Russia has been accused of trying to interfere in the US presidential election, through hacked Democrat emails and social media.
And in a big year of European elections, political leaders in France, Germany and elsewhere are looking over their shoulders too.
Across the continent the hand of the Russian state has been perceived in an array of cyber attacks on government and state institutions, in the phenomenon of “fake news” and disinformation, and in the targeted funding of opposition groups.
So how real is the threat and what form does it take? And is an explanation to be found in the words of Russia’s chief of the general staff, Gen Valery Gerasimov, who wrote in a military newspaper in 2013 that “the very rules of war have changed”?
The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness”
Gen Valery Gerasimov, 27 Feb 2013
What’s so new about information warfare?
Attempting to control information has long been part of the weaponry of many powerful states.
But Russia’s concerted effort to cultivate techniques of information warfare and non-military intervention over recent years is something new, says Keir Giles of the Conflict Studies Research Centre.
“At various stages in the first and second Chechen wars, the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia found it was not able to influence global opinion or the opinion of its adversaries at an operational or strategic level, and made significant changes to its information warfare apparatus as a result,” he says.
“In the Georgia war, they found that to influence world public opinion and to properly exploit the connectivity of the internet they needed to start a massive recruitment campaign to bring in linguists, journalists, anybody who could talk directly to populations in foreign countries en masse”.
What techniques are available?
Numerous cyber attacks in Europe have been blamed on Russian-linked groups – many of them spectacular.
In 2015 France’s TV5Monde broadcaster was taken off air and its systems nearly entirely destroyed.
The same year Russia’s APT28 hacking group was accused of a massive data hack of deputies in Germany’s lower house of parliament involving the loss of 16 gigabytes of data. Germany’s head of domestic intelligence has since spoken of a “hybrid” Russian threat to the September 2017 elections in which Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term in office.
Another cyber attack, on Bulgaria in October 2016, was described by its president as the heaviest and most intense to be conducted in south-eastern Europe.
These types of attack date back 10 years, when Estonia, a cyber pioneer and former Soviet state, was hit by a massive denial-of-service attack rendering websites inaccessible with a barrage of requests.
The potential power of attacking a country’s internet infrastructure suddenly became clear, with an Estonian defence spokesman comparing the attacks to those launched against the US on 11 September 2001.
Hacking is not just an issue in cyber-space, it can have enormous consequences far beyond. An attack on a Ukrainian power plant in 2015 led to days of blackout.
Read more: Bears with keyboards – Russian hackers snoop on West
BOOSTING OPPOSITION PARTIES
Senior Russian political figures have long cultivated relationships with nationalist and often anti-EU parties in Europe.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front received a €9m loan from a Russian bank in 2014 (then £7m; $11m). On 24 March, with the French election only a month away and a chance of victory in the race, she met President Putin during a trip to Moscow.
In February, the leader of right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), Frauke Petry, held talks in Moscow with MPs close to President Putin and with Russian ultranationalists.
And in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria denied claims it had received money from Moscow after signing a co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s United Russia party.
Apparently it is not just the right. In France and Germany, leading far-left groups also have key links to the Russian state, according to this study by the Atlantic Council.
FAKE NEWS AND DISINFORMATION
There is nothing new about disinformation – intentionally spreading false facts.
Now there is “fake news” too – false or misleading reporting often originating from little-known fringe websites that claim they are providing an alternative to the “lying” mainstream media.
The US presidential election was notoriously hit by it and many European countries have been too.
When Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014, the leaders that took over from Ukraine’s deposed leader were painted as fascists, justifying their intervention. The story contained enough of a kernel of truth to be persuasive. The leadership was neither a “fascist junta” nor “completely fascist-free”, as the BBC’s David Stern said at the time.
Weeks before an Italian referendum that brought down Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in December 2016, Kremlin-funded TV Russia Today broadcast a rally on Facebook Live from Rome’s Piazza del Populo.
“Protests against Italian PM hit Rome,” it announced to hundreds of thousands of viewers. In reality, it was a rally backing Mr Renzi.