Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency says it is “very likely” that the Russian government will try to interfere in the European Union parliamentary elections in May.
The Kremlin’s meddling will likely focus on France, Germany and Italy, which hold the most EU parliamentary seats, in a concerted effort to “secure as many seats as possible for pro-Russian or euro-skeptical political forces,” the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said Tuesday in an external security report focused on threats from Russia.
The European Parliament’s status as the only EU institution directly elected by the people makes it a prime target for Russian influence operations, the EFIS said, adding that the proportional election system favors marginal parties and that Members of European Parliament (MEPs) can be used as mouthpieces for Russian propaganda. The Kremlin has wooed European politicians by inviting them to a 2016 conference in the Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, the report said.
A Russian government spokesperson could not be reached for comment. Moscow has previously denied allegations that it uses cyberattacks and information operations to subvert democracy.
Many millions of Europeans will go to the polls in May to decide a key series of contests between moderate and far-right politicians. In predicting that Moscow will try to use right-wing populist groups to further its interests, EFIS joined a chorus of voices expressing concern about possible Russian efforts to disrupt the EU parliamentary vote.
The former secretary-general of NATO has predicted Russia will make a “major effort” to intervene in the elections. Last month, Microsoft said it had detected a series of cyberattacks from September to December 2018 on think tanks in Europe from a Russian-intelligence-linked hacking group.
Meanwhile, before Ukraine’s presidential election later this month, Kiev has accused Moscow of conducting cyberattacks on the Ukrainian election commission.
Like Ukraine, Estonia has been subjected to aggressive cyberattacks that some have linked to Russia. In 2007, following a debate over a Soviet statue in Estonia’s capital, the country suffered debilitating distributed denial-of-service attacks that knocked banking services and government organizations offline.
After the 2007 cyberattacks, Estonian officials have invested heavily in digital resiliency. “Estonia is probably the only country in the world where 99 percent of the public services are available online 24/7,” a government website reads.