The Russian government has denied hacking these democracies, and in some cases the evidence for state-sponsored interference is very flimsy. There is no proof, for example, that the Brexit vote was marred by foreign cyberattacks. The voter-registration site was most likely downed by something much more mundane: a surge in visits from people hoping to … register to vote. If Russia really has been trying to shape the outcome of the French election, the impact so far appears minimal.
This story, moreover, is just as old as it is new. Foreign actors have sought to undermine democracies since Sparta’s King Cleomenes started meddling in the internal affairs of ancient Athens. (The king’s interventions were harder to deny, since they involved invading soldiers.) The United States has its own thorny history of messing with elections abroad.
What’s novel today is that 1) the Russian government does seem to have revived its Cold War-era “active measures” against the political systems of rival countries; 2) the digital era has afforded the Kremlin and other state and non-state actors new tools in such efforts, from phishing attacks against campaign staffers to fake news distributed through social media; 3) the targeted countries are especially vulnerable to this type of sabotage at the moment; and 4) targeted countries aren’t sure how to respond to this modern form of political warfare.
As the Russia expert Fiona Hill once told me, Vladimir Putin, in apparently ordering a campaign to hack and leak Democratic Party emails, didn’t create toxic partisanship or deep distrust of government in the United States. Instead, he exploited this political dysfunction by turning the strengths of an open, technologically advanced country into weaknesses. Barack Obama’s belated retaliation against Russia at the end of his presidency, and the beleaguered congressional investigations into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, speak to the U.S. government’s profound struggles to process Putin’s challenge to the soft underbelly of contemporary democracy.
The latest front in this struggle is France, where the centrist internationalist Emmanuel Macron is facing the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the second round of a presidential election. Le Pen, much like Donald Trump during the 2016 race, is a candidate with policies seemingly manufactured in a Kremlin laboratory. She has called for lifting sanctions against Russia, visited Putin in Moscow during the campaign, and taken out a loan from a Russian bank. Whereas Macron supports the European Union and NATO, which Russia views as threats to its power in the region, Le Pen opposes both blocs.
In February, Macron’s campaign reported thousands of attempted hacks of its computer servers and accused Russian state media outlets of spreading slanders about Macron, including an article in Sputnik—headlined “Ex-French Economy Minister Macron Could Be ‘US Agent’ Lobbying Banks Interests” and based on an interview with a pro-Russia French lawmaker—that aired rumors about Macron’s sexual orientation and personal life. (The Russian government makes its interests known in France not just through media outlets, but also through longstanding organizations like the Franco-Russian Dialogue that tap into pro-Russian/anti-American sentiment among segments of the French electorate, especially on the far right.)