Russia is attacking Western liberal democracies

Extensive evidence of cyber attacks and strategic interference in domestic politics

By Roman Gerodimos, Fauve Vertegaal and Mirva Villa

In a rare public statement in 2007, the then Director General of MI5 (the British Security Service), Jonathan Evans, said that “[s]ince the end of the Cold War we have seen no decrease in the numbers of undeclared Russian intelligence officers in the UK — at the Russian Embassy and associated organisations conducting covert activity in this country” [Telegraph]. While several experts, academics and journalists, such as Edward Lucas and Luke Harding, have been arguing for years that the West is facing a New Cold War, over the last four years we have seen a significant escalation of Russian operations, not just in its traditional sphere of influence at the intersection between Europe and Asia (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) but also within western countries.

There is now overwhelming evidence that Russia is engaging in an orchestrated, strategic campaign whose purpose is to erode liberal democracy in Europe and the United States, and to weaken NATO and the European Union. This campaign uses what has become known as hybrid warfare with the emphasis (in the case of western countries) being on: launching cyber attacks against government agencies, utilities, companies, universities, media and individuals; exercising political influence in domestic audiences; spreading misinformation; engaging in character assassinations; and interfering in domestic politics, elections and referenda, by directly and indirectly funding and supporting political parties of the far right and the far left.

Tens of research and education institutions have been involved in an effort to study the inner-workings of the internet, coordinated by the FSB (successor to the KGB); state-sponsored media such as Sputnik and RT engage in propaganda and misinformation across many countries; while an army of hackers and bloggers working in “troll factories” threaten, bully, distort, manipulate, deface and attack anyone and anything that voices a substantive concern about the activities of the Russian government [Atlantic]. These attacks take place in the domestic territory of western countries and existing mechanisms of law enforcement are struggling to protect journalists, academics, researchers, activists and lay citizens of their own countries.

“What Russia does today is very much the digital version of what we Germans, before 1989, termed “Zersetzung.” The term is hard to translate, but it’s best described as the political equivalent of what happens when you pour acid on organic material: dissolution and disintegration. 
 The methods of Zersetzung are to cast doubt on the basic norms of the Western liberal order and its institutions; to distort and thereby discredit the purposes of the European Union, NATO and the free-market economy; to erode the credibility of the free press and free elections.

The means of Zersetzung include character assassination and, through the spreading of lies and fake news, the creation of a gray zone of doubt in which facts struggle to survive. We have seen all of this before, employed by the K.G.B. and the East German Stasi: psychological warfare, rumor-mongering, schemes to bribe politicians and then expose them as criminals. They used it both internally, against dissidents, and externally, against Western enemies.” [Jochen Bittner, ΝΥΤ].

For the purposes of this feature, we have collated and outline below some of the main incidents of Russian cyber attacks and interference in western countries over the last few years. While each of those incidents on its own might not seem outside the limits of ordinary power politics (and it is indeed the problem that the media usually present these stories in isolation), putting these facts together, along with the repeated warnings from western intelligence, security services, journalists, experts and liberal politicians, leaves no doubt that Russia is engaging in a strategic campaign that was designed and launched years ago.

While this undeclared attack per se constitutes a big challenge for the political, social and critical infrastructure of western societies, the biggest challenge is actually the fact that western societies are distracted by polarisation, extremism and domestic political problems (in which Russian-sponsored fringe parties and organisations play a key role) and that those who highlight or report on these issues face the threat of asymmetrical warfare and character assassination. It is now more important than ever for the people of Europe and the United States to be aware of the facts and for their governments to possess the tools that will enable them to defend themselves.


* May 2015: Massive cyber attack on the Bundestag (Germany’s lower house of parliament) causes severe damage, forcing authorities to shut down the systems for days. The attack sought to install software that would have given hackers permanent access to computers used by staff and MPs. Other attacks involved gathering data about critical infrastructure (utilities, power plants). BfV (the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) attributes this to Russian intelligence agencies via a hacker group known as Sofacy/APT 28 [Reuters, BBC].

* January 2016: Russian media report on a case of Lisa, a Russian girl living in Berlin who was allegedly raped by immigrants. This turns out to be false but not before there is an outcry in the Russian community in Germany, leading to protests all over the country, including outside Merkel’s office [OD, BBC].

* April 2016: Security firm Trend Micro reports that Russian hacking group Pawn Storm (believed to be affiliated with APT 28 and the Russian authorities) is trying to attack Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union [Reuters].

* June 2016: Thomas Haldenwang, deputy president of the domestic intelligence agency, warns German security officials that BfV has observed “active measures” from Russia to influence public opinion [Politico].

* November 2016: German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that Germany is having to deal with Russian cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns on a daily basis and warns that there is an attempt to influence the outcome of the election campaign [Guardian].

* January 2017: Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV clearly states that the Kremlin is seeking “to influence public opinion and decision-making processes” because “we have a parliamentary election this year” [FT].

* The main vehicle for influencing the election is to support AfD (Alternative for Germany) — the right-wing populist and Eurosceptic political party that is close to Russia and supports lifting the sanctions over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine (FT).

* Russia is Germany’s largest energy supplier, esp. through Gazprom and Nord Stream AG (Gerhard Schroeder, former German chancellor is chairman of the shareholders’ committee); since the end of the Cold War, 3 million Russian-speaking migrants have moved to Germany [FT].

* Several analysts predict that Angela Merkel will be the next target [NYT, Observer].

* According to Anne Applebaum [WP], we know that the Russian government can do it; that the operation has already begun; that huge resources have been invested already; and what its goals will be:

“There may well be a specific goal: defeat Chancellor Angela Merkel, who responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea with support for sanctions that are particularly hurtful to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But there are certainly some broader goals: discredit democracy, in order to prevent Russians from agitating for it at home; undermine the European Union, in order to make the continent more amenable to corruption and authoritarianism; and demoralize NATO, which is preventing Russia from flexing its military muscles in its periphery.”

* September 2017: Germany will hold a federal election


* In 2014 far-right leader Marine Le Pen took a loan from a Moscow-based lender, First Czech Russian Bank, to pay for National Front expenses [Bloomberg]. Le Pen has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “legal” and has favoured a Trump-Putin-Le Pen alliance.

* France’s Pro-Russia TV, funded by the Kremlin, is staffed by editors with close ties to the National Front [FA].

* April 2015: TV network TV5Monde taken off air due to powerful cyber attack, attributed to the Russian hacker group APT 28 [BBC].

* February 2016: Marine Le Pen’s National Front asks Russia for a €27 million loan to help it fight the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017 [Politico].

* December 2016: state-sponsored RT (formerly Russia Today) receives $19 million from the Russian government in order to start a French-language channel [HP].

* January 2017: WikiLeaks intervenes in the French election campaign by releasing thousands of documents related to centre-right candidate Francois Fillon [FP].

* January 2017: The French defence ministry announces that in 2016 it was subject to 24,000 external cyber attacks, and that the threat “has become serious, including against our own military systems” [Telegraph].

* February 2017: The Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) believes that Russia intends to try to influence France’s upcoming presidential elections in favour of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen [FP].

* February 2017: Russian state-sponsored media claim that centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron could be “‘US agent’ lobbying banks’ interests” [Sputnik] and that he is secretly gay [WP].

* Jacqueline Grapin [EI] notes that:

“The discrepancy between Russian means of influence and the ability of the French government to react is such that France is seen as an easy target for Russian operatives, particularly at a moment when French intelligence services are short on personnel and focused on counter-terrorist activities for which they need Russian information on Syria and on the important Chechen community in France.”

* April/May 2017: France will hold a presidential election.

Czech Republic

* 2015: According to the Security Information Service (the Intelligence Service of the Czech Republic), Russian intelligence services engaged in extensive economic, scientific and technological espionage in the Czech Republic, while also focusing on the information war regarding the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts [BIS].

* Russian agencies tried to weaken the strength of the Czech media, strengthen the information resistance of the Russian audience by creating an infrastructure of puppet organisations, create inter-societal tensions in the Czech Republic and disrupt NATO’s coherence and readiness by interfering in Czech-Polish relations [BIS].

* The infrastructure of propaganda, misinformation and puppet organisations installed by Russia is seen as a permanent feature of Czech society that will extend beyond the end of the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts [EUObserver].

* February 2015: Juraj Smatana publishes a list of 42 websites helping to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda in the Czech Republic; similar systems exist in Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria [Forbes]. These websites present radical views, conspiracy theories and inaccurate reports with a view to transforming the Czech Republic’s status as a western-aligned country. Czech officials believe that the Kremlin is behind them [Guardian].

* Spring 2016: Lukoil, the largest private Russian oil company, paid the $1.4 million fine owed to a Czech court by Martin Nejedly, one of Czech president Milos Zeman’s closest advisors and vice chairman of the party [NYT]. Zeman has criticised Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia and denied that the Kremlin had deployed troops in Ukraine. He was only one of three EU leaders to attend the May 2015 Victory Day parade in Moscow.

* October 2017: The Czech Republic will hold legislative elections.

* January 2018: The Czech Republic will hold a presidential election.

United Kingdom

* September 2014: Russia takes an active interest in the Scottish referendum (which threatened Britain’s Trident base at Faslane). Russia claims the procedure was flawed and the outcome rigged [Guardian].

* September 2015: Russian Ambassador hails Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, praises his opposition to NATO, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and pledge to reject military interventions abroad [Telegraph].

* 2015–16: evidence that the Conservative Party as well as several individual MPs receive funding or have ties to Russian firms (e.g. the Conservative Party received £100,000 from Global Functional Drinks Ltd, a UK subsidiary of a Swiss firm controlled by Oleg Smirnov’s SNS Group — a leading Russian tobacco firm) [AC].

* Pro-Brexit UKIP and its former leader Nigel Farage have been consistently sympathetic to Russia. He has repeatedly appeared on RT and has never criticised the Russian government [Guardian, WA].

* June 2016: Russian trolls and Twitter bots engage in extensive activity in favour of the Leave camp [Atlantic].

* February 2017: UK intelligence services announce that Britain is being hit by 60 significant cyber-attacks a month, including attempts by Russian state-sponsored hackers. Ciaran Martin, head of GCHQ’s new National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warns that there has been a “step change” in Russia’s online aggression against the West, including more attacks on local councils and charities so as to steal personal data, and against universities so as to steal research secrets [Times].

* February 2017: UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon warns that “Russia is carrying out a sustained campaign of cyber attacks targeting democracy and critical infrastructure in the West”, hoping to destabilise governments, expand its influence and weaken NATO by weaponising misinformation [BBC].


* Finland shares a 1,340-km-long border with Russia and is at the centre of Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion.

* September 2014: Jessica Aro, a Finnish journalist, makes an appeal for information about Russian trolls and starts to report on their activities in Finland. A campaign of death threats, smearing, bullying and character assassination is launched against her, led by Johan Backman — a supporter of Russian President Putin [NYT].

* Ilja Janitskin, the founder of alt-right fake news website MVLehti, who launched one of the nastiest attacks against Aro, is suspected of 46 offences in Finland and claims he is now in Russia [YLE].

* October 2016: Markku Mantila, the Head of the Finnish government’s communication department, says that Finland is facing intensifying media attacks led by the Kremlin, aimed at making citizens suspicious of the European Union and NATO. The government has identified 20 definite and 30 very likely information operations against Finland, including false news pictures, skewed authority statements and pro-Kremlin online discussions [Reuters].

* November 2016: Security services believe foreign residents are buying up large amounts of property in Finland in order to accommodate troops in the event of a potential Russian invasion [Independent].

* February 2017: The Finnish government announces plans to block foreigners from buying houses near military sites; some property transactions will be cancelled and summer cottages near airports will be probed by the MoD [Independent].

“[P]ro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security” [NYT].


* Both parties of the Greek coalition government (the leftist Syriza and the far-right Independent Greeks) have ties to the Russian establishment, as does the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

* Golden Dawn has advertised its connection with former Kremlin adviser Alexander Dugin (a strategist who favours nationalist, anti-liberal, anti-Western parties, groups and values — and promoter of the Eurasian movement, which has received funding from the Putin administration [Eurozine]); additionally, Golden Dawn has, reportedly, received funds from Russia [FA].

* March 2015: Golden Dawn takes part in the Conservative Forum in Saint Petersburg, organised by Rodina, the nationalist party of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin [DGAP].

* The business and political elites of Greece and Russia have close ties which have extended to the new (Syriza/Independent Greeks) government [Zeit].

* Panos Kammenos (Minister of Defence, leader of Independent Greeks and coalition partner of Alexis Tsipras) has ties to Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev (or Malofeev) and Alexander Dugin [Zeit, Slate]. Amongst other activities — such as playing a role in the annexation of Crimea and bankrolling Greek political parties — Malofeyev’s foundation hosted a conference in Vienna that brought together right-wing extremists, Christian fundamentalists and anti-European nationalists [Zeit].

* Through his Institute of Geopolitical Studies, Panos Kammenos also has ties to the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, once affiliated with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) [Times].

* Georgy Gavrish (formerly third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Athens and member of Dugin’s Eurasian Movement) lived in Greece for several years and built up a vast network of pro-Russian and anti-European contacts. He had contacts in both Syriza and Independent Greeks [Zeit].

* Dugin counts Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister and leader of Syriza, as well as the journalist and writer Dimitris Konstantakopoulos (who has close ties to Tsipras) amongst his contacts [Zeit]. In 2013, Alexander Dugin was invited by Nikos Kotzias — Greece’s foreign minister — to deliver a guest lecture at the University of Piraeus, where Kotzias holds tenure [Zeit].

Rest of Europe

* Russia has been involved in military operations and hybrid warfare in Ukraine (annexation of Crimea, War in Donbass), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Moldova (Transnistria).

* Estonia: In April 2007 a series of massive cyber attacks are launched against Estonian institutions and organisations, including the parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, in retaliation for the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn — a Soviet war memorial. Estonian authorities blamed Russia for the attack [BBC]. Members of a Kremlin-backed youth movement claimed responsibility [FT, NBC].

* January 2016: Dossiers of Russian influence activity identify Russian operations running in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy and the UK [Telegraph].

* Montenegro: In October 2016 Russian and Serbian nationalists are involved in a coup plot to overthrow the pro-NATO government. Andrija Mandic, a lawmaker who is being investigated as a suspect for criminal conspiracy, has received support from the Kremlin for his anti-NATO stance. The Kremlin has actively supported anti-NATO groups in Montenegro [AP].

* Bulgaria: Between 20–25% of the Bulgarian economy is linked to Russia. In November 2016, Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev warned that Russia is trying to divide and weaken Europe. Bulgaria came under a cyber attack during a referendum and local elections in 2015, which president Plevneliev attributed to Russia [BBC]. Far right Ataka party has close links to the Russian embassy [FA].

* Hungary: May 2013: Kremlin-connected right-wing Russian nationalists at Moscow State University invite Jobbik party president Gabor Vona to speak. He also meets with Duma leaders. Jobbik itself advertises this special relationship by claiming that “Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner”, while according to some reports Jobbik is receiving Russian funds [FA].

“In addition to their very vocal support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea within the EU, Jobbik, National Front, and Ataka all sent election observers to validate the Crimea referendum (as did the Austrian Freedom Party, the Belgian Vlaams Belang party, Italy’s Forza Italia and Lega Nord, and Poland’s Self-Defense, in addition to a few far-left parties, conspicuously Germany’s Die Linke). Their showing was organized by the Russia-based Eurasian Observatory For Democracy & Elections, a far-right NGO “opposed to Western ideology.” The EODE specializes in monitoring elections in “self-proclaimed republics” (Abkhazia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh) allied with Moscow, according to its website” [Mitchell A. Orenstein in FA].

United States

* There is mounting evidence that Russia engaged in a systematic campaign to influence the US election campaign: by favouring Donald J. Trump; collaborating with WikiLeaks to facilitate attacks against Hillary Clinton; and hacking the Democratic National Committee [BBC, CNN, WP, NBC, BBC, Guardian].

* January 2017: According to a major investigation by the US intelligence community, this campaign by Russia indicates “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” [ICA].

* A technical analysis showed that while a hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0, who published the stolen DNC files on the web, claimed to be acting alone, the files contained Russian-language error messages; a piece of malware known as X-Agent was used both in the DNC hack and previous attacks believed to be Russian intelligence operations; an analysis of the URL shortening service used by the hacker of Clinton staffer John Podesta shows the same account was used to target thousands of other Gmail accounts of Russia-focused journalists and authors, as well as family members of American military officials [Wired].

* January 2017: A 35-page dossier compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele is leaked to the media; the dossier claims that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has compromising material on Donald Trump, including details of his sexual activities and financial transactions in Russia that could be used to control or blackmail him [Guardian, CNN].

* In February 2017, US investigators announce that they have corroborated some of the communications detailed in the report [CNN].

* February 2017: According to multiple reports by journalists, intelligence officers and administration officials, US President Donald Trump’s team has had close ties and repeated contacts with Russian officials, firms and intelligence agencies during the campaign [NYT, CNN]. This includes Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (who has just resigned), close aide Roger Stone and campaign manager Paul Manafort, amongst others [Vox].

* Manafort was forced to resign in the middle of the campaign (August 2016) after it was revealed that he had received $12.7 million from Ukraine’s pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych [NYT]. Manafort plays a key role in managing the alleged relationship between Trump and the Russian authorities as detailed in the Steele dossier [Vox].

[T]he West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests” [Molly K. McKew in Politico]

See also

Emerson T. Brooking and P. W. Singer (2016), “War Goes Viral: How social media is being weaponized across the world”, The Atlantic

Susi Dennison and Dina Pardjis (2016), “The world according to Europe’s insurgent parties: Putin, migration and people power”, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

Alina Polyakova, Marlene Laruelle, Stefan Meister and Neil Barnett (2016), “The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses: Russian Influence in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom”, Atlantic Council

Edward Lucas (2014), The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West, Bloomsbury

Gordon Carrera (2013), “Under Attack: The Threat from Cyberspace”, BBC World Service

Luke Harding (2012), Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, Guardian Books

Roman Gerodimos, PhD, is Principal Lecturer in Global Current Affairs at Bournemouth University

Fauve Vertegaal and Mirva Villa are final year Multimedia Journalism students at Bournemouth University