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Is Russia hacking democracy?

As Putin’s relationship with the rest of the world grows ever more significant, what destabilising powers does his regime really have?

Whether the bombing of Aleppo, the hacking of Democratic Party’s email servers or the threat of incursion in the Baltic states, Vladimir Putin is readily framed as the West’s public enemy number one. But it is not useful to frame the Kremlin as the source of all our problems.

It is true that Donald Trump’s path to the White House was helped by the DNC hacks and WikiLeaks attack on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Not least because WikiLeaks suspiciously left Trump alone.

But it is also crying wolf to claim, as Ben Bradshaw MP did late last year, that Brexit was “probably” interfered with by Russia. It seems doubtful that Bradshaw could ever provide any conclusive evidence of this.

Rather, it plays into a latent Russophobia stemming from the Cold War as a strategy to divert from problems that are mostly domestic. We should focus on where Russia is misbehaving, not where it is not.

Since 2014, Russia’s state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and Sputnik, have vastly expanded their global reach.

Explicitly, RT tries to put forward the “Russian perspective”, while implicitly seeking to erode trust in institutions, such as the BBC. Just like the Morning Star, RT reported that Aleppo had been “liberated”, with no criticism of Russia’s bombing campaign. During the US presidential race, RT also seemed to be uncovering emails from Clinton’s campaign. This comes at a time when western media outlets are increasingly finding it difficult to balance their budget, and thus resort to more click-worthy news or reduce their reach through consolidating bureaus into regional hubs.

It is also true that Russian state-sponsored hacking and trolling is taking on unprecedented momentum. From Aleppo to the internet, the Kremlin is causing chaos. But this is not universal or inevitable.

The Cold War provides a convenient way to understand the present: a Russia seeking to rebuild its evil empire and assert itself as a geopolitical player rivalling the US. But the present is more unpredictable than the past. Russia is guided by a different ideology from the Soviet Union. Russia is not seeking to promote an international form of communism but seeking to undermine democracy – a motive that is primarily about Putin’s survival. If democracy looks flawed in the West, how can it be a model for reform in Russia?

There are real reasons to be concerned about Putin’s desire to hack democracy. Since the coloured revolutions and Arab Spring, Putin has increasingly cracked down on domestic dissent as a way to maintain power. Even Putin’s incursion in Ukraine is, in part, a way to shore up Putin’s power in Russia by undermining the pro-European and anti-corruption Euromaidan protests that ended Viktor Yanukovych’s hold on power in Ukraine in February 2014.

A recent report by the Atlantic Council concluded that organisations and institutions in the UK are relatively resilient to Russian perversion. The UK does not have the same pro-Russian organisational network as France. Nor do we have electronic voting procedures, as several US states do, which might be exposed to hacking. In fact, the behaviour of several Conservative MPs and Ukippers has courted the most criticism. For example, former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has faced ongoing scrutiny concerning his links to Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash.

However, we should not slide into blithely blaming Russia just to escape our own reality. Russia is responsible for sponsoring conflict, in Ukraine and Aleppo. The Kremlin is sponsoring hacking scandals that help undermine the legitimacy of candidates, such as Clinton, who are seen as less favourable to Russia.

But this is not inevitable. We have a choice about how and what we report, and about whether we equate using the wrong email server to sexual harassment. We have a choice about the funding of political parties and whether we accept foreign or clandestine funding or not. Finally, we have a choice about the value we give to democracy and political freedoms. In this regard, Russia is not something to emulate. Rather than blame Russia for Brexit, we need to get behind rule of law and freedom of speech. These values may not be perfect but compared to Russia they are incomparable and will be the best defence we have.

Dr Eleanor Knott is a Russia expert and LSE fellow at the Department of Methodology.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit