The shadow of Russia over the upcoming European elections

By Matteo Maci

Over the last few weeks, fears of Russian interference in the European elections in June have grown. “Since the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the EU institutions have been increasingly exposed to a wide range of hybrid attacks, and our vulnerability to Russian agents is shocking,” admitted Sandra Kalniete, Latvian EPP member, during a debate in the European Parliament. While some MEPs may be facing new allegations of corruption in the upcoming months, it is crucial to think of the objectives of the Putin regime’s foreign interference operations, the tactics implemented to achieve these goals, and how the European institutions could defend themselves against this kind of interference.

Analyzing the latest events: Voice of Europe and the Ždanoka case

At the end of January, the independent Russian media The Insider released an investigation claiming the existence of a link between Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka and Russian secret service, the FSP. Ždanoka, who was first elected to the European Parliament in 2004, has garnered attention for her openly pro-Russian stance: she was one of the 13 MEPs who voted against the resolution condemning Russia immediately after the invasion of Ukraine. Her case was discussed in the European Parliament, and members of each group have warned about other possible foreign interferences in parliamentary work, especially in light of the recent corruption scandal involving some lawmakers known as Qatargate. Ždanoka was formally sanctioned by the Parliament on 10 April, and as of right now, Latvian authorities opened a criminal case against her.

More recently, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo issued a public statement condemning Russia’s attempt to influence European elections through the bribery of MEPs. While De Croo refuses to name the individuals involved, Belgian police have initiated an investigation into the matter. The PM not only exposed the alleged corruption among MEPs, but also highlighted efforts to coordinate with the Czech government to dismantle a pro-Russian propaganda network operating throughout Europe. One of the network’s main platforms is the Voice of Europe website, which was already suspended from YouTube and Facebook on March 27. It was allegedly founded in 2016 with the collaboration of a Dutch entrepreneur close to far-right areas in opposition to the prospect of an agreement between Ukraine and the EU regarding the Russian invasion. The current name of the platform, however, seems to have been changed in 2023, with the aim of sounding like a channel of information about the EU and conveying misleading or false content.

The Russian way: methods and targets of election interference

Concerns about Russian interference in European elections are well-founded. Several controversies, particularly in the last decade, have involved several politicians in member states who have been accused of having ambiguous relations to the Kremlin or entities associated with it, and the Ždanoka case is just the last of a long list of scandals and suspects.

“Russia’s interest in interfering in the European elections has not changed in the last years, despite the fact that the international political scenario is different than it was in 2019” stated to our blog Edoardo Bressanelli, associate professor of political science at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, who recently published a report on the resilience of democratic institutions in the EU, commissioned by the European Parliament. “Certainly, the themes and the targets of Russian disinformation changed, but the core matter is the same: the Russian government considers the EU an enemy due to the sanctions imposed since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, the cohesive support for Ukraine in the war, and the opposition to Vladimir Putin’s imperialist aims. Russia is still attempting to undermine the credibility of Europe’s democratic institutions by promoting a counter-narrative based on the idea that elections are useless and European democracy is a fraud. To pursue these goals, Russia uses proxies such as political parties, that adopt this narrative and defend it to shift the political balance within the EU Parliament, which, as we know, plays a pivotal role in expressing the European Commission. Therefore, the ultimate goal is to undermine a project that opposes the Russian one and prevent some countries, such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova, from leaving the traditional Russian sphere of influence to move towards Europe.”

On the one hand, Russia uses fake news and disinformation as a tool to manipulate electors’ preferences. The Voice of Europe website is a clear proof of this manipulation. The platform, with 1,7k subscribers on its Telegram channel, doesn’t seem to have a contact form or any chief editor’s name. It is also difficult to trace the identity behind the names of the alleged authors of the articles in the “Opinions” section. The politicians that appear in the “Interviews ”section are primarily recognized for their nationalistic and Eurosceptic views, which frequently lead to statements criticizing NATO countries’ support of Ukraine. The content published appears to be heavily biased overall, portraying European governments as politically weak and ineffective in dealing with international challenges. Other articles criticize Ukrainian integration into the EU while being silent on Russia’s responsibility for the war and its military actions.

On the other hand, Russian hackers attack significant digital infrastructures related to the elections. While voting software may not be an attractive target, since e-voting is only permitted in Estonia, social media accounts, political party online platforms, and information channels may be the target of cyberattacks with the goal of leaking private information and weakening consensus. That’s what happened to Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in 2017, just two days before the runoff vote for the French presidential elections.

Winning the challenge: how to get Putin away from Europe

Eurobarometer data from December 2023 indicate that voters’ primary concerns revolve around people basing their voting decisions on misinformation and elections being manipulated through cyberattacks. As mentioned earlier, these are the main ways in which Russia and its proxies interfere in the democratic process.

“Compared to the 2019 elections, the Brexit referendum, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the topic of foreign interference is no longer new,” so argues Bressanelli “the novelty effect has worn off, and the question is no longer ‘can Russia attack these elections?‘ but rather ‘knowing that Russia, or whoever, can attack, what can be done to prevent these attacks from having significant effects?’. Today, we know more about the multiple methods of foreign interference that can take place, including disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and illegal funding of anti-systemic political movements. The real change from the past is the increased awareness among the public about this phenomenon.”

At the policy level, the resilience of democratic institutions must be ensured by initiatives to counter disinformation and regulate online platforms (especially on matters related to content moderation, data privacy and political advertising), but this may not be enough. Indeed, it is important to dismantle the narrative spread by pro-Russian networks that European institutions are fragile and undemocratic: further steps to counter foreign interference require greater cooperation between national governments and the democratic processes within the EU should be strengthened, conveying a compelling idea of a close-knit Europe. This covers all legislative actions required to protect citizens’ freedoms and rights, such as promoting media pluralism and fighting discrimination.

With more than 87% of the vote, Putin was declared the winner of the March pseudo-elections in Russia. The European institutions condemned it as a totally plebiscitary occasion where Russian citizens were unable to voice their opposition to the regime. The democratic culture of the electorate and accurate and accessible information are essential to the integrity of the European Parliament. If EU citizens are persuaded to vote for questionable European groups closely aligned with the Russian agenda, they risk becoming an ex-post participant in the Russian election farce. The strongest shield against Putin’s attempts to manipulate the results of the European elections is the combination of resilient democratic institutions and the free exercise of voting rights.

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