interfere, worried that they can impact the outcome of the vote and even trigger a democratic crisis. These concerns are fully justified. The upcoming European elections are a tantalising target for Russian interference. Russia has the motive, means, and opportunity to aggressively seek to influence the outcome.
A prosperous and democratic European Union poses a distinct threat to the Kremlin, as it represents an alternative model strong enough to pull countries like Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. As more is learned about Russian involvement in Brexit and as Russian backing of Marie Le Pen’s 2017 campaign shows, Russia seeks to bolster the forces of European disintegration.
The upcoming European elections therefore present a tremendous opportunity for
Russia. With a surging far-right bloc and voters driven by disparate national and sub- national issues, there is ample opportunity for them to put their thumb on the scale.
The most visible and unnerving concern is the ability of Russia and foreign actors to sway public opinion using social media.
Russia also retains a robust capability to impact electoral events. Their most powerful, direct tool is utilising their intelligence services to hack and steal damaging information on the political opponents of the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. The public release of stolen information before an election, as was successfully done in the 2016 US election and less successfully so in the 2017 French election, shows the willingness and ability of Russia to intervene.
For campaigns, the major lesson from these events is to take cyber security extremely seriously. Campaigns should assume they will be breached and should have a plan ready. For example, by planting fake documents on their server, the Macron campaign prevented the press from being able to assume all the documents were authentic and in effect froze the press from reporting on the stolen content. Furthermore, US and European publics are now very much aware.
Campaigns should also take steps to protect campaign data and analytics that could be a valuable resource for their opponents. For example, during the 2016 election, Russians stole sensitive analytics of the committee of the US Democrats, which would have had immense value to the Trump campaign.
The most visible, and in some ways the most unnerving, concern is the ability of Russia and foreign actors to sway public opinion using social media. While the political impact of these efforts has often been overblown, Russia has often been able to impact the public narrative on controversial topics. The German Marshall Fund’s Hamilton 68 project, has exposed Russian efforts to amplify divisive issues such as migrant caravans and police violence against the black community. For Russia, driving anti-migrant sentiment in Europe will be of particular appeal.
The best path forward is for campaigns to be ready to take on divisive issues, such as migration. The ability of foreign actors to amplify and drive news cycles may make it difficult to hide or downplay controversial topics. Additionally, campaigns should “work the refs” and engage with the press early and often about the potential for foreign actors to elevate divisive issues.
Lastly, if campaigns see something, they should say something. Greater public aware- ness of foreign interference has built up a degree of resilience among the public and the press. In the 2018 US midterms, this vigilance may have deterred or at least mitigated the impact of Russian interference.
While the online domain has received the most attention – in part because it has been the most publicly visible line of effort from hostile foreign actors – the opacity of campaign financing and traditional forms of espionage also present key challenges for campaigns, law enforcement and intelligence services.
The weak response to foreign interference on the part of the United States and Europe has meant there is little to deter malign actors from interfering in future elections. This has created an unfortunate new normal that progressive and anti-far right campaigns must be ready to address. The future of Europe may depend on their ability to do so.