A presidential candidate loathed by Moscow suffers a massive cyber-attack by Russian spies. Purloined emails that are embarrassing for the front-runner are dumped online by Kremlin fronts. Political chaos ensues as Vladimir Putin prepares to reap his reward.
That’s what happened in France a couple days ago. And if all this sounds familiar to Americans it should, since this is precisely the clandestine playbook employed by Kremlin spies against Hillary Clinton last year. However, this time the outcome was very different—and far less edifying to Moscow.
Marine Le Pen, Putin’s openly favored candidate, lost to Emmanuel Macron, the youthful centrist who became the impromptu white knight of everyone in France who wanted to halt Le Pen and her far-right National Front. In fact, yesterday’s election was a total blow-out.
In Sunday’s second-round of the presidential vote, Macron got 66 percent against just 34 percent for Le Pen, an almost two-to-one advantage. Of France’s 102 départements (roughly counties in American terms), Le Pen took only two. Although Macron was leading in late polling, few expected this kind of massive loss for the National Front, which has surged in recent years thanks to its Trump-like populist appeal: anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, and unabashedly pro-France and its sovereignty.
Europeans who support the EU and Atlanticists everywhere are rejoicing over Macron’s big win—one which they worried might fail to appear, particularly when his emails appeared online Friday, in a move calculated to embarrass the leading candidate at the eleventh hour.
What happened is clear enough. Early analysis indicates that Macron’s emails were stolen by a Russian hacking group termed APT 28 or Fancy Bear—the very same shadowy cyber-gang which stole Democratic emails in 2016. In reality, this notorious criminal group is part of Russian military intelligence or GRU.
This was anything but subtle. As I recently noted, Putin no longer cares that Westerners know how the Kremlin is trying to install pro-Russian governments in our countries—what is properly termed subversion. Moscow could have covered its tracks better, employing “clean” hackers not already identified by Western counterspies; they chose not to. Indeed, they were sloppy—some of the Macron hackers left behind Cyrillic letters, perhaps in a taunting gesture.
Just as unsubtle was how Moscow employed well-known fronts for its spy services to disseminate Macron’s stolen emails. Here WikiLeaks played a lead role, just as it did in last year’s Russian espionage and subversion campaign against the United States. American fringe-right activists with visible ties to the Kremlin played an important part in pushing this story, too.
France’s reaction to Russian spy-games, however, was markedly different from how Americans responded to the Kremlin’s attack on Hillary Clinton last year. In Paris, the national election commission warned the media not to publish the emails, which had been obtained in a criminal manner. Many voters saw this operation as an attack on France and an effort by foreigners to subvert their democracy—a wholly correct assessment.
The contrast with the United States could not be starker. Here, journalists fell over themselves to get at the WikiLeaks story, reporting GRU’s criminal findings with little or no skepticism. Even establishment journalists in America have reported the case all too uncritically. Really, who can blame them when the rewards for pushing the Kremlin line, intentionally or not, have included riches, fame and top-shelf awards?
In truth, Moscow’s blatant attempt to swing France’s election to Le Pen seems to have hurt her. She was already suffering from connections, real or imagined, to Donald Trump—a figure widely loathed across Europe. The last-minute cyber-dump by Kremlin agents probably helped Macron in the end. Online, French citizens poured mocking vitriol on Le Pen’s party and its naked ties to Putin, as well as on American far-right activists who were openly meddling in their country’s election. The spy-model which worked so well in America last year failed utterly in France.
It bears noting that the dissimilarities between Le Pen and Trump are as great as any similarities. The French far-rightist is a serious and seasoned politician with a command of the issues—not an amateur playing at populism without any grasp of policy matters. Moreover, Le Pen’s linkages to Putin are overt, not a matter of speculation. Last year, she and her National Front openly asked Moscow for a $30 million loan to support coming elections, while Le Pen’s public adulation of Russia’s president is as ebullient as anything uttered by Trump about Putin.
Let us be perfectly clear about what has happened here. Russia employed its full arsenal of what I’ve termed Special War—interlinked espionage, propaganda and subversion—against yet another Western country in an illegal effort to elect a leader more to Moscow’s liking. That this operation failed in France, just months after working in the United States, means that the Kremlin ought to reassess the viability of its clandestine model. Ever since the cunning occupation of Crimea in early 2014 by GRU’s Little Green Men, which worked almost flawlessly, countries bordering Russia have prepared for identical Kremlin aggression. That spy-trick will not work as advertised twice.
Nevertheless, NATO and the EU should expect that Russia will keep trying to elect pro-Moscow governments in our countries, using its spy services to subvert our democracy. Germany, which has elections in a few months, will be the next Kremlin target. Given Berlin’s dominance over the EU in political and economic terms—not to mention Putin’s hatred for Chancellor Angela Merkel—this promises to be a clandestine battle royal.
Putin has declared war on the West. Not kinetic warfare, but political warfare. Its aims are identical to the objectives of actual warfare. Too weak militarily and economically to challenge NATO on the field of battle with any hope of victory, the Kremlin has opted for more cunning techniques. Yet Russia’s objective—to install pro-Putin governments in Western capitals—is no different than if Moscow ordered the 1st Guards Tank Army to march westward.
It is past time for the West to get serious about pushing back on this aggression. Putin aims to subvert our democracies, and we must not let him do that any longer. Acknowledging what is going on is a start. Now that the heads of the FBI and CIA have publicly called out WikiLeaks as a hostile actor and front for Russian intelligence, NATO countries need to respond appropriately. Kremlin operatives in the West need to be rolled up, beyond just WikiLeaks, if we expect to successfully push back against Moscow’s political aggression.
Over three years ago I warned the West that we were in Cold War 2.0 with Russia, whether we wanted to be or not. That call was largely ignored, and as a result Kremlin aggression against the West has only increased. Now Putin is nakedly trying to subvert our democracies. To date his track record is 50-50, and any Chekist will keep gambling at those odds. Putin can only win this war if the West lets him—which is the choice before us now.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.