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Europe's Eastern front warns West to beware of fake news

Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis during an interview at his office in Riga, Latvia, on Jan. 24, 2017.

PETI KOLLANYI/BLOOMBERG

By AARON EGLITIS AND ANDREW LANGLEY | Bloomberg | Published: January 25, 2017

From the corner of the former Soviet Union where cyber warfare erupted almost a decade ago, one leader has a warning for his allies in western Europe after U.S. intelligence services accused Russia of hacking the presidential election.

Hybrid attacks using propaganda and false news narratives now represent a danger to this year's elections in France and Germany, according to Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis. His nation of 2 million people has watched hackers target its Baltic neighbors, and has firmly backed European Union sanctions after Russia aided separatist rebels and flooded Ukraine with fake news.

"Our arguments didn't resonate" until these tactics appeared in Germany and elsewhere last year, Kucinskis said in an interview in Riga, Latvia's capital, on Tuesday. "There's been a tendency to spread disinformation, to engage in hybrid warfare. Considering the upcoming elections in France and Germany, I'm not very optimistic that things will suddenly change."

Those votes could be pivotal in deciding the course of European politics in the wake of the populist revolt that heralded Brexit, undermined the Italian government and propelled Donald Trump to the White House. Closer to home for Latvia, leaders in Poland and Hungary are harnessing anti-establishment forces to challenge the EU mainstream.

The three Baltic countries, which border Russia, were unwilling members of the Soviet Union and broke from Moscow's rule in the early 1990s, eventually joining the EU in 2004 along with other former communist states. They have been warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin may deploy techniques he used in Ukraine to sway voters in western Europe.

The Baltic region has fallen prey to cyber warfare before. In 2007, many Estonian government, media and banking websites were rendered unavailable for long periods after attacks. The nation's then-president blamed the assault, which followed the relocation of a World War II memorial, on the Kremlin; Russia denied involvement. In Lithuania, the Defense Ministry said in 2015 that an army website had been targeted by hackers posting false information on military exercises in the region.

"We've paid a lot of attention" to cyber security, Kucinskis said. "Our defense system has developed very strongly" and is integrated with NATO.

The prime minister also warned of the power of Russia's state-controlled television channels, which can be hard to compete with because of lavish funding and easy availability, even beyond their home country's borders. "Russian TV channels provide information really professionally," said Kucinskis, 55, who became premier in February last year. "They have interesting and exciting content, and a lot of shows, and films."

There's concern in other parts of eastern Europe too. The Czech government has set up a center to fight false information and propaganda, identifying phony reports in the media and on social networks, and working alongside police, army and secret services. It began operating at the end of last year.

Putin has denied accusations of a Russian hacking campaign aimed at bolstering Trump. He said it was a case of the losing Democrats looking for someone to blame.

While the Baltic states are cautious on the prospects for Trump's presidency, they're also raising military expenditure as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump called the alliance obsolete, though Kucinskis said he doesn't see American military commitment to the region wavering. Attempts to seal closer ties with Putin are "normal," he said.

Kucinskis said Latvia will meet NATO's spending goal of 2 percent of economic output next year, and didn't rule out following neighboring Estonia by going even higher. If circumstances change militarily, the country would act, he said. "For that kind of priority, of course, we'll find the money," Kucinskis said.

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Bloomberg's Ladka Bauerova contributed.
 

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