New shadow warfare: How Putin is fanning the flames of discontent

Published by the i paper (1st August, 2016)

Two years ago Ukraine held a presidential ballot intended to complete the uprising against the Russian stooges running their country so disastrously. Just days before people went to the polls, hackers tried to disrupt voting by shredding the election computer systems. The assault was claimed by CyberBerkut, a clandestine group named after the brutal police force blamed for shooting dead unarmed protesters in Kiev. They failed to stop the vote. But did this signal the start of a new style of attack on democracy?

This question becomes all the more pertinent after recent events in the United States. It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood thriller, but there is mounting evidence Russian hackers have attempted to subvert the election of the next United States president. Private security experts and intelligence chiefs believe two teams, both linked to Moscow intelligence units, broke into Democrat Party computers and then passed stolen emails to WikiLeaks. These were designed to wound Hillary Clinton’s campaign by revealing party chiefs sought to thwart her rival Bernie Sanders.

If confirmed, this is an incredible: it would imply a foreign dictatorship is seeking to influence the vote to choose the West’s most important leader. This smacks of shadow warfare by a malevolent Moscow regime, which is why Donald Trump’s flippant response is so shameful when he encouraged a foreign adversary to carry out espionage against a rival candidate. ‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,’ he said. This crass man, remember, is standing to become commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful nation.

It is not hard to see why Vladimir Putin might want to give Trump’s candidature a helping hand. He is the Kremlin’s dream candidate, an isolationist determined to undo Western efforts to control Russian aggression. Trump has threatened the sanctity of Nato by saying he would not necessarily defend member states if attacked by a foreign power, frightening already-nervous frontline Baltic states. He has suggested the US should accept the illegal seizure of Crimea. And he has hinted at lifting sanctions on Russians imposed after the annexation.

Some observers argue Trump is some kind of sinister front man for Putin rather than just a useful idiot. Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman called him ‘The Siberian Candidate’ and wondered if the property developer was more than just an admirer of the Moscow hardman. Others point to the strange preponderance of people with Russian links on his team: one foreign policy aide supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, while his campaign manager was on the payroll of the Kremlin-backed kleptocrat in Kiev ousted in those protests two years ago.

This seems unlikely, however repulsive the policies and repellent the links. Putin is a bold opportunist. He moves fast to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to him. Trump offers him the chance of a patsy president in the White House, something he could never have dreamed off – especially not at the helm of the Republican Party. It is worth noting other leaders endorsing Trump include Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Yet he would be a highly-unpredictable president, which might end up backfiring on any of these despots.

It is discomforting to discover that Moscow might be trying to manipulate a critical presidential election. Yet we should not be surprised. Ukraine is far from the only place that has been hit by suspicious electronic attacks. One Scandinavian minister told me they were constantly facing assaults on their defence and energy systems. Eastern European nations have seen secret conversations surface that undermine politicians supportive of the European Union. And US intelligence chiefs have been warning Russian cyber-attacks are now the biggest threat to national security.

This fits a strategy to undermine the EU, destabilise Nato and sow divisions across Europe. Once the Soviet Union sought to spread Communism across the continent. Today we see their successors in the Kremlin, led by a wily former KGB operative, seek to escalate disruption in Western democracies, fanning flames of discontent on left and right. Russian money backed a Czech president calling for a referendum on the EU and Nato. It funded the far-right National France in France, currently stirring up hatred against immigrants and Islam. And Moscow is suspected of links to several other populist parties from Austria to Hungary and Italy.

We are witnessing a modern update on ‘dezinformatsiya’, the information warfare first seen in the Cold War and then used so effectively in the theft of Crimea. It is supported by pouring huge sums into a swelling propaganda machine, designed to perpetuate rumour, provide platforms for populists and push conspiracy theories such as claiming ebola was a bio-weapon invented by the CIA or that 9/11 was an inside job. Then there is an army of state-funded trolls, spreading like knotweed on social media. Some have been masquerading as US conservatives backing Trump.

Russia is not the only nation involved in such activities. Yet it is among the most effective, as seen with its possible intervention in the US election, and is certainly the most dangerous. These are turbulent times, with divisions and discord growing in our complacent Western societies. We need to be on guard as malign forces seek to widen fissures, new frontiers emerge in cyber-warfare and we become ever more reliant on computers. Otherwise we might allow dictators such as Putin to trump our precious liberal democracies.

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