Malignant Influence and Counter-influence: Responding to an Asymmetric Threat

The influence strategy of the Kremlin, as indeed of any dictatorial and criminal state, must be studied rigorously and as exhaustively as possible. Only on the basis of this extensive and systematic knowledge will it be possible to take the necessary measures methodically. This essay also shows that counter-influence, the classic way of dealing with the influence of other democracies, does not work with such regimes. The only way to counter their influence is to prevent it from being exercised and to cut it off at the root. This paper intends to propose a simple heuristic model on the basis of which the competent services can and should act.

The influence strategies of states have been the subject of numerous academic and practitioner papers. The author of these lines has himself contributed to this through an official report to the government and numerous articles over the last fifteen years. But until ten years ago, influence strategies were much more discreet on the part of dictatorial regimes and less oriented to all directions, if only because of the absence of social networks. These strategies mainly concerned diplomatic actors who wanted to rally partners in a negotiation or for a vote in an international organization, economic circles who intended to win contracts and, upstream, to set norms and standards, and of course various lobbies who intended to have the text of a European directive or an OECD recommendation amended or to nip in the bud international provisions contrary to their interests.

These same actors also tried to put in place “counter-influence” measures to counter their competitors, to change this or that rule and sometimes even, in an offensive manner, to discredit an adversary. These influence games were sometimes harsh and ruthless, not always very elegant, and they could resort to corruption. However, they opposed democracies and their actors, and it was not a question of destroying another state and subverting its foundations.

In the hands of criminal dictatorships, ready to give to the actions of influence means disproportionate to their own resources and willing to destroy those they consider as enemies, the influence changes of nature, dimension and purpose. We will also see that there is no longer, with these regimes, an equal capacity to strike the democratic regimes. Whereas, according to the classical model, we were in a form of possible reciprocity between influence and counter-influence, we are now entering into an asymmetry that makes these regimes happy and on which they play cheerfully. It is the deformation of the classical system, often described, that should be studied.

Targets and agents

The first step of any analysis of influence requires to analyze the actors of influence and its targets. In reality, the categories are often similar. On the side of the agents of influence — the term itself should not be considered pejorative — we find not only governments and public institutions, but also companies, think tanks, so-called opinion leaders, consultants, notably lobbyists and communication specialists, journalists, academics, the media in general and, increasingly, social media, expert groups and working groups of international organizations, non-governmental organizations, parliamentarians, and the general public—which is itself often worked by other agents of influence. The list is not exhaustive. One of the characteristics of the present time is that governments and officials are not the best placed to exercise an influence strategy, on the one hand because they are more visible, and on the other hand because the public word is more and more suspected.

On the side of the targets, we find largely the same categories: of course, in an ultimate way, it is a question of indirectly influencing the governments so that they decide such or such action or, on the contrary, do not decide it — one thinks singularly of the riposte in front of the multiform attack of the dictatorial regimes —, but to do this, the action of influence passes by indirect ways. The regimes will thus seek to influence through the entourages or “friends” of the rulers, through influential parliamentarians or well-known journalists, or by creating a movement in public opinion. Influence will thus target potential “influencers”, whether they are personalities who have the ear of governments, prominent people who often speak in the media or at international conferences, influential think tanks that need to be “penetrated”, groups placed with international organizations, senior civil servants, people working in the field of security, and of course the media as such and in particular the social media, which are particularly conducive to the dissemination of news that is not necessarily false, but is often biased or twisted. As we have mentioned here, it is also a question of making common and acceptable discourses that are not necessarily radical, but often moderate in appearance, and which more surely lead to good results: what we have designated as “soft propaganda”.

Now, as much as between the open democracies which all have, to varying degrees and with varying effectiveness, strategies of influence, there is a possible reciprocity, as much as with the dictatorial and “closed” regimes this cannot exist. A democracy can hardly try to influence a parliamentarian or an official of such a regime; they cannot act towards a media when they are largely controlled by the government. In these countries, it is equally impossible to influence an academic or a think tank, since they are in the hands of the regime. As for social networks, they are also largely closed and monitored by the powers that be — which is part of the asymmetry we mentioned.

These actions of influence by dictatorships certainly involve all sorts of methods. First of all, it can be no more and no less than the purchase of people in place in the public administration. It is probably possible to estimate that, given the risks for the people involved, this is relatively exceptional. The “moles” are rarely numerous and it is easy to constitute the crime of intelligence with the enemy. But in many cases, especially when it does not concern public officials in office, the crime is more difficult, in law, to establish. A former minister or senior civil servant who works for a foreign state as a consultant, lawyer or lobbyist, let alone a journalist or member of a university or think tank, or a blogger who is paid for such services by a foreign power, would not necessarily fall under the current law in many countries if he or she were detected. It is also particularly difficult to demonstrate influence peddling.

Nevertheless, the priority for the services concerned — specifically the intelligence services, but also the tax, customs, police and justice services — is to establish a precise map of these networks of influence. They need to identify the actors who are not generally directly the States, but often companies, organizations or personalities linked to them and who can “take in hand” this or that western personality by buying his or her services. Often, these actors are not easily visible and identifiable, especially in the field of media and social networks. It is easy to identify the official media of foreign governments; it is more difficult to identify those who have nominees or are indirectly in the hands of personalities close to these powers. It is even more complicated to open the black box of social networks and identify how foreign actors operate through private groups on Facebook, Telegram or WhatsApp.

They also need to identify targets as thoroughly as possible and confirm or deny certain suspicions. This requires extensive investigations that must be undertaken as a matter of urgency, in liaison with our partners who may have useful information, in particular on money flows.

Finally, on the analytical level, it is crucial to identify — and here the work is more intellectual than police — the objectives of the actors of influence and their temporal deployment. It is indeed important to observe that the objectives can be long term — to weaken democracy, to contribute to changing the perception of a regime —, medium term — to change the balance of power in future negotiations, to modify the fundamental rules of international institutions — and short term—to change the perceptions of an ongoing conflict, to dissuade democracies from any firm response to such and such an action, to propagate narratives of legitimization of such and such a dictatorial regime

Unsanctioned methods

The main problem facing democracies in the face of these malign actions of influence is the lack of legal tools at the present time. Certainly, it is impossible — and fortunately — that democratic states sanction free speech, even if it is harmful to democratic values, which play into the hands of dictatorships. But in this field, the intention and the motivations count. Some may act out of ideology — this was largely the case, in the days of Soviet Russia or Maoist China, on the side of the supporters of these regimes. Others, on the other hand, may act out of self-interest. Nowadays, what can be called “moral corruption” — which is a freely expressed value judgment — does not coincide with “legal corruption” — which is a legal assessment that designates an offense. The notion of “intelligence with the enemy”, already mentioned, is legally limited in scope (see articles 411-4 and 411-5 of the French Penal Code).

However, the key element here is the ease with which certain dictatorial states seek to remunerate their support of various personalities, in many cases in complete legality. Investigations seem to be all the rarer because, except in the case of public officials or persons, especially parliamentarians, who have some public authority, there is no possible criminal incrimination. The revelation of suspicions of corruption by Azerbaijan in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is an exception. Even the sacrosanct “business secrecy”, which is a major problem in such cases, makes it impossible to expose such practices, even if they could be judged as criminal by a court. In many cases, remuneration for services rendered follows complicated patterns—a cascade of intermediaries — which makes it particularly difficult to trace. For example, such and such a person may be officially remunerated by a legally European entity, even if the latter has a direct or indirect link with a foreign entity. It appears that one of the most dangerous techniques used by regimes against democracies is the export of corruption techniques to them.

There will be no serious fight against malign influences within democracies without a considerable strengthening of both the control of foreign entities linked to dictatorial regimes, which cannot, even if they have the nature of European entities, have the same immunity as others, and, moreover, a considerable upgrading of the anti-corruption mechanisms within the European Union and the United Kingdom. This is the path that the United States seems to have taken recently, even if some voices consider that it is still in the middle of the road.

The steps to be taken urgently are well known and we have already recalled them. The first step is to make it a criminal offense to receive remuneration, even if declared, from foreign powers for defending a position favorable to them. Such a measure should be aimed primarily at persons who have been agents of public authority (former members of a government, former members of parliament, former public servants in particular). The second is to establish clear rules of transparency and control of organizations, public or private, receiving such funding (universities, media, think tanks—for the latter as much for their current operating and core budget as for the organization of events). The third, finally, without being exhaustive, should lead to the reinforcement of coordinated investigations by the competent services into the legal or natural persons likely to benefit from such advantages.

Their asymmetry and ours: for massive retaliation

In the context of asymmetry that we have rapidly exposed, it would not be possible to act through counter-influences as is the case with democracies. Moreover, democratic countries must be particularly vigilant about the way in which foreign influences from dictatorships also penetrate certain international organizations — the recent cases of Interpol and the World Health Organization cannot be treated lightly. However, since democracies are largely deprived of the ability to reach the opinion of repressive regimes, the only solution is to unhesitatingly hinder the actions of malign influence in our countries.

The first action consists in considering differently the media according to whether they are free and independent or in the hands of the States. Today, within the framework of the existing laws, the regulator cannot make any difference between the two. This position becomes untenable. The distinction to be made should not be the origin of the funds — the BBC or Deutsche Welle are foreign media, but not tools in the hands of the British and German governments—but the editorial control and the objective.

The second action consists in reinforcing the ability of Internet platforms to identify and label as such content originating from dictatorial states for the purpose of information manipulation. We need to put an end to a supposed equivalence — this is also part of the defense of democracies, without calling into question the internal freedom of expression. The very characterization of “media” is a fundamental issue in the forthcoming Digital Services Act, which must also make it possible to distinguish between media with independent journalists and editors and media without journalists—this is the case of a certain number of media often described as “conspiracy theorists”, which sometimes have certain links with a foreign power — or under the direct or indirect control of foreign States or entities.

Finally, the third action, which is the responsibility of governments, consists in exposing much more than today the actions of influence of dictatorial regimes and the main propaganda stories they carry. Although European countries are beginning to become aware of these malignant actions, they are still too timid in their public exposure. Many are now talking about “resilience”, in a terminology borrowed from the necessary reaction to terrorist acts. It is resistance that we should be talking about. We still need to understand the nature of the war that is being waged against us.

International and security affairs analyst, former head of department at the General Planning Commission, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, author of three official reports to the government and 22 books.

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