Ilves heard by US Congress committee on Russian meddling with elections

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: (AFP/Scanpix)

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves appeared before the U.S. Congress’ House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. The committee hearing concerned potential Russian attempts at influencing elections in democratic states, and attempts made at weakening NATO.

Commenting on the subject of the hearing, Congressman and committee chairman Ed Royce said that Russia had begun a far-reaching campaign to undermine democratic states, and alliances like NATO.

In addition to invading Ukraine and bombing civilians in Syria, Russia had pumped tens of millions into disinformation campaigns and propaganda, the target of which were the United states and the European Union, Royce said. The response had been too weak for too long, and this needed to change.

In addition to Ilves, the committee also heard Lincoln P. Bloomfield, a former high-ranking official of the U.S. State Department, vice president of the European Center for Policy Analysis, Peter B. Doran, and the United States’ former representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Daniel Baer.

On Tuesday the Estonian ambassador to the U.S., Eerik Marmei, was heard on the same topic by the Senate Budget Committee’s subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

Ilves: Danger lies in asymmetric nature of attacks

In the current situation where the United States’ intelligence services agreed that there had been Russian meddling in the elections, all liberal democrats needed to reconsider how their electoral processes could be defended, Ilves said. This was particularly true for Europe, where several governments were about to face elections.

If the most powerful and richest democracy in the world could fall victim to massive disinformation, electronic break-ins, and hacking, what countries like Germany, France, and the Netherlands had coming, where the popularity of extremist parties was on the increase, could only be guessed.

Ilves also pointed out that the German security services had already confirmed that the same groups of hackers that had broken into the servers of the Democratic Party during the American presidential election last year had managed to break into the IT systems of the German parliament, as well as those of several politicians. At the same time, fake news was on the rise, and Russia’s disinformation efforts had already affected the Dutch referendum over the Ukraine-EU association treaty. Similar signs were visible also in Sweden, in the United Kingdom, in Italy, and in France.

The danger of such attacks was in their asymmetric nature, Ilves stressed. Liberal democracies were in the weaker position even if the attack was coming from a small and relatively powerless authoritarian country, like e.g. Iran. If an authoritarian regime attempted to influence democratic elections in another country, there couldn’t be a similar counterstrike, as there were no democratic elections in such a country, and similar disinformation campaigns couldn’t do nearly as much damage, especially as while in the West the free press was defended, in authoritarian countries anyone publishing dissenting statements could be arrested, or something worse done to them. 


Asymmetric information warfare’s most important means

According to Ilves, the most important means applied in such attacks were the following:

  1. What was called kompromat in Russian, namely embarrassing facts and materials about the opponent, no matter whether true or invented
  2. Hacking, or breaking into servers and stealing data
  3. Doxing, or the publication of documents obtained by hacking the opponent’s servers. This damages the opponent’s reputation and brings them into an embarrassing situation. The first large incident of this was when Wikileaks published documents of American diplomats, the latest example was the publication of the CIA’s working methods
  4. Fake news, an old propaganda trick used a lot more effectively in the age of social media. While the KGB-created tale that AIDS had been invented by the CIA had not had too much influence in the 1980s, fake news now spread a lot faster on social media today, Ilves pointed out, referring to a Pew analysis stating that 62 percent of Americans said their main source of information was their Facebook feed

Ilves stressed that what was happening at the moment required the concession that interfering in another country’s elections constituted an act of war.

Still, liberal democracies also had advantages in this kind of conflict, Ilves pointed out. One was the fact that their opponents wanted to come to them. This meant that money laundering could be investigated in countries preferred by an opponent, and they could be kept from enjoying the riches they had stolen from their own countries in liberal democracies. It also meant that their children could be kept from studying here. The issue was that none of the liberal democracies was doing that, Ilves said.

Another option was that the democratic countries could establish a defense alliance that was not geographically limited, a concept brought up earlier e.g. by Madeleine Albright and John McCain. Other countries, such as Australia, Japan, or Chile may soon face similar threats.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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