Russia’s Hacking, Disinformation Efforts Aim to Influence German, French Elections

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at the 10th business forum “Business Russia” in Moscow on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. Putin has encouraged businesses to expand domestically before Western nations lift economic sanctions, allowing once again the sale of many foreign goods in Russia. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian government hackers and disinformation specialists were successful in their hacking and disinformation campaign in the run-up to the November 2016 election in the United States. FBIdirector James Comey, speaking in a Senate hearing Tuesday, said he had no illusions that the Obama administration’s response measures would deter Russian government hackers from future American elections, either. “I think one of the lessons that the Russians may have drawn from this is that this works,” Comey told lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I expect to see them to come back in 2018, and especially in 2020,” for the next U.S.presidential election.

The Russian government has been engaged in a broad effort to influence elections in other countries as well.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV, Germany’sdomestic intelligence agency, said he expects new cyberattacks by Russian government hackers on politicians and government officials ahead of Germany’s September federal elections.

Maassensaid that Germany’s intelligence agencies are keeping a “very close watch” on cyberthreats as the country prepares for the September vote.

“We expect further attacks, and we are keeping a very close watch on the threats,” Maassen told a cybersecurity conference in Potsdam.

“We are finding increasingly aggressive cyber espionage.”

Saarbrücker Zeitung reports that Maassensaid his agency had spotted and thwarted repeated email phishing attacks directed at the conservative CDU/CSU party – the party’s leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is running for her fourth term — and other hacking attempts targeting politicians and institutions who are critical of Moscow.

Maassen said that hackers — from Russian government-affiliated hacking group APT28, APT29, and APT10 — seized “large amounts of data” in a May 2015 attack on the Bundestag, and that German law enforcement and intelligence authorities are now worried that the information – some of it genuine, some of it doctored by Russian specialists — could now be used to influence the vote.

As was the case with the information stolen by Russian government hackers from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton campaign, Russia is likely to use Wikileaks and other pro-Russian websites to release the information to undermine the election prospects of politicians deemed critical of Russia, while helping two anti-American and pro-Russian parties – the populist, far-right, and ultra-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD).

The hackers from the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence branch) and the FSB (Russian domestic intelligence agency) created more than 1,200 websites to disseminate fake news damaging to Hillary Clinton. One such fake story was about how Clinton ran a pedophile network out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria.

Maassen noted that Russia’s “disinformation” campaign in Germany follows a similar pattern. He cited false stories on the alleged rape by Muslim migrants of a 13-year old German-Russian girl called Lisa. The stories were spread by Russian government-affiliated media such as RT and Sputnik in January 2016, and quoted in the German press, leading to an angry demonstration by 12,000 Germans against Merkel’s immigration policy. Maassen noted that there were many other false stories spread by Russia’s disinformation outlets and websites.

Reuters reports that one such fake story was distributed by Russian government news outlets this past January, shortly after the Social Democrats named former European Parliament President Martin Schulz as their chancellor candidate. Schultz, a popular politician, is a critic of Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. After assuming the leadership of the Social Democrats, Russian website, created by the GRU and FSB for the purpose of spreading false information, began carrying a flagrantly false story about Schulz’s father having served as the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp.

Maassen also highlighted emails sent from IP addresses used by Russian intelligence agencies to Lithuanian government agencies. These emails accused German soldiers stationed in Lithuania of raping young Lithuanian girls – prompting an investigation which found these alleged incidents never happened.

Maassen said it would be up the Kremlin to decide whether cyberattacks would continue, saying German officials were on high alert.

“We recognize this as a campaign being directed from Russia. Our counterpart [in Russia] is trying to generate information that can be used for disinformation or for influence [military] operations,” he said. 

“Whether they do it or not is a political decision…that I assume will be made in the Kremlin.” 

Bruno Kahl, head of Germany’s BND, the country’s foreign intelligence agency, said there was a growing volume of evidence that a “state actor stands behind cyberattacks” on German politicians, parties, and institutions, adding: “For such attacks, state resources are needed.”

Kahl said these cyberattacks have increased over recent months.

Last November, in the wake of Russia’s successful interference in the U.S. election, Kahl warned that Germany’s federal elections in September could be a target for Russian “disruption”: “The perpetrators have an interest in delegitimizing the democratic process as such – whomever that later helps.

“I have the impression that the outcome of the American election [Trumps victory] isn’t causing mourning in Russia so far.”

The Independent reports that the GRU and the FSB have also interfered in the French presidential election, using hacking and disinformation to help Russia’s preferred candidate, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the populist, far-right, and anti-immigration National Front. The National Front calls for France to leave the EU, distance itself from NATO, and adopt a pro-Russian foreign policy.

In the run-up to the first round of the election, which was held on 23 April, Russian hackers infiltrated the computer systems pf the campaign of Emanuel Macron, who will face Le Pen in the second round of voting on Sunday, 7 May.

Macron’s personal life is a bit unconventional — he married his former high-school drama teacher, who is 23 years his senior. The Russian disinformation campaign disseminated a fake story about an alleged homosexual relationship he has been having with an unnamed radio announcer.

Another fake story disseminated by Russian intelligence – and repeated by Le Pen during the candidates’ televised debate Wednesday evening – was that Macron, a former investment banker, has an offshore bank account in the Bahamas.

On the campaign trail, addressing supporters in large rallies, Le Pen repeatedly quoted several Russian-manufactured false stories, in an effort to weaken Macron’s support.

The laws governing political speech in France are different from such laws in the United States, and Macron has launched legal action over fake stories used by Le Pen on the hustings. The Paris prosecutor’s office is now investigating the spread of false stories aimed at influencing the election – which is a violation of French election laws.

This article is published courtesy of Homeland Security News Wire

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