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This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 29 January 2017

The Kremlin has many opportunities to make mischief in Europe this year. National elections will take place in the Netherlands, Germany and France (and possibly Italy). In each of those countries, widespread skepticism about the benefits of European Union membership, anxiety about immigration, worry about terror and doubts about future prosperity have given rise to populist movements that challenge ruling elites. These movements are sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Western liberal democracy is failing. They favor an end to Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. Dutch populist Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen lead the polls, and could soon lead the governments in their countries. The Kremlin has supported both candidacies with favorable media coverage and, in Le Pen’s case, with ample financial support. In Germany, pro-Russian media has targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the Kremlin sees as its main European adversary.

Moscow would like to see either Le Pen or Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon—the Republican candidate—elected president of France. Fillon has called for sanctions to be lifted, and his Republicans have connections to Russian business. But Le Pen has had trouble broadening her base beyond 25 percent of the electorate. Fillon, whom many experts had predicted would be the eventual winner after the second round of voting in May, has seen his popularity drop in the wake of a financial scandal involving his British wife. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in an interview with Izvestia that he had discovered ties between candidate Emmanuel Macron and Hillary Clinton.

With the Kremlin’s preferred candidates stalled, in the past several days Moscow’s information war arsenal has targeted newcomer Macron, a charismatic former investment banker who has been surging in the polls. Media attacks by the Kremlin-funded Sputnik news service have criticized Macron for allegedly leading a gay lobby in French politics, backing globalization and acting as a lobbyist for U.S. banking interests. They have made much of the fact that Macron is married to his French teacher from high school who is 24 years his senior.

French authorities are understandably eager to preserve the campaign’s integrity. France’s defense minister recently warned that the presidential elections are at risk of manipulation by “foreign” cyber hackers. On 6 February, Google, Facebook and other Internet giants launched a new effort to combat fake news and poorly sourced content. They will be working with established French news organization to call attention to fake stories.

With the Russian information offensive focused on the West, pro-Russian media targeting the Baltic states have emphasized established themes, NATO and the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. These issues are likely to regain prominence in mid-February at the Munich Security Conference and at the meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.