How Russia’s hacking and influence ops help Putin

The World
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Marine Le Pen, the far right French presidential candidate during a meeting in Moscow, on March 24th 2017.

In case you missed it, the presidential election in France was rocked at the last minute by a massive hacking attack on Emmanuel Macron's campaign.

No surprise, perhaps, given what happened in the US before the election last year.

Also no surprise: There's evidence that points to Russian hackers as the potential culprits.

But given the size of Macron's victory, this would seem to qualify as a "fail" — if, in fact, this was an attempt to influence the vote's outcome.

Macron is a centrist who favors a strong, integrated European Union. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, is dismissive of the European project, in favor of a much more nationalistic and anti-immigration agenda. Many observers believe the Kremlin favored Le Pen, as a weak Europe would give it more of a free hand to intervene in countries in Russia’s backyard, like Ukraine.

The documents leaked by the hack — some real, some fictitious — generally painted Macron in a negative light.

“I think it was an attempt [to influence the election],” says Brad Allenby. “But I think also that was not the primary purpose of the intervention.”

Allenby is co-director of The Weaponized Narrative Initiative, a partnership of Arizona State University and the New America Foundation.

“If you were going to try to really change the election,” argues Allenby, “this would have been a culmination of a much longer and more aggressive campaign. So I think this was more a show of force, rather than an actual attempt to try to throw the election.”

The evidence of Russian involvement comes from analyses both by government and private security organizations, says Allenby. He cautions that because of the nature of these kinds of operations, there’s never an absolute certainty. But in this case, “given what we know about the Russian patterns, given that it was fairly blatant, which makes it easy to track, it’s a reasonably probable assessment that it came from Russia.”

The main message behind the hack may not have been for French voters, however.

Allenby identifies two audiences who might see the leak as a win: the "alt-right," both in Europe and the United States, and the Russian public.

“I think what [the Russians are] doing, is, they’re creating more of a long-term narrative in the West and for their domestic population," Allenby explains, "to the effect that the democratic processes are flawed and are inferior to the kind of strong leadership that President Putin provides.”

Russia also wants to be seen as a major player that needs to be reckoned with.

“If you think about what Russia’s doing,” argues Allenby, “they’re a weak petro-state. They have very little economic clout. But they have managed to be in the headlines for how many months? And they’ve done so without any real damage to Mr. Putin, certainly in terms of his domestic standing. So I think most people would say that Russia has played this game very, very well.”

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