Emmanuel Macron’s landslide victory on Sunday, for many, symbolized a defeat for Russia, whose meddling across recent Western elections pointed to a dire future for the European Union and democracy globally.
The French elections and their politics provide valuable lessons for insulating democracies against Russian manipulation. But while the West should cheer for France’s successful countering of Russian interference, remember that Putin’s gamble is not a complete failure. Several ominous signs suggest Russia’s influence fight won’t end soon and still has legs to run not only in France but across the West.
Russia pushed Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate, Marine Le Pen, for months, overtly backing her campaign through diplomatic engagement and covertly through “hack and release” cyberinfluence.
But France’s two-stage runoff elections present Russian influence a tougher challenge for swaying votes toward its preferred candidate and away from its named adversary. Compromat, the timed release of stolen, compromising secrets on adversaries, provides the critical fuel for Russian influence of recent elections. Had the Russians released compromat on Macron prior to the first-round runoff elections, Putin may have taken out the top challenger to Le Pen but also elevated another viable opponent such as François Fillon or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, two candidates likely to absorb Macron’s votes.
Any Russian compromat on Macron, thus, needed to be timed for maximum impact between the runoff and the second round of voting, leaving little time for dissemination of incriminating information and resulting media groundswell to decisively change French voter opinions. With only two weeks between rounds, as opposed to the months between American primaries and the presidential election, Russian measures had a limited window to swing votes toward Le Pen.
France’s media blackout prior to election day also limited the damage of late-breaking Russian compromat aimed at Macron. The French mainstream media, unlike America’s through the summer of 2016, didn’t go for Russia’s bait, remaining firm against Putin’s attempt to play Western democracies against themselves through the release of juicy secrets.
Ultimately, France’s multi-party political landscape, two-tiered elections, and short time between runoff and final tally make it far more resilient to Russian influence than the extended, bipolar contests of the United States or the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, which pitted two numerically close sides in narrow battles.
We all must remember, too, that this was France. The French are more culturally immune to compromise than their uptight friends the Brits and Americans. The last two French presidents have allegedly been involved in extramarital affairs with little resulting consequence to their relative political power. Le Pen, unlike President Donald Trump, hasn’t been the least bit squeamish about her Russian ties. French politicians hide less and when their secrets are revealed. They address potential compromises rather than wallow in them, providing Russia less space to influence elections.
Moreover, the French are less likely to receive their news and be influenced via social media than hyper-connected Americans are. France’s social-media access rates are 20 percent lower than the U.S., and half as many Frenchmen over the age of 50 use social media. Facebook, having realized its unwitting complicity during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, also helped France in the final weeks before the election by removing 30,000 fake accounts from its platform. It’s hard for Putin to conduct cyberinfluence via fake news when French voters don’t see Russian influence online.
Russia’s release of hacked Macron emails only two days prior to the second-round vote is revealing in itself. Despite successfully breaching Macron’s networks, revelatory damaging compromat has yet to emerge from the cache, suggesting the Kremlin lacked the information nuclear missiles to launch in the way the Democratic National Committee trawl yielded important story lines.
Macron claims false, manufactured emails were mixed in with true information. If his claim is true, it further suggests Russia didn’t acquire what it needed to malign its opponent and instead needed to make up evidence to support influence themes. Putin’s release of stolen emails so late in the game wasn’t to win the election at the last minute, but to undermine Macron’s win, withering his mandate to govern—a traditional backup line for Russian Active Measures.
In the coming weeks, should the Kremlin’s email dump create conspiracy or suggest corruption, Macron will take office under controversy, be further challenged by Le Pen supporters, and be bogged down in achieving his political promises to the electorate. Only time will tell.
The West should rejoice for the moment in stopping the advance of Russian meddling but quickly realize it has won only one battle in a war with the Kremlin. From the start, Russia saw the rebirth of Active Measures via cyberspace as a multi-year campaign to bring about the end of the European Union and NATO through “the force of politics” rather than the “politics of force.”
After helping bring about the U.K.’s exit from the European Union in 2015 and supporting Trump’s victory and subsequent anti-EU and anti-NATO policies in 2016, Russia only needs one more election to bring about the fall of Western unions. France may be a loss for now, but the September 2017 German election provides one last and very ripe chance to disintegrate the European Union. The German parliament has already been hacked, and Russia has aggressively pushed anti-Merkel and fake immigrant-crime stories into the German landscape to great effect. Germany leaves Putin one last challenge to Western unity and opportunity to achieve his prize.
Beyond any single election, Russia in short order has won over and unified the alt-right from Eastern Europe to North America, creating a digital Kremlin insurgency. Le Pen may have lost this election, but she’s increased her pro-Russian, anti-EU, anti-immigration base substantially since the 2013 election, when she failed to get past the first round. Russia’s state-sponsored RT and Sputnik News outlets grew their French market share considerably in the run-up to this election.
The launch of Macron’s hacked emails allegedly came from U.S. citizen and Trump supporter Jack Posobiec, and Americans have now become witting agents of Russian Active Measures to influence a foreign election. Before France in 2017, alt-right-leaning Americans had not shown interest or influence in a foreign election in any sizable way.
And Macron, a young, inexperienced politician, will face considerable resistance domestically from the one-third of French voters who didn’t vote for him and internationally from a dedicated alt-right trolling operation empowered by the Kremlin.
Some now say Russia overstepped in its election meddling, but what are the consequences? Obama administration sanctions sting, and Russians now feel a bit gloomy that Trump hasn’t made the swing toward Kremlin foreign-policy positions they were expecting.
Still, Putin hasn’t lost much. The financial costs of cyber-enabled influence have been minimal compared to other defense spending. He’s gained a sizable audience across alt-right communities mobilized in ways never seen. The U.S. remains bogged down in political partisan bickering over Russian influence, further dividing American society and undermining Trump’s mandate.
And if Germany opts out of the EU, or NATO crumbles under the combined forces of Brexit, Trump, and a Russian proxy in Germany, Putin has achieved his goals of crumbling the West and reasserting Russia’s international stature.
So remember that the French battle was won, but the war is not over. Putin’s influence plan will remain on course in Germany until the U.S. gets a Russia policy and comes together with its European allies to firmly counter Russia’s aggression. The Kremlin won’t stop until it’s challenged.