Vladimir Putin’s Russia is using cyberattacks to undermine democracy in the United States and Europe, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has claimed in a hard-hitting speech.
He said the Kremlin was guilty of “weaponising misinformation” in a sustained campaign of destabilisation against the West, and he warned that NATO must do more to counter the threat.
Accusing the Russian government of “routinely lying”, the Defence Secretary claimed there was a “persistent pattern of behaviour” and gave examples of Russian cyberattacks, including:
:: The taking off air of France’s TV5Monde television station in April 2015;
:: The targeting of Germany’s lower house of parliament by hackers later the same year which shut down its network;
:: A cyberattack on Bulgaria in October 2016 described by the country’s president as “the most heavy and intense” to be conducted in southeastern Europe
:: The hacking of the Democratic and Republican parties during the US presidential election campaign last year.
Sir Michael also highlighted warnings of Kremlin interference in the forthcoming German elections as well as the disruption of elections in Montenegro and the Dutch referendum on an EU-Ukraine treaty.
His blunt warning came in a speech at his old university St Andrews, one of the main centres for Russian studies in the UK, and is bound to have been cleared by Downing Street.
The remarks come only days after Theresa May said in her speech to leading Republicans in Philadelphia that, when it came to the Russian President, the US should “engage but beware”.
The Prime Minister’s carefully chosen words in the US came amid signs that President Trump wants a rapprochement with Russia after the more cautious approach of his predecessors in the White House, Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton.
In his speech, Sir Michael said Russia’s actions could not be regarded as “business as usual” and that President Putin had chosen to become a “strategic competitor” of the West.
He said: “Today we see a country that in weaponising misinformation has created what we might now see as the post-truth age. Part of that is the use of cyber-weaponry to disrupt critical infrastructure and disable democratic machinery.
“Russia is clearly testing NATO and the West. It is seeking to expand its sphere of influence, destabilise countries and weaken the alliance.
“It is undermining national security for many allies and the international rules-based system.
“Therefore it is in our interest and Europe’s to keep NATO strong and to deter and dissuade Russia from this course.”
On President Trump’s approach to Vladimir Putin, Sir Michael said: “President Trump has spoken about the need for engagement with Russia. He’s right.
“Great nations like the US and Russia will talk. Indeed, they must talk to preserve the rules-based information system underpinning our security and prosperity. The UK too needs to engage with Russia, including military to military.
“Yet President Trump is a realist. He knows engagement is an equation of risk versus reward, with the outcome decided by a nation’s deeds, not its words.”
He claimed President Trump was “100% backing NATO” – a claim also made by Theresa May at her joint news conference at the White House last Friday.
And he backed the President’s call for all NATO member states to honour the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, while strengthening their cyber capabilities.
Sir Michael said the UK had almost doubled investment in defensive and offensive cyber capabilities to £1.9bn.
And he warned: “NATO must defend itself as effectively in the cyber sphere as it does in the air, on land, and at sea so adversaries know there is a price to pay if they use cyber weapons.”
Sir Michael also said more must be done to “call out” messengers such as the Kremlin-backed RT television station and Sputnik news agency responsible for spreading “Soviet-style misinformation”.
And accusing Russia of lies, he said: “There is a special Russian word for this. Not ‘maskirovka’, the old deception perpetrated by its intelligence agencies, but ‘vranyo’, where the listener knows the speaker is lying and the speaker knows the listener knows he is lying but keeps lying anyway.”