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Homeland Security

Europe Braces for Russian Cyber Assault Before 2017 Elections

By Henry Ridgwell December 21, 2016

Amid ongoing accusations that Russia attempted to influence and subvert the U.S. presidential election, Europe is bracing for a similar operation by Moscow before a series of elections. France, Germany and the Netherlands go to the polls in 2017, and analysts say Russia is already attempting to influence the outcomes, a charge Moscow denies.

As the chief European architect of sanctions against Russia, analysts say German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the European leader Moscow would most like to see voted out of power.

In a speech this month Merkel warned of the dangers of external attempts to hack the election, adding that German leaders must inform people, and express their political convictions clearly.

The chancellor is running for a fourth term. But she does have an Achilles heel. Nearly a million migrants arrived in Germany in 2015 and analysts say Russia will likely use this to try whip-up anti-immigrant feeling.

In January, a fake news story about a Russian-German girl named "Lisa" who had reportedly been raped by migrants prompted protests in Germany, and accusations of a cover-up from Moscow. The girl later admitted it was a lie. Russia will likely ramp up its efforts at disinformation before the election, says Center for European Reform analyst Ian Bond.

"They can target it both in France and in Germany. But because Angela Merkel herself has been so closely identified with the policy of admitting refugees and asylum seekers to Germany, it is, I think, an area of vulnerability for her," Bond says.

Break-up of EU as goal

The far right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party is rising in the polls. Monday's terror attack in Berlin could boost support, says Thorsten Benner of Berlin's Global Public Policy Institute.

"Or if we have an unraveling of the refugee situation again with the EU-Turkey pact unraveling on refugees. That could also increase the pressure on Germany," Benner says.

Across Europe, far right parties have sought close relationships with Moscow. Ian Bond says the populist parties share one goal, the break-up of the European Union.

"And from a Russian point of view if you can divide Europe, if you can then pick off individual states and make them feel more vulnerable or make them feel that they have to accommodate themselves to Russia, then that is a huge win."

With Donald Trump taking over the U.S. presidency in January, Bond says European unity will be tested from all sides.

"Trump himself, like Putin, seems to share this preference for dealing with countries in Europe bilaterally rather than multilaterally. And so I think he is not going to shed many tears if in fact the EU is weakened as a result of Russian activity in European elections in the coming months" Bond says.

While Trump has said US NATO allies should pay more for defense, he has not suggested he wants to see the European Union weakened.

European leaders hope that by sounding the alarm early, any attempts by Moscow to influence upcoming elections can be extinguished. But analysts warn Russia's propaganda drive is already well underway.

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