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

Topics of the Week

Russian exploits in Africa: Strategic goal or a testing ground for the Kremlin?

How does GRU attack Android phones?

Kremlin's Current Narrative: China is a victim of US aggression

Good Old Soviet Joke

During a scientific congress, Russian and British scientists stay together in a hotel room. In the morning, the Russian is found dead under the window.

The Englishman testifies: “We went for dinner in the evening. I had a bit of whisky, as is the custom in my country, and he got hammered like a nail, as is the custom in his country.

When we returned to our hotel room, I changed to my pyjamas and went to bed, as is the custom in my country, and he lied down fully dressed and covered himself with a coat, as is the custom in his country.

And then someone knocked on our door, so I got out of bed, put on a robe and went to open the door, as is the custom in my country. And he took his coat and jumped out of the window, as is the custom in his country."

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Policy & Research News

Russian disinformation and African internet policy

Russia’s recent disinformation campaigns in Africa present a new test for emerging internet policy. As Mailyn Fidler, an affiliate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, states, most coverage of the campaign has focused on what Russia’s actions mean for the West without delving too deeply into the ramifications for African countries.

However, the campaign highlights the difficulties African states face in crafting internet policy that is responsive to both external threats and internal political dynamics. Emerging African disinformation laws have often been criticized as a tool of autocrats, but the recent Russian disinformation campaigns show that African states have real external threats to counter. These kinds of campaigns require African countries to balance political autonomy, resistance, and control in their responses. 

Moreover, the Russian campaign used African politics as a testing ground for perfecting the country’s influence elsewhere in the world. As Fidler’s article explains, African nations are sensitive to such exploitative dynamics and if Russia is not just interfering in African politics, but also using the continent as a staging ground for more important campaigns, then it could be perceived as demeaning and therefore demand a stronger response.

Some action has been taken by African countries in countering disinformation. Kenya adopted a law in May 2018 broadly criminalizing disinformation while Burkina Faso’s parliament adopted a law in June 2019 that punishes select disinformation and in November 2019 Ethiopia’s cabinet approved a disinformation law. However, African countries are unlikely to push back strongly against Russian disinformation campaigns, but rather will try to exploit the campaigns for their own international and domestic political goals.

After all, Russia is not a former colonial power, which means there is less pressure to denounce the Kremlin’s actions. Furthermore, Fidler believes we are unlikely to see an African Convention on Disinformation anytime soon, stating the potential domestic gains for some African leaders from these types of campaigns suggest that action on this issue will remain national, rather than continental.

U.S. Helsinki Commission holds hearing on Russian influence in Belarus

The U.S. Helsinki Commission, otherwise known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), held a hearing on Belarus for the first time in eight years. The ‘Not-So-Good Neighbors: Russian Influence in Belarus’ hearing took place Wednesday 20th November and special expert witnesses were invited to take part. The speakers examined how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. They were also asked to decode Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explore how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus.

Among those invited to speak at the hearing included Freedom House Senior Program Manager for Eurasia Sofya Orlosky, U.S. Agency for Global Media Research Media Analyst Franak Viacorka, CEPA Russia Program Director Brian Whitmore, and International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Monitoring Unit head Andrei Yeliseyeu.

Andrei Yeliseyeu argued that “the Kremlin aims at putting Belarus under the complete influence, essentially to turn Belarus into a part of Soviet Union to achieve this goal, Kremlin applies political, economic and propagandistic pressure on the Belarusian authorities”.

Other speakers called for the West to do more to counter Russian influence within Belarus; Sofya Orlosky stated that “If the United States wants to help Belarus become more resilient, it should do so first of all, by strongly encouraging genuine democratic reform”. Furthermore, Franak Viacorka believes the reopening of the U.S Embassy in Belarus can help to build a more direct dialogue with the Belarusian people, intensify media literacy and digital journalism, as well as exchange programs.

US Developments

Russian ”Sandworm” hacker group targeting Android phones

Sandworm, a GRU-sponsored hacker group, has been infecting Android phones through apps in the Google Play Store. Google's security researchers unveiled information about Sandworm's activities, which also included hacking president Macron's campaign email server during the 2017 French elections. Sandworm has created its own versions of legitimate Google Play Store apps, infected them with its own malware and then uploaded the apps to the Play Store. Notable campaigns using this tactic include a campaign in Ukraine and a campaign in the 2018 Olympic winter games in South Korea, where Sandworm imitated Korean-language transit, schedule, media, and finance apps. The operation was linked to GRU´s attack against the Worldwide Anti-Doping Agency and coincided with other hack and leak, espionage, and data-destroying attacks against the Olympic games.

Sandworm has also infected Android apps by planting malware directly into the updates of legitimate Android apps, particularly in Ukraine. Sandworm has used phishing and malicious email attachments to gain control of the developer versions of popular Android apps. These infections have been caught by Google before the apps went to the Google Play.

Fiona Hill's testimony warns Republicans not to spread Russian propaganda

In Thursday's testimony, Fiona Hill gave a direct warning to the Republicans and the media: “I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” Hill singled out the Russian-promoted narrative that Ukraine, instead of Russia, was the state which meddled in the 2016 elections. The narrative is supported by many Republican politicians because it frames the Democratic National Committee as the actor, which fabricated the conspiracy theory between Russia and President Trump.

Hill compared Russian tactics to the decades-old disinformation tactic, where Russian operatives share compromising information with Western figures such as media people or politicians, and then let the influential Western figures amplify the (usually false) information. If the information leads to a scandal, it does not matter whether the information is credible or not, because the damage has already been done. A recent example of this tactic is the 2016 Democratic National Committee leak, which with the help of the Republican party and the right-wing media, started a conspiracy narrative about DNC leadership's campaign against Senator Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries.      

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Kremlin's Current Narrative

United States hegemony and aggression against China

One of the most prominent narratives in the Russian state media is the claim that Western leaders and Western media are unjustly demonizing Russia. With the recent approval of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the US Congress, however, this narrative has been extended to include China as the victim.

Following the passing of the act, Russian state media corroborated with the assessment of Beijing’s Vice Foreign Minister, Zheng Zeguang, that the bill disregarded the reality of the situation in Hong Kong to the extent that Washington would “refer to the deer as a horse.” Another piece targeted the “fake news” surrounding the events in the territory with the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s request for Reuters to stop disseminating false information. The alleged demonization of China in the West was emphasized over a series of articles highlighting instances of protester violence and the disruption of peace and order they have caused in line with China’s own preferred portrayal of the events.

The passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was also interpreted through the lenses of United States aggression and hegemony. Citing the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Russian media condemned the bill as a “serious violation of international law” and an example of “malicious intentions” to “bolster anti-China, extremist and violent radicals” with an end goal to undermine the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party. Another article emphasized Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s view that the act “aims to destroy Hong Kong” as a part of Washington’s repeated attempts to meddle in China.

Russian media ridicules Lithuania's claims for occupation damages

Brought to you by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis

A one-and-a-half-year study (yet to be published) was completed in Lithuania, which analysed financial flows between the USSR and Lithuania in 1944-1990. According to archival financial documents released by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (GRRCL), Lithuania was the Soviet Union’s donor in the first decade of occupation. Research also showed that during the entire period of occupation, the Lithuanian SSR contributed tens of billions of roubles, almost one-third of all generated funds. As a result, an interdepartmental commission worked out that the damages caused to Lithuania by the Soviet rule amount to approximately 20 billion US dollars.

Russian media outlets “Svobodnaya Pressa” and “Regnum” reacted to such news by publishing articles of derogatory nature, mocking GRRCL’s study and Lithuania’s claims for reparations. The disinformation campaign started with an attempt to discredit the GRRCL by claiming that “the institution is well-known for its forgeries and false studies”. Furthermore, authors of these articles continued the disinformation campaign by implementing elements of satire, such as “tiny republic catered for the whole Soviet Union”, “the so-called Soviet occupation” and “little Baltic sisters”.

It is worth reminding that back in 2017, Aleksandr Udaltsov, former Russia Ambassador to Lithuania, claimed that Russia should issue an invoice to Lithuania for 72 billion dollars for „turning Lithuanian SSR into an industrial state“.

Additionally, it is important to mention that authors of above-indicated articles are well-known for their overtly propagandistic stance. Continuous anti-Baltic rhetoric shows that both Sergey Orlov and Oleg Michailov seem to possess an array of unfavourable views of Lithuania and other Baltic nations. If we were to analyse past articles of these authors we would notice that nearly all stories include titles that carry negative and derogatory connotations, such as: “Tyranny of President Dalia Grybauskaitė”, “Infants in Lithuania are born already drunk”, “Lithuania is going towards self-destruction”, “Estonian army is falling into panic”, etc. As a result, articles as such convey false messages to readers with a goal to downgrade the Baltics in the eyes of ordinary Russians and, eventually, normalise reader’s attitudes towards apparent political and economic troubles in their home country.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Late to the Party: Russia’s Return to Africa

After the Soviet economy disintegrated, Russia virtually abandoned the African continent. However, since the Crimea sanctions, Putin has tried to expand its partners beyond the West, with Africa being a key target. The Sochi summit held in late October, which received leaders from all across the African continent, represented the apex of the Russian efforts toward the region. With the United States and China also keenly interested in the continent, it is even possible to frame this wave of great-power competition as a new scramble for Africa.

In the paper for Carnegie Endowment, Paul Stronski reflects on Russia’s effort to return as a truly global power, and its ability to compete for the African continent against better-established rivals. The piece analyses the soviet legacy in the region, as well as the political, military, economic, diplomatic and informational tools Russia has used in the last decade in order to rebuild old ties and develop new ones in the continent.

The Horn of Africa represents an opportunity for Russia to project power into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is prioritised to explore new commercial opportunities and securing diplomatic support in multilateral organisations. However, the jury is still out on the success of Russia’s strategy in Africa. Even though the country still enjoys considerable political and diplomatic influence in the continent, its hard and soft power projection is still limited.

Russia lacks the resources, the ideology, and the appeal of the Soviet Union. Its involvement in Africa is constrained and guided by a combination of unrealistic ambitions and opportunism, with policy often subordinated to private interests and actors. A large part of Russian activity in Africa is noise meant to unnerve Europe and the United States. The United States should acknowledge this and keep its diplomatic and economic efforts to find common ground on African issues with traditional partners in the continent and in Europe while exposing Russian malign actors and paramilitary groups deployed in Africa.

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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.

For comments. suggestions or media inquiries, please contact the Head of the Kremlin Watch Program Veronika Víchová at 

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