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France accuses Russia of a disinformation campaign in a key election year

PARIS — (AP) — France condemned "hostile" disinformation maneuvers after the country's authorities on Monday accused Russia of operating a long-running online manipulation campaign against Ukraine's Western backers, in the lead up to the second anniversary of Moscow's military invasion of its neighbor.

The French foreign ministry said in a statement "no manipulation attempt will distract France from its support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s war of aggression."

Earlier Monday, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said that a network of "at least 193" websites had been set up with the aim "to spread Russian disinformation," speaking alongside his German and Polish counterparts after a meeting near Paris involving Ukraine-related talks and other issues.

Séjourné said “Russia seeks to destroy Europe’s unity and even worse, wants to make our democracies exhausted … by blurring the limit between real and fake (news), by manipulating information."

The French agency responsible for fighting foreign digital interference, Viginum, released a report describing the network codenamed “Portal Kombat" that it analyzed between September and December in 2023.

Viginum said it involves websites using the name “pravda” targeting countries including France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States. “Very ideologically oriented, this content repeatedly presents inaccurate or misleading narratives,” the report said.

It said the network also involves social media, including Telegram, through “massive content sharing automation."

French foreign ministry officials said in a media briefing that Russia has stepped up efforts to manipulate information and spread deception, targeting Kyiv’s allies in the West. They referred to messages on social media platforms such as X, formerly Twitter, and websites like Sputnik as “massive in scope” and “complex in structure.”

The aim of Russia’s disinformation campaign remains the same, officials said: To amplify Russia’s success in the Ukraine war, justify its invasion, discredit and diminish Ukraine’s military resistance and undermine civilians’ resilience in the face of daily attacks on cities and towns, and fracture Western support for Ukraine’s military and slow if not stop supply with weapons Kyiv.

Officials say Russia's disinformation campaign goes beyond the war in Ukraine. In a year of high-stake elections in the U.K., the European Union and the United States, French officials say Russia is working to confuse and scare voters, discredit some candidates and support others, and disrupt mega sporting events such as the Paris Olympics and the European soccer championship in Germany.

The ministry also accused Russia of being behind the stenciling of Jewish stars last November on walls in Paris and its suburbs, causing alarm about the safety of France’s Jewish community, the largest in Europe.

Last month, French defense officials said France, a staunch ally of Ukraine, had been a target of a Russian disinformation campaign following President Emmanuel Macron's reaffirmation of support for Kyiv.

Last year, Viginum said it has monitored the alleged operation since soon after Russia invaded its neighbor and that France was one of several European countries targeted. It said it traced the campaign to Russian individuals, companies and "state entities or entities affiliated to the Russian state."

The agency detected a mirror website mimicking the French Foreign Ministry’s and intervened with “protective and preventive measures,” Viginum said in a report last year.

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Surk reported from Nice, France. Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to the story.

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