Has Kremlin cracked democracy’s code?


russia-europe-guardianGerman politicians have warned that hackers and others acting for the Russian state could undermine Germany’s general elections next year, the BBC reports:

The German election is at risk from “outside manipulation”, said Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior MP in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party…. Russia was blamed for a cyberattack on the German parliament last year. An unnamed German security official said it was “highly likely” that secret files published by Wikileaks two weeks ago originated from that cyberattack.

Last week FireEye, a private cybersecurity company that monitors nation-state actors, stated that it believes Russia has “weaponized” social media, notes Brendan Thomas-Noone, research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney:

The company believes Russian-controlled social media accounts and online personas promoted the leaked material, as well as phony news stories, to journalists and other influential social media personalities. FireEye recorded thousands of social media postings from these accounts in an effort to generate “online buzz”. The postings likely helped improve the apparent legitimacy of the stories.

It is a national security priority to protect critical our infrastructure, like power grids and transport systems, he adds. It is time to add our democratic processes and institutions to that list.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is motivated by a particularly toxic perception of U.S. democracy assistance efforts, The New York Times suggests:

More generally, the Russian government blamed Mrs. Clinton, along with the C.I.A. and other American officials, for encouraging anti-Russian revolts during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. What Americans saw as legitimate democracy promotion, Mr. Putin saw as an unwarranted intrusion into Russia’s geographic sphere of interest, as the United States once saw Soviet meddling in Cuba.

During a panel discussion on CNN’s Reliable Sources, former Russia Today anchor Liz Wahl explained that the goal of the Russian media is to create disinformation to undermine democracy and faith in institutions (or, as The Financial Times notes, with the aim of degrading confidence in democracy.)

After all, Mr. Putin is an authoritarian who came of age as a Soviet spy and wants to damage U.S. interests around the world, The Wall Street Journal reminds us.

michaelmcfaulStories about Russian and other foreign actors involved in the production of fake news have raised fears of a new “Illiberal International” to replace the old Communist International, notes Michael McFaul (right), director of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. What was the full scope of these activities? Did any of these actions influence the election outcome? I don’t know, but we need to know, he writes for The Washington Post.

The Kremlin is also supporting illiberal parties in Europe, The Washington Post’s EJ Dionne notes, citing a timely article for the Atlantic, “Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy,” by the Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond, which speaks of a “romance between far-right, anti-immigrant European parties” and Putin.

larryDiamond“We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II,” Diamond added.

Earlier this year, the US government officially accused Russia of directing efforts to disrupt election processes, spread disinformation, and generally discredit and confuse the democratic system, The Guardian adds.

Recent developments suggest that U.S. strategy may be moving away from an ideological confrontation with authoritarian Russia and toward a civilizational conflict with Islam, an analyst suggests.

In this globalised, web-connected world, an injury to one liberal democracy can be seen as an injury to all, notes one analysis. In a time of networked terror, globalisation, and transnational movements, if the integrity of the concept of a nation state is damaged, it threatens the network of democracies that rely on each other as allies.

There are no easy answers as to what Americans and others concerned with democracy and freedom should do, especially since the more people talk about Russian meddling, the greater Putin’s victory is likely to be, notes analyst Paul Goble. But there are at least three lessons from the past that may prove useful, he suggests:

  • First, it is critically important to understand just what Putin, a not-so-former KGB officer, is about and why he plans for “failures” as well as successes in his covert operations. Most Western intelligence services plan only for success as they define it, but Russian intel always plans for failures. That means that those tracking what Putin’s agents have done need to be very careful to document everything they have done and are doing, to do so with a minimum of hyperbole and a maximum of legal precision….
  • Second, the West must avoid becoming like Russia in response to Putin’s actions. Listing Russian news outlets as foreign agents, as some are proposing, is exactly what the Kremlin leader wants: if the West does it, in Putin’s calculations, then Russia can; and the fundamental differences between his Russia and Western democracies are reduced in the eyes of many…..
  • And third, it is absolutely essential that Americans and other Western nations recognize that what Putin is doing is an existential threat to the West. All too many in the US and Europe have foolishly convinced themselves that after the end of communism, the disintegration of the USSR, and the decline of the Russian economy that Moscow cannot play that role.



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