Last week's events concerning the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign
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Topics of the Week

In his first ever international public appearance, British intelligence chief Andrew Parker explicitly named Russia as “chief protagonist” in the campaign to undermine Western liberal democracies.

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A new watchdog report on pro-Kremlin and anti-Western propaganda in Georgia identifies several new trends, including an increase in negative content about the US and NATO, as well as a shift in focus to Georgia’s foreign policy priorities.

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Provisions in the new NDAA, the United States’ annual defense policy legislation, include new sanctions on the Russian arms industry, prohibition of military-to-military cooperation, and increased funding for cyberwarfare.

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Read about a new study that evaluates vulnerabilities to Russian subversion efforts and proposes concrete resilience measures, with case studies of Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Moldova.

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Correction

In last week’s Kremlin Watch Briefing, the item “Ukraine halts cooperation with Mueller investigation, wants missiles” was inaccurate and incomplete. We would like to direct readers’ attention to two investigations in Euromaidan Press and Tablet Mag that provide a more critical and nuanced account of this story.

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Good Old Soviet Joke

Soviet Success Stories:

A regional Communist Party meeting is held to celebrate the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The Chairman gives a speech: “Dear comrades! Let’s look at the amazing achievements of our Party after the revolution. For example, Maria here, who was she before the revolution? An illiterate peasant; she had but one dress and no shoes. And now? She is an exemplary milkmaid known throughout the entire region. Or look at Ivan Andreev, he was the poorest man in this village; he had no horse, no cow, and not even an axe. And now? He is a tractor driver with two pairs of shoes! Or Trofim Semenovich Alekseev – he was a nasty hooligan, a drunk, and a dirty gadabout. Nobody would trust him with as much as a snowdrift in wintertime, as he would steal anything he could get his hands on. And now he’s Secretary of the Party Committee!”

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Policy & Research News

British intelligence chief:

The Kremlin is ‘chief protagonist’ in undermining the West

Russian authorities seek “to destabilize the international rules-based system that underpins our stability, security and prosperity,” the British intelligence service chief, Andrew Parker, said at the hybrid threats symposium in Berlin yesterday, in what it was his first-ever public appearance abroad.

In his remarks, Parker described the Kremlin as the “chief protagonist” in a campaign aimed at undermining Western democracies and their values. One of the Kremlin’s “central aims,” according to Parker, is to build its “greatness on the world stage,” which the West had long been open to, as long it was done “as part of the rules-based order.”

The Kremlin, however, chose to pursue this aim “through aggressive and pernicious actions by its military and intelligence services,” and have thus risked turning Russia into “a more isolated pariah.”

Parker listed several examples of Moscow’s hostile activities on Western soil, including the invasion of Crimea, electoral interference in the US and France (among others), the attempted coup in Montenegro, and extensive cyberattacks against various Western institutions and infrastructure.

Parker also emphasized the Kremlin’s hostile media operations, saying that “covert influence and propaganda” have been “supercharged in online disinformation, which can be churned out at massive scale and little cost.” The aim of Russian disinformation operations, according to Parker, “is to sow doubt by flat denials of the truth, to dilute truth with falsehood, divert attention to fake stories, and do all they can to divide alliances.” He also quipped: “Bare-faced lying seems to be the default mode, coupled with ridicule of critics.”

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Report: Anti-Western propaganda in Georgia in 2017

On May 14, the Media Development Foundation (MDF), a Tbilisi-based media watchdog that systematically analyses anti-Western propaganda in Georgia, issued its third annual monitoring report, documenting the typology of anti-Western messages and fake news in the Georgian media landscape throughout 2017.

The report, covering a total of seventeen mainstream and tabloid media outlets, identifies approximately two thousand anti-Western messages throughout 2017. Most of these messages related to Georgia’s foreign policy priorities, which is a shift from the two previous years, where human and minority rights were the primary target. According to the MDF, the strategic purpose of these messages was “to increase polarization over the country’s foreign policy priorities.”

The US was particularly panned, accounting for the highest share of negative content with 25.9% of all messages, a near three-fold increase from 2016. The figures for NATO and the West are 18.4% and 14.1% respectively, followed by the EU with 13.4% of all anti-Western content.

In demonizing the West, the Kremlin’s message-bearers propagated fear of war with the Russian Federation and bred scepticism towards Western institutions by depicting them as international troublemakers and blaming them for meddling in Georgia’s sovereign affairs.

The report also demonstrated that while media outlets dominate as the key sources of pro-Kremlin narratives, politicians, public figures, religious leaders and civic organizations also play a key role in producing, delivering and/or amplifying anti-Western and pro-Kremlin messages to the Georgian public.

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US Developments

US reactivates navy fleet to patrol the Atlantic amid NATO-Russia tensions

Growing tensions between NATO and Russia have led the alliance to make several changes in its military posture in Europe. Now, the US Navy has announced the reactivation of its Second Fleet to oversee the northern Atlantic and the US East Coast. Originally, Second Fleet was decommissioned in 2011 following 65 years of service in a restructuring and cost-saving effort. Its comeback signifies the mounting great-power conflict between Russia and the West. Indeed, in announcing the reinstatement of Second Fleet last week, chief of US Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said: “Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we're back in an era of great-power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex.”

Russian naval activity has risen significantly in recent years, described by numerous NATO officials as being at the highest level since the Cold War. In 2016, US Navy Adm. James Foggo III, now the head of Naval Forces Europe, described the ongoing friction between Russia and the US as the “fourth battle of the Atlantic,” after the surface and submarine battles of WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. Foggo stated: “Once again, an effective, skilled, and technologically advanced Russian submarine force is challenging us. Russian submarines are prowling the Atlantic, testing our defenses, confronting our command of the seas, and preparing the complex underwater battlespace to give them an edge in any future conflict.”

The US Navy has already increased patrols in the North Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, and the Arctic, with ships also increasingly active in the Black Sea to ‘desensitize’ Russia to US military presence in the region.

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Update: annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

US lawmakers have released details of the newly introduced National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2019, estimated at $717 billion. The NDAA is a comprehensive national defense policy bill that is updated and passed annually by Congress. The current iteration primarily targets competition with Russia and China, as well as a temporary ban on weapons sales to Turkey. Provisions regarding Russia include the imposition of new sanctions on the Russian arms industry, prohibition of military-to-military cooperation, and increased funding for cyberwarfare. However, it also includes a caveat, backed by President Trump’s Republican loyalists, that would permit the President to annul some of the sanctions imposed on Russia by Congress (of which Trump has been famously critical). The final version of the NDAA will entail a compromise later this year between Senate and House negotiators based on the separate versions of the bill approved in each chamber of Congress.

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Facebook ads purchased by Russia during the presidential election released

Last week, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released approximately 3500 Facebook ads that were bought by Russian sources during the 2016 presidential election. The ads cover a wide range of controversial issues and illustrate the extent of Kremlin-aligned social manipulation in the country. Enabled by Facebook’s microtargeting algorithms, they were able to target the ads at specific demographic groups, such as black or homosexual users or users with particular political leanings.

It is estimated that these ads reached at least 146 million people on the social network. According to Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee investigating Moscow’s election interference, the ads are conclusive proof that Russia weaponized social media to influence the outcome of the election. “They sought to harness Americans’ very real frustrations and anger over sensitive political matters to influence their thinking, voting and behaviour. They created online communities that appeared organic and American but were really run by a troll farm in St. Petersburg,” he wrote on Twitter.

The 3500 ads were purchased by the notorious troll factory formally known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The themes of the ads include contentious civic issues such as race, immigration, patriotism, police brutality, and even the secession of specific states like Texas and the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with black victims of gun violence.

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Michael Cohen’s shady Russia ties

Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and long-time fixer, Michael Cohen, is facing increasing scrutiny for suspicious financial ties and personal dealings that may not have complied with federal and state laws. Cohen’s web of suspicious connections is intricate and far from being fully understood by investigators and the media. The New York Times managed to uncover unreported payments made to Cohen’s own shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, amounting to $4.4 million from a New York investment firm known as Columbus Nova, whose biggest client is Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Notably, Columbus Nova has been linked to registering alt-right websites during the 2016 presidential election, none of which are currently operational. Vekselberg himself, along with the chief executive of Columbus Nova, was questioned this year by investigators for Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Vekselberg operates in the energy sector and elsewhere; he was one of the Russian oligarchs recently targeted by US sanctions. He also attended Trump’s presidential inauguration by invitation from his American cousin, the president of Columbus Nova. In December 2015, he attended the infamous RT gala for the network’s 10th anniversary, where Putin sat beside Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser.

It remains to be determined if Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit to funnel money to Michael Cohen.

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

The good old days: When Europe was as great as Trump

Russian state-sponsored media are like weathercocks indicating where the winds of Kremlin propaganda currently blow. Judging by RT, the Kremlin still isn’t sure whether to treat Trump as a friend or a foe.

For example, a recent RT article praising Trump shows just how pleased the Kremlin is about the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Iran deal. In the article, titled “When Europe was Great”, RT lists five historical European figures “who could have stood up to Trump”, which in practice entails a series of snarky anti-American ripostes. Apparently, no one in Europe is currently capable of standing up to America, signifying the utter impotence of European leaders – one of the Kremlin’s favourite tropes.

So who are these five prodigious figures of anti-American clout?

De Gaulle: “You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that are beyond imagination.”

Alexis de Tocqueville: “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

Vladimir Lenin: “The American people, who set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery, now find themselves in the latest, capitalist stage of wage-slavery to a handful of multimillionaires, and find themselves playing the role of hired thugs for the benefit of wealthy scoundrels.”

Olof Palme: “Many atrocities have been perpetrated in recent history. They are often associated with a name: Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka. Violence triumphed. But posterity has condemned the perpetrators. Now a new name will be added to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.”

Finally, there is George III whose example reveals the following lesson: ”Similarly, for Europe to dissuade Donald Trump now, it needs fewer prissy and self-righteous speeches like this one from George III, but a greater effectiveness of its economies, political structure, and leadership. And whether Europe will ever be able to regain the stature to stand up to America, Iran, or indeed China or India, to dictate the terms of both peace and conflict, is a question that hangs over the continent”.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Propaganda made-to-measure:

How our vulnerabilities facilitate Russian influence

A recent study by the GlobalFocus Center investigates Russian influence activities in Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Moldova. It systematically covers specific vulnerabilities to Russian subversion and proposes countermeasures aimed at building resilience.

Evaluating each country individually, the study starts with Romania, which may at first seem like an unlikely country for Russian subversion efforts due to widespread anti-Russian sentiments. Nevertheless, social resentment and disillusionment deriving from perceived socio-economic differences as a result of the post-1989 transition provide ample material for Russian influence. Bulgaria exhibits similar vulnerabilities, but there the situation is further exacerbated by a low trust in institutions and political elites. By contrast, Georgia has experienced ongoing conflictual relations with Russia and therefore seems more resistant to Russian subversion campaigns; however, vulnerabilities still exist. In particular, ethnic and religious cleavages have begun dominating political and social life, which are being adroitly exploited by the Kremlin. All of these vulnerabilities are present – and amplified – in Moldova, as Moldova is an ethnically diverse country with Russian serving as the language of inter-ethnic communication, further exacerbating vulnerabilities.

The study proposes a series of measures aimed at countering Russian subversion through resilience building – specifically through strengthening democracy and democratic practices to mitigate feelings of disillusionment and social cleavages, including measures to reduce poverty and income inequality. Building independent and sound journalistic practices, with experts capable of identifying and fighting propaganda, is key to building resilience. Promoting and teaching critical thinking skills at a young age is likewise essential, while increased economic integration with Western countries can, among other benefits, counter Russian financial influence. Improved engagement with the EU also facilitates resilience, but in addition, the EU must begin promoting an accurate representation of itself in countries where anti-EU sentiments function as a focal point for division. Take a look at the study for more details on specific resilience measures for each individual country.

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Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

  • For comments related to content or media inquiries, please contact Deputy Director of European Values Think-Tank Jakub Janda at janda@evropskehodnoty.cz (+420 775 962 643)
  • For Monitor suggestions or technical comments, please contact Kremlin Watch analyst Veronika Víchová at vichova@evropskehodnoty.cz.
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