Russia ‘actively involved in French election’

“A new world”: Le Pen, the leader of Front National, says sanctions against Russia should end.

Hearings into Russia’s role in last year’s US election have opened in the Senate. Senators say it interfered with the outcome — and is still doing so elsewhere. How should the West respond?

It is attempting “character assassination”. Its efforts are “very overt as well as covert”. It is trying to change results and could be a “balance disrupter”.

That was how Russia’s role in European elections was described this week. As hearings opened into its influence in America’s presidential election, the two senators in charge gave a stark warning. Vladimir Putin’s government, according to Richard Burr and Mark Warner, is “actively involved” in France’s upcoming polls.

This implies Putin is undermining Emmanuel Macron, the pro-globalisation candidate and favourite, by spreading lies. Putin hosted Macron’s main opponent, the nationalist Marine Le Pen, in Moscow last week.

Several intelligence agencies have already concluded that Russia ordered a cyber campaign against Hillary Clinton last year, including the release of hacked emails from senior figures in her party.

Warner now says “1,000 internet trolls in Russia” may have created fake news stories to harm her. US agencies say these gained credibility when they were shared by social media bots and media networks such as RT and Sputnik. And the FBI is investigating whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government.

This week a senior US intelligence official called Russia’s efforts “a challenge to the foundations of our democracy”. There have been accusations of similar tactics in other elections. Officials have warned of future meddling to undermine the global liberal order.

How should the West respond? The Obama administration placed economic sanctions on agencies, officials and companies; ordered Russian operatives to leave the USA; and shut down facilities believed to have been involved. This month members of Congress called for sanctions if Russia interfered elsewhere.

But on Wednesday Burr hinted at another approach, saying: “Part of our responsibility is to educate the rest of the world about what’s going on”. Governments could also use their own cyber capabilities to expose embarrassing details about Russia.

Russian roulette

Sanctions are the best response, say some. Putin is interfering because he thinks it is in his own interests. The West must hurt him economically and politically. Democracies’ right to choose their own governments is a sacred principle; Putin has placed it in peril. This demands a tough response, to deter him and others.

The solution lies with us, others reply. An autocrat like Putin will shrug off sanctions; the decline of liberal democracy is more important to him. But he cannot force us to think as he wants. We must educate ourselves so we understand what is going on and why. If we have faith in voters’ capacity to reason, democracy will endure.

You Decide

  1. Could a fake news story change the way you think about the world?
  2. Are sanctions the best response to Russian interference in elections?

Activities

  1. Work in pairs. You are French voters reading a news story about the election. List five questions which you could ask to help you to work out how trustworthy it is. Discuss your choices as a class.
  2. Why are the current investigations taking place, what do we know so far and what are they trying to find out? Write a one-page explanation which someone three years younger than you could understand.

Some People Say...

“Education is the greatest weapon any society can have.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The CIA and FBI say Russia developed a “clear preference” for Donald Trump last year and undermined Hillary Clinton. The CIA says Russia and Wikileaks hacked and released emails from senior Democratic politicians. Many fake news stories helped Trump and hurt Clinton. Similar allegations have been made in other elections.
What do we not know?
Was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia’s government? What impact has the interference had?
What do people believe?
Some analysts think Russia targeted its information very precisely during the US election, helping to swing votes in crucial states. There is no evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. But the FBI’s director says his investigation has only been going for a relatively “short period of time”.

Word Watch

Burr
The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is from the Republican Party.
Warner
The most senior member of the Democratic Party on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Upcoming
The first round takes place on April 23rd. The top two candidates (unless one wins an absolute majority or more than 50% of the votes) will then enter a run-off, which will be held on May 7th.
Colluded
For example, it could have helped Russia to direct its misinformation at particular voters. Some analysts have suggested Russia may have done this — and it would have required information from people with access to voter rolls.
Other
There have been accusations of similar tactics in Montenegro, the Netherlands and the UK EU referendum.
Future
Officials warned of further meddling in the 2018 and 2020 US elections, as well as this September’s election in Germany.
Sanctions
Restrictions introduced as punishment. Often economic, restricting trade. But Russia has also faced political sanctions: for example, travel bans on senior officials.
Details
For example, about corruption in Putin’s government.