cyber campaign Putin's Digital War

Disinformation is undermining Western democracies as Russia wages a hybrid war that many countries are ill-prepared for, writes a leading European politician, Guy Verhofstadt.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Both the FBI and the CIA have concluded that Russia was behind the hacking and disinformation campaign specifically directed at influencing the U.S. presidential elections in favor of Donald Trump. So Time news magazine was wrong in naming Trump "Person of the Year," as obviously, 2016 was the year of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The attack on the United States could be a harbinger for further attempts to intervene in European election processes. Past cyber-attacks in Europe are remarkably similar to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in the U.S. allegedly carried out with Russian support.

Early in 2015, a group with connections to the Russian government hacked the German parliament, stole confidential documents and passed them to WikiLeaks, which published them online.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, accuses Russia of having orchestrated similar attacks on government computer systems. And in November, a large-scale cyber attack hit the European Commission.

Cyber attacks are only one facet of a bigger hybrid war that Russia is waging against the West.

Cyber attacks are only one facet of a bigger hybrid war that Russia is waging against the West. Russia is also supporting political far-right nationalistic organizations and political movements in Europe, such as by extending a credit line for the French Front National under Marine Le Pen or making prime airtime available to politicians from the British  Independence Party on Russia Today, the Russian government-financed TV network.

U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to take action against Putin’s attacks on American democracy, but he should have done more and acted much earlier. It would be foolish of the Europeans to count on help from the new Trump administration. Mr. Trump’s chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon – former executive chair of the American “Alt-Right” disinformation website, Breitbart News – has openly offered Ms. Le Pen help in the French presidential elections this spring.

Official Russian sources admit that they spent €1.2 billion ($1.25 billion) for campaigns in foreign media in 2016 alone. In the E.U., thousands of fake news report-spreading websites popped up, operated by unknown persons. The amount of disinformation in Hungary doubled in 2014; and some 42 new websites in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia are polluting the E.U.’s information ecosystem. Less secretively, Kremlin has, despite the imploding economy in Russia, expended hundreds of millions of dollars in the financing of propaganda organizations such as the “news” agency Sputnik.

The mission behind all this is to undermine trust in the West’s democratic institutions. One method is trolling social media. Beyond that, social media plays a key role in implementing a strategy of Russia’s that rests on three pillars: historical revisionism, conspiracy theories, and denial of reality, for example regarding the presence of Russian forces in Crimea and Ukraine.

The West should create legal possibilities to fight these attacks, and to systematically shut down channels that disseminate disinformation. It is propitious that the E.U. just increased the European External Action Service’s StratCom team's budget, which was drastically under-financed despite its core task of tracking down and exposing disinformation. Joint European defense measures against cyber attacks must be promoted and member states should be encouraged to bolster their capabilities in this area.

Europeans must not become complacent about the state of their press. After all, Breitbart News is already present in Great Britain and plans to expand out into the whole E.U. This is now a time of instability for the West and Russia isn't playing by the rules that applied even in the darkest days of the Cold War. Mr. Putin is waging a hybrid war against the West and it is high time to defend our values. In 2016, we became aware of the scale of the challenge that Mr. Putin represents for Western democracy. In 2017, we must actively counter this tactic.


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