Elections, Olympic Games... France in Russia's sights

Elections, Olympic Games… France in Russia’s sights

Fake reports, false information, identity theft… For Moscow, one month before the Olympic Games, all means are good to weaken our country, a supporter of Ukraine.

“Banque de France! Stop lying! We know you are in deep trouble! Give the people their money back! Otherwise, we will burn you!” On February 7, a video on social media presented as a montage by the recently dissolved Groupe union défense (GUD), a far-right organization, threatened to “burn” the French central bank, accused of misleading the public about its solvency. The operation aimed to discredit the institution in order to encourage the French to massively withdraw their money.

This publication is just one of the many lies spread by a deception campaign called Matriochka. Active since at least September 2023, this operation works like Russian nesting dolls: each action is superimposed on another to amplify it. The network relies on the publication of false content via Russian-language channels of the Telegram messaging service. This fake information is then reproduced in the “reply” space of the X (ex-Twitter) accounts of media, personalities and information verification cells from more than sixty countries, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Among the targets are around forty French media outlets: BFMTV, The Parisian, Release, The world, The mountainpublications from the City of Paris… Fabricated reports unfavorable to Ukrainian refugees, fake graffiti showing President Volodymyr Zelensky begging, hoaxes against the organization and security of the Paris Olympic Games… The maneuver against those who hunt down false information is particularly sophisticated: Internet users ask journalists to verify such sensational information in order to overload them with work by putting them on false trails… According to the government service for combating foreign digital interference, Viginum, Operation Matriochka meets “the criteria of foreign digital interference.” And it is “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation.”

France, priority target

Since the start of the invasion in Ukraine, there have been countless maneuvers carried out by Russia and its proxies to destabilize France and other states supporting Volodymyr Zelensky’s country – a support front that Putin contemptuously calls the “collective West.” The Kremlin autocrat has launched a civilizational war against Western democracies, which he seeks to undermine from within, taking advantage of major events such as elections or, this summer, the Olympic Games. France has been Moscow’s priority target since the President of the Republic toughened his tone at the beginning of the year towards Putin. Emmanuel Macron had mentioned the possible deployment of soldiers on Ukrainian soil if the military situation continued to deteriorate, and announced the sending of Mirage 2000s to kyiv. The fact that our country is “a nuclear-armed power and that it sits on the United Nations Security Council are also parameters that count for the Kremlin,” notes Julien Nocetti, associate researcher at the French Institute of International Relations. But that’s not all. If France is facing a “generalized offensive of unprecedented intensity”, it is also because “the Kremlin believes, rightly or wrongly, that we are the country most likely to swing in its favor. It bases this on the high proportion of our fellow citizens who are favorable to Russia or Vladimir Putin and the low confidence that the French have in the media”, adds David Colon, professor at Sciences Po and author of The information war (Ed. Tallandier).

Inherited from the Soviet era, destabilization and propaganda have found an ideal sounding board with the Internet. Messages intended to ignite controversy (trolls), fake social media accounts (bots), videos or audios modified by artificial intelligence (deepfakes): in these poorly regulated spaces, disinformation now circulates virally and massively. “Moscow considers information as a field of confrontation in the same way as land, sea, air or even space,” explains an expert on the subject. And, in this field, the Russian actor is the best structured, the most active and the most aggressive. It evolves in ambiguity and carries out hybrid actions in order to remain below the threshold of conflict.” Authoritarian regimes play on the characteristics specific to democratic regimes – freedom of the press, freedom of enterprise, taste for contradiction… – “to turn their freedoms against themselves, lead them to give up some of them and, thus, undermine their foundations from within,” adds David Colon.

Operation Doppelgänger

In order to weaken Paris’ support for Ukraine, Moscow is working to spread doubt on a large scale by producing alternative narratives favorable to Russian interests and by weakening citizens’ ability to identify truth from falsehood. Some 355 domain names usurping the identity of media outlets were detected in June 2023 by French services. Several used the graphic identity of daily newspapers and at least 58 articles were published via these channels. Despite its revelation, this campaign, called Doppelgänger, remains active, as does the one called Portal Kombat, uncovered in February 2024 and involving 193 so-called “information portals”. This network targets the occupied Ukrainian territories in order to legitimize the Russian “special operation”. It attacked most of the member states of the European Union before the elections last June. In order to influence this crucial electoral event for Europe, 31 new domain names were created last February and March, some located in Africa or Asia.

The media are not the only ones targeted. The French army, too, is subject to numerous informational assaults. On January 17, 2024, the day after the President reaffirmed French support for Ukraine, Russia announced that it had killed French mercenaries in Kharkiv. A list of “victims” was released. Allegations immediately denied by the Ministry of the Armed Forces. Last March, while Emmanuel Macron continued to raise the possibility of sending armed forces to Ukrainian territory, the Russian state news agency Tass falsely claimed that France was preparing “to send a military contingent of 2,000 men.” That same month, a fake website of the Ministry of the Armed Forces entitled “Join Ukraine” invited “200,000 French people” to join the ranks to be deployed in the country at war, with, as a bonus, a salary of 5,000 euros… In addition to these planned operations, we must add maneuvers based on tangible concerns, such as the problem of bedbugs, transformed into psychosis under the action of trolls Russians. And the good old real-life interventions, which still work. Witness these coffins placed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, covered with a French flag displaying the inscription “French soldiers of Ukraine” – a Bulgarian national confessed to the police to having transported them for 40 euros. Or the Stars of David tagged on walls in Paris, in the fall of 2023, the photos of which had been widely relayed by the Russian Doppelgänger network and for which four people of Moldovan nationality are suspected. Not to mention the red handprints on the walls of the Shoah Memorial, in Paris last May, also attributed to Bulgarians.

Cultivating our critical mind

Faced with this foreign interference, in 2021 France set up an online investigation service that is unique in Europe, Viginum, attached to the General Secretariat for Defense and National Security. In three years, this unit has managed to detect several large-scale networks, despite limited resources. In addition, two commissions of inquiry have been set up, one in the Assembly in 2023, the other in the Senate, which is still ongoing. On the eve of the Paris Olympic Games, Parliament also strengthened its legislative arsenal by adopting on June 5, four days before the dissolution, a text creating a national influence register, a procedure for freezing financial assets, and which extends on an experimental basis surveillance by algorithms, currently reserved for anti-terrorism. If the Constitutional Council validates its compliance, the intelligence services will be able to use software to detect destabilization attempts upstream, and not just downstream. But in this hybrid war, our capacity for obstruction will remain limited as long as we do not develop a cultural, media and educational ecosystem that sharpens our critical thinking. We must also improve our capacity to technologically resist the assaults of these disinformers. What the National Assembly sums up with the expression “citizen surge”.

A long tradition of propaganda

The current digital war is the heir to a long Soviet tradition. In 1923, the GPU, the USSR’s state police, created a desinformburo tasked with conducting operations in European capitals, particularly against exiled White Russians. Its methods – false rumors, bogus expert testimony, photo retouching, etc. – developed under the impetus of the KGB, which multiplied its interference during the Cold War. They were updated in the digital age by Vladimir Putin, who enhanced the role of information warfare in modern conflicts. Since 2013, information technology has been considered a weapon that can be used for political and military purposes “to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of a state, emphasizes researcher Julien Nocett.

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