In many European countries Russian influence has reached alarming levels, particularly when it comes to elementary services like energy and transport, but an even more insidious front, that of misinformation, is spreading across the digital world. Western leaders must confront Russian influence before it manages to completely control the discourse surrounding it, a fact already displayed worryingly in Germany.
Indeed, there could hardly be a worse time for the German cybersecurity scene to be thrown into chaos. But after the sacking of as Arne Schönborn as chief of the country’s National Cybersecurity Agency over links to Russian intelligence, an unprecedented crisis is looming.
The explosive allegations were made earlier this month, when it was revealed that Schönborn is the founder and former chairman of the Cyber Security Council Germany, an industry group counting Russian company Protelion among its members. For years Protelion offered cybersecurity services to German businesses and politicians, marketing their services as “Made in Germany ”, while actually being a subsidiary of Russian company Infotecs, an entity placed on the US sanctions list earlier this year. The association with Infotecs, itself founded by a former KGB spy and likely closely linked to the Kremlin, effectively compromising the Schönborn’s actions.
The worrisome accusation comes at a time when acts of sabotage against vital installations have thrust German infrastructure vulnerability into the spotlight. The explosions at the Nord Stream gas project last month were aming the most brazen acts of sabotage in living memory, but it might be only the opening salvo in a protracted, largely invisible war where energy, industry, communications and transport are constantly being targeted by malicious actors. Such operations are remarkably simple: earlier this month, all rail traffic in northern Germany was brought to a halt for almost three hours after cables vital to the network were intentionally cut in only two places.
The ease with which critical aspects of modern life can be thrown into disarray by relatively small-scale attacks is sending chills down the spine of European and NATO leaders. More worrying yet, the interconnectivity of the digital age means that many attacks on infrastructure don’t require anything as prosaic as a bomb, but can be achieved just as easily with a Discord server full of hackers. Russia might lag the Western world in terms of military hardware, but it is among the world’s leaders when it comes to weaponizing the Internet.
Old Foes, New Friends
The events in Germany are a reminder of how much Russia has tried for years to infiltrate and undermine institutions and businesses on a large scale. Far from being a strictly German problem, most European societies are struggling, to one extent or another, with the malignant effects of Russian influence. Hungary is an excellent example, given prime minister Viktor Orban’s personal penchant for the Russian way of doing things: authoritarian governance, suppression of free media and large scale corruption.
Despite the two countries sharing a tumultuous past, Hungary and Russia share strong ties today, both ideological and economic, with the last decade experiencing a boom in Russian investment in Hungary. While some are legitimate business ventures, many of the larger projects have raised eyebrows, especially when it comes to Russian involvement in critical infrastructure. True to form, the largest of these projects have also been mired in accusations of corruption and bear clear marks of governments colluding to defraud the Hungarian taxpayers.
The Paks Nuclear Power Plant deal, currently provides 50% of Hungary’s electricity, is due to be modernised soon, with Moscow contributing a €10 billion loan towards this endeavour, which also sees Russian state agency Rosatom becoming the plant’s only supplier of nuclear material. The Orban government cited state secrecy laws in refusing to answer any concerns about the plan. Natural gas has been subject to similar treatment: an offshore company owned in part by Orban lackeys us holding a de facto monopoly of Russian gas imports in the country for years. Such examples are commonplace and serve to show how Russian influence and control over vital sectors of European economies are sometimes openly welcomed.
The Age of Spin
Energy and transport are absolutely central to the continuous functioning of a modern society, but there is one Western resource that Putin’s Russia wants to control above all else: Truth. To put it bluntly, Russian influence over Western media and public discourse is worrying at best and a security catastrophe at worst. For years, Russian elites have discovered that it is reasy and cheap to buy Western public goodwill. From purchasing football clubs and opening up art galleries to owning media conglomerates and being knighted by the queen of England, there are many ways to improve one’s image in the West.
Apart from Russia’s blatant lies regarding the Ukraine war, perhaps the most flagrant example of such a spin campaign can be found surrounding the scandal of Marsha Lazareva, a Russian businesswoman convicted of embezzling close to $500 million from the Port Fund, a Cayman-based company with Kuwaiti backing. Her 2018 imprisonment in Kuwait gave birth to a cause célèbre of sorts, with dozens of publications, political heavyweights and celebrities rushing to her defence. Despite being convicted by courts of law in various jurisdictions — most recently losing an appeal in an international arbitration case — she is winning in the court of public opinion.
Her arrest was variously depicted in the Western media as a brutal curtail of human rights, as a feminist cause of a successful woman being brutalized by a backwards Arab state, as a borderline kidnapping of an American citizen and even as a human interest story. An unlikely alliance of former UK first lady Cherie Blair, former FBI director Louis Freeh, members of the Bush and Yeltsin political families, Mike Pompeo, Vladimir Putin and untold numbers of Washington lobbyists was formed in her defence. After months of campaigning, Kuwait buckled under international pressure and agreed to her release, launching ecstatic celebrations in the Western media. The fact that she stole nearly half a billion dollars has somehow slipped through the cracks.
Capital and Influence
The end of the Cold War brought great optimism to the West with regards to its relations with Russia. True to form, the capitalist West was particularly welcoming of rich businessmen who made their wealth during the no-questions-asked post-Soviet 90s, particularly when they seemed eager to move their capital to London, Berlin or New York. But as relations are once again growing frosty, many Western governments now find themselves in unenviable positions while having to battle Russian influence on all levels.
Whether it’s through infiltration, self-serving government contracts, or star-studded lobbying campaigns, Russian influence in the West has become undeniable and should be treated as a priority issue of national security. Putin and other Russian elites are already treating the war in Ukraine as a larger conflict against the “decadent West”. If the Western world is to survive this conflict, it must act on Russian influence and must do so now.
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