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France discovers a vast Russian disinformation campaign in Europe

A.USSIA A has been at the forefront of internet disinformation techniques at least since 2014, when it pioneered the use of bot farms to spread fake news about its invasion of Crimea. According to the French authorities, the Kremlin is doing it again. On February 12, Viginum, the French body monitoring disinformation abroad, announced that it had detected preparations for a vast disinformation campaign in France, Germany, Poland and other European countries, linked in party to the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and to the parliamentary elections. the European Parliament in June.

Viginum said it discovered a Russian network of 193 websites that it calls “Portal Kombat.” Most of these sites, like topnews.uz.ua, were created years ago and many have remained inactive. More than 50 of them, such as news-odessa.ru and pravda-en.com, have been created since 2022. Current traffic to these sites, which exist in several languages ​​including French, German, Polish and English is weak. But French authorities believe they are ready to intervene aggressively amid what one official calls a “massive” wave of Russian disinformation.

Viginum claims to have observed these sites between September and December 2023. It concluded that they were not generating reporting themselves, but were designed to disseminate “misleading or false” content about the war in Ukraine, a la both on websites and via social media. The underlying goal is to undermine support for Ukraine in Europe. According to French authorities, the network is controlled by a single Russian organization.

It is no coincidence that the French made this announcement on the day that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, received Donald Tusk, the new Polish Prime Minister, in Paris. The two men met before a meeting later in the day of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, a group nicknamed the “Weimar triangle.” These are also the main countries targeted by the Russian campaign. “We are in a moment of vulnerability” as the European elections approach, said Stéphane Séjourné, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The election last October of Mr. Tusk, a center-right pro-European, raised hopes of reviving this three-way relationship within the European Union, which withered under his populist predecessor. The relaunch of the Weimar format “marks the return of Poland to the center of EU business,” said Gabriel Attal, France’s new prime minister, during a trip to Berlin last week. It could also help unblock difficult relations between France and Germany.

For France, the detection of this latest effort at Russian destabilization comes after a series of campaigns that it attributes to Moscow. Last November, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced a “Russian digital interference operation” consisting of broadcasting photos of Stars of David stenciled on the walls of a district of Paris, in order to stir up tensions. intercommunity groups in France shortly after the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Viginum then detected a network of 1,095 robots on X (formerly Twitter), which published 2,589 messages. He linked this to a Russian internet complex called Recent Reliable News, known for cloning Western media websites to spread fake news; THE EU nicknamed this complex “Doppelgänger”.

France held the same network responsible in June 2023 for cloning various French media websites, as well as that of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the ministry’s cloned website, hackers published a statement falsely suggesting that France would introduce a 1.5% “security tax” to finance military aid to Ukraine.

As the campaign for the European Parliament elections approaches, France appears to be a particular target for Moscow. According to an article from Washington Post In December, Kremlin documents showed that Russia stepped up efforts to undermine French support for Ukraine. He also has an obvious interest in promoting division in France, at a time when Marine Le Pen is leading the polls for the next presidential election in 2027. The far-right leader, who financed her previous campaigns with a loan Russian bank, is presenting itself to benefit as much as possible from France’s polarized policy.

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