In the murky world of intelligence, it isn’t that often that anyone has crystal clear, absolutely certain, 100 percent guaranteed advance knowledge of a forthcoming operation. But in Europe right now, there is one prediction that everyone is happy to make: In 2017, the Russian government will mount an open campaign to sway the German elections. We know that the Russians can do it. The CIA has confirmed that Russian cyberhackers procured material from the Hillary Clinton campaign that appeared, via WikiLeaks, at key moments in the election. Hacked emails became part of a successful trolling campaign to discredit Clinton (and continue to inspire hysteria in the form of Pizzagate, the bizarre conspiracy theory that just won’t die); during the campaign, Trump frequently repeated lines lifted directly from Russian propaganda, including threats that Obama “founded ISIS” and Clinton would “cause World War III.” Similar campaigns involving hacks, violent rallies and dark conspiracy theories have worked in other countries, including Georgia, Poland and Ukraine. Risky on the face of it, the U.S. operation did no harm to Russia’s interests. On the contrary, the pro-Russian candidate won; business looks set to continue as usual.
We know that the Russian operation has already begun. Last week, the head of the German domestic intelligence agency said that material hacked from the German Parliament, published recently by WikiLeaks, came from the same Russian group that stole material from the Democratic National Committee. He believes “increased cyber spying and cyber operations” are underway. The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service has identified a rise in cyberattacks designed not to steal defense or commercial information but rather “to elicit political uncertainty.”
Not that hacking is the only tactic. Earlier this year, Russian media and pro-Russian trolls helped to create online hysteria by promoting a fake story of a Russian girl allegedy raped by a Syrian immigrant. Russia has also offered financial and moral support to Germany’s far-right and far-left parties, just as it does in France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe.