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


Let us announce the publication of a new Kremlin Watch Report called Operation Dragoon Ride 2015: Disinformation and Counter-disinformation Strategies”, authored by our former intern, MAJ Jennifer L. Purser (United States Army).

The report is focused on the effects of pro-Russian disinformation during Operation Dragoon Ride 2015 and assesses counter-disinformation strategies for NATO convoys. ODR ´15 was a combined US Army and NATO convoy from the Baltic through Poland and the Czech Republic. According to the media reports, several significant opposition protests against the exercise were being organized in the Czech Republic. Partially because of amplified negativity regarding the convoy in social and mainstream media, the Czech populous overwhelmingly supported the convoy and very few protesters were visible. This report also explores subsequent Atlantic Resolve/Saber Strike operations with respect to trends in pro-Russian disinformation attempts and US/NATO-countering strategies.

Topics of the Week

New KAPO report asserts that Estonian society remains mostly resilient towards Russian influence, describes how Russia attempts to recruit informers.

After Julianne Assange was released from the Ecuadorean Embassy and arrested by UK authorities, the cyber-attacks on Ecuadorean institutions have doubled.

U.S. Ambassador reaffirmed support for Ukrainian territorial integrity and called out Russia for the lack of dialogue.

The Kremlin Playbook II: Romania, Montenegro, and the Czech Republic as enablers of Russian malign influence?

Good Old Soviet Joke

In Afghanistan, a guerrilla shouts: “Hey, Russ, surrender!”


“Hey, Russ, give yourself up!”


“Hey, Russ, we are telling you, surrender!”

“No Russ here. Would you take an Uzbek?”

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Policy & Research News

The new KAPO Annual Report shows no panic and no radical changes

The 2018 Annual report of the Estonian Internal Security Service, also known as KAPO for short, was released recently. It concludes that the Kremlin is using the anti-Russian sanctions regime as an argument for the alleged anti-Russian sentiments in Europe, as well as the resurgence of Nazism in Estonia - all established Kremlin practices in the region.

Quite optimistically, the report asserts that the Kremlin’s attempts towards influencing the local Russian-speaking population seem to fall flat, due to both incompetence and a lack of receptivity for the Kremlin’s message in Estonian society. The latter is additionally proved by the failure of the State Programme for the Voluntary Resettlement in Russia, despite Russia employing “humanitarian concerns” rhetoric to bolster it.

The report also devotes significant attention to Estonians detained and sentenced for cooperation with Russian Intelligence Services. It seems to aim to educate the citizens as well, describing in detail how and why someone could become a “traitor” and provide sensitive information to Russian intelligence services. This is clearly meant not just for summary purposes, for also as a cautionary tale with a message that agents should not expect help from Russia after being detained, in hopes of dissuading potential future agents.

In conclusion, the new KAPO report serves as a strong continuation of previously assessed issues. While of course taking them seriously, it does not exhibit panic about Russia’s actions and notes that Estonia’s Western allies have finally started seeing Russia as their problem as well.

The UK to launch a training program for public sector employees

The UK Government is set to launch the RESIST counter-disinformation toolkit on Wednesday, April 17th. While the toolkit includes detailed and wide-ranging instructions on recognising and tackling disinformation, PRWeek reported that one of the most important ones might be the training program set to accompany the handbook. The manual explains what disinformation is, what forms it might take (such as forging documents or images or the use of bots for amplification), what effects it might have (such as political polarization and undermining confidence in government) and how to assess whether a particular narrative should be ignored or combated.

The new measures are particularly important for police and emergency services communications teams, but in a broader sense applicable to the whole of the public sector. Once launched, this program is set to be the first of its kind to be implemented across government. It is especially notable in its attempt to increase disinformation literacy in non-security professionals by making it accessible and by giving clear guidelines and language to assess it.

Assange arrested in the UK, Ecuadorean institutions under cyber-attacks

The notorious Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange has left the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to meet his fate. After being a drain to Ecuadorian resources and treating staff incorrectly, Assange was essentially released for not following house rules. Though charges against him have been dropped in Sweden, his arrest in the UK immediately followed. Ecuador released him into custody under the condition that he is not to be extradited to a country where he could be tortured or subject to the death penalty. But Ecuador has not gotten rid of all the problems accompanying Assange. According to the Telecommunications Vice Minister Patricio Real, the Ecuadorean government institutions have been experiencing a doubled amount of cyber-attacks since the release, including the websites for the country's presidency, central bank or foreign ministry, amounting to 40 million (!) hacking attempts per day.

Assange has been a disputed figure in the field of foreign influence campaigns and online security. While some hail him an internet freedom hero, others are critical of his bombastic and sometimes reckless behaviour. Assange is known to have met with Paul Manafort in the years 2013-2016, an interesting connection as Assange’s WikiLeaks had previously leaked democratic committee emails hacked by GRU officers in 2016. This led to some of the key questions in the Mueller investigation, which has by now-jailed Manafort, the Guardian reports. Those 12 GRU officers responsible have been indicted by Mueller. Manafort has also been known to influence operations politics in Ukraine through lobbying. Former MI6 officer Christopher Steele has made claims that seem to connect Assange’s WikiLeaks activity directly to the Trump campaign, as he Assange believed a Trump government would be more lenient on him.

Israel’s election discourse has new preoccupation: foreign influence

Israel, fraught with foreign and domestic issues that polarize the international community, is a clear target for foreign influence operations. While most democracies have experienced this rise in the last few years, Israel’s proportional representation makes influence especially effective, the Council on Foreign Relations writes. This system has often led to intense factionalism and premature ends to the Knesset. This reflects the divisive and polarized nature of the domestic political sphere. These kinds of cultural, economic, and political divides lend themselves to fake news creation in which tensions can be torqued up. Not just religious schisms are intense here, allowing quick and deep operations that can even work in the short-term.

Israel, despite being a country with a famous, even Hollywood acclaimed, Intelligence agency and being dubbed the ‘start-up’ nation recently has done little to counteract these hybrid threats. While recommendations have been made to 1959 laws, implementation has failed. Legislation and education policies are no doubt to be part of a national discussion going forward.

US Developments

US Ambassador to Russia reaffirms support for Ukrainian territorial integrity

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, said Washington was committed to defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and Moscow occupation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a core part of the U.S.’s “estrangement with Russia”. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Service,  Huntsman also said Russia needs to “engage in a helpful process that will allow the people of Ukraine to see their nation restored”. He continued that the U.S. “deeply cares” about the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and dislikes that “nothing has been done in terms of positive steps towards recreating the contours of a whole and free Ukraine”. He said it is time for Russia to come to the negotiating table and help find viable solutions.

In the U.S., maintaining sanctions against Russia is one of the few matters on which both Republicans and Democrats agree. Huntsman said the issue of countering Russian aggression has united almost 100% of the U.S. Senate. He reiterated U.S. support for NATO, saying that it protects the freedom of almost a billion people who share common values and that he only sees success when he looks at NATO. Lastly, Huntsman called on Moscow to present its evidence in the case of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan who was arrested in Moscow in December of 2018 on espionage charges. He said the Russians need to “move on and quit playing these games”. He also lauded a Russian court’s decision to place U.S. investment banker Michael Calvey under house arrest.

Russia says the world no longer trusts the U.S., it’s time for others to step in

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has argued that the world is losing faith in the U.S. as a global leader and that the international community is seeking a more diverse approach to global leadership. He has hailed the beginning of a new global era of multipolarity and stated that the world is seeing a shift in the centre of global economic power from west to east where globalization is losing its attractiveness and is no longer viewed as the ideal model.

He continued that “Unfortunately our Western partners led by the United States do not want to agree on common approaches to solving problems”, and that the U.S. is trying to preserve its head role in world affairs despite the fact that trends indicate that polycentric world order is being formed. He believes that the U.S. and its closest allies can no longer resolve all issues in the global economy and world affairs, and because they are losing their position as the dominant power they “artificially” retain their dominance through employing methods of pressure and blackmail to coerce nations economically and through the use of biased information. Ironically his accusations of the U.S. and their allies' bad international behaviour directly mimic the exact things Russians are known to do.

Russians sow confusion amidst the U.S. vaccine debate

In recent weeks the U.S. has reported 465 cases of measles in the U.S., which is more than the total of all of 2018. While the outbreaks are occurring in isolated pockets where community vaccination rates have fallen below protective levels, and as of the present measles remains under control in the U.S., Russian trolls and bots are known to be stoking an online debate to reduce Americans' trust in one another and their politicians.  

Thousands of Russian social media disinformative accounts have been discovered that have utilized anti-vaccine messaging. A recent study from David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University, that examined up to 2 million tweets recorded from 2014-2017, has revealed that Russian troll accounts are significantly more likely to tweet about vaccinations that general Twitter users and they utilize this as a wedge issue to erode trust in public health institutions and amplify fear and division in the U.S. Tweets from the Russian accounts contain content such as: “#vaccines are a parent’s choice. Choice of colour of a little coffin #VaccinateUS.”, or “Did you know there was a secret government database of #vaccine-damaged children #VaccinateUS.”.

Russians also generated tweets from the opposite, pro-vaccine, side of the spectrum such as: “Do you still treat your kids with leaves? No? And why don’t you #vaccinate them? It’s medicine! #VaccinateUS.” This study suggests that by giving the illusion of a grassroots debate, through the creation of content both for and against vaccinations, Russians are tapping into the fears and divisions of Americans—and exploiting them.  The majority of the Russians accounts utilized terms such as “freedom” and “constitutional rights” in what appears to be a bid to target conservative and rural Americans.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers

Last month’s report from the Europe Program of the Center for Strategic & International Studies and the Economics Program of the Center for the Study of Democracy demonstrates that there is a significant amount of work that remains to be done by Western democracies to address Russia’s malign economic influence. It points to elements of the transatlantic community referred to as enablers, who undermine their own democratic structures by allowing such influence to take place.

This instalment focuses on Romania, Montenegro, and the Czech Republic, arguing that institutional and governance weakness makes these countries vulnerable to Russia’s malign influence. Enablers facilitate illicit financial flows, thereby jeopardising the integrity of open market economies and even creating a threat to national security by impeding the free flow of capital, reducing the efficiency of sanctions regimes, and distorting markets. Two of the most noticeable manifestations of illicit finance are organised crime and public corruption, but certain tactics designed to obscure the origin of foreign investments operate just below the threshold of illegality.

The report also finds a degree of corporatism in the enablers’ behaviour made possible by ties to the Russian market, the Kremlin’s use of soft power, and deep connections throughout the EU, as in the examples of Gazprom’s partner, OMV, having ties to the governing Austrian People’s Party, or the pro-Kremlin research institute, the Dialogue of Civilizations, headquartered in Berlin and led by former KGB member Vladimir Yakunin.

Since out of all countries under sanctions, Russia is one of the most integrated into Western financial systems, it is imperative for the US and Europe to undertake a transparency and accountability offensive at home. The authors propose certain specific measures, which include creating a transatlantic Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) system for financial flows, elevating money laundering as a priority threat to national security, better aligning U.S. and European transparency policies, and harnessing the potential of the Global Magnitsky Act.

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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.

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