As the former director of France’s MI6 joins a Russian propaganda channel Stephen Komarnyckyj reports on a new phase of Putin’s hybrid warfare.
Alain Juillet, the head of the intelligence directorate of the DGSE, France’s foreign intelligence service from 2002 to 2003, is now a Russia Today France (RTF) employee as of 24 February 2020. He will host a twice-monthly programme on the channel devoted to “diplomacy, conflict, terrorism, security and competitive intelligence”. Juillet is, however, more than just a senior spy.
After leaving the DGSE in 2003 Juillet established an economic intelligence unit within France’s national defence secretariat. He was also a senior economic intelligence adviser to the French Prime Minister until 2009 and was awarded a Legion of Honour. His appointment represents an extension of Russian influence to the heart of the French state and sheds light on how Putin is subverting the West.
Juillet has already proved to be conduit for Russian misinformation. He was interviewed on a French-language Russia Today YouTube channel ‘Thinkerview’ on 7 April 2018. The views he expressed echoed Russian propaganda.
The West, particularly the US, he argued, made an enemy of Russia with both the democrats and neo-conservatives pushing for confrontation. Juillet stated that Russia had intervened in Syria to protect a military base at Tartus, “vital” for the Russian fleet, from “Jihadists”. He also suggested that there was ‘something wrong’ with the Skripal case, claiming that Russia had been ‘denied access’ to the file by the UK. He also argued, bizarrely, that France and Germany should not let themselves be subject to ‘Anglo Saxon’ manipulation over the assassination attempt on the Skripals. Juillet had previously appeared on Russia Today France in 2016 arguing that the situation in Ukraine was due to American ‘interference’.
Juillet’s profile as a very senior ex-intelligence officer and civil servant gives him enormous credibility in France. He will be heard and help mould opinion. His appeal to discredit ties with the US and UK will find listeners among a French public looking aghast at two other Russian subversion projects, Brexit and Trump.
Andrew Weisburd, a US intelligence analyst commended by Robert Mueller for his work, currently in private practice, notes that Juillet’s appointment raises security concerns. Weisburd observes that the “Kremlin media has a history of successfully recruiting former western intelligence personnel, usually people who left in disgrace or who lost a policy debate and hold a grudge against their former service.” “One example is General Michael Flynn, the former head of US military intelligence,” Wesiburg told Byline Times: “He lost a debate in the Obama administration and turned to the Russians.”
Why are western security services failing to tackle the recruitment of their ex-spies by Russian media? During the Cold War when Russia recruited agents such as the Cambridge Spy Ring through its security services they could be prosecuted. However, during the current hybrid conflict when Russia is waging an undeclared war it can openly recruit ex spooks for media work. They may be acting legally and not passing information to the Russians. So how are they being used?
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After Putin invaded Ukraine’s Donbas and seized Crimea in 2014 his regime intensified subversion against the West. Techniques that were deployed in Ukraine would subsequently be utilised against Europe and the US. This new weaponry included manipulating opinions through staged events including protests and troll networks on social media.
However, the subversive assault on Ukraine failed. Russia had planned to stage uprisings across much of southeast Ukraine but ultimately had to grab a small portion of the area by conventional military means.
There is growing evidence that Russia has learned from its error in Ukraine and is trying to mould public opinion more subtly. Zelenskyy’s administration has seen former Yanukovych assets return to Ukraine. There are indications that they are working with oligarchs, media outlets, and local Russian assets to discredit the 2014 revolution. Russia is probably hoping to transform Ukrainian public opinion over a long period.
Similar techniques are now being deployed in the West and many western politicians seem willing to court rather than oppose Russian subversion. In mid-February Bernie Sanders reacted angrily to FBI intelligence reports his campaign was supported by Russia.
He publicly berated Putin saying, ‘If (I am) elected president, trust me, you will not be interfering in American elections.’ But it is unlikely that he will be able to prevent Russia using him to ensure that its preferred candidate Trump triumphs and his wife has previously appeared on Russia Today in 2016. Juillet may ‘only’ be helping mould public opinion in France. But that may be deadlier for NATO and the EU than the Soviet tanks that once massed behind the Iron Curtain.