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After last month’s Catalan Referendum debacle, Spanish intelligence services have come to an interesting conclusion. They believe that Russian interests were involved in pro-Catalonian independence efforts in the weeks prior to the referendum. They stated that “’Propaganda campaigns’ intended to destabilize Spain came from Russian territory and Venezuela.” The Spanish admitted that they were not certain if the troll accounts operating within Russian and Venezuelan borders were agents of either government, though they still suspect a level of foul play. These propaganda efforts seem to have been directed against pro-unity interests, spreading false information that the Spanish government and the European Union were preparing to go to war in the region.
Spain hasn’t been the only country to recently criticize the Russian government for election meddling. While at a business leaders event, British PM, Theresa May, called out Russia on election meddling and even went so far as to say ““So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed, The U.K. will do what is necessary to protect ourselves, and work with our allies to do likewise.”
And of course, many on the left, and some on the right, have been engaged in a witch hunt since November 9th of last year, claiming that Russian hackers and spies rigged the election in favor of President Trump.
Whether with Catalonian Independence, Brexit or the 2016 election, there are some who blame Russia at every turn. The only evidence so far is sparse, some troll twitter accounts that stir up controversy and a measly amount of money spent on Facebook ads are all that the inquisitors have to show.
The level of outrage far exceeds the gravity of the situation. It is normal for political leaders and entities to be interested and even invested in the elections in other countries. There are many historical examples, particularly during the Cold War, of the United States getting involved in foreign politics to stem the wave of Communism. More recently, President Obama intervened in at least 6 foreign elections to some degree. Election meddling isn’t new, while it might not be morally sound, it’s politics as usual.
These outcries take away from serious actions that Russia has taken in the past in relation to foreign politics and hacking. Earlier this year, 14 Montenegrins were arrested for a plot to kill the Pro-Western PM, Milo Djukanovic, in order to replace him with a leader friendlier toward Moscow. Moscow, of course, denied these accusations. In 2007, Russia, allegedly, engaged in a hacking operation against Estonia after they removed an old Soviet monument. Estonian banks, news agencies, and government websites were taken down through a massive spam campaign. These attacks brought the country to a standstill.
These two instances show that Russia is likely capable of large-scale intelligence operations to influence politics and engage in hacking, simple internet trolling and disinformation campaigns are minute in comparison. If world leaders want to be serious about Russian interference, they should stop focusing on tweets and memes, and start focusing stopping assasination plots and improving cyber-security.