Cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns by pro-Kremlin groups are on the rise, sparking concern ahead of a wave of critical elections across Europe this year, from the European Parliament vote in June to Russia’s presidential election beginning today (15 March).

Latvia-based, Russian-language media outlet Meduza on Monday (11 March) accused Russian authorities of launching an unprecedented campaign of cyberattacks intended to “destroy” it.

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Meduza said the attacks ramped up after Aleksei Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader to President Vladmir Putin, died in prison last month while serving a 19-year sentence.

Western nations and anti-Russian media outlets have also accused Russian operatives of using social media to spread pro-Moscow propaganda and disinformation to undermine their governments.

How will Russia influence elections in Slovakia, Lithuania and Romania?

Votes cast by Russians at polls across Moscow, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg may be largely symbolic, with little doubt that Putin will be re-elected amid a crackdown on independent media and human rights groups.

Once the voting finishes on Sunday (17 March) and Putin’s 25-year reign is almost certainly extended by six years, the Kremlin’s attention will refocus on hostile Eastern European states.

Kremlin-backed cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns have risen across Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine just over two years ago, according to Richard Hummel, threat intelligence lead for data security firm NetScout.

“Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over two years ago, there has been an increase in distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks around the world – particularly against pro-Ukrainian governments, organisations and media outlets,” Hummel tells Verdict.

“Attackers have targeted numerous prominent networks, including content delivery networks, cloud services and messaging platforms, and enterprise organisations in various critical sectors including education, financial services, hospitals, government departments and ministries.”

These attacks – and disinformation campaigns – are expected to ramp up ahead of elections in Slovakia (24 March), North Macedonia (May), Lithuania (May), European Parliament (June), Croatia (July) and Romania (December).

In Bucharest, the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) party has emerged as the main force opposing the governing coalition of Social Democrats and National Liberals.

AUR has built its disinformation-fuelled campaign on anti-Ukraine sentiment.

A few days after the Gaza conflict broke out, a social media post by AUR Chair George Simion went viral by misleadingly claiming that the Romanian government had funded the evacuation of 3,000 Ukrainians from Israel, without helping Romanians trapped in the conflict.

Who is behind the cyberattacks and disinformation?

The impact of pro-Russian attacks has been laid bare by the Polish elections in December.

Political veteran Donald Tusk was sworn in as Poland’s Prime Minister on 13 December 2023, marking a pro-EU pivot compared to his predecessor Mateusz Morawiecki.

Since Tusk’s re-election, “there has been a remarkable surge in DDoS attack activity in Poland”, Hummel says, which “peaked on 14 January with more than 5,000 total attacks.”

“This surge in attacks, fuelled by the new government’s support of Ukraine, resulted in a massive four times increase in DDoS attack volume,” according to Hummel.

DDos attacks were coupled with social media-focused disinformation.

Back in October, Poland’s government issued a nationwide warning after some Poles received fake messages saying that the ruling party was offering free funerals for pensioners, which security official Stanislaw Zaryn alleged were “part of Russia’s operation against the elections in Poland.”

Hummel names NoName057(16) and Anonymous Sudan as two of the most prolific hacktivist groups. 

“Looking specifically at NoName, the group has conducted more than 1,500 DDoS attacks since the Russo-Ukrainian war began in March 2022,” he says. “It concentrates its efforts on Western nations and Nato members, aligning closely with pro-Kremlin geopolitical interests.”

Poland and the Czech Republic, both strong supporters of Ukraine, have withstood the highest volume of attacks.

“Governments, service providers, and enterprises, as well as media outlets and society at large, should be prepared for DDoS attacks to continue and grow,” Hummel concludes.

All eyes now turn to the Slovakian elections next week, where pro-Russia candidate Robert Fico is favourite to lead the country for a fourth time, campaigning on a pledge to end military aid for Ukraine.