These headlines are characteristic of the disinformation campaigns the Kremlin uses to frighten and destabilize its eastern European neighbors. The precise nature of Russian state-backed interference in the last November’s U.S. presidential election and the contact, if any, between Russian officials and members of President Trump’s election campaign, may never be fully known. But the apocalyptic stylings of Russian disinformation have reached across the Atlantic. Resisting this strain of anxious rhetoric means looking to its origin.
Not coincidentally, Senators McCain, Graham, and Amy Klobuchar recently returned from a tour of the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and Georgia, where they sought to restore confidence in U.S. support for their continued independence. Each of those countries, along with Finland and Sweden, have been targeted by Russian disinformation campaigns attempting to exploit regional, ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions, usually pitting Russian-speaking populations in Scandinavia, the Baltic region, and Ukraine, against their neighbors, in an effort to divide and conquer. The alleged Russian interference campaign against the United States, involving hacks and leaks damaging to the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, is different in some clear ways: It did not target a population of “Russian compatriots,” nor did it seek to reassert a Russian sphere of influence. It did not come from a neighboring aggressor. But like those earlier campaigns, it sought to exploit a fractured political landscape and sow confusion.
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In 2007, the government of Estonia, a former Soviet satellite that Russian President Vladimir Putin still considers a part of his country’s sphere of influence, decided to relocate what is known as the “Bronze Soldier of Tallinn,” a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. The Kremlin quickly condemned the plan. Despite Russia’s response, Estonian officials proceeded with the removal. Soon afterwards, the country was hit with a torrent of crippling distributed denial-of-service attacks that took down critical pieces of the government, banking, and media infrastructure.
Russia has officially denied involvement in the attack, but multiple Russian political figures have claimed responsibility, and Estonian officials have little doubt about the origin of the attacks. As Piret Pernik, a cybersecurity researcher at Tallinn’s International Centre for Defense and Security (ICDS) explained, the assault was meant to impact national decision-making, and reverse the decision to relocate the bronze soldier to a military cemetery. The same was true of the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and campaign officials, which were geared toward changing public opinion and voters’ choice, she said.
In the years that followed, Russia refined its disruptive techniques in the invasions of Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014, in an effort to distance both countries from NATO and reassert Russian political control. Ukraine has been subject to a series of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure since the Maidan revolution. More recently, the Czech Republic and Germany have been hit by DNC-style cyber operations.