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The United States is not the only Western country in which Russia influenced prominently in the elections. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia is also a hot topic in the French presidential campaign. In the lead up to the election in spring 2017, nearly all the opposition parties, whether on the right, far right, or far left, have bemoaned the degradation of ties with Russia under the government of President François Hollande, arguing that it breaks with France’s tradition of diplomatic engagement and political dialogue with Moscow and that it is detrimental to French economic interests. Some politicians from these parties have also expressed, on international issues such as Ukraine or Syria, views sympathetic to the Kremlin.
This week we have seen the decline of the polls leadership of Francois Fillón, leader of the French centre-right (UMP); as a result, it was the poll´s rise of the leftist independent Macròn, while he was accused of cheating his wife with a member of his team, a man. All these events are positioning Mrs. Le Pen, leader of the populist far-right in France, who wants to leave the EU and abandon the Euro, a new Frexit! The pro-Russian stances of France’s populist or extremist parties do not really come as a surprise: In the US and Europe, from Republican President Donald Trump to British Nigel Farage or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have voiced their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Putin is underestimating the concern that Russian involvement in attacking the American electoral system has engendered across the American political spectrum, about the concern over the Russian role in the American election. But Washington is not Putin only target. Germany is investigating a series of sophisticated hacking attacks on political parties, fearing that Russia might be trying to influence the outcome of this year’s elections. The offices of several MPs inside Germany’s parliament were targeted in the attacks, as well as regional offices of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and rival parties. The German government agency in charge of cyber security believes the attacks originated from Russia and may be linked to the hacking of private emails from Clinton´s campaign team in the US earlier this year. The attacks particularly targeted party offices in the tiny German state of Saarland, which is not much influential but which is due to hold the country’s next regional elections in March. National elections in Germany are due to follow in the autumn.
Kasparov, the well-known Russian dissident, president of the Human Rights Foundation and former world chess champion, was asked about Putin’s motives to help Trump win the election. Kasparov gave several possible reasons. First, he said, Russia is going through a bad economic time, and Putin needs to project an image of strength, as a world leader capable of challenging the US and even influencing its choices. Second, for geopolitical reasons, Trump is the perfect American president for Putin, Kasparov said. Trump has criticized NATO, the European Union and other organizations defending security and democracy in its area of influence, and opposed the Russian invasion of the Crimea in 2014. “Putin realizes that, for his imperialist agenda, organizations like NATO and the European Union are an obstacle; Putin wants to undermine and destroy them, and Trump was the perfect candidate to weaken them.”
This year we will see elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and perhaps in Italy. By not responding to US sanctions with an eye-for-eye, Putin undoubtedly hopes to sway opinion in Europe, convincing voters that he is not a threat. His first goal of course is the removal of European and US sanctions on Russia, imposed for its actions in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.
The sophistication and capacity of Russian cyber-warfare operations have been revolutionised in recent years by a decision to co-opt the country’s impressive IT industry, said Andrei Soldatov, author of ´The Red Web´ and the foremost expert in Russian cyber espionage. “There used to be a view of Russia’s cyber espionage and hacking based on the idea of criminal mercenary gangs working for a proxy, such as pro-Kremlin youth groups. But what we’re seeing now is quite new: the idea now is not to use criminals but to use the industry. We have maybe the biggest engineer community in the world, and lots of great specialists. They are not criminals; they are professionals and they are not bothered or afraid to refuse requests from government agencies.”
And Putin’s fingerprints are everywhere in Brexit’s vote, and in Italy’s referendum in support of the “No” vote against Prime Minister Renzi. My opinion: I would not be surprised if Putin tries to help choose authoritarian populist leaders in Germany, France and even Mexico. His motives may be very simple: if Trump turns out to be an authoritarian president, as many already fear, and Germany and France choose authoritarian populist leaders in the upcoming elections, none of them will have the moral authority to criticize Putin for being an autocrat. While I might understand Putin rationales, I don´t understand Trump´s. Why Trump would wish to get rid of the European Union and the NATO?
The exercise of political power seems different today. Larry Diamond, a sociologist at Stanford, has described the past decade as a period of “democratic recession.” Within many of the remaining democracies, the quality of governance has deteriorated. Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumours. Some people believe them; others don’t. It’s hard work to ascertain what is true. James Russell Lowell, the founder of “Atlantic´s” foreign affairs magazine, challenged the happy assumption that the Constitution was a “machine that would go of itself.” Lowell was right. Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism. No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the US has been, is guaranteed a successful future. When early Americans wrote things like “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.
Former President Obama waited too long to warn the world about the cybernetic threat of Russia. Unless President Trump begins to take it seriously and uphold the principles of democracy and human rights, as most Democratic and Republican predecessors have done, Russia might try to use cyber espionage and false news to influence voting in those various elections coming, putting the Western democracies at risk.