In recent weeks, politicians and intelligence officials in France and Germany have stepped up their warnings of Russian interference in the national elections both countries will hold next year. In late November, Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that Germany had “evidence that cyberattacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed similar concerns, suggesting that Moscow may attempt to influence Germany’s parliamentary elections, which are slated for September 2017. French politicians have been more circumspect about the specific threats posed to their country’s presidential elections, which will be held in April and May. But Guillaume Poupard, the director-general of France’s National Agency for the Security of Information Systems, has indicated that Paris, too, is concerned about the prospect of foreign interference. Western democracies face “the development of a digital threat for political ends and for destabilization,” he told Le Monde in early December.
Neither France nor Germany, however, is ready to deal with such attacks. Their institutions are ill-equipped to prevent digital breaches, and their politicians and publics are unprepared to handle the fallout from them.
To better understand the threat they face, leaders in both countries would do well to learn from the most brazen Russian-led influence operation so far: the leaking of information stolen from servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the private email account of John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. A careful look at that episode and its aftermath demonstrates the importance of strengthening the cyberdefenses of democratic institutions, building a political consensus to condemn attacks, and publicly naming—and punishing—the perpetrators.
The use of incriminating information to publicly discredit opponents is widespread, but Russian intelligence services have a particularly strong penchant for the tactic. During the Cold War, the practice was common enough that the Russian term kompromat (a portmanteau combining the Russian words for “
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