Russian President Vladimir Putin’s telegram of congratulations Monday to French President-elect Emmanuel Macron was almost over-friendly. Wishing him good health, he said that “the citizens of France have entrusted you the leadership of the country at a difficult time for Europe and for the entire international community” and that it was “particularly important to overcome mutual distrust and unite efforts to ensure international stability and security.” It sounded almost as if Putin were worried that the 39-year-old politician, with no security or foreign policy experience, may actually have it in for him.
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Macron, fresh from his second-round victory over Marine Le Pen, is now in a position of strength. In the bruising presidential campaign, the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus sought to portray him as a closet homosexual and the corrupt member of the “Rothschild” cabal. Meanwhile, Russian hackers broke into his party’s computer system, dumping online nine gigabytes of stolen emails. Macron has taken everything Russia had against him and persevered. With the full resources of the French Republic soon to be at his disposal, it will be his turn to strike back. And Putin is right to be worried.
The combination of fake online smear stories and hacking and dumping against candidates considered hostile to Russia has become the norm in election campaigns everywhere over the last year or so, from the United States to tiny Montenegro. Ironically, Macron didn’t stand out as particularly anti-Russian during the campaign.
During the debates, the only candidate who expressed major concerns about Putin’s policies was the Socialist Party’s Benot Hamon, while Macron preferred more bland statements on how France should position itself between Russia and America.
But one foreign policy issue Macron has been passionate about is strengthening the European Union and within it the Franco-German alliance, both of which Putin seeks to weaken. As Macron emerged the surprising frontrunner, overtaking in the polls Kremlin-friendly German-bashing candidates Marine Le Pen, François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he became a Russian target.
Tougher than Obama
In the aftermath of the election, his close aides are making no bones about their plans to respond. In an interview with Ben Judah on Politico, Aurélien Lechevallier, Macron’s foreign policy adviser, said that “we will have a doctrine of retaliation when it comes to Russian cyberattacks or any other kind of attacks.” He emphasized that under Macron, France will be “ready to retaliate against cyberattacks – not only in kind but also with any other conventional measure or security tool.”
This is fighting talk in sharp contrast to the lack of any visible response from the previous main victim of Russian cyber interference, the United States. There, the Obama administration hesitated to react despite its knowledge of Moscow-directed attacks on the Democratic Party’s computers, and of course the continuing denial from the Trump White House that there was any certainty that indeed Russia was behind them.
It’s no coincidence that Macron’s people are talking up a tough response as Germany also ratchets up its rhetoric. Last Thursday, at a conference in Potsdam, Germany’s security chiefs all put Moscow on notice. Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the BfV, announced that his country’s main political parties had been targeted by an “increasingly aggressive cyber-espionage operation” which is “directed from Russia. Our counterpart is trying to generate information that can be used for disinformation or for influencing operations.”
The decision to use this information during the German election campaign, he said, “will be made in the Kremlin.” Bruno Kahl, head of the foreign intelligence service, the BND, said Germany must use “state resources” in facing hacking threats from Russia, as well as China and Iran, while Holger Münch, the chief of Germany’s federal police, added details on how the Russian hackers work together with organized cybercrime gangs.
Merkel on board
Such a public denouncement of Kremlin-directed hacking by German security chiefs will have needed authorization from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is naturally concerned about online leaks that could damage her Christian Democrats in the September election.
Over the last two years there have been a number of “hybrid” operations using both cyberwarfare and online propaganda against Germany. In an attempt to stir up ethnic tensions, Russian media published fake reports of Arab migrants raping a Russian girl living in Germany. Other “fake news” campaigns included smears of the new leader of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, as being the son of a Nazi concentration camp guard, and emails to Lithuanians accusing a German soldier in Lithuania on a NATO mission of raping a local girl.
A Franco-German cyber counter-operation targeting the Kremlin would make a lot of sense at this point. It would exact retribution over the Russian attempt to subvert the French presidential election and deter similar interference in Germany.
So far, Putin’s main objective has been to sow mistrust and discord in the West, weakening the European Union and NATO in the hope also of ending the sanctions the West announced against Russia’s economy following the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Putin is especially vulnerable to reports of corruption against him and his close circle. A month and a half ago, protests broke out in 25 cities across Russia following the revelations on riches amassed by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Putin could be next.
In the past it would have been the United States and Britain leading such Western operations against Russia, while France and Germany would usually be more hesitant. But with the new administration being implicated in its own Russian scandal and Britain heading out of Europe, it may well fall to Macron and Merkel to lead the cyber charge on the Kremlin.