France Proposes New EU Sanctions to Fight Russian Disinformation

(Bloomberg) -- France is asking the European Union to set up a new sanctions regime to target Russian disinformation and election interference operations worldwide.

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The proposal, which is backed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Poland, would allow the EU to strengthen sanctions against individuals and entities involved in Russian-sponsored destabilizing activities globally.

The draft paper seen by Bloomberg says that “destabilizing activities executed by Russia-related actors have increased everywhere in Europe as well – as the Russian regime has taken actions to undermine democracy, stability and the rule of law through a variety of hybrid instruments.”

Ahead of EU parliamentary elections in June, the bloc has made it a high priority to fight back against a growing tide of Russian disinformation, which seeks to divide allies on issues such as supporting Ukraine and damage relations with countries in the so-called Global South.

Group of Seven nations are also preparing joint actions that go beyond past warnings to tackle foreign information manipulation and interference, with a particular focus on elections taking place this year, Bloomberg previously reported.

Rising Alarm

EU officials are especially concerned about June’s continent-wide votes, as they see the volume of content spreading disinformation on social-media platforms on the rise compared to five years ago, people familiar with the matter said.

In joint conclusions following last week’s summit of EU leaders, the bloc said it would “closely monitor and contain any risks stemming from disinformation, including through artificial intelligence, as well as foreign information manipulation and interference in electoral processes.”

The campaign team of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is seeking reelection, is alert to the challenge and the issue was discussed with US President Joe Biden in a call this week, the people said.

Disinformation and the risk of interference has also come up in discussions between European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and national leaders when she toured several capitals recently, another EU official said.

France and Germany have recently exposed influence networks targeting the two nations. Viginum, the French foreign-disinformation watchdog, announced in February that it had detected preparations for a large disinformation campaign in several European countries.

Criminal Probe

Belgium opened a criminal probe this month into possible Russian election interference after the Czech government said it uncovered a Russian network trying to influence politics, including payments to European politicians.

In the UK, officials have stepped up work to thwart the threat from disinformation concerning the upcoming election there, particularly around deepfakes and the use of artificial intelligence.

Read more: AI Deepfakes in India Are a Warning to Elections Everywhere

Last month, the US Treasury Department sanctioned two individuals and two entities for their connection with a Russian foreign malign influence campaign, including attempting to impersonate legitimate media outlets. The US warned that Moscow employs such campaigns and cyber activities to “undermine the interests of the United States and its allies and partners, including in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe.”

Russia is using a variety of measures — from AI-generated deep fakes to bags of cash — to undermine democracy in Moldova in a preview of what the West should expect, the European nation’s foreign minister, Mihai Popșoi, told Bloomberg in an interview in Washington last Friday.

Wagner Group

The French-led proposal would allow the EU to target the successors of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which was behind earlier disinformation operations, as well as anyone working with them or providing logistical and financial support, according to the paper.

A new sanctions regime would target those responsible for threatening the stability, security or sovereignty of EU member states or third countries by undermining elections, the rule of law, facilitating acts of violence or do so through the use of information manipulation and interference.

Similar to other EU sanctions regimes, penalties would include travel bans and asset freezes.

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