Australia: Russia’s next target?

The risk of Russian interference in the 2019 Federal Election

Elizabeth Buchanan

Government and governance, International relations, National security, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, The World

5 February 2019

There are many reasons for Australians to be wary of a Russian cyber campaign aimed at swaying votes in the upcoming election, Elizabeth Buchanan writes.

Australia’s Federal Election is nearing by the day, and yet there is an absence of public debate regarding the possibility of Russian interference. Despite knowing of Moscow’s purported interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Australians aren’t questioning the risk posed to their upcoming election.

As a self-proclaimed middle power, key US ally, and vivacious supporter of the liberal democratic world order, should Canberra brace itself for a coordinated campaign from Russia to shape the outcome of its Federal Election?

For the average Russian citizen, Australia is a far exotic paradise full of sun-kissed simple folk who once had a Prime Minister keen on ‘shirtfronting’ Putin. Australia is neither friend nor foe to Putin’s Russia – but nor is the country completely irrelevant.

To the Russian state, Putin’s cronies, and Putin’s siloviki, Australia is an obedient child of the US. This determines the Kremlin’s assessment of Canberra in the long-term.

Australia has some crucial societal challenges that could be easily targeted by a foreign influence campaign. The most likely intervention would be a Russian disinformation strategy that would seek to ignite existing divides in the community in order to influence voters to seek an inward policy turn.

More on this: Contrasting powers: Russia in Australia’s foreign policy White Paper

If so, we can expect strategies very similar to those the Russians supposedly used to incite public distrust against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Election. Its aim: to influence voters to choose a government that puts Australia first – our own ‘Make America Great Again’ movement with a focus on our domestic priorities.

Australia is not immune from Russia’s potential attempts to weaponise societal divisions. We have a hyper-nationalist group or two which routinely advertises for new members – with an array of MP advocates to boot.

A highly contentious immigration policy, an inability to pay down foreign debt despite being rich in resources, and constant blackouts in the summer are just a few of the issues that could easily be manipulated to sway the way in which Australians vote in 2019.

This strategy could also be employed to fan support for a particular party the Kremlin would prefer to steer Australia into the Asia-Pacific era. On top of that, by aggravating our already existing societal divides, Canberra could be rendered an absent Indo-Pacific power.

A hypothetical Russian cyber campaign against our upcoming election would be remarkably easy to execute. Of the almost 25 million people in Australia, about 16 million are enrolled to vote. It is these 16 million or so Australians that are at the frontline of any coordinated foreign disinformation campaign.

Further, Russia has already had a successful trial run at interfering in Australian cyberspace. In April 2018, 400 Australian firms fell victim to a coordinated hacking venture aimed at weakening critical infrastructure. UK and US intelligence attributed the cyber assault – with a high degree of confidence – to Russian government-supported hackers.

More on this: Courting Mother Russia

There has also been substantial research around previous efforts to target Australia’s political discourse, with one study illustrating targeted operations on #MH17 and #auspol Twitter narratives originating from Russia.

It is crucial policymakers look to the platforms in which Australians are at risk of been inadvertently influenced by foreign states.

We are already familiar with the Kremlin’s cyber playbook – Russia’s Internet Research Agency placed some 3,000 adverts across Facebook and Instagram in the lead-up to the 2016 US election, reaching an estimated 11 million Americans.

There are 15 million active Australian users on Facebook. About four million Australians have Twitter accounts. Social media has an undeniable reach to shape attitudes and beliefs of everyday Australians.

The news media is also vulnerable. For example, almost one million Australians access Sky News via Foxtel. Foxtel is one of a number of channels that is facilitating the dissemination of Russian propaganda through hosting RT – formally known as Russia Today. It has hosted RT since 2015, despite the US formally listing it as a foreign agent.

But how useful could a Russia-friendly Australia really be? What could Russia gain from interfering?

It is too simplistic to argue Russia has an overall anti-Western policy or indeed an anti-Australia strategy.

More on this: Russia underperforms at pivoting

Russia is interested in Australia largely because of who our friends are. In light of such interest, we must query if this translates into a distinct strategy.

Moscow seeks international recognition of its ambition to be one of the many poles of power in an emerging multipolar world order. Therefore, it would be in Russia’s interest to dilute US-allied power in the Asia-Pacific to ensure success in its eastward pivot.

Canberra’s strategic relationships with the US, Japan, and South Korea are of interest to Russia as it crafts its own Asia-Pacific role. Australia’s links to the emerging economies amongst ASEAN nations and its existing economic ties with China are also of interest.

The capital’s strategic relationships in the Indo-Pacific are of potential value to the Kremlin as well. Trade relationships with China and Japan, as well as developing military linkages with India and South Korea, would certainly be points of interest for Russia.

Moreover, Canberra and Moscow are already competing in locking up Asia-Pacific LNG markets. It is in Russia’s interest to curtail Australia’s long-term foreign energy strategy – particularly Canberra’s LNG export potential in Asia.

Australia’s policymakers would be wise to assume Russia has an eye on the country’s Federal Election. Moscow seeks neither to shape Australian policy nor to install a Kremlin-friendly government. It is about much more than that, and yet will likely be executed in fairly simple fashion through a disinformation campaign.

Russia will continue to focus on the US’ relationships and destabilise her partnerships elsewhere – putting Canberra squarely in the cross-hairs.

Maybe we flatter ourselves to ponder Russian interference in our 2019 Federal Election. In any case, Moscow would have to contend with our revolving prime ministership. There would be little point, however, in backing a horse in this year’s election for it is unlikely said elected officials will even see out their term.

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