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

Topics of the Week

A draft of Magnitsky legislation has been registered in the Moldovan Parliament.

The Pentagon is distributing a “do not buy” list of Russian and Chinese software amongst the military and defense contractors.

Russian media is not too impressed with the results of the Helsinki Summit.

Read about the success of Russian state media in Germany.

Good Old Soviet Joke

What’s the definition of a Russian string quartet?

A Soviet orchestra back from a US tour.

Policy & Research News

Moldova is one step closer to passing Magnitsky legislation

A draft law of the Magnitsky Law, endorsed by 10 Moldovan MPs from 2 political factions (LibDem and Popular Europeans), has been registered in the Moldovan Parliament. The draft was prepared by a consortium of non-governmental organizations in Moldova. If the draft is approved by the Parliament, individuals who are involved in activities violating human rights and other serious crimes in Moldova and abroad will be forbidden from entering the country for 5-10 years. The draft includes a list of people who have committed or contributed to human rights violations or serious corruption, currently consisting of 49 names.

The UK government should review its legislature on political campaigning

The UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published an interim report on the topic of disinformation, which describes recent revelations and evidence pertaining to disinformation and foreign influence on elections and other internal matters, as well as several recommendations. The report focuses primarily on the role and legal responsibilities of technological companies, the vulnerability of political campaigning, and digital literacy. The Committee also presents several recommendations for the British government, including:

  • The UK law on political campaigning should include online advertisements using political terminology that are not sponsored by a specific political party into the definition of digital campaigning
  • There should be a public register for political advertising
  • Micro-targeted political advertising to lookalikes online should be banned; there should also be a limit for the number of voters sent individual political messages agreed upon at a national level
  • The British government should approach other governments and share information on risks, vulnerabilities, and best practices to counter Russian interference
  • The British government should coordinate the work of different relevant Departments, which should share data, intelligence and expert knowledge

Meanwhile, Transparency International UK has published a new report, ‘In Whose Interest?’, which examines how some British MPs engage in questionable activities that legitimate or outright support the behaviour of corrupt authoritarian regimes, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain. The report recommends a package of reforms that is highly applicable to other countries facing a similar problem:

  • A parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of members in legitimising corrupt and repressive regimes
  • Prohibiting MPs from taking trips paid for by foreign states and their lobbyists over £500 in value
  • Prohibiting MPs from providing paid or voluntary services to foreign governments and state institutions
  • Providing MPs with advice and guidance on how to approach due diligence on external engagements
  • Publishing the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as structured open data to increase transparency and accountability over the activities of MPs by the end of 2020

How Australia found the political will to fight Chinese influence

A new piece written by John Garnaut for Foreign Affairs takes a close look at Chinese influence activities in Australia and how the country woke up to fight them off. The article offers a summary of tools and activities China uses to manipulate the Australian political system, but we are particularly interested in the factors that contributed to the Australian response. In recent months, the Australian security services started being increasingly vocal in warning the public about Chinese influence, leading to detailed media follow-ups and analysis of the investigation, despite occasional physical deterrence attempts and attacks. The Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, began scrutinising an Australian Senator for collaboration with an “agent of a foreign country” and launched a classified investigation into foreign interference in August 2016.

The author explains that five factors contributed to the Australian drive to counter Chinese influence:

  1. The debate originated within the Chinese Australian community and has distinguished what the Chinese Communist Party is doing from its impact on those it targets
  2. Australia focuses more on what China is doing inside Australia, instead of normatively focusing on the Chinese domestic system
  3. The cross-agency investigation launched by the government supported internal consensus and threat perception
  4. Clear separation of legitimate influence from intrusive interference
  5. The new measures and principles are not directed at China, but at any covert, corrupting or coercive behaviour expressed by any foreign country

German energy lobbyist working for King’s College

More American and European academic institutions are coming under scrutiny for providing a platform for personalities representing other private or foreign state interests with the cover of academic impartiality. King’s College London, one of the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, has now joined the club. LobbyControl, a watchdog organization, drew attention to a former German MP, Friedbert Pflüger, who works at the university as director of the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS). However, there is a strong implication that he is lobbying on behalf of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which we consider to be one of Germany’s biggest strategic mistakes for a decade to come. Pflüger is also the director of a lobbying firm that advocates on behalf of energy companies. In addition, EUCERS recently published a strategy paper on Nord Stream 2 sponsored by five energy companies that invested into the pipeline.

US Developments

The Pentagon publishes “do not buy” list of Russian and Chinese software

In light of growing concerns about foreign hacking, the Department of Defense and intelligence officials are ramping up efforts to educate the military and defense contractors about avoiding questionable Russian and Chinese software. Officials have begun distributing a “do not buy” list of software originating from Russia and China that does not meet national security standards – something that is sometimes difficult to ascertain because of the location of holding companies.

The intelligence community is also concerned about foreign entities compromising US software, which can take a number of different forms, as detailed in a new report from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. For example, Chinese businesses have been eagerly investing in US start-ups working in AI. Furthermore, Russia and China have laws mandating that US companies selling software must allow their national intelligence services to examine the software’s source code, which can allow them to discover key vulnerabilities for exploitation.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has published a report of the Attorney General’s Cyber-Digital Task Force, a 156-page document that details the variety of cyber-threats facing the United States, with a particular focus on the threat of malign foreign influence operations. The report summarizes the DoJ’s protective efforts in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, and announces a new policy governing the disclosure of foreign influence activities.

US senator critical of Putin targeted in sting

Last November, in documents that have only now come to light, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) – who is known for her vocal criticism of the Putin regime and is a staunch supporter of Russian sanctions (she also authored the law on government-wide purge of Kaspersky Lab products)  – was targeted in a sting operation by a man claiming to work for the foreign ministry of Latvia and seeking insider knowledge about the US sanctions regime against Russia. He claimed to support efforts to mitigate Russian aggression and offered to set up a call between Shaheen and the Latvian foreign minister.

Shaheen’s team accepted the invitation, but followed it up with the Latvian embassy to confirm the man’s bona fides. The embassy responded that no person by the given name worked for the foreign ministry, and that the outreach attempt was inauthentic. When the scheduled time for the call came and went, Shaheen’s office received an email from the fake Latvian, as well as a voicemail following up on the invitation. The incident was reported to authorities, but the culprit’s identity and nationality remain unknown.

This was apparently not the first nor last time that Shaheen’s office was targeted by hoax emails and phishing attempts to gain access to official accounts. Other Democratic lawmakers, particularly those up for re-election, are also frequent targets of Russian hacking attempts. Just last week, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was the target of an unsuccessful hacking attempt by Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU.

Trump allies working overtime

Last week, Republican representatives Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, and nine other colleagues signed an impeachment resolution against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, claiming that Rosenstein allegedly evaded congressional demands for documents regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and for “infecting” American political discourse with an anti-Trump bias. While a summer legislative recess is likely to protect Rosenstein from any impeachment proceedings (which is opposed by Republican leadership), it is clear that this is a brazen attempt to replace Rosenstein and Mueller, undermine the Special Counsel, and limit the scope of the investigation against Trump.

Days later, it was reported that the group behind the impeachment campaign against Rosenstein would not be filing a privileged motion and will not carry through with the threat. Nonetheless, it is possible that future impeachment efforts could be revived, with Republican leaders agreeing to hold a vote on whether Rosenstein is in contempt of Congress in the first week of September. While the outrageous allegations against Rosenstein carry no evidence and reflect a desire to simply eliminate inconvenient opposition, it is troubling to consider the extent to which the Trump administration will go towards safeguarding power and continuing to deceive the American public.

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

The Helsinki Summit

One would have thought that the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki would be lauded as a glorious event in the Russian press. The summit, which was followed by the “triumphant success” of the World Cup Final, could have been presented as another episode of Vladimir Putin’s great accomplishments. However, to great surprise, most Russian media were quite cautious in their assessments of the Helsinki Summit and, unlike their American counterparts, didn’t dismiss Trump as “weak” or overtly preferential to Putin. Instead, the Russian media picked up on comments from Trump that could be deemed unfavourable to Russia – most notably, those concerning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Trump criticised as a bad move for Germany. Indeed, the tone of most coverage implied that Russian media were primarily interested in continuing to portray the U.S. as an enemy and did not see the summit as a positive step towards reconciliation between the U.S. and Russia.

“...the most Monday's event betrayed was that Donald Trump has little understanding of high-level diplomacy and insufficient clout to deliver his foreign policy agenda. If he actually has one, of course.

“The US media covered the summit like it was a Tyson-Holyfield or McGregor-Mayweather bout. But those fighters don't have deep states to consider. Putin conceded he wanted Trump to win in 2016 "because he was for the normalization of relations" but strongly denied the Russian state had interfered in the election process. Trump, who knows pushing too hard on this topic could de-legitimize his own presidency, accepted Putin's reassurance.”

Mainstream Russian media have devoted considerable attention to the coverage of the summit in Western media. Vzlgyad’s article about the outcomes of the meeting is very cautious about any possibility of ground-breaking changes. “We shouldn’t expect much of this meeting. It rather showed that both presidents have the same eye for such events. It was important to see Putin’s vision of the philosophy of the bilateral relations.

Seems that the most accurate word to describe the Helsinki Summit is bewildering. For both sides.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Russian Mass Media in Germany:

Independent Journalism or Political Weapon?

In a recent study for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, independent researcher Susanne Spahn exposes the modus operandi of Russian state media in Germany. Published in German and Russian, the main purpose of the report is to inform consumers of platforms like RT Deutsch and Sputnik about their agenda as influence agents of the Kremlin. Spahn provides numerous reasons to demonstrate that Russian state media lacks credibility and integrity.

Spahn uses a broad array of data and statements from the Kremlin’s chief propagandists to demonstrate how Putin’s Russia has increasingly weaponized information in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution in 2013-2014. She highlights many examples of how RT Deutsch and Sputnik disseminate distorted and biased coverage, fake news, and disinformation. Both outlets use a selective combination of facts and misinterpretations of facts to sow confusion and portray Russia as a victim rather than the aggressor. RT Deutsch and Sputnik, together with other Russian state media outlets, absorb and instrumentalize existing Euroscepticism and reservations about NATO and the U.S. in German society. Views that don’t follow the Kremlin’s narrative are either ignored or manipulated.

The “Lisa Case”, according to Spahn – a false story of a 13-year-old girl allegedly abducted and raped by migrants – is a paragon for the favoured Russian tactic of “whataboutism” – a rejoinder to criticism and a tactic to distract from the issue at hand by accusing your critic of what you yourself are guilty of. In addition, Spahn highlights how Germany has become a focal point in Russia’s hybrid war against the West – something that became particularly evident ahead of the federal election in September 2017, when Russian media openly advocated for populist parties on both the far left (DieLinke) and far right (AfD). Predictably, Russian coverage about Chancellor Merkel and her government was predominantly negative. In many articles, Merkel was advised to resign.

Spahn concludes that these platforms are successful because they position themselves as “alternative news” and “independent” sources. Chief propagandists frequently appear in German mainstream media and are introduced as free journalists. In fact, however, they are directly financed by Moscow and content is supplied almost exclusively from Russia – something that RT Deutsch, Sputnik and others actively try to hide.

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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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