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Everything we know so far about Russian election meddling in Europe

The Washington Post examines how, more than a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject evidence that Russia supported his run for the White House. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Thomas LeGro, John Parks, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

BERLIN — In a highly anticipated report due to be released Wednesday, congressional Democrats are expected to raise renewed concerns about mounting evidence of Russian interference in at least 19 European nations, according to the Associated Press, which obtained an advance copy.

The report, commissioned by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and numbering more than 200 pages, directly criticizes President Trump as failing to respond to the threat, even as other nations in Europe have taken much stronger measures to counter Russian efforts in the region. “Never before has a president ignored such a clear national security threat,” Cardin wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

Even though American intelligence agencies agree that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections and have stood by their assessment, Trump has sent out mixed messages. After appearing to back the agencies, Trump later backtracked in November and publicly recalled that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him he “didn’t meddle.”

“I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said at the time, referring to Putin’s remarks.

European leaders have long greeted the Russian leader's assurances with more skepticism, given what they perceive as deliberate deceptions by the Russian leader. Here’s what we know about Russia’s influence on the continent:

How is Russia believed to have meddled in Europe? 

In some countries, Russia’s footprint has been more obvious than in others. Whereas some politicians have refrained from openly speaking out, others — such as French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May — have accused Russia of interfering.

“So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed,” May said in November. “The U.K. will do what is necessary to protect ourselves, and work with our allies to do likewise.”

Over at the Monkey Cage blog, Lucan Ahmad Way and Adam Casey recently summarized some of the most prominent cases of Russian meddling in Europe since 2014:

In the past three years, Russian interference has expanded into such countries as the United States, Germany, France and Britain, among others. These efforts have ranged widely. For instance, to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO, the Kremlin likely sponsored an October 2016 coup attempt. In a number of European countries, Russia helped fund far-right parties such as the National Front in the run-up to France’s 2017 election. Russia waged disinformation campaigns in other countries. And in Norway and Germany, Russia launched phishing attacks against parties and campaigns.

In his op-ed for The Post on Wednesday, Cardin referred to the same and cited additional examples, including the “murder of a number of Russian opposition figures and critics across Europe” and Moscow's “violation of international law by invading Russia’s neighbors, such as Georgia and Ukraine.”

The U.S. congressional report, which relies on staff interviews with officials and diplomats as well as open-source evidence, appears to confirm the use of those techniques and specifically refers to elections in Britain, France and Germany last year.

The Macron presidential campaign accused the Kremlin of election meddling, saying that servers belonging to the team were hacked by a group likely to be associated with Russia. The campaign said Russian hackers may have been searching for dirt on Macron to help his rival Marine Le Pen.

However, Russia’s meddling strategies continue to be unpredictable to a certain extent. Even though Russians are suspected to have hacked the German Parliament in 2015 and stolen 16 gigabytes of emails, the material — unlike emails attributed to the Macron campaign in France or the Hillary Clinton team in the United States — was never published.

Which European parties are backed by Russia?

A number of parties in Europe also have made pro-Russian stances their distinguishing feature.

The leaders of  Germany and France faced resistance from Russian-backed parties last year, according to a recent report released by the Atlantic Council think tank.

The Alternative for Germany made closer ties to Russia one of the party's top priorities and “campaigned aggressively in districts with a high concentration of Russian speakers while Russian state media provided favorable coverage,” according to the Atlantic Council.

Russian support for Le Pen’s National Front in France was even more extensive. The far-right politician has taken loans from Russian banks and has repeatedly praised Putin. In return, Russian state media openly supported her in the French election, and she “was propped up by Russian sponsored social media accounts,” the Atlantic Council authors wrote.

The think tank’s authors believe that Russia’s influence may be strongest in Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement has been topping the polls. The movement’s policy stances in favor of closer ties to Russia are well documented in speeches. Meanwhile, other more serious accusations that it is cooperating with Russia to win next year’s election remain in question.

In Greece, one of the parties accused of being most influenced by Russia is already in power. The left-wing Syriza party has denied that it reversed its foreign policy stance to become more pro-Russia because of hopes that it may receive bailouts from Russia. But Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin have bought stakes in Greek media. Russia’s state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, also purchased large stakes in Greek energy firms. And, most notably, Putin has maintained a close relationship with the Greek leadership.

Russia is believed to have been supportive of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) as well as the left-wing and increasingly pro-Russian Podemos party in Spain. The country is also investigating whether Russia influenced the recent independence vote in Catalonia.

Coats: Russia is interfering in French, German and British elections (Video: Senate Armed Services Committee)

How has Europe responded?

European responses to the alleged election meddling have varied. The congressional report is expected to laud the response of nations such as Estonia and Finland, according to AP, saying that Finland ramped up its cyberdefenses ahead of elections in 2015. Summits and interagency networks that the congressional report suggests should be introduced in the United States are already in place in some European nations.

However, some of the problems laid out are difficult to combat from Europe and would probably necessitate a broader effort. Social networks often still do not reveal when ads are paid for by political parties or stakeholders. And investigators in Europe and the United States have shown skepticism about whether a number of fake accounts believed to be operated by Russia to stir tensions in the West (and released by social networks themselves) are accurate.

Have Europe’s efforts been successful?

Even as Europe has bolstered its cyberdefenses, efforts to publicly combat fake news or meddling operations have proved to be difficult. A new law in Germany that is supposed to force social networks to remove hate-stirring messages within 24 hours is being criticized for coming close to censorship. Similar concerns have been raised in France, where Macron has vowed to pass a law against fake news.

Anticipating similar criticism, the Czech Republic’s year-old anti-fake-news task force has decided against taking down websites. Instead, the Prague-based center relies on mass media to pick up statements it issues that debunk misleading online reports.

The problem with that idea, however, is that many of the estimated 25 percent of Czechs who read websites accused of spreading fake news have stopped consuming mainstream media, where those corrections usually appear.  The Czech Republic’s experiences reveal the challenges that other countries, such as France, Finland and Germany, face as they try to establish agencies of their own or draft new laws.

Read more: 

The European parties accused of being influenced by Russia

As Germans prepare to vote, a mystery grows: Where are the Russians?

Russia has been meddling in foreign elections for decades. Has it made a difference?