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


What are the main lessons learnt from countering Russia's disinformation activities in Georgia? This question is the central focus of a new publication authored by Kremlin Watch Special Fellow Tornike Zurabashvili. He concludes, among other things, that mere political acknowledgment of the threat is necessary but insufficient for successfully countering pro-Kremlin disinformation and hostile influence efforts. Including civil society organizations in counterefforts is also crucial, but it would be a mistake to rely on them alone. Religion also plays an important role – the clergy should be involved in countering disinformation efforts both as a target group and as a medium for delivering fact-based messages. Adopting a broad, whole-of-society strategy, complementing existing government and civil society countermeasures, is recommended.

You can read the full publication here.

In addition, don’t forget to visit our website, where you can find all previous Kremlin Watch reports, as well as an interactive map with countermeasures designed and implemented by EU Member States:

Topics of the Week

New research about disinformation on Twitter shows that civic actors (as opposed to state and media actors) have a much greater impact than previously assumed.

Boris Reitschuster: Russian influence networks deriving from the Stasi continue to deeply penetrate German politics, economy, and media.

A new poll shows that the majority of the US public is concerned about foreign disinformation and electoral security in the upcoming midterms.

A new report by the Atlantic Council provides case studies of Russian electoral interference operations, assessing their outcomes and state responses.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Question for Radio Yerevan: “Allegedly, there is actual meat in Moscow. Will it be in Minsk as well?”

Answer: “Yes, it's a travelling exhibition.”

Policy & Research News

Following the Twitter disinformation trail

The Washington Post has published a new article examining the digital disinformation trail on Twitter surrounding the downing of Flight MH17 by a Russian missile in 2014. Researchers looked at how the story was portrayed on Twitter from two angles: first, posts based on findings from the Joint Investigation Team, which conclusively found Russia to be responsible for the tragedy, and second, posts that fallaciously attributed blame to the Ukrainian government.

The article provides a visualisation of the networks and profiles that spread the two opposing versions of the story and categorizes them according to their source: state, civil society (citizens and NGOs), or media. It shows that citizens – in contrast to government or media outlets – notably have a much higher impact in terms of online content creation and distribution than previously assumed. Civic actors are highly engaged on Twitter and constitute the influential core of a retweet network that determines which narratives dominate. The article concludes that, despite the prevailing view that states are chiefly responsible for the weaponization of information, the key to fighting digital disinformation above all depends on the successful mobilization of citizens and civil society.

Source: International Affairs, Volume 94, Issue 5, 1 September 2018

The Kremlin’s tentacles reach deep into Germany

The Integrity Initiative has published an overview of an interview with prominent German journalist Boris Reitschuster, highlighting the extent to which the Kremlin is able to influence German media. Reitschuster argues that, following the end of the Cold War, the intelligence networks established by the Stasi in West Germany were never decommissioned and are now being actively used by the Kremlin for influence purposes. Reitschuster states that, in numerical terms, these networks reach up to several thousand people in Germany, including state elites such as politicians and generals.

Reitschuster states that not only do Russia’s agents of influence operate in the German economy and political sphere, but they also have significant reach into the German information space and are able to determine the tone and narratives of some German media. This is due to the fact that many former Stasi members have connections to German websites that disseminate pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda.

The Kremlin’s toolkit to contain NATO enlargement

The German Marshall Fund has featured an article on the Kremlin’s toolkit to prevent further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The authors provide a brief account of the Kremlin’s recent activities in attempting to undermine support for NATO membership in the Balkans as well as Finland and Sweden. The toolkit includes disinformation to sway public opinion against supporting NATO membership, using oligarchs to fund anti-NATO parties and incite unrest in the Balkans, attempts to instigate a government coup (in the case of Montenegro) and using cyber-attacks to obstruct or discourage NATO membership.

US Developments

US public concerned over electoral security, disinformation

A recent poll has found that nearly one third of Americans believe a foreign country will tamper with the votes cast in the upcoming midterms. The poll, based on interviews with 949 participants from September 5-9, offers a unique glimpse into the attitudes and fears of the American public ahead of the midterm elections, from faith in the electoral process to trust in social media. Notably, two thirds of participants (67%) reported that it was likely that Russia would use social media to spread false information about candidates running in the midterms, with few convinced that Facebook and Twitter have taken adequate measures to protect against electoral interference.

Overall, and in keeping with sentiments expressed by the expert community, only 53% of respondents believe that the US is prepared for the midterm elections. Particularly alarming is Americans’ waning faith in the democratic process: nearly half of those surveyed (46%) believe that many votes will be uncounted, that voter fraud will occur (53%) and more broadly, just under 40% do not trust that elections are fair.

“Defend Forward” – a new rationale for US cyber defense

Recognizing the threats chiefly posed by China and Russia, the latest operating dictums set out by the 2018 Department of Defense (DoD) Cyber Strategy summary and fact sheet have directed the US military to more aggressively defend against and pursue targets in cyberspace, effectively elevating the digital frontier as a fifth operational domain. Following President Trump’s earlier revision of Presidential Policy Directive 20, an Obama-era memorandum that strictly regulated the use of offensive cyber-attacks, this new strategy instead boasts an aggressive posture towards threats in cyberspace, “defending forward” and “confronting threats before they reach U.S. networks”.

According to CNN, the controversial move allows the US military to act more independently when directing offensive cyber-attacks, even if they are against computer networks based in friendly countries – further signaling America’s readiness to move past deterrence when countering cyber-based threats.

China delivers warnings over US sanctions

Correct mistakes, revoke sanctions or bear the consequences, China’s foreign ministry has warned after the US issued financial sanctions against a Chinese military agency and its top official for its purchase of Russian military hardware. In accordance with the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, legislation intended to punish Russia for its electoral meddling, the US imposed sanctions in response to “significant transactions” with a blacklisted Russian arms exporter, involving the purchase of combat aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems, the State Department reported.

In response to these latest punitive measures, following Trump’s decision to dramatically escalate trade tariffs amidst the ongoing trade war between the two nations, Beijing delivered a fiery ultimatum, declaring that "China is strongly outraged by this unreasonable action by the US" and urging Washington to “immediately correct their mistake and withdraw their so-called sanctions” – otherwise, the US “must take all the consequences."

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Angela Merkel didn’t want to shake hands with Theresa May.

What a “scandal”!

British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing severe pressure to substantially alter Britain’s Brexit strategy after its proposals were rejected by EU leaders at the recent EU summit in Salzburg. May stated that Britain’s departure from the European Union would either follow the proposed plan or face the alternative of leaving without a negotiated agreement.

NTV Russia was quick to comment on the “coarse” and “insulting” behaviour of the British Prime Minister. In a recent article titled “Brexit Blind: May is Ready to Take Britain Out of the EU Without an Agreement”, Russian reporters portrayed May as experiencing “public humiliation” based on completely outlandish and exaggerated indicators. For instance, Donald Tusk patting May on her back was interpreted as a teacher patting a student for their poor performance, while the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not shake hands with May was labelled “terrible” by NTV Russia reporters.

The exchange was even further exaggerated by REN TV. Indeed, the scandal was apparently so great in the eyes of Russian TV stations that articles on the matter addressed questions of “real female friendship” and noted that the event was the source of many jokes on the web. Such tactics epitomise the Russian disinformation and propaganda playbook – misrepresenting and exaggerating a news story with the intent of warping the truth. Indeed, stories like this indicate that Russia continues sparing no expense in its efforts to spur confusion and discontent in democratic nations.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Defining Russian Electoral Interference:

An Analysis of Select 2014 to 2018 Cyber Enabled Incidents

The Atlantic Council has published an issue brief stressing the need for states to have a common lexicon to effectively respond to electoral interference operations. The brief reviews five case studies of interference operations, categorizing them as state-directed, state-encouraged, or state-aligned, and describes their outcomes and state responses.

For example, in the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election, a pro-Russian group hacked crucial vote tallying system files and leaked private emails. Although this was widely reported in Ukrainian media and a Ukrainian official publicly reported the malware, the incident received very little global media attention. Meanwhile, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, RT spent over a thousand dollars on misleading pro-Brexit advertisements. Russia also targeted the British power supply and allegedly the British referendum website. The British Prime Minister released a public statement condemning Russian attempts at referendum interference and both British and American media actively covered the incident. In the case of the 2016 US presidential election, state-directed Russian agents aimed to delegitimize the US political process by hacking the Democratic National Convention’s networks and propagating divisive political beliefs via fake social media accounts. The US government issued a joint report in 2017 indicating the high likelihood of Russian interference and indicted 12 GRU officers under the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The issue brief further analyses the French presidential election and the German federal elections.

Based on these case analyses, the Atlantic Council makes recommendations for norms of state behavior and interference response measures. These include the continuation of accurate public exposure of interference operations and wariness towards classifying influence operations as breaches of state sovereignty.

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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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