The Kremlin doubtless thought it had the French election all sewn up. Of the four leading candidates for president, three were openly pro-Moscow. Even the eventual winner Emmanuel Macron was hardly a hawk. As Quartz wrote at the time, Russian president Vladimir Putin really couldn’t lose.
And yet, buoyed by its alleged intervention on behalf of US president Donald Trump, the Kremlin couldn’t help itself. As Macron’s upstart candidacy gained traction in February, Russia unleashed an extraordinary propaganda and cyber campaign against the centrist insurgent. This ranged from the crude (publishing baseless claims that Macron is secretly gay), to the silly (state newspapers saying he is a “psychopath” with “fishlike, slightly bulging eyes”), to the very smart (allegedly helping spread fake documents claiming that Macron has an offshore bank account).
Then, on the eve of the final round of voting, a “massive” hack of the Macron camp’s computers saw up to 9 gigabytes of data leaked online, mixing real emails with faked ones. Macron’s team quickly blamed Russian interests for the attack, and security experts say it is likely to be linked to the Russian military intelligence, the GRU.
Given that the emails have generally been characterized as “mundane,” the whole debacle feels strangely desperate. The last-minute leak was also ineffective: Macron won the election in a landslide. What the meddling has actually done, however, is turn a level-headed politician with a relatively conciliatory outlook into a new president with a grudge.
Indeed, when Macron visited Moscow as economy minister just over a year ago he said he wanted to work to lift EU sanctions on the country. “He showed no anti-Russian inclinations whatsoever, in many ways he was very much in favor of developing ties,” says Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Institute Oslo. “In all his stances, there was nothing problematic for the Kremlin whatsoever—now they have managed to turn him into a real problem for themselves.”
Macron’s outlook on Russia is now likely to change from a purely economic one—in which relieving sanctions was viewed as a mutually beneficial move—to a geopolitical one, in which a Russia headed by Putin cannot be trusted, says Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
“The Russians have messed up badly—just as Putin did in ruining his relationship with Germany,” Galeotti says. “Now the two crucial European nations have been lost to Russia.”
So what does this mean in practice for European geopolitics? “I don’t think he’s going to advocate for an all-out assault against Putin, but hopes that France will be the weak link in the EU’s relationship with Russia are dashed,” Galeotti says.
Macron heads to Berlin soon for his first foreign trip to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel, a leader who has never been afraid to criticize Putin. “She will convince Macron that sanctions should continue and that we can’t lose the grip on Moscow,” says Marcel Van Herpen, a Paris-based Russian security expert and director of the Cicero Foundation. “She will take the lead, I think, and he will follow.”
What’s more, the whole affair has damaged Moscow’s credibility as a serious geopolitical threat. After the US election, Russia’s mysterious psy-ops seemed formidable, but the French vote has made the Kremlin look crass rather than cunning. The world may be giving Russia far more credit than it deserves.
“If we look at recent history, Russia has been technically efficient but strategically inept in every operation,” according to Galeotti, who says Russian foreign ministry sources have talked to him “with horror” about the US election result, insisting the real aim was to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy—not help Trump win. “Now they have an almost Putin-like figure to deal with,” he notes.
Baev says these blunders have also seriously hurt the Kremlin’s chances of influencing further elections. “Nearly every attempt to influence the outcome was traced back to Moscow,” says Baev. “They are now so carefully watched that any move from Moscow in favor of a particular candidate or to damage a candidate brings the exact opposite result. So I think Russia’s capacity to intervene or interfere is seriously diminished.”
In a congratulatory phone call with Macron, Putin called for unity, saying it is “important to overcome mutual mistrust and unite efforts to ensure international stability and security.” But few believe this is now possible. “It would have been entirely possible to preserve some sort of neutrality in the election and to lay foundations for constructive relations with Macron further on,” says Baev. “Now this foundation is damaged pretty much beyond repair.”