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Sweden’s Russia Problem

As Sweden prepares for a general election in September, officials are stepping up efforts to defend the country’s democratic process from foreign interference. But to succeed, Sweden's leaders will need to focus as much on the sources of domestic discord as they do on policing propaganda.

STOCKHOLM – With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.

There’s just one problem: separating Russian “lies” from Sweden’s messy political reality will not be easy.

In recent months, Russian trolls have targeted Swedes by distributing believable stories and politically charged gossip about social unrest and moral decay. In one case, Russian agents allegedly flooded social media with news meant to influence the Swedish debate on immigration. The MSB said Russia’s goal was to fuel Swedish domestic disputes and divert attention away from Russian activities elsewhere in Europe.

That may be true. But what makes Russia’s actions all the more dangerous is Sweden’s own missteps, which have caused false stories to gain currency. Immigration and soaring crime rates have divided the country; Russia is merely seeking to exploit these rifts for its own gain.

Sweden’s political troubles are not new. For the past four years, the country has been governed by a minority coalition comprising the Green Party and the Social Democrats, a bloc that is barely tolerated by center-right forces. But the government has hobbled along, unified primarily by its members’ opposition to the alternative. After a strong showing by the anti-establishment, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats in the 2014 general election, center-right parties refused to cooperate with the party and tacitly sided with the left, fueling resentment among many voters.

This bitterness has only sharpened since, as the current government has downplayed the damage caused by the country’s immigration policies. Instead of engaging with sensible critics on the topic, the government has labeled its opponents “populists” and accused them of damaging “the image of Sweden.” In fact, what is most damaging to the country’s reputation are politicians who continue to refuse dialogue.

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To be sure, Swedish politics has given Russia plenty of ammunition in its efforts to influence public opinion. But it is also disturbing how Russia’s history of electoral meddling has become an excuse for Swedish leaders to ignore much-needed reforms. For example, in April, Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, the mayor of the southern city of Malmö, summoned the MSB to discuss how to protect the “image of Malmö” from “foreign entities” that might try to sully it in order to influence the upcoming vote.

But the mayor missed the point: Malmö’s image problem is the result of mismanagement, not distorted public perception. Despite a population of less than 330,000, Malmö stands out in Western Europe for its high levels of unemployment and welfare dependency, soaring crime rates, radicalization, segregation, and social unrest.

Oscar Jonsson, a doctoral student at King’s College London who specializes in Russian non-military warfare, told me that what makes countering Russian interference so difficult is that the tactics are subtle, sophisticated, and often believable. In Sweden’s case, Russian agents are accused of feeding false narratives into the Swedish social-media mill, which, because they contain grains of truth, are then shared by Swedes themselves. Russian agents wash their hands of the operation, and often achieve their goals.

“It is a kind of information laundering,” Jonsson says. “That is why it’s very hard to assess the full scope of Russian influence.”

Sweden has certainly taken this threat to its democracy seriously. The government has launched public information campaigns and is training election workers, strengthening cyber defenses, and conducting ongoing threat and vulnerability assessments. But officials concede that they may be fighting a losing battle. As one MSB spokesperson put it recently, the agency’s limited resources are “not in any way on par with the capability of the aggressor.”

Faced with this reality, Swedish authorities can limit the impact of electoral meddling by focusing more on restoring social and political stability. To do this, leaders must resolve the issue of immigration, overcome parliamentary deadlock, and restore law and order in cities.

As it has elsewhere, Russia is attempting to alter the Swedish narrative by casting blame and diverting attention. Swedish politicians can respond effectively, but their best strategy to fight Russia’s social-media fires is to remove the fuel.

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