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Russia’s 2016 U.S. Election Interference Playbook May Be Playing Out in the Balkans

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Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential contest continues to reverberate around the country, and inside the White House. But Donald Trump’s victory is not the first time Moscow has been accused of using asymmetric tactics to meddle in other countries’ affairs.

In 2015, Ukraine’s pro-Western new president, Petro Poroshenko, warned about the spread of misinformation on social media by Russian hackers seeking to weaken his government and strengthen backing for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in the east.

This type of low-cost, high-impact information warfare may have provided the blueprint for Russia’s attempts to disrupt and divide the American electorate ahead of the 2016 vote. While that race cast a harsh glare on Russia’s role in the Trump campaign, Moscow is no stranger to sowing political discord abroad.

a3.balkans.putin.russia.forum.storyAn analysis by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy advocacy group released in September 2017 accused Russia of meddling in the affairs of at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004 through cyber attacks, misinformation campaigns and other tactics.

The documented disruptions stretch back to 2004, when former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and purported arms dealer Yuri Borisov was accused of contributing $400,000 to the campaign of Lithuanian Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached for granting Borisov citizenship. Three years later in Estonia, another former Soviet republic, hackers used Russian IP addresses to launch a barrage of denial-of-service attacks that shut down the internet in the tech-reliant Baltic nation, which had become one of NATO’s newest members.

But those cyber attacks generally flew under the radar until it was discovered that Russian government-affiliated hackers infiltrated the U.S. in myriad ways, from Kremlin troll farms buying polarizing ads on Facebook to hackers stealing prominent Democratic emails that were then published by WikiLeaks.

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations it is interfering in other nations’ affairs, pointing out — correctly — that the U.S. itself has a long history of foreign meddling and even toppling unfriendly regimes, such as leftwing governments in Latin America during the Cold War. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disdain for NATO’s postwar expansion and the West’s promotion of democracy abroad.

There is growing evidence that Russia has continued a pattern of interfering in elections across Europe to skew the results toward pro-Russia candidates, inflame populist tensions and undermine faith not only in democracy, but also in the European Union and NATO.

In 2016, hundreds of Facebook accounts later active in the U.S. presidential campaign were pushing the British to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum. Investigators in the U.S. and U.K. also believe Russia funneled money to people associated with the leave camp. (There is evidence that Russian trolls also supported Catalonian secessionists in Spain to weaken EU unity.)

In France, the far-right National Front party accepted a loan from a Russian bank with ties to the Kremlin. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, has expressed admiration for Putin. And during the 2017 presidential election, Russian hackers repeatedly tried to break into the files of Le Pen’s opponent, Emmanuel Macron; the day before the election, thousands of Macron’s emails were leaked online.

In Germany’s 2017 parliamentary elections, the major parties agreed not to use any hacked material for political gain. And indeed, no Russian interference was detected, surprising many experts who had come to see hacks and social media barrages as the new norm.

But Russia has not given up on exploiting the internet for political gain or undermining Western democracy. Even in Germany, for instance, intelligence officials accused Russia of stealing data from members of parliament in 2015 and spreading fake news that went viral, notably a fabricated story about a German-Russian girl raped by migrants in Berlin — which touched a nerve at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis.

More recently, on Nov. 14, separate reports emerged that Russian-linked hackers attacked both the U.S. and Germany on the same day. “First, U.S. cybersecurity companies reported that the group known as Cozy Bear — allegedly an arm of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, best known for being the first Russian hacking team to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee — seemed to have come back to life,” wrote Max de Haldevang in Quartz on Dec. 1. “The group was the likely source of new hacking attempts on U.S. government agencies, think tanks, and businesses, the companies said.”

That same day, according to Der Spiegel magazine, German authorities detected an attack on email accounts belonging to the country’s lawmakers, military and embassies.

a3.balkans.zaev.macedonia.storyGerman policies toward Russia, including sanctions for the annexation of Crimea, are especially critical to Moscow given the high level of trade between the two countries. Maintaining economic and geopolitical influence seems to be the primary driver behind Russia’s attempts to keep neighboring states such as Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltics close to its orbit and away from the EU or NATO.

This dynamic is currently playing out in the Balkans, a tinderbox of ethnic tensions that has a complicated history with Russia. The region is home to sizeable Russian-speaking populations that share a common Slavic heritage with Russia and loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church.

But political and economic alliances have shifted since the fall of the Soviet Union. Nine of the area’s 12 nations are in NATO. Balkan nations such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia are already members of the EU, and the bloc has offered the prospect of membership to six others: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Further European integration on Russia’s doorstep would pose a significant threat to Moscow’s hegemony in the region. And given the Balkans’ history as the flashpoint of World War I and the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia — from which many Balkan states have yet to recover — there’s growing concern that the tug of war between Russia and the West could spark another devastating conflict.

That’s why many experts are sounding the alarm about Russia inserting itself into the recent referendum to rename Macedonia, as well as its efforts to maintain influence in the linchpin Balkan nation of Serbia.

Macedonia Fights History — and Russian Facebook Posts

Macedonia’s bid to join the EU and NATO has for decades been blocked by Greece over what Athens sees as territorial designs on a region in Greece with the same name.

The dispute is rooted in cultural history — both claim to be the original home of Alexander the Great. But it also has more recent implications. Greece has opposed international recognition of Macedonia since it became an independent republic after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991.

Macedonia has already changed its constitution to make clear it has no territorial ambitions on Greece and changed its flag to avoid symbols claimed by the Greeks, according to a March 20, 2018, report by Marc Santora for The New York Times.

But Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has been determined to finally bury the hatchet and pave the way for his country to join the EU and the security umbrella of NATO. Earlier this year, the two countries’ leaders negotiated a compromise: Greece would lift its opposition if Macedonia officially renamed itself North Macedonia.

On Sept. 30, Macedonia held a nationwide referendum to decide on the name change. Although 91 percent voted to make the name change, turnout did not meet the required 50 percent threshold to make the decision binding, sending it to Macedonia’s parliament. As of print time, the legislative process was still underway.

Russia, meanwhile, has repeatedly attempted to dissuade Eastern European states from joining the EU and NATO. It is a strategy that appears to be lifted from the Soviet Union’s Cold War playbook, to draw a number of “satellites” into a sphere of influence that more or less gives Russia a buffer zone between it and Western European nations, such as France and Germany, that have invaded the country at various times in the past two centuries.

Moscow insists that countries on its periphery can have relations with both Russia and the EU, as long as the West doesn’t try to dominate the region at Russia’s expense. EU and U.S. officials counter that Russia’s onslaught of cyber attacks and manipulation of social media suggest it wants to remain the dominant player in the region.

But just how effective are Russia’s methods of persuasion and coercion?

By one count, hundreds of new websites appeared over the course of Macedonia’s referendum campaign encouraging voters to boycott the referendum. Many did just that — only about one-third of eligible voters turned out at the polls. Many others burned their ballots, emboldened by dozens of Facebook posts falsely claiming, among other things, that Google would eliminate Macedonian from its list of recognized languages.

But the negative attacks haven’t stopped Zaev from declaring victory after the nonbinding referendum and pushing ahead with plans to change the country’s name by securing the support of a majority of parliament.

As with the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., some experts demur on how definitive or measurable Russian interference was in the Macedonia referendum.

“It’s hard to show cause and effect. Certainly they were active,” said A. Ross Johnson, a history and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“Was that the decisive factor or not? I don’t know. It’s very hard to say,” Johnson told The Diplomat.

a3.balkans.kremlin.russia.storyMolly McKew, who has advised former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, wrote in Wired early last year that we cannot fully know the impact of social media persuasion for a number of reasons. First, because we have just began analyzing this issue; second, the analytical tools to measure the impact are not readily available; and third, social media companies “obfuscate” what they know about their own technologies and the repercussions.

Referencing fake protests in American cities, where people actually showed up to events that had been created and promoted by Russian agents on social media ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, McKew noted that, “Russian accounts and agents accomplished more than just stoking divisions and tensions with sloppy propaganda memes…. These accounts aimed to get people to do specific things.” 

“This corrosive effect is real and significant,” McKew argued, although she cautioned that we’re only at the beginning of understanding the direct impact of such meddling. “Which part of the fear of ‘sharia law in America’ came from Russian accounts versus readers of InfoWars? How much did the Russian campaigns targeting black voters impact the low turnout, versus the character attacks run against Clinton by the Trump campaign itself? For now, all we can know is that there is shared narrative, and shared responsibility.”

Macedonia’s low voter turnout is a sign that Moscow did potentially affect behavior with inflammatory Facebook accounts promoting boycotts and ballot-burning.

“It’s reasonably effective,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of the 2009 book “Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.”

“The Macedonian referendum is an example where I think you can make a pretty strong case that these activities have had real political results,” he told The Diplomat in a phone interview.

America and its European allies have woken up to the threat posed by Russia’s online warfare. In January 2017, Congress allocated $8 million to fight the Russian disinformation campaign in Macedonia. But, as reported by Marc Santora and Julian Barnes on Sept. 16 in The New York Times, that money did not arrive for more than a year.

In Serbia, Russian Influence Goes Offline

In Serbia, meanwhile, Russian influence has become even more complex and intertwined with daily life.

There, Russia is “deeply engaged in local language media, both with Kremlin-owned websites like Sputnik and with bots that harp on local grievances,” according to an April 10, 2018, report by Steven Erlanger for The New York Times.

Russian state media broadcasts reports in Serbian, including now-standard conspiracy theories such as reports claiming “NATO and the Islamic State were plotting together to spread chaos at the World Cup,” Michael Birnbaum reported for The Washington Post on Oct. 3.

Russia’s low-cost but highly effective media strategy has also convinced ordinary Serbs that Moscow is their biggest benefactor, a falsehood amplified by Serbia’s own notoriously inaccurate news media.

Serbia receives 4 billion euros in direct foreign investment from EU countries and only 8 million from Russia. But these facts are “mostly ignored by Serbian media,” according to a March 2018 paper Johnson wrote for the Wilson Center. The paper also noted that Serbian media underreport the country’s military interactions with NATO, which far exceed military-to-military exchanges with Russia.

This information war is working. As Birnbaum wrote, “Many Serbs mistakenly believe Russia is their biggest partner for trade, aid and the military” even though Russia’s contribution to the Serbian economy is dwarfed by EU — and even U.S. — investment.

This points to the importance of on-the-ground reporting by organizations like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is funded by the U.S. Congress and works in countries where the press has not traditionally been independent.

RFE/RL is still actively involved in the region, according to Johnson, who visited Kosovo in September on a research trip with the Wilson Center.

“We should be grateful that RFE/RL and also [Voice of America] are doing the great work that they’re doing. But I don’t think it’s fully appreciated by enough in the administration, in the foreign policy establishment, in the international community, so there should be more attention to that,” said Johnson, who is also a senior adviser at RFE/RL.

a3.balkans.russia.orthodox.storyWhen it comes to the Balkans, which are not NATO allies, Mankoff said that the U.S. has an interest in countering Russian efforts at destabilizing countries that could have security implications for our allies — but not necessarily “an obligation to do that.”

“At the end of the day, this is something that the U.S. is not going to be able to do by itself,” Mankoff told The Diplomat.

On the information battleground, Russia has the advantage of being able to tug on cultural strings. Serbian affinity for Russia, ethnic ties and Orthodox commonality are intangible markers that give more weight to Russia’s ties with ordinary Serbs. Russia is also reaping the rewards of its longtime support for Serbia in its dispute with Kosovo, including during the Kosovo War that saw the territory split from Serbia.

In a similar vein, Russia plays on Serbian allegiance in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs coexist in an awkward power-sharing agreement. In Oct. 7 elections, Bosnian Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik won a seat in the country’s three-member presidency, defeating a moderate incumbent. A close ally of Russia, Dodik wants his autonomous Serb region known as Republika Srpska to break away from the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s a frightening prospect given that Bosnia is a microcosm of the ethnic fault lines that tore the former Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.

Many of the same grievances that fueled the Balkan wars persist to this day — something Russia is well aware of. Experts say that Russia is not only looking to gain an economic and political edge in the region, but is also trying to sow chaos by exploiting the deep ethnic hatreds and weak, corrupt governance that plague the Balkans. The purpose of this divide and conquer strategy is to drive a wedge between Balkan states and the West — with very little cost or effort.

“Historical, political, ethnic, and economic rivalries are rife across the Balkans, from the uneasy tripartite status of Bosnia to the grudging status of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. In the words of a Russian foreign ministry staffer, ‘It’s full of opportunities for us to play everyone against each other – and frankly, we don’t have to do very much,’” wrote Mark Galeotti in an April 4, 2018, policy brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Often, Moscow develops opportunities to be all things to all audiences. To the Serbs, for example, it portrays Macedonia (like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo) as little more than an EU or American client — a line that also plays well in Greece. At the same time, to the Macedonians, the Russians have begun claiming that their country is under threat from U.S. plans to carve it up to create a ‘Greater Albania.’”

Galeotti added that, “Small, impoverished nations in which corruption is rife and in which checks and balances are rudimentary offer all kinds of opportunities for acquiring influence, as the Russians buy allies and clients within the elite.” 

But whether Moscow is succeeding in turning the Balkans into the latest tug of war between Russia and the West is another matter. For instance, any attempts by Dodik to redraw the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina would be met with fierce resistance; even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the country must be kept intact.

Looking at the bigger picture, Russian influence in the Balkans is mixed. Despite Serbia’s allegiance to Moscow, it’s pursuing EU membership and has even made overtures to its archenemy, Kosovo, in a bid to unlock closer relations with the bloc. In other European nations, some far-right, pro-Russia politicians have made headway, but many others have failed to win elections. Moreover, the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns is difficult to gauge because voters are often driven by a host of issues unrelated to Russia, such as immigration and the economy. Many countries from Bosnia to Germany are simply disillusioned with the EU, not necessarily enamored with Russia.

Ultimately, Moscow is causing some short-term “chaos” in Europe, according to Johnson. But he is skeptical that such troublemaking can alter the chessboard as much as Putin hopes it will.

“Russia is trying to increase its influence with some success, but not achieving its goals,” Johnson told The Diplomat. “Everything that happens in Serbia is not because of Russia.”

Mankoff echoed this sentiment.

“If you make it about Russian influence, you’re in a way absolving people in these countries of responsibility for their own problems. Yes, Russia is contributing to the spread of noxious political ideas in a lot of places, including the United States. But those noxious political ideas exist anyway,” Mankoff said.

In a region like the Balkans, however, which is fraught with age-old ethnic hatreds and mistrust, this may be enough to turn a war of words into something much more dangerous.


About the Author

Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.

Last Edited on January 6, 2019