Sunday, September 3, 2017

Merkel must stand up to Putin over the hacking of democracy

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Financial Times

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It is now up to Germany and Angela Merkel to decide if Vladimir Putin is to be challenged in a serious enough way for him to stop disrupting western democracy. With Germans going to the polls at the end of the month, there is no time to lose. The sooner Berlin acts, the less likely the Russian president will be able to interfere in the federal election.

Mr Putin’s spies hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and others last year, then released the data to boost Donald Trump electoral prospects and “undermine the US-led liberal democratic order”, according to US intelligence. In France, Russian hackers tried similar tricks, burrowing into the emails of Emmanuel Macron. In Germany we have not yet seen the weaponisation of repeated hacks of parliament, the Bundestag, but politicians anticipate that this will happen.

Germany’s security services, the BND and BfV, have been among the most outspoken in calling out Russian hacking. Now it is time for them to go further, detailing clear evidence of the Russian activity and intent.

Since the Russians are not just out to hack elections but also energy systems and other critical infrastructure as well, Germany should sponsor EU and Nato public diplomacy to advertise just how aggressive the Russians have become. 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.

Western nations must also collaborate more formally. Fortunately, there is already a mechanism for this: Germany should call for a consultation with the Nato allies under Article 4 of the North Atlantic treaty. This is not the famous “collective defence” clause of Nato, where an attack on one member of the defence alliance is an attack on all. Rather it is the mechanism to rally alliance members “whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.

Ms Merkel may also find friends in unexpected places. China has always denounced any meddling in another nation’s internal affairs

Election tampering surely qualifies as a threat to political independence and security, with the director of the US National Security Agency confirming that the Russians’ “purpose was to sow discontent and mistrust in our elections. They wanted us to be at each others’ throat when it was over.”

Article 4 can spur engagement at the top political levels in Nato. It is not just a signal to Mr Putin but one that will reassure those member states closest to Russia and can galvanise planning and response to Russian meddling, whether by threats, troops or digital disruption.

To extend this work into the EU, the timing could hardly be better. Estonia, Europe’s most digitally advanced nation and a Nato member, has just taken over the rotating EU presidency and will host a “digital summit” this month, a perfect venue to advance cyber security.

Ms Merkel may also find 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.

With this groundwork in place, Europe and, possibly, the US may be in a better place to impose higher costs on Russia: expanded sanctions that bite; counter-hacking; and military vigilance and increased exercises. As important, western citizens will be more aware of the true nature of Mr Putin’s designs on us and our way of life.

What distinguishes the US and its European friends are our freedoms, rooted in democracy, where citizens decide on their leaders and policies. There can be no greater threat to these freedoms than a deliberate attack from an autocracy to undermine our systems of democracy and our trust in them. Democracy, as so much else, rests on the shoulders of the German chancellor.

The writer, a former president of Estonia, is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Jason Healey contributed to this article.

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