Fears about Russia interfering in democratic election processes are shifting to France, which hosts the first round of its presidential contest on Sunday.
Experts say that there is already evidence of Russia using fake news, social media trolls and other tactics to disrupt the election in France and in other European countries.
“German, French, British and Dutch security officials have all told me they’ve seen evidence of Russian efforts to influence their elections,” James Lewis, an expert in foreign policy and cybersecurity at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill. “It’s not hypothetical.”
There has been speculation that Russia may have interfered in Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union, though no concrete evidence of this has been offered.
Now attention is squarely on France, where the candidates include Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front.
She has relied on a decidedly anti-European and anti-immigrant rhetoric, promising to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union if elected. She has also publicly supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a center-right candidate who is running as a Republican, has argued against sanctions on Russia and confronting Moscow over its involvement in Syria's civil war.
Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist politician now running under the centrist En Marche! Party, has already accused Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik of spreading false news about him. His campaign website was allegedly targeted by thousands of cyberattacks originating in Russia.
Macron has been openly critical of the Kremlin.
Dalibor Rohac, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Russian media have been “very openly” pushing conspiracy theories related to France’s Rothschild banking family. The narratives have affected Macron, who previously worked for Rothschild & Cie Banque.
“He has already taken a lot flak for it in France, particularly from outlets close to the candidates on the extreme left and extreme right,” Rohac said. “I expect more in the coming days and leading up to the second round, if Macron indeed makes it.”
If one of the 11 candidates captures more than half of the vote on Sunday — which is unlikely — that candidate will be named president. If not, the two candidates with the most votes will proceed to a runoff on May 7.
Russia has a history of using disinformation and cyber disruptions to influence neighboring countries like the Baltic states and Ukraine, where it is still supporting separatists in the country's eastern region who first took up arms following Crimea's annexation and the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russia president.
Russia targeted the United States last year, according to the U.S. intelligence community, waging an influence campaign to undermine the U.S. democratic process and damage Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPoll: Nearly 4 in 10 believe Trump campaign helped Russia meddle in election Dems crowd primaries to challenge GOP reps Dem: Pruitt violating anti-campaigning law with GOP fundraiser MORE’s chances of winning the White House.
U.S. lawmakers have repeatedly said that Europe is next.
“It should surprise no one that Vladimir Putin is now interfering in the French election. He has demonstrated time and again that he will press forward until he faces real consequences for his actions,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenRussian interference looms over European elections Restore funding to United Nations Population Fund Senators urge Tillerson to meet with Russian opposition activists MORE (D-N.H.) told The Hill this week.
“Congress should do its part to put an end to his behavior by investigating what happened in our own election and imposing additional costs on those responsible.”
U.S. senators issued similar warnings at a security conference in Munich earlier this year.
“Germany, you are next. France, they are coming after you,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Defense: US moving missile defense system to South Korea | Dems want justification for Syria strike | Army pick pushes back against critics of LGBT record Graham: There are 'no good choices left' with North Korea Graham: North Korea shouldn't underestimate Trump MORE (R-S.C.) in February.
Russia’s influence campaign during the U.S. presidential race involved hacking and orchestrating the release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
While there has been evidence of Russia targeting European elections with disinformation and cyber intrusions, it remains unclear whether Moscow will use leaks of hacked information to sway future votes.
“The question is whether they’ll use leaks of information,” Lewis said.
Much of the action on Capitol Hill has centered on imposing penalties on Russia for the election hacking and working to counter disinformation.
U.S. lawmakers have proposed further sanctioning Russia for using cyber intrusions to undermine democratic institutions in the United States and allied nations.
Bipartisan sanctions legislation introduced by a group of senators in January would set up a fund to support objective and independent Russia-language media and programs countering “fake news.”
Shaheen has also introduced a bill aimed at giving the Justice Department authority to investigate RT America after the intelligence community confirmed that RT, Sputnik and a network of “quasi-government trolls” advanced Russia’s influence campaign by spreading propaganda.
Russia launched an RT television channel in France late last year. It previously launched the network in the U.S. and U.K. The RT website has English, French and German language versions.
Experts doubt that more sanctions on Russia — which has been squeezed by economic sanctions for years over its annexation of Crimea — will alone stop Moscow from using cyber, disinformation and other tactics to achieve its strategic aims.
“I don’t think sanctions alone will stop it,” Rohac told The Hill. “But I’m very much in favor of measures that will increase the costs to the Russian government of pursuing such activities against liberal democracies.”
And while legislative efforts could help fight Russian interference in democratic processes down the road, they won’t stop current efforts aimed at imminent elections.
The German federal elections will take place later this year, at the end of September.
German intelligence officials reported an uptick in Russian propaganda late last year, as well as an increase in cyber operations against political parties tied to the Russian hacking group Fancy Bear, which cybersecurity experts have tied to the DNC hack.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has also called for an early general election in the United Kingdom on June 8.