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Is Moscow meddling in everything?

February 15, 2017

Does Putin decide who wins elections in the West? Many believe that he cost Clinton the US presidency; now Macron is next in France and then, Merkel will be in the line of fire. Expert Stefan Meister has his doubts.

Russland Kreml
Image: Getty Images/AFP/V. Maximov

DW: US President Donald Trump calls the reports about phone calls between his election campaign staff and Russian intelligence "nonsense" and "conspiracy theories." Who do you think is right, Trump or "The New York Times?"

Stefan Meister: It's hard to tell which of the two is right. But it is clear that there was contact with the Russian Embassy and other Russian officials. We can see that in [National Security Advisor Michael] Flynn's resignation.  I do not know details about the contacts. It is also hard to judge their exact intentions.

Deutschland Stefan Meister
Meister is an Eastern Europe expert at the German Council on Foreign RelationsImage: DGAP/D. Enters

In France, Emmanuel Macron's election campaign staff suspects that the Kremlin intends to discredit the Socialist presidential candidate with a "smear campaign." Do you think this is possible?

We have observed that Russian media, social networks and certain state agents are trying to influence the debates in EU member states. Germany and its election campaign this year, as well as France, are clearly target countries. In key European countries, as well as countries in which right-wing populists have a good chance, we have observed increased activities in Russian media, Russian trolling and bots.

And they are taking on Macron?

It is obvious that Macron is a candidate who makes Moscow feel uncomfortable. One would have to systematically examine the extent to which a smear campaign is being run. But we see that there are many activities and that Macron in particular is being attacked and certain things are being said about him. The fact that rumors, half-truths and the like are being spread does make one wonder whether they are linked to Russia.

USA Donald Trump mit Michael Flynn im Wahlkampf
Contact with Russia after the election cost Trump's national security advisor, Michael Flynn, his jobImage: Getty Images/G. Frey

Do you see a clear goal that the Kremlin has set? Like helping Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, become French president and ousting German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Is that what Russian President Vladimir Putin wishes?

That is difficult to prove. I think the Kremlin is more interested in causing confusion. It is strengthening forces that question the system - in the US with Trump but also in France and Germany. Its intentions are to make the electorate feel insecure and to undermine the credibility of media and state institutions. That way, the political rights of politicians in key EU states will be weakened. I believe that not even Russian services think that they can become so deeply involved that they can make certain candidates win.

What does the Kremlin have to gain from weakened democracies in the West?

It wants to show its own population that Western democracies are in a deep crisis, that political discourse is polarized, that foreign infiltration exists. This strengthens its position domestically. The aim is to show that Western democracies no longer have the legitimacy to advise on international relations, human rights and universal values. At the same time, the EU's ability to act will be weakened to the point that it has an impact on the extension of sanctions against Russia. This, of course, improves Putin's position, also with regard to Ukraine and the recognition of his sphere of influence on post-Soviet territory.

Frankreich Macron will verstärkten Kampf gegen Terror
Macron has a shot at defeating the National Front's Le Pen in France's presidential electionImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Ollivier

How should Western democracies react to this?

First of all, we should not panic. Our fear of manipulation is greater than its actual impact. People should clearly analyze what is going on. I believe that transparency is extremely important and that fake news must be revealed and debunked  in public debate.

What can we do with regard to technology?

We must upgrade our technology. The Russians are a year or two ahead of us with regard to their ability to manipulate social networks and launch cyberattacks. We have to improve our expertise and upgrade our technological standards, and we have to coordinate better within Germany and even between the individual institutions that work on this - and in the EU as well. Then not everyone will be fumbling around, trying to react.

Dr. Stefan Meister is head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille