Macron, Putin and the boomerang effect

How the Kremlin’s hackers managed to spoil Moscow’s relations with the new French president even before he was elected.

Russian President Putin shakes hands with French far-right party leader Le Pen during their meeting in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former French presidential election candidate Marine Le Pen during their meeting in Moscow on March 24, 2017 [Reuters]

Yesterday, Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France.

On this occasion, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Victory for Macron, for France, the EU, & the world. Defeat to those interfering with democracy. (But the media says I can’t talk about that)”.

What Macron’s victory means for France and the European Union, we are soon to find out. But we already know what it means for Russia – all hope is lost that Moscow can have good relations with Paris, a key EU player. And the Kremlin has only itself to blame for this.

As early as February, Macron’s campaign announced that some of its members are being targeted by a phishing attack from Russian hackers. In the beginning, not many took this seriously, but in April Japanese company Trend Micro confirmed that according to its analysis Fancy Bear hackers (also known as Pawn Storm and APT28) launched the attack. This is the same group which earlier attacked the servers of the Democratic Party in the United States and has targeted many other Western countries.

After the hackers released the Macron campaign’s correspondence, the name of Georgiy Petrovich Roshka was found in the metadata of some emails. Roshka, as it turns out, works for a company affiliated with Russia’s defence ministry which has been known to be in contact with hackers. If anyone had doubted the links between Fancy Bear and the Russian authorities, now the Kremlin served the evidence on a silver platter.

On top of all this, Russian state TV, just a day before the elections aired a report on the leaks, claiming that they reveal that Macron is addicted to cocaine and that that he has money in offshore companies. All that despite the fact that the claims about Macron’s offshore activities had been disproved as fake news long before the leaks and in fact had nothing to do with them.

So, why did those who took the decision to release the leaks do it just a day before the elections when all polls were clearly showing that Macron was to win? It is difficult to say. Perhaps the propaganda machine has its own inertia and once it is mobilised, it is difficult to stop it.

Domestically, in a state of economic crisis, nothing can mobilise the electorate better than the public perception that Russia is surrounded by enemies.


In any case, it is difficult to imagine that the new French government will be up for a close partnership with Russia. Even Macron for some reason wanted it, his voters would not forgive him for it.

It is striking that lately, Russia has been falling into its own trap time and time again. This has happened even with relations with countries that used to be loyal to Moscow. One of these was Montenegro, a Balkan country where the population always welcomed Russian tourists. But after the country embarked on a NATO membership path, Russia tried to set up a state coup d’etat and of course failed. The fallout of the attempted coup was that the Montenegrin parliament ratified the NATO membership papers quickly while relations with Moscow deteriorated. Even Russian-Serbian relations were affected after it became clear that the putschists were conspiring in Serbia. Russian state TV and the foreign ministry soon started a campaign claiming that Montenegrin resorts were terrible and that it was dangerous for Russian tourists to go there (the number of Russian tourists in Montenegro has indeed never been lower).

It is difficult to find a European country which still has not faced Russian interference in its domestic affairs – whether through hackers, propaganda or Russian-sponsored nationalist movements. The result is always the same – deterioration of relations.

Some might say that the Kremlin’s tactic is not that bad if it worked so well in the most powerful country in the world – the US. But that’s not completely true. Yes, you can win a lot if you bet on zero, but it is clear that this is not a good strategy to put into work all the time. Donald Trump quickly had to stop being a pro-Russian president exactly because Russian interference in the elections angered American voters. Even if Trump was ready to make concessions to the Kremlin in the beginning, he now has to work hard to prove that he is not Moscow’s marionette.

His decision to strike the Syrian regime’s airbase was part of that. In Russia, as hope for close cooperation is diminishing, Russian state media has stopped praising Trump, although it hasn’t yet started lambasting him. The Kremlin is taking it slowly, awaiting the meeting between Trump and Putin in July. However, that concludes, it is already clear that the US will not change its position on the two main issues: Crimea and Assad.

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It is possible that Putin is aware that his aggressive foreign policies will get him in trouble with half of the world, but is not afraid of it because international isolation in part helps him consolidate his power at home. Presidential elections are coming soon in Russia. The main opposition candidate, Aleksey Navalny, was banned from running and potentially mass protests are coming.

In these circumstances, internal stability is more important for Putin than international popularity. Domestically, in a state of economic crisis, nothing can mobilise the electorate better than the public perception that Russia is surrounded by enemies. If this is indeed so, then this is bad news for all Western countries which are soon to have elections. 

Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.