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


Russian spies, including the ones participating in the assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal, have been using a “base camp” in French Alps.

All the mobile apps developed in Russia, including the popular FaceApp, are a threat to US security, according to the FBI.

Kremlin's Current Narrative: NATO is a “horse that may not turn up at the starting line.”

Rand Corporation: Russian interests and limits in the Middle Easts

Good Old Soviet Joke

Greece requires license fees from the European Union for 2,500 years of using democracy.

They want nothing from Russia.

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Policy & Research News

French Alps used as “Base Camp” for Russian spies

Fifteen Russian spies used the French Alps as a “base camp” to conduct covert operations around Europe over a period of five years. The French newspaper Le Monde reports that British, Swiss, French, and US intelligence have drawn up a list of fifteen members of the 29155 unit of Russia's GRU military spy agency who all passed through France’s Haute-Savoie mountains. 

One theory suggested by Le Monde is that by staying in the Alps, the agents had hoped to avoid any suspicion before they carried out their missions, which could explain why there is no evidence suggesting they carried out covert missions on French soil. The Telegraph states members of the unit, specializing in assassinations, circulated in Europe, from 2014 until the end of 2018. The Le Monde article explains GRU agents who have used the camp include those accused of the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

China fails in an attempt to influence the Czechs

A years-long effort to influence the political and business elite of the Czech Republic, and to change the foreign policy of an EU Member State, is failing. This is according to an article by The Economist, which describes how China had aimed to cement its influence in the Czech Republic through tactics it has successfully used elsewhere in the world.

China has courted public figures, promised substantial investment, sponsored cultural programmes and events, and applied diplomatic pressure when necessary. The methods used are all part of a process described as “elite capture”. While for years these Chinese tactics appeared to be working in Beijing’s attempt to establish influence in the Czech Republic The Economist details how it is now unravelling. 

The fallout between Zhang Jianmin, China’s ambassador to the Czech Republic and the Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, over the security warning about Huawei and ZTE that had been issued by Czech’s cyber-security agency and the ban of use of products from the two companies imposed on staff by Mr Babis, is an example of “bumbling missteps by China” in the Central European country.

Other recent problems between the two nations include the closing of the Czech-Chinese Centre at the Charles University in November, which had been hosting China-friendly conferences for several years after a news website reported that its executive secretary had taken payments from the Chinese embassy via a private company.

Furthermore, this year Chinese authorities tried to pressure the mayor of Prague, an outspoken critic of China’s human-rights record, into adhering to the “one-China” principle that forbids diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan. When the Mayor refused, Chinese authorities cancelled a long-planned tour of China by Prague’s Philharmonic Orchestra. This fallout, as the New York Times states, highlights the ways China has tried to use its economic clout in an attempt to get its own way, diplomatically.

US Developments

FBI identifies Russian FaceApp as a “potential counterintelligence threat”

All the mobile apps developed in Russia, including the popular FaceApp, are a threat to US security, according to the FBI. The statement comes after Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer sent a request to the FBI to conduct a security review on mobile apps developed in Russia. FBI writes that Russian intelligence is able to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request to ISPs.” This makes all the apps developed in Russia inherently a potential counterintelligence threat. Democratic National Committee has already warned all the 2020 presidential candidates against using the Russian FaceApp.

Reddit unveils new information about the UK/US trade documents leak

Russian information operation tried to spread the UK/US trade documents using platforms such as Reddit. According to Reddit, Russia coordinated the leak by using one account to post the content, second account to repost the content, and a total of 61 accounts to manipulate the upvotes on the original post to amplify the popularity of the subreddit. The operation was not successful, and the documents were on Reddit for over a month before the media noticed the leak. As an additional part of the operation, GRU also sent direct emails to political activists and campaign groups, notifying them about the leaked documents. This activity led the Labour party to blame PM Johnson for trying to sell the National Health Service to US healthcare companies during the trade negotiations.

Information operation on Reddit has many similarities with the Secondary Infektion campaign on Facebook, which was unveiled earlier this year. However, at the moment it seems that the Reddit operation did not involve any inauthentic documents, unlike the Secondary Infektion which relied on fake documents.

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Kremlin's Current Narrative

NATO: “A horse that may not turn up at the starting line”

Although last week’s NATO Summit in honour of the 70th birthday of the alliance received considerable attention in Russian state media, reinforcement of the narrative of NATO’s decline and disunity took precedence over reporting on substantive matters. In fact, the Summit might have been little more than “trying hard to prove NATO was actually alive and healthy enough.” Moscow nevertheless disagreed with this portrayal, instead likening the alliance with “a horse that may not turn up at the starting line, let alone finish the race.”

Consistent with previous coverage on NATO-related issues, the Kremlin repeatedly insisted that the organization had lost its purpose after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and it should have discontinued its existence then. Though belated, there is a slim chance of a thaw in the relationship between Washington and Moscow as US President Donald Trump reportedly wants to mend ties with Russia. However, Russian state media warns us that this is where another obstacle comes in: the “virulently anti-Russian” Democrats and actually, most of the Republicans, too, all of whom share an “appetite for conflict with Russia.”

In addition to the purportedly unjustified antagonisms against the US President among domestic lawmakers, the Kremlin also alleged NATO leaders’ own disliking of “poor old Donald Trump” who was “picked on by the other leaders.” Yet, the poor old president was quick to respond, calling Justin Trudeau “two-faced.” This, according to Russian media, amounted to “two days plagued by internal stresses and tensions” and little more.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The Limits of Russian Strategy in the Middle East

By Becca Wasser, Rand Corporation

The Soviet Union was an influent actor in the Middle East. In the past few years, following the unrest in Syria and the Arab Spring, Russia has increased its engagement in the region, with a growth of its economic and political activities there. With its military incursion in Syria, the Kremlin signals its intention to be heir to the Soviet role. In her report for Rand Corporation, Becca Wasser analyses Moscow’s intentions and strategy for the region, and the extent to which they have been successful.  

Contemporary Russian strategy in the Middle East uses a resource and opportunity dependent approach that seeks short-term economic, political, and security advantages while reducing those of its prospective competitors, particularly the United States. Moscow’s interest in the Middle East can be attributed to three aims. First, Russian activity is driven by international prestige and a desire to be a key player in negotiations and decisions. Second, Russia views the Middle East as an opportunity to strengthen its economy through trade and investment. Third, Russia seeks to maintain regional stability, in part to preserve current regimes to avoid failed states, and to prevent spillover of terrorism to Russia and its neighbours. Additionally, Russia is more active in the Middle East when regional actors have enough resources to invest, and when instability or missteps by other actors, such as the United States, increasing the demand for Russian weapon systems, steady oil prices, and power brokering mediators.

The main challenges to Russia’s approach to the Middle East are its flagging economy and lack of soft power, which reduce its ability to expand its influence. Russia does not have a strong economic presence in the Middle East, apart from the energy sector and a few niche trade areas. Furthermore, the Gulf States have identified Russia’s current economic need as a weakness that they can exploit for their own political gain: Russia wants domestic investment, which gives leverage to the resource-rich Gulf States.

Additionally, even though Russia has demonstrated success at engaging states at odds with each other, Moscow’s multiple partnerships may also present long-term risks. Finally, Becca concludes, as Russia remains beholden to Western missteps to create opportunities, they will continue to be a second-choice partner for Middle Eastern states, which use engagement with Russia as a way to signal to the United States that they have other options. As a result, it is the Middle Eastern states that control the regional agenda, not Russia. This, in turn, leaves Russia bound to their interests and actions, rather than Moscow driving the regional agenda as a great power. Absent deeper commitments, Russia is likely to remain beholden to these actors to create opportunities.

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Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.

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