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Opinion digest: Germany should take initiative against Russian meddling

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

It was now up to Germany and Angela Merkel to decide if Russian president Vladimir Putin would be challenged "in a serious enough way" to make him stop disrupting Western democracy, Ilves wrote in a contribution to the Financial Times published on Sept. 3.

As had been confirmed by U.S. intelligence services, the e-mails of Democratic National Committee were hacked and then used to improve U.S. President Donald Trump’s chances to be elected president.

In France, Russian hackers had attempted the same, with the intent to diminish the standing of President Emmanuel Macron and to boost nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen’s chances.

While Germany hadn’t been the target of comparable attacks yet, politicians fully expected it to happen. The German security services had been among the most notable authorities to confirm that these attacks were taking place, but with the upcoming elections in Germany on Sept. 24 now needed to detail clear evidence of the activity as well as the Russians’ intent, Ilves wrote.

As the Russians weren’t picking their targets only thinking about elections, but had also gone after critical infrastructure, Germany should sponsor the European Union as well as NATO’s public diplomacy “to advertise just how aggressive the Russians have become”, he added.

“The average citizen who might shrug off claims of hacks of an election database may feel less sanguine about them in a nuclear power plant’s control system,” Ilves said pointing to the extent of the potential threat arising from the cyberattacks.

More formal collaboration to fend off this threat would be possible using consultations under Article 4 of the North Atlantic treaty. Different from Article 5, which specifies that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all, Article 4 provides a mechanism for closer cooperation in the case of a threat towards one or several allies.

The Russians “wanted us to be at each others’ throat when it was over,” the director of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) commented the purpose of the Russian cyber attacks. This, according to Ilves, qualifies as a threat to political independence and security and justifies closer cooperation of the allies.

Such a move would be a clear signal to Putin that would reassure the NATO members closest to Russia, Ilves wrote, and help countries to work towards finding an appropriate way to respond.

Estonia’s currently ongoing presidency of the Council of the European Union was the perfect setting for this work to be extended into the EU. Its Digital Summit on Sept. 29 was “a perfect venue to advance cybersecurity,” Ilves added.

Though support for a move against the attacks wouldn’t necessarily have to come from Europe and the United States exclusively, Ilves pointed out. Increasing its own efforts, Germany might find new friends in unexpected places. “China has always denounced any meddling in another nation’s internal affairs. Active and covert manipulation of political processes is just the kind of existential threat to Communist party rule that might get President Xi Jinping to pressure Mr Putin behind the scenes.”

Read the full piece here.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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