The former national security adviser wants to testify under immunity. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee sneaks off to the White House for illicit briefings. Every day brings a new revelation in Washington, and every day reveals the story of someone else’s conversation with someone else from Russia.
But if this seems momentous or ludicrous, bizarre or improbable, it shouldn’t. Take a step back and look around the world: Russian interference in democratic elections is neither new nor unusual. On the contrary, it’s ubiquitous, it plays a role in just about every Western democracy, it often follows the same patterns as it did in the United States, and it often leads to the same disarray.
True, in some places it includes funding, of which there is no evidence in the United States. One of France’s presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen of the “far right” National Front, was in Moscow last week as her party is openly seeking Russian financial support. In 2014, her party received a 9 million euro loan from a Russian-Czech bank, and in 2016, it was revealed this week, she received an additional 3 million euros from another Russian bank; a political fund run by her father, the former party chairman, also received 2 million euros from a Russian-backed fund based in Cyprus. Le Pen’s agenda — anti-NATO, anti-European Union — is perfectly aligned with that of Moscow, which seeks to destroy the European and transatlantic institutions that curb Russian influence. That support hasn’t damaged her standing with her voters: At a major Le Pen rally in Lille, France, a few days ago, Putin’s name was cheered.
Sometimes, Russian interference is more covert, involving training and support for far-right and extremist groups. A Hungarian neo-Nazi who authorities say murdered a police officer late last year had illegal military-grade weapons and ties to Russian operatives. Scandinavian far-right groups also have links to strange Russian “nationalist” groups that sometimes lend them money or help them train.
But most of the time, Russian interference in foreign elections takes the same forms that it did in the United States. Russian websites operating openly (Russia Today, Sputnik) or under other names spin out false rumors and conspiracy theories; then trolls and bots, either Russian or domestic, systematically spread them. Globsec, a Slovak think tank that monitors pro-Kremlin media together with partners in Hungary and the Czech Republic, found that in January alone, pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets in the region were repeating stories that “the CIA plans the assassination of Donald Trump,” that “NATO is a terrorist organization,” that “the European Union is the Third Reich.” The same kinds of outlets juxtaposed Trump’s first travel ban that month unfavorably with the calm and unity that prevail in Russia, where a law decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence was passed by 385 votes to 2, and only a lone human rights activist protested the measure. The European Union’s small disinformation review also noted that the recent anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea was accompanied by stories about the links between the Ukrainian government and alleged neo-Nazis, and even calls for the annexation of the rest of Ukraine.
But ground zero at the moment is the French election, where overt support for Le Pen is matched by covert opposition for her main rival, the centrist Emmanuel Macron. One of the most popular articles on the Sputnik France website in February was an article stating that WikiLeaks has secret information about Macron (sound familiar?) that it will reveal at some point. Le Monde’s fact-checking group, Les Décodeurs (part of a larger consortium, CrossCheck, that has banded together to fight false political stories), has put together a list of the most frequently shared unsubstantiated news stories in the election campaign so far. Unsurprisingly, they are mostly about terrorism, immigration and Macron. Among others, the attacks on Macron include a fake story that appeared on a website virtually identical to that of the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, claiming Macron received funding from Saudi Arabia. If it were true, which it isn’t, it might help ameliorate some of the anxiety about Le Pen’s funding from Russia.
There is more, of course — in Italy, Ukraine and Poland, even in Canada, where a peculiar duo of Russian and Polish “journalists” tried to smear the Canadian foreign minister, who is of Ukrainian descent. And there will be a lot more in Germany as its elections draw close, especially because we already know that the same hacking groups that operated in the United States are at work in Berlin, too. I am someone who believes in American exceptionalism. But in this instance, America isn’t exceptional at all.
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