Expert Commentary

Russia Blends Cyber Attacks with Information War

Stefan Meister
Head of the Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, German Council on Foreign Relations

Russia has shown it is both willing and capable of using cyber capabilities to interfere in the West’s democratic elections. With the German elections coming up on September 24th, it is likely Russia will again – much like the United States and France – seek to sow confusion and distrust intended to weaken the foundation of liberal democracy – its electoral process. The Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey spoke with Stefan Meister, the head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, about what tactics Russia will likely employ against Germany and what it ultimately seeks to accomplish in its efforts.

The Cipher Brief: Russia influence operations have been around for years, but have since taken on a modern twist by leveraging cyber capabilities. How have these been primarily used in various elections in Europe as well as the United States?

Stefan Meister: With the return of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012, we observed a change in Russian information and security policy. Russian leadership understood, with the mass demonstrations in large Russian cities in 2011 and 2012, that the government needs to control the information sphere and fight the West back, where it seems strong, namely in foreign media, impact of NGOs on civil societies, and providing a narrative which is widely accepted. Disinformation, fake news, and cyber attacks have become part of a Russian security strategy to fight the West in soft areas of influence. Moscow has not sought to offer a positive alternative narrative, instead it first seeks to deepen the weaknesses that already exist in the West, work with right- and left-wing populist and other groups who challenge the Western political and media system. In doing so, Russia seeks to interrupt and weaken the credibility of the West worldwide.

Ultimately, it is not of first importance to determine the exact tactics Russia used during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, but rather whether it can impact our media, societies, and even the outcome of elections.

Cyber attacks are simply one component of the strategy Russia employs. It provides information through hack-and-leaks that attack the credibility of Western politicians and gives public figures the feeling of vulnerability and weakness. This is a tailor-made approach, which works for every country, regardless of differences in terms of the narratives espoused by the public figures.

Cyber attacks are coordinated with Russian media and online media platforms who amplify these stolen documents. Russian intelligence agencies such as the Federal Security Service (FSB), the primary intelligence service, and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), the military intelligence wing, often partner with private hackers or loyal business people, so that it is difficult to determine where the attacks originate.

The less Western societies trust their media system and remain in their insulated social network bubbles, the easier it is to impact them with disinformation. The topics discussed during information campaigns are not necessarily about Russia specifically, but rather the failures and weaknesses within Western societies and governments.

TCB: What role does Germany play in Russian foreign policy, and what would Russia seek to gain by interfering in the upcoming German elections?

Meister: Germany is key to the stability of Europe through its role in crisis management in the European Union. When you attack Germany, discredit its policies, weaken its ability to act, you ultimately hurt the EU. This is also about the credibility of German and EU policy, which has been undermined to send a clear message to the Russian society: The EU is in a deep crisis, it is overrun by migrants, and a place of terrorism and instability – be happy, that you live in Putin’s Russia.

At the same time, we have to understand that Russia’s policy started with the return of Putin in 2012, who felt under attack by the West and is now fighting back. So by weakening Germany and the EU, Putin seeks to improve his bargaining position and room for maneuver elsewhere, particularly against the West. While Russian action is unlikely to outright determine the selection of the German chancellor, it can explore German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weaknesses while strengthening opposition groups, such as the right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, who seek to undermine the political system. This will strengthen Putin’s relative position and ability to act in the future. At the same time, the right-wing populists will polarize the German political discourse.

TCB: Why have some operations been more successful then others, such as in the United States rather than France or the Netherlands?

Meister: We still don’t know how successful Russian interference in the U.S. election campaign has really been. My impression is that what we think Russia can do, has been more impactful than it really has or can be. However, it was certainly more successful in the U.S. than elsewhere because of the deep political crisis of U.S. democracy. Many people feel they are not represented by their politicians, and the former democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was not seen as an acceptable alternative. That in turn strengthens populist candidates like Donald Trump, the very types of people Russian propaganda supports.

In France, there was suddenly an alternative in the system with French President Emmanuel Macron, and we can see that any effort by Russian intelligence to discredit him with disinformation and fake news did not work. If there are alternatives, if there is resilience in the system, Russian propaganda campaigns will be much less successful. In the Netherlands, this was also the case. The negative example of Donald Trump was just elected in the United States, and the Dutch people understood how bad populists can be.

TCB: Is the political environment in Germany susceptible to Russian influence operations? Why have we not seen more evidence of Russian operations leading up to the German elections?

Meister: Germany is more resilient to Russian influence operations because its economy is doing much better than in many other countries in Europe, its social system is functioning well, and the role of social media and polarization in the election campaign is lower than for instance in the United States. Its political system is more stable than in France, and with its history of World War II and fascism, support for right-wing populism is much lower.

German’s media system has already started to explore and describe Russian disinformation. For instance, after the 2015 Lisa case – a fake story about a Russian German girl that had reportedly been raped by Arab migrants – German intelligence started to take Russian interference and manipulation more seriously. Germany has experienced a few large fake news stories, and two years ago, the Bundestag, or German parliament, underwent a cyber attack, but there have been no other large scandals.

What Russian operations concentrate on is strengthening right-wing populists, such as the Alternative for Germany party, through their media and stories on social media. Russia seeks to support the party in becoming the strongest political opposition, while simultaneously attacking Merkel’s refugee policies.

Their narratives include that EU sanctions against Russia being counterproductive, or that in Ukraine, fascist groups influence the government. Furthermore, they support the existing resentments in German society, such as anti-Americanism or suggesting that Merkel’s move to bring migrants to Germany has also brought terrorism. However, this will not have a major impact on the result of the German election campaign – perhaps only swaying a single percent of the electorate. More important to the election outcomes are Russia’s attempts to poison and polarize public discussion and weaken the ability of German leadership to act in the future.

The Author is Stefan Meister

Stefan Meister is Head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). Previously, he worked as a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was formerly visiting fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington D.C. writing on German-Russian relations and Russian disinformation. Meister has served several times as an election observer for the OSCE in post-Soviet countries. His... Read More

Learn more about The Cipher's Network here