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

Topics of the Week

U.K. General: Some Russian military operations in Syria have the sole objective of obtaining the right pictures for information warfare.

The U.S. Justice Department has announced the arrest and impending extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer in Belgium.

The Kremlin's current narrative: Russia claims to be more advanced in space force development than the US.

Russian trolls, sophisticated bots, and “content polluters” are more likely to tweet about vaccination than average Twitter users, new study finds.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Hitler asked Stalin to help him destroy London.

Stalin offered him a thousand apartment managers.

Policy & Research News

Russian disinformation – from the battlefield with love

Britain’s Major General Felix Gedney, who was the deputy commander of the Western anti-ISIS coalition, gave an overview of Russian information operations in Syria both on and off the battlefield. Gedney stated that the Russians are far better at producing disinformation and spreading it than the West is at countering it. Furthermore, Gedney explained that Russia conducts entire military operations with the sole objective of obtaining the right pictures or footage for information warfare. This content is subsequently used to discredit the coalition’s efforts, while Western capitals often fail to realise that they are “being played” by Russian disinformation campaigns.

Gedney said that during his time as deputy commander, there was an enormous vacuum in terms of developing a positive narrative about the anti-ISIS fight, making it easy for adversaries to fill this vacuum with their preferred narrative(s) instead. Gedney concluded that information warfare must be operationalized “down into a genuine multi-domain battle” by the West.

Civil action leading the fight in the UK

With Bellingcat dominating the news regarding the Skripal investigation, Carole Cadwalladr examines the trend of citizen-driven, open-source investigation for The Guardian. Bellingcat, which was started by blogger Eliot Higgins, has notably succeeded in identifying the two Salisbury suspects – aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – and tying them to the GRU, and even to the war in Ukraine.  The group uses publicly available information and collaborates through an open source process to reach its conclusions, demonstrating the remarkable power of the internet and the public to fight successfully against disinformation. 

Cadwalladr indeed remarks that citizen-driven investigative initiatives such as Bellingcat surpass governmental efforts in the fight against disinformation.  As Gian Volpicelli writes for Wired, the British government is often unable to act effectively, even upon recognition of a disinformation threat. 

The Commons Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports has been investigating the threat of Russian disinformation to democracy for a year, and is scheduled to release its report this October.  While the Committee has identified Facebook – namely the spread of targeted disinformation through the platform – as a key threat, Mark Zuckerberg has simply declined the summons to appear before the Committee. Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technologist, did make an appearance but failed to answer 39 of the questions that were asked. Other persons of interest have been able to avoid the investigation, such as Brexit donor Arron Banks, who simply walked out of the hearing. This illustrates the investigation’s problematic lack of power, as the Committee cannot force anyone into releasing information.  

Strategic politicization of culture

Dean Jackson's article analyses strategic politicization of culture and looks at a recent study which found that Russian trolls joined an online debate over the quality of the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, in order to promote a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. The study found that more than half of those who address the director of the movie directly were bots, trolls, or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting the extreme right-wing causes and discrimination on different grounds. Although it raises questions as to why Russian trolls would interfere in a debate about a movie, the politicization of culture itself is a common practice by authoritarian states, and specifically Russia. Examples include the trial of punk band Pussy Riot, critical reception of the Russian film Leviathan, and the ban of the 2017 comedy, The Death of Stalin.

US Developments

The US looks serious about cracking down on Chinese cybertheft

In an escalation of the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese spying and theft of trade secrets, the Justice Department has announced the arrest and impending extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer in Belgium. Yanjun Xu is a deputy division director at the Ministry of State Security, China’s main spy agency, and is charged with stealing trade secrets from several US companies, including GE Aviation, a top jet engine supplier for commercial and military aircraft that holds contracts with the Pentagon. Xu now faces extradition to the United States, a notable development that marks the first time a Chinese intelligence official will be prosecuted and tried in open court on American soil. In April of this year, Xu was captured in a major international sting operation that lured him to a staged meeting in Belgium, where he was promised proprietary information about jet fan blade designs from a GE Aviation employee.

Paralleling this indictment, the US has also announced new foreign investment restrictions designed to impede Chinese access to American companies. China’s extraordinarily swift ascent to economic power has been significantly fueled by a sweeping campaign of commercial espionage and state-sponsored theft of intellectual property predominantly targeting the United States. A longread article published by Wired details how the US finally obtained some leverage over China to curb its rampant cybertheft, which has accelerated again in recent months.

Russian subversion efforts so far appear absent in upcoming elections

With everyone on high alert for signs of foreign interference in the upcoming elections, Russia appears to be taking a strategic time out from its previously extravagant electoral subversion efforts, in stark contrast to its activities in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Thus far in the midterm races, experts have not found any direct evidence of Russian interference, beyond the usual hyper-partisan white noise manufactured online by pro-Kremlin social media trolls and bots. Even so, Russian troll activity hasn’t actively targeted or sought to influence any of the 35 Senate campaigns or 435 House races, nor has Russian intelligence executed cyber-hacking and leaking of documents of the sort that upended the election in 2016, memorably with the help of Wikileaks.

Expert consensus suggests that in the aftermath of 2016, GRU hackers have abandoned their flashy tactics and forestalled expectations of “shock and awe” in favor of a more low-key strategy and routine espionage attacks – in addition, appearing to focus more on Europe and Russia’s immediate neighborhood. Of course, none of this is to suggest that the midterms are in the clear: the Kremlin could still deploy a number of disruptive capabilities, previously used in Ukraine, to wreak havoc on election day (e.g., infrastructure cyberattacks or last-minute dumps of stolen documents). It is also possible that US intelligence agencies have yet-undisclosed evidence of Russian electoral hacking.

Russian efforts to manipulate the Greek-Macedonian naming dispute

A story in the New York Times details how American officials intercepted communications earlier this year indicating Russian efforts to derail an agreement between Greece and Macedonia that would pave the way for the latter’s accession to NATO. The investigation’s target was Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek oligarch and former member of the Duma, who worked on behalf of the Kremlin to frustrate the long-awaited agreement to resolve the naming dispute between Greece and Macedonia. Over the summer, in advance of the key Macedonian vote on the country’s official name change, US officials determined from intercepts of Savvidis’ email, texts, and phone calls as well as financial records that he was responsible for payments totaling around $350,000 to Macedonian politicians, soccer hooligans, and radical nationalist organizations to instigate (sometimes violent) opposition against the referendum.

US officials turned over the intercepts to the Greek government, which has previously maintained close ties with the Kremlin as a means of counterbalancing EU pressure and austerity measures. But in this case, Greece responded with unusual force, expelling two Russian diplomats and barring the entry of two more, in a considerable win for transatlantic solidarity and a rebuke to Moscow. “The constant disrespect for Greece must stop,” read a statement from the Greek Foreign Ministry. “No one can or has the right to interfere in Greece’s domestic affairs.” The story is another example of the two-track presidency currently at play in US foreign policy: while the president continues professing his affinity for Putin, the national security establishment remains actively committed to supporting US allies and countering the Russian geopolitical threat.

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Russia claims to be more advanced in space force development than the US

Speaking at a recent rally in Richmond, Kentucky, US President Donald Trump claimed that “the United States lagged behind Russia and China in the creation of space force.” Such is the disinformation that Russian state-media outlets wish their readers to believe.

At the same time, however, President Trump apparently desires the US space force to be able to “degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy, and manipulate adversary capabilities to protect US interests, assets, and way of life.” President Trump simply admitted the view that Russia and China have an operable space force – not the fact that these two space forces would be specifically more advanced than that of the US in any way.

Furthermore, in typical manipulative fashion, RT ‘journalists’ claimed that the Russian space force will serve only “peaceful purposes”, and that it is rather the Americans who are looking for a conflict in the realm of space.

Ria Novosti went even farther when it presented the Global Firepower annual statistics list regarding the most powerful standing militaries, creating the illusion once again that Russia’s military is stronger than that of the US. Yet no Russian media source would dare to publicly proclaim that Russia’s efforts to keep its military on par with that of the US has always been extremely costly to the livelihoods of ordinary Russian citizens.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Weaponized Health Communication

Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate

A new study has been released analysing the vaccine debate on Twitter, demonstrating that Russian trolls, sophisticated bots, and so called ‘content polluters’ (accounts that disseminate malware and unsolicited commercial content) are significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than average Twitter users. Content polluters in particular post anti-vaccine messages 75% more often than the average Twitter user, which may be due to the clickbait nature of the anti-vaccine debate, driving up advertisement revenues. This is important, as amplification of anti-vaccine content may reduce real vaccine uptake rates and as a result increase the risks of global pandemics.

Interestingly, the authors found a unique hashtag (#VaccinateUS) used frequently in tweets from their sample of known Russian troll accounts. Normally, the discourse surrounding the vaccine debate consists of ‘parental choice’ narratives and specifics about vaccine legislation. However, tweets with the hashtag #VaccinateUS consisted of polarised messages on both sides of the debate and frequently appealed to notions of freedom, democracy, and constitutional rights. The tweets further included arguments using divisive racial cleavages and appeals to God with a focus on the US government as a conspirator.

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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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