More than just hacks: Russia's 'hybrid warfare' has been targeting western Europe for months

To view the cyberattacks on Hillary Clinton's presidential election campaign as a unique offence — as many Americans seem to do — is to miss the full picture, Brian Stewart writes.

Germany, France, Britain, Poland and Sweden have all expressed concern about Moscow's meddling

U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that Russia intervened in the U.S. election in a bid to help Donald Trump win the White House — a finding that was perhaps not a surprise across the Atlantic. European spymasters have repeatedly expressed alarm over the years about a sharp rise in Russian espionage under Vladimir Putin. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

One might wonder whether the suspected Russian cyberattacks during the U.S. election were serious enough to warrant all the calls for investigation — an argument that could be made were it not for all the other cases worrying Western governments.

Start with remarkably similar warnings of Moscow's interference and cyber-sabotage voiced by Germany, France, Britain, Poland and Sweden, along with much of NATO and even the security committee of the European Union.

To view the cyberattacks on Hillary Clinton's campaign, then, as a unique offence — as many Americans seem to do — is to miss the full picture.

Western Europe has been a far more consistent target of what some intelligence chiefs now see as "hybrid warfare" emanating from the Kremlin.

European spymasters have repeatedly expressed alarm over the years about a sharp rise in Russian espionage under Vladimir Putin. But what is far more worrisome are the attempts to destabilize Western governments through the same cocktail of political interference.

These attacks involve the hacking of parties and state agencies, fake news stories, financial support of far-right parties and relentless propaganda by Russian state networks and social media to stir up populist anger against establishment parties.

The CIA concluded with 'high confidence' that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election on Donald Trump's behalf. Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, have denied all accusations. (Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty Images)

Blunt warnings from German officials

In a detailed report released in April, the European Council on Foreign Relations bluntly warned that Moscow's different intelligence services "conduct active measures aimed at subverting and destabilizing European governments … and attacks on political enemies."

The goal appears to be to weaken politicians Moscow does not like in a bid to end sanctions, sow discord throughout NATO and the EU, to increase distrust of liberal democracies generally and to challenge U.S. influence on the continent.

The head of Germany's domestic intelligence service (BfV), Hans-Georg Maassen, insists Russia has been actively cyber-targeting German infrastructure and institutions for at least eight years and has "shown a willingness to carry out sabotage."

He has said that the Russian group that hacked the files of the U.S. Democrats was also responsible for stealing classified material from Germany's parliament in 2015.

Now that Russian interests are active in German politics, Maassen warns, the most serious threats are appearing.

"We see aggressive and increased cyber-spying and cyber-operations that could potentially endanger German government officials, members of parliament and employees of democratic parties," he said in a statement last week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will run for a fourth term in 2017. She has warned that Russia will likely try to interfere in her country's elections. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Maassen's counterpart, Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany's foreign intelligence (BND), agrees that Moscow could well use cyberattacks and other forms of interference "to elicit political uncertainty" in the Germany's federal election next year.

Russia has denied being involved in any cyberattacks in either Europe or the U.S.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, running for a fourth term next year, has complained several times of Russian smear and misinformation campaigns. She expects more next year.

Beyond cyberattacks

It's not all hacking. Russian state media and their friends in social media have kept up a barrage of anti-Merkel propaganda, which has only risen since she supported sanctions against the Kremlin. The attacks include fake news stories often highlighting right-wing political accusations that she has opened up Germany to a flood of migrants and terror attacks.

Last January, Merkel's government accused Russian state TV of trying to raise media hysteria inside Germany after it broadcast an apparently false report saying a 13-year-old girl was raped by Arab immigrants.

It sparked street demonstrations by the far right.

German police denied the attack ever happened, but Russia refused to apologize.

Supporters of the anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement demonstrate in Dresden, Germany in this October 2016 file photo. Russia has been accused of using state media to stir up populist anger against Europe's establishment parties. (Oliver Killig/AFP/Getty Images)

Fake news is now so widespread that German security services are offering regular briefings to expose falsehoods as they arise. And this past fall, alarmed EU leaders started meeting in an attempt to find solutions to Russian political meddling in so many member states.

Moscow is also believed to have funded right-wing groups in Germany and other nations.

Whether or not Russia sought to help Donald Trump win the U.S. election, the country has certainly showered attention and favours on Europe's rising populist parties.

France's National Front Leader Marine Le Pen, who regularly voices praise for Putin, allowed her party to take a nine-million-euro loan in 2014 from a Moscow bank said to be close to the Russian leader. She reportedly wants another 27 million to fight next year's election.

'Moscow is embracing it'

Putin can likely bask in more than just the praise of Le Pen and now Trump; he is a surprisingly popular figure among the continent's right-wing movements, which champion causes that are anti-EU and anti-immigrant. His macho style, no-nonsense criticism of liberal society and hard line on terrorism all play well with those against the status quo.

"It's clear Moscow is embracing it … and sees these populist parties as useful allies in pursuing its objectives in Europe, such as ending economic sanctions or undermining European support for Ukraine," Fredrik Wesslau, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, recently told the Financial Times.

France's far-right National Front Leader Marine Le Pen borrowed nine million euros from a Moscow bank said to be close to Vladimir Putin in 2014. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

Russians often make the point that the U.S. is hypocritical as the country and its allies have often meddled in overseas politics. A sharp debating point — but one that does nothing to ease concern over Russian tactics, now all the more dangerous as new technology makes them so difficult to track and expose.

"Data and the internet have turned our business on its head," Alex Younger, head of the British intelligence agency MI6, warned last week.

Though Younger didn't mention the country by name, it was clear he was talking of the increasing range of cyberattacks directed by — or at least influenced by — Russia.

"The connectivity that is at the heart of globalization can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims deniably," he said. "[The risks] represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty. They should be a concern to all those who share democratic values."

Cynicism about intelligence services is widespread, of course. Intelligence is hard to get right at any time and, as Trump likes to point out, spies have been known to blunder in the past. 

Still, it's hard to square such widespread concern across so many intelligence communities, many highly respected, with Trump's utterly dismissive air.

It's a deeply murky story — and one that the next president seems oddly content to leave that way.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.