Russia Ramps up Global Elections Interference: Lessons for the United States

By Maggie Tennis

Four years ago this month, the world was only beginning to learn of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections. Before the end of July 2016, Russian hackers would release thousands of private emails obtained by penetrating the networks of the Democratic National Committee. Russian meddling revealed that deep divisions in Western society were ripe for exploitation by foreign actors who could aspire to political influence beyond their borders, but the magnitude and significance of the Kremlin-backed effort was not yet fully understood.

This time around, the world is more aware of Russian tactics. There is strong evidence that Russia continues to interfere in elections and referenda throughout Europe. President Vladimir Putin’s victory in a recent constitutional referendum may further embolden the Kremlin. As Americans enter the crucial period leading to November 3, voters and officials should understand the trends, evolution, and successes of Russian elections interference outside the United States.

The 2016 presidential election brought western attention to the issue of Russian interference in foreign elections.  Moscow has influenced politics in its neighborhood since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with mixed success. In Georgia, Russian meddling has been relentless since the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s rise to power is in part due to Vladimir Putin’s patronage. In 1994, the Russian media boosted the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in the Ukrainian elections. But Russia’s efforts to elect Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election contributed to the Orange Revolution protests against corruption and voter fraud. Russia continued its assault on Ukraine’s politics in 2014, following the anti-Russian Euromaidan movement of 2013 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea. Ukraine often serves as a testing ground for Russian hybrid warfare. Russia has recycled many techniques used in Ukraine to meddle in European and American politics.

In 2014, Moscow began targeting countries beyond the Eastern Bloc and expanded tactics to include cyberattacks and online disinformation campaigns. Far right French candidate Marine Le Pen received an almost 13 million dollar loan from the Kremlin to finance her party’s 2014 campaigns. Also that year, Russian hackers launched a cyberattack against the Polish electoral commission’s website, which damaged faith in that election. In 2015, the German Parliament was the victim of a cyberattack linked to Russia aimed at collecting documents ahead of the federal elections. In Scotland, pro-Russia accounts on social media spread stories claiming voter fraud occurred during the country’s independence referendum. Ahead of the Finnish parliamentary elections, Russian entities created fake social media accounts posing as official parliamentary accounts. At first, these accounts posted mainstream political content and amassed thousands of followers. As the election neared, the accounts turned to posting misinformation and vitriol aimed at sowing confusion among the electorate. 

In 2016, Moscow’s political activity abroad intensified with interference in the U.K. Brexit vote and U.S. elections using methods that included cyberattacks, hack-and-leak operations, and online disinformation campaigns. Russia even supported a failed coup in Montenegro to unseat the pro-NATO government. Despite worldwide condemnation of Russian interference, Russia has continued using these methods in elections throughout Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the Balkans.

In France, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was hacked—probably by the Russian government cyber actor sometimes called APT28—during the no-campaigning period immediately before the 2017 election, which prevented the Macron campaign from countering false stories. Bots amplified the leaked documents using the hashtag #MacronGate and through stories on RT and Sputnik that slandered Macron. At the same time, fake accounts spread disinformation exploiting anti-immigrant rhetoric to provoke discord among French voters.

This tactic of “fire-hosing” social media with propaganda through bots and trolls was used against Angela Merkel’s government in Germany, where immigration is the top issue for most voters. In addition, NewsFront Deutsch, RT Deutsch, and Sputnik pushed Kremlin narratives and fake news stories designed to boost right-wing talking points. In that period, the United Kingdom also suffered hacks of its voter registration website and online disinformation aimed at stoking divisions between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, Russian-sponsored disinformation through state media and fake social media accounts was rampant in general elections in Italy and the Netherlands, and in Spain at the time of the Catalonia independence referendum. Dutch, Spanish, and Czech election-related websites were victims of disruptive cyberattacks, as were Swedish newspapers during the Swedish general election. Russia allegedly forged authentic-looking websites in Sweden, to spread fake news stories. In elections in Ukraine and Bulgaria, and a naming referendum in Macedonia, Russian interference manifested through fire-hosing fake news and disinformation via state and social media to suppress or delegitimize the vote.

Recent history indicates that the Russians favor hack-and-leak operations. That strategy makes sense—these tactics appear to have greater impact on the outcome of elections, especially if deftly timed. Online disinformation also likely will continue to be a key Russian tactic because it is a cost-effective way to serve Russia’s bottom line. Indeed, Russian disinformation has evolved from its earlier objective of elevating preferred candidates and platforms to a greater focus on discrediting elections and institutions entirely.

The recent experiences of other countries show that Russian meddling is still an urgent threat, perhaps more so than in 2016. The Russian pivot to trolls, bots, and fake news to erode trust in facts and institutions is especially chilling given skepticism within the United States of mail-in voting amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither Europe nor the United States has identified a foolproof strategy to stop Russian interference. Enlisting social media companies to weed out disinformation and trolls, and empowering institutions to train voters in media literacy and online security will help negate foreign influence on the outcome in November. But ultimately a coordinated, transatlantic, government-led strategy is crucial to constructing an enduring defense against interference in elections to come.

Maggie Tennis is a former graduate intern with the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Technology Policy Blog is produced by the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).