New Delhi: The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on 9 December 2011 declassified a “secret” report, which its field office in Delhi had sent to the headquarters in December 1985, detailing the extent of the penetration of Moscow, USSR, into Indian political parties and Indian media.
The 32-page report concluded that the “size and momentum of Moscow’s political apparatus in India is such that it is unlikely to be easily derailed”. The report mentioned how board members and journalists of a prominent media outlet were on the “payrolls” of the Soviet government. However, the most worrisome aspect of the report was how prominent politicians, including Members of Parliament, were acting, in lieu of money and other benefits, as “agents of influence” to promote Soviet interests in India.
However, there is no way to find out how authentic or fictional the CIA’s findings were or if they were deliberately declassified in 2011 to “warn” policymakers and journalists in India on how easy it was to discredit them by simply releasing a “classified” document that contained names of “pliable” politicians and journalists. Even then, the role of Russian agencies and the likelihood of them interfering in India’s internal affairs, including elections, are being constantly watched by Indian officials due to Russia’s increasing tendency of interfering in important events happening in other countries. And also because geo-political events of the recent past have created a situation where India has come closer to the United States, Russia’s past and present foe.
The most prominent Russian agency, which has experience of influencing individuals in India, as per India officials, is the GRU.
The giant reach of the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU, which is the military intelligence unit of the Russian armed forces, can be understood from the 15 October action of the Department of Justice, United States of America, when it charged six Russian residents, all working for Unit 74455 of the GRU, for their involvement in destabilising the Ukrainian government, the Georgian government, apart from interfering in elections in France and other similar activities.
Between April and May 2017, when France was witnessing Presidential elections, the six GRU officers, as per official documents submitted by the Department of Justice, conducted at least seven “spear-phishing” cyber campaigns (a cyber activity where emails are sent ostensibly from a known or trusted sender in order to force the targeted individuals to reveal confidential information) against the confidants of Emmanuel Macron and other high profile individuals to elicit confidential information and also started “leaking” thousands of purportedly confidential documents from emails disguised as official accounts of Macron’s party. All this was done to derail Macron’s campaign as Russia was in favour of Marine Le Pen winning the elections. Later, Russia congratulated Macron on his win and asked him to “overcome mistrust”.
Before that, during the US Presidential campaign of 2016, all top three US intelligence agencies—CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA)—collectively reached a conclusion that the Russian agencies, on the direct instructions from their top bosses, tried their best to influence the Presidential polls in multiple ways, including discrediting one of the nominees who they believed was not suitable for Russia’s interest.
According to Indian officials, with the deep penetration of social media into Indian society and following the 2014 general elections, which was the first Indian election also fought on social media, the danger of something similar to what happened in the US and France happening in India is very real.
“Using the cyberworld to carry out political campaigns has now become a part of the political strategy of every political party. Russia, like a few other countries, has a lot of interest in how things move in India. Russia has highly capable infrastructure and units to launch cyber campaigns with deep ramifications. We are aware of the challenges that can come in the near future due to recent developments that we are witnessing between India and the US (referring to BECA),” an official said.
The officials, while pointing out the poor cyber habits of Indian users and the lack of focus of the government and private enterprise on cyber protection, stated that it was easy for any foreign agency to penetrate the private cyber domain of individuals and groups and then sabotage their political campaigns. “A ‘leaked’ video on Twitter just before the elections are to take place or when the individual is about to file his nomination can change the direction of the entire political campaign for the political party. We have seen in the 1980s and 1990s how people’s representatives were handpicked and nurtured by certain foreign agencies so that these individuals could mend national policies that suit that particular country,” an official said.