FEATURE: Europe, U.S. on alert for Russian meddling

​LONDON (The Japan News/ANN) - Europe and the United States are on high alert, readying for Russia to further interfere in their elections and influence public opinion.

As Russia’s methods of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is being slowly uncovered, many governments have examined their electoral systems and considered countermeasures against Russian moves. What is the aim of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denies any involvement?  

Report on foreign interference
 The Institute for Strategic Research at the French Ministry of Defense will issue a joint report on Sept. 4 with the equivalent institution at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report will present a list of countermeasures against political interference and the manipulation of information by foreign agents. 
 “We visited 20 countries and thoroughly examined recent examples. The number of countermeasures to be listed in the report will be around 40. This would be a good reference for other countries, too,” said institute director Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer.
 The event that prompted the French ministries of defense and foreign affairs to address the issue took place during the 2017 French presidential election campaign. Then candidate and now French President Emmanuel Macron blasted Russian state-funded television channel RT (see below) for repeatedly “meddling” in his campaign.
 Macron’s campaign staff revealed that false information — such as statements that Macron was homosexual  — was disseminated via the RT website and other media, and that his campaign office’s database was hit with thousands of cyber-attacks.
 Macron prioritizes unifying the European Union, but one of his main opponents during the election was Marine Le Pen, then leader of the far-right National Front, who ran on an anti-EU platform and enjoyed a close relationship with Putin. Although Russia has denied any involvement, Macron has avoided Russian media, including RT, since his inauguration.
 “We can see strong traces of Russian manipulation of information or cyber-attacks in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Britain’s referendum on Brexit, the French presidential election and the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. Considering countermeasures after experiencing these incidents is an important policy issue from here on,” Jeangene Vilmer said.
 The British government is also taking steps to deal with the issue. The House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee issued an interim report on disinformation and fake news on July 29, saying, “The Committee heard evidence of a coordinated, long-standing campaign by the Russian government to influence U.K. elections and referenda.” 
 The report therefore recommended: “Electoral law in this country is not fit for purpose for the digital age, and needs to be amended to reflect new technologies.”

‘RT programs are biased’
 The British Parliament and other institutions have said that RT’s programs are biased and have been broadcasting false information since around 2015.
 The British Office of Communications (Ofcom), Britain’s regulatory authority for broadcasting and telecommunications, announced on July 16 its ruling following a complaint about a RT political talk show. The watchdog said the program had factual problems and viewers were “misled.” 
 Ofcom is currently investigating 10 programs related to RT. Faced with allegations from Parliament and 10 Downing Street, Ofcom now is even considering suspending RT’s license. 
 Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice demanded that RT’s Washington bureau register as a “foreign agent” last November and obligated RT to submit its financial reports. Tensions have mounted since then, as Russia’s lower house of parliament retaliated against the U.S. move by approving a bill that demands exactly the same actions from foreign media outlets in Russia.
 The number of reports and countermeasures warning about such moves by Russia has rapidly increased over the last couple of years among various institutions, such as governmental authorities and parliaments in European countries, research institutions, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
 Visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics Peter Pomerantsev, who concluded in his analysis that Russia intervened in the German federal election last September, pointed out, “Russia has long been interfering with foreign politics. In the wake of Trump’s victory in 2016, the world has become more vigilant and cautious. Russia has stepped up their activities as well.”

Russia’s targets
 What are Russia’s objectives? According to Elina Lange-Ionatamisvili, a senior expert at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence based in Riga who published a report in 2016 on Russia’s technique of manipulating public opinion, “Russia seeks to redefine and undermine Euro-Atlantic values such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the market economy, in a bid to divide society and ultimately weaken target governments.” 
 “Europe today is facing two major issues — immigration and EU unity. Russian operations aim to destabilize European governments through supporting pro-Russia groups there, using these issues as a main tool,” she added.
 Regarding Putin’s mind-set toward the West, Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin said, “Putin cannot stand being directed in many things by the United States, like it’s the good cop.” 
 He suggested that huge anti-government protests in Moscow in December 2011 sowed deep distrust of the West in Putin’s mind. The demonstrations occurred along with a parliamentary election and the protestors called the election rigged and flawed. 
 “To Putin, those demonstrations had the backing of the U.S. government and the Department of State, and personally of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Putin’s ruling party lost many seats in the Duma. It was a call from the U.S. to topple the government. That was a crass violation of Russian sovereignty and nothing but a foreign intervention in the election. His antipathy to the West must lie in this belief,” Trenin said.

Focus on Swedish election
 The Swedish general election on Sept. 9 has attracted heightened concern among many experts in Europe, who view it as the next battlefield. Although Sweden has been tolerant of receiving immigrants and refugees, the Sweden Democrats, a far-right anti-immigration party, have rapidly gained support in polls and some even suggest it could win the election. The party with neo-Nazi roots is believed to have a close relationship with Russian-Swede residents. The Swedish government has tightened its guard against possible foreign meddling since last year by taking such actions as establishing a new task force.
 “We’ve experienced and seen foreign interference in many countries. All of Europe has been watching Sweden to see how effectively we can prepare ourselves,” Jeangene Vilmer said. A thorough analysis of the Swedish general election is surely needed and will be useful.

RT chief: West’s criticism without merit
 The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a written interview with Margarita Simonyan, 38, the editor in chief of RT. The following are excerpts from the interview.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What is the role, mission and editorial policy of RT?
Simonyan: RT covers the stories that the mainstream media ignores and provides an alternative perspective on current affairs in order to give audiences a more complete picture of what is going on in the world. When necessary, RT provides a Russian perspective on major international news stories.
 RT operates in the same international TV news broadcaster space as the likes of BBC World, DW, CNN, Euronews and others. However, most of those channels carry a very similar array of stories and perspectives; RT shows stories they overlook.
Q: Many in the West view RT’s editorial policy as influenced by the Kremlin’s political positions. What role is RT expected to play as state media? 
A: This is patently false. Although publicly funded, like dozens of broadcasters in the West, including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24 and Voice of America, RT is not government-owned. RT is an editorially independent, autonomous nonprofit organization. We cannot speculate about expectations, but we are confident that they see value in the quality, independent reporting that RT provides — as should everyone.
 RT is an award-winning, international news network that has no political agenda in any country. All claims, from the media and politicians alike, that RT has interfered in elections have been made without any evidence.
Q: Do you think Russia has exerted its influence through interventions in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum in the same year?
A: RT does not speak for the Russian government. However, speaking as a journalist, I will say that all the evidence of this supposed interference does not hold up to the slightest scrutiny. RT is often brought up as example of this supposed interference, but you know what they fault us for, for example in the U.S.? Things like reporting critical of both major party candidates! How absurd is that? Isn’t that just journalism? Russia-blaming has become a distraction tactic, because for as long as you’re talking about Russia, you don’t really have to address real problems at home, which are behind all these monumental changes and votes in the first place.
Q: What is your view on the Trump administration?
A: When Trump was elected, there was hope that Russia and the United States could finally get along. Unfortunately, we’ve only seen more of the same from his administration and U.S. media and political establishments. That is disappointing. As for his domestic policies, that’s for the American people to judge — not for me.
Q: Some say a new cold war between the U.S. and Russia is inevitable. Do you agree with the view?
A: I am not a fan of any wars, I don’t like seeing these relationships deteriorated. But also, this is not our doing. In the years following the end of the Cold War there was no real effort to understand Russia, and this fear of Russia persisted, as did this tendency to blame Russia for everything, to keep it in the public mind as the all-powerful enemy. But I am hopeful that one day we will be able to work past this, because I believe that there are many more things that unite us, as people, than those that keep us apart.
Q: Can we see the support for the Trump administration and Brexit as representing anti-establishment movements?
A: Because for a long time the political establishments — with huge support from the mainstream media — told their people that “this is how things are, this is how things are supposed to be.” And for millions of people in the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of Europe, this simply did not reflect their reality. This is also why they have stopped trusting mainstream media and started looking for alternative voices, like RT’s, that gave a much more complete and honest picture of what was going on in their own backyards. RT simply reported what was already happening but what the establishment has been ignoring for a long time.

■ RT
 An international television network funded by the Russian government. It broadcasts news around-the-clock in more than 100 countries, focusing on foreign audiences. It operates services in Russian and five other languages: English, French, German, Spanish and Arabic. Its editorial policy has been mostly viewed as typical Russian-state propaganda in Europe and the United States. RT has proactively worked on broadcasting via the internet as well. When founded in 2005, it was officially called Russia Today and mainly reported Russian affairs to the world. Since being renamed RT in 2009, it has shifted to reporting current affairs mainly in Europe and the United States from a Russian viewpoint. Its annual budget reported to the Russian parliament is about $400 million.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 23, 2018)