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


Open Letter by European Security Experts to the President of the European Commission J. C. Juncker and the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini

The European Commission continues to fail to deliver a practical response to pro-Kremlin disinformation. We have published an open letter signed by over 60 security experts from 20 countries that calls for the following:

  • As the Commission is about to present the Action Plan on Disinformation, Russia must be explicitly identified as the main foreign source of hostile disinformation against the EU and its values.
  • The only anti-disinformation body mandated by the European Council, the EEAS East StratCom Task Force, should be staffed with an additional 30 experts commanding various language and specialist skills.
  • The EEAS East StratCom Task Force should be provided with an annual budget of at least 5 million EUR for special research, monitoring initiatives, and awareness campaigns. Without adequate funding, this team cannot operate effectively, as Member States and the European Parliament have repeatedly requested.

Topics of the Week

The Integrity Initiative, which supports organizations from Europe fighting pro-Kremlin disinformation, has been hacked and data about its partners have been leaked online.

A new EU intelligence academy will be established in Greece and Cyprus, raising questions about these countries’ relations with the Kremlin.

The Kremlin isn’t giving up its harassment of critic Bill Browder and is now seeking help from the US.

New CEPA report: Western leaders must understand Russia's worldview and prioritize “sticks first”.

Good Old Soviet Joke

What are the four greatest problems facing Soviet agriculture?

Spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Policy & Research News

Hacked documents from the Integrity Initiative surfacing in Kremlin media

A trove of documents dating to 2015 were hacked from the Integrity Initiative and published by a group claiming to represent the Anonymous Charity. The Integrity Initiative is a network of people and organisations dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. The hacked documents reveal the Integrity Initiative’s methods for countering Russian disinformation, including working with different stakeholders to empower anti-disinformation efforts, challenging Kremlin narratives, and sharing expertise in countering Russian disinformation.

As expected, state-owned media outlets RT and Sputnik used the leak for propaganda purposes, attempting to establish a narrative of an ongoing psychological operation in Europe funded by the UK and the US. This narrative has been amplified by Kremlin disinformation outlets. An Anonymous linked Twitter account has denied any involvement in the hack, suggesting that the Kremlin has used Anonymous as a veil to disguise its own responsibility for the hack.

EU intelligence academy to be established in Greece and Cyprus

Last week, the EU’s ministers of defence approved a set of 17 new defence initiatives, including a plan to build an EU Intelligence Academy, led by Greece with headquarters in Cyprus. In cooperation with NATO and the EU’s intelligence service agency, the academy’s aim is to educate and train intelligence agency staff across the EU. While the initiative seems like a positive development, questions have been raised about the project’s leaders.

Both Greece and Cyprus are notorious for their warm relations with the Kremlin, falling into the “Kremlin Collaborators” category of the 2018 European Values report on the countermeasures of the EU-28 to Russia’s subversion efforts. Both the Greek and Cypriot governments maintain close ties with the Kremlin and regularly oppose the EU sanctions regime against Russia.

They demonstrate equally minimal recognition of the threat that Russian subversion poses to Europe, begging the question whether the two countries are fit to lead the EU Intelligence Academy or whether other EU intelligence agencies can fully trust the Greek and Cypriot governments with sensitive information about their own intelligence officials and strategies.

The Kremlin looks westward for legitimacy

Following Russia’s maritime aggression against Ukraine this week, it is appropriate to examine how narratives are being controlled. Russian ships opened fire at three Ukrainian ships on Sunday after they allegedly attempted to enter the Russian-controlled waters of Crimea. Ukrainian media reported that 23 members of the crew were detained and the vessels seized.

Last week, EU Observer described how Western politicians were brought in earlier this month to lend legitimacy to elections in Russia-occupied Ukraine. 82 politicians appeared to observe and grant credibility to the elections in the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, and praised how “safe and peaceful” the conflict zones were. Although the majority of attending politicians were from Russia, they were joined by far-right politicians from France, Belgium, Hungary, and Italy, and far-left politicians from Germany and Greece.

US Developments

Kremlin seeks US cooperation in silencing critic

Since levelling new and absurd charges against prominent anti-Kremlin spokesman Bill Browder, Bloomberg reports that Russian law enforcement officials are appealing to the Trump administration for assistance in their persistent persecution campaign. Earlier last week, Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office expressed hope that the “new leadership of the U.S. Justice Department will adopt an impartial and legal approach to the activities of William Browder”, after having allegedly sent 1100 pages of material to US officials in support of their accusations. The latest outreach follows repeated government rebukes, and more notoriously, Russia’s failed attempts to leverage upon and abuse Interpol’s Red Notice system to detain Browder.

After lobbying for sanctions against Russia – formally codified under the US Magnitsky Act – Browder has become the subject of an escalating Kremlin intimidation campaign. Most recently, this involved placing Browder on an “international wanted list”, and tarring him with accusations of establishing criminal networks and the extraordinary allegations of murdering four of his own colleagues. Now, Russia is encouraging the US to investigate allegations connecting Browder to claims of illegal contributions to the Democratic Party during the 2016 US presidential elections.

US blasted over Russia’s Interpol loss

A wounded Moscow responded to the international effort against its highly contentious bid for Interpol leadership by predictably denouncing the US over “an unprecedented campaign of misinformation, pressure and defamation”. Despite the aforementioned and widely documented abuses of Interpol’s Red Notice system to harass Russia’s political dissidents and critics, along with the ongoing investigation into Moscow’s complicity in the Skripal poisoning, an incorrigible Kremlin nevertheless saw itself justified in deflecting international opposition as a “vivid example of the US interference in elections”.

Moscow continues to peddle Georgian ‘lab of death’

In a series of desperate attempts to discredit the US, just as Moscow faces international backlash over the use of chemical weapons, Russian FM spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asserted that “Russia is still expecting Washington and Tbilisi to provide clarifications concerning the true character of the Lugar Centre activities”. The Richard Lugar Center for Public Health and Research, a US funded laboratory in Georgia, has found itself at the center of a debunked Russian disinformation campaign claiming that ‘covered up’ human experiments were being conducted, resulting in dozens of fatalities.

Though previously dismissed by US officials “as nonsense and typical of Russian misinformation and propaganda campaigns”, Zakharova’s renewed attempts follow an international investigation which concluded that the facility “demonstrated significant transparency about its activities”, finding nothing “inconsistent with prophylactic, protective and other peaceful purposes”. Despite rebuking these results, Russia tellingly refused to take part in any inspection of its own, even after receiving an open invitation to do so.

US warns allies over Chinese telecoms

After introducing legislation earlier in the year to ban government use of phones and equipment produced by Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE, the Wall Street Journal reports that Washington is reaching out to its international private and public counterparts in a bid to prevent or reverse widespread adoption of Chinese-made telecommunication systems. Citing deep concerns over the vulnerabilities to Chinese espionage and cyber-attacks, particularly in regions which host US military bases, US officials briefed several allies – including Germany, Italy and Japan – over the risks that Chinese tech firms pose as the world transitions into the 5G Internet era.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Chaos as a Strategy: Putin’s “Promethean” Gamble

The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) outlines the Kremlin’s strategy of chaos, which aims to sow confusion in the public space, uncertainty in democratic institutions, and ‘policy paralysis’ in national governments. Under this strategy, the international actor that copes best with uncertainty wins. Russia’s assets of national power are decreasing; the working age is shrinking, the birth rate is falling, and there is an increasing presence of ‘Dutch disease’, in which an economic overreliance on one sector (oil and gas) leads to a decline in other sectors. In this context, Russian authoritarian media power grants it an advantage in managing domestic public opinion. Information campaigns abroad are further extremely adaptive and have proven to be effective.

However, Russia’s disinformation campaigns may ricochet back against Russia itself. Considering that the chaos strategy depends on surprise and uncertainty, Russian disinformation may erode the trust that other state leaders have in Putin. The chaos strategy demonstrates what Russia fears most; Western power. Yet, although the West has more power and capacity, it does not match Russia’s willingness to deploy its full instruments of state power. CEPA argues that the West needs to be harsher on Russia. Western leaders must understand Russia’s worldview and prioritize ‘sticks first’, including imposing tougher sanctions, wider travel restrictions, and harsher restrictions on access to the global financial system.

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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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