On Monday, April 24, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov denied Russia has any preferred outcome in France’s presidential elections, adding that to say otherwise would be “wrong.” Peskov also dismissed as “completely incorrect” the findings of the Tokyo-based IT firm Trend Micro linking Russia to a hacking campaign directed against the front-runner in the French presidential race, centrist Emmanuel Macron.
A day later, Peskov, speaking with journalists in the Russian city of Rybinsk, repeated the denial and asked for “information,” calling the Trend Micro report a “fake news” based on “fantasy.”
The information that Peskov asked for can be found in a detailed report on the French presidential election published by Trend Micro, which looked into the origins of four similar fake websites. All four websites, which were Macron-themed, were the type that hackers use to trick people into giving up their passwords. Trend Micro discovered that a group called Pawn Storm was behind the hacking campaign in France.
According to multiple IT analyses and reports, Pawn Storm, also known as Fancy Bear or Tsar Team (APT28), was involved in hacking servers of the U.S. Democratic Party during the 2016 presidential elections. The group was also involved in hacking servers of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which disqualified Russian athletes for involvement in state-sponsored doping.
WADA said its investigation was able to obtain IP addresses directly linking Fancy Bear/Tsar Team (APT28) with Russian military intelligence’s cyber spy unit.
According to Trend Micro, the same group has conducted a hacking campaign targeting the servers of En Marche! (On the Move!), Emmanuel Macron’s political party.
Trend Micro said it has been tracking Pawn Storm’s activities since 2004, describing the group as “an active cyber espionage organization that has been very aggressive and ambitious in recent years.”
“Pawn Storm’s activities show that foreign and domestic espionage and influence on geopolitics are the group’s main motives, with targets that include armed forces, the defense industry, news media, and politicians,” Trend Micro wrote.
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Polygraph.info via email that Kremlin spokesman Peskov’s comment, calling the Trend Micro report “fake news” based on “fantasy,” is itself “disingenuous.”
Pifer believes the Kremlin has a strong motivation to try to influence the outcome of the French presidential race, given that Russia has openly supported Macron’s rival, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
He noted that Le Pen’s party, Front National, received a multimillion-dollar loan from Moscow.
Le Pen visited Moscow in late March at the invitation of Vladimir Putin; no other French presidential candidate received such an invitation. In February, a French newspaper reported that the country’s external intelligence agency, the Directorate-General for External Security, believed Russia intended to interfere in France’s presidential elections in order to help Le Pen.
“Le Pen has advocated pulling France out of the euro zone and suggested a referendum on exiting the European Union altogether (like Brexit),” said Pifer. “She would like to weaken France’s participation in NATO military structures. She has indicated that she would recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. If you are sitting in the Kremlin, what’s not to like?”