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

Topics of the Week

“The dark side of the Kremlin”: massive leak of data from Kremlin officials and oligarchs.

The US has charged Chinese telecom Huawei with violating intellectual property laws and lying about its compliance with Iran sanctions.

Despite opposition from Democratic lawmakers, the Trump administration has lifted sanctions against Rusal and other Deripaska companies.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Russia’s defense of Nicolás Maduro is highly ironic.

Read Poynter's guide to anti-misinformation efforts around the world.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In Russia, a foreign journalist asks an old man:

“What are you going to do when there is prosperity in Russia?”

“We survived the war, we survived poverty, we will survive prosperity as well!”

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Policy & Research News

Revealing the Kremlin’s hidden ties

American journalist Emma Best says her work is about creating transparency that will lead to governmental reform. Best is co-founder of the group Distributed Denial of Secrets – DDOS – that recently leaked a massive cache of documents from within Russia, the New York Times reports. The documents amount to approximately 175 gigabytes of data, and journalists are still sifting through them for revealing information. But we already know one thing: “the dark side of the Kremlin”, as the leak is being called, contains emails and messages between Russian officials, oligarchs, the Orthodox Church, and nationalists in Ukraine.

Notably, the cache also includes data from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Wikileaks had previously accessed but decided not to publish in 2016, as well as information about Rosoboronexport, the arms export company that was implicated in the false stories about MH17, gained by the Russian hacking group Shaltai Boltai.

Best worked with a team of about 20 people in different countries to make the documents available, operating a similar model to Wikileaks, with independent hackers and leakers sending DDOS documents to publish. Despite following Wikileaks’ basic model, Best is critical of the organization and its founder, Julian Assange, whom she calls egotistic and dishonest. Last year, Best published 11,000 Twitter messages from Wikileaks that exposed smear campaigns and anti-Semitic views.

Russian disinformation multiplies soft power in Serbia

Although the EU provides Serbia with financial and humanitarian aid, many Serbian citizens continue to see the Russian Federation as their country’s only ally. This reality is worrying many local experts, according to the Washington Post.  One explanation for this sentiment is the massive use of pro-Kremlin disinformation to promote the narrative that Russia is Serbia’s ‘big brother’ and to emphasise the two countries’ close historic and cultural ties. Russia’s ability to generate a bigger impact for a smaller price is another contributing factor, for example through the use of already established groups like the Russian Orthodox church and the Serbian Night Wolves – a branch of the larger Russian motorcycle gang supported by the Kremlin – as well as youth paramilitary groups.  Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic maintains that Serbia does not need to pick a side in the East vs. West debate, but the nation’s closer ties with Russia worry many about Serbia's future as a candidate for EU membership.

Andrus Ansip on Huawei, disinformation

Andrus Ansip, the current Vice President of the European Commission and former Prime Minister of Estonia, is well-equipped to discuss cybersecurity issues. While his comments about Huawei may be perceived as controversial, he confirms that from a risk assessment standpoint, ordinary people should be cautious about using Huawei technology. He uses China’s own ban on any technology not produced in China for government institutions as an illustration of the differences in technological norms.  Meanwhile, speaking about disinformation, Ansip recognizes the threat and the need to invest more resources in countering the constant stream of pro-Kremlin narratives, especially with important votes like the upcoming European Parliamentary elections.

US Developments

US charges Huawei with theft

The Justice Department has announced criminal charges against Chinese telecom giant Huawei and its affiliates. The two indictments accuse Huawei of violating intellectual property law and lying about its compliance with US against Iran, amounting to a total of 23 charges. Specifically, Huawei is charged with violating confidentiality agreements with T-Mobile by photographing, measuring, and stealing part of a T-Mobile-developed robot, as well as lying to banks about Huawei’s ties with Iranian affiliate Skycom to appear to comply with US sanctions. In addition, Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested on December 1st in Vancouver on charges of lying about violating US sanctions against Iran, generating considerable backlash from Beijing. The Justice Department is attempting to have her extradited to the US. The incident has increased tensions as China, Canada, and the US renegotiate their trade relationships.

The US and Canada raise concerns about electoral interference

US National Intelligence Director Dan Coats has acknowledged that the US succeeded in protecting its election infrastructure in the 2018 midterms, but emphasized that the threat of electoral interference remains salient for 2020. Russia and other foreign countries are likely to deploy new tactics in an attempt to target the 2020 elections. In his statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats added that Russia is expected to continue its social media campaigns with a “focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians.” Furthermore, Coats warned that the Kremlin is likely to refine its meddling toolkit – including the targeted use of disinformation, hack-and-leak operations, and/or data manipulation – to influence not only elections but US strategy and policies. A growing number of lawmakers, for example, are warning that deepfakes could be the next major frontier in electoral interference, and could already pose a significant challenge in 2020.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is preparing to unveil new countermeasures to protect against interference in the country’s upcoming federal elections, as well as information about how Canadian voters will be informed of foreign meddling in domestic affairs. The plans are the result of months-long teamwork and coordination between agencies, including intelligence, foreign affairs, and election authorities. In addition, it has also been reported that Ottawa intends to spend $7 million on public awareness campaigns to increase Canadians’ resilience to online disinformation, however, the government has not yet confirmed this story.

US lifts Rusal sanctions

Despite Democratic opposition, the Trump administration has lifted sanctions on the core empire of Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch Oleg Derispaska. The move, which targets aluminum giant Rusal and its parent company En+, generated an all-time high for the Russian stock index and is the result of a 10-month long lobbying campaign in Washington. The elimination of these sanctions entails a significant dilution of the toughest penalties imposed on Russia by the US since the former’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Opponents of the sanctions relief have maintained that Deripaska, who is known to be close ally of Vladimir Putin, retained significant control of Rusal, En+, and power firm JSC EuroSibEnergo. However, the US Treasury stated that the three companies in question had reduced Deripaska’s direct and indirect shareholding stakes and cut off his control, ensuring that the majority of directors on the En+ and Rusal boards would be independent – including Americans and Europeans with no business, personal, or other ties to Deripaska or any other individual targeted for sanctions. Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, stated that the agency did not raise concerns with the Treasury Department about its decision to the lift the sanctions.

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The Kremlin's Current Narrative

The Kremlin remains assertive in its defence of Maduro

On January 23rd, the Venezuela’s National Assembly swore in Juan Guaidó as interim president, contesting incumbent Nicolás Maduro’s presidential status and hopefully commencing a reversal of the decline in living and socioeconomic standards that had plagued the country for several years. While the majority of the world has shown support towards the nation’s new leadership, it should be of no surprise that the Russian regime has spoken out vehemently against the change in power. Indeed, Russian media outlets have already branded the events in Venezuela as a coup instigated by the American government, with Putin himself noting that such alleged involvement had “gravely infringed the norms of international law.

It is deeply ironic that the Russian government would comment so boldly on this issue considering its obvious disinterest in upholding any semblance of international law in geopolitical confrontations with its own neighbors, particularly Ukraine. The Kremlin is consistently opportunistic and only interested in maintaining its influence over the Venezuelan government, utilizing the nation as a military outpost, and gradually absorbing a significant portion of Venezuela’s energy assets. Apart from this, Russian media outlets have even published stories warning the United States about “recreating another Iraq” through their alleged ‘involvement’ in Venezuela. It is reasonable to expect that Russian state-owned media outlets will only continue to promote news that defend the Maduro regime and the Kremlin’s interests.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world

While a growing number of countries around the world are endeavouring to address the challenge of fake news and disinformation, they are doing so in different ways, for example by adopting different strategies or countermeasures and by focusing on different aspects of the problem. The Poynter Institute has published an article providing a compilation of anti-misinformation efforts in various countries. The brief report for each country features links to further readings about the actions taken, based on different categories. The authors plan to keep the article updated on an ongoing basis.

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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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