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

Topics of the Week

Lithuania's threat assessment highlights Russian soft power as well as the emerging threat of Chinese surveillance.

Experts are on alert over potential Russian campaign supporting Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard.

The Kremlin's Current Narrative: Investments into NATO are money “lost in the wind”

The Kremlin's Trojan Horses 3.0: Russia is trying to establish a political presence in Northern Europe

Good Old Soviet Joke

On a Russian nuclear submarine:

“Who wiped the dust off the launch board yesterday?”


“Now take your eraser and remove England from the world map.”

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Policy & Research News

Lithuania's threat assessment

Lithuania has published its 2019 report on security threats, which predictably focuses on the Russia threat and the myriad ways that the Kremlin deploys soft power influence in Lithuania, as well as highlighting the emerging threat of Chinese surveillance. While the report also notes with great concern the build-up of military equipment in the Kaliningrad Oblast, it otherwise focuses mainly on the non-traditional threats that Lithuania is likely to face.

As with many regions close to Russia, the narrative of a shared history and culture is often abused, with stories of Russophobia being pushed heavily in pro-Kremlin media and online discussions. This same narrative is also used to recruit citizens to work for intelligence networks. Both native Lithuanians, as well as Russian and Belarusian citizens, are used to collect information inside of Lithuania. This effort to influence people’s perception of history and culture is a particular concern for Lithuanian youth, who are being targeting by information campaigns aimed at rewriting history.

Furthermore, serious concerns persist in the cyber domain as Russian hackers continue to collect information and disturb services, affecting not only the government and the military, but also the private sector. 

Hundreds of spies in Brussels, EEAS warns

The European External Action Service (EEAS) has pointedly warned diplomats and military personnel of the presence of Russian and Chinese spies in the European quarter of Brussels. At embassies and trade missions, the threat is said to be especially high. Die Welt reports that EU diplomats who had received these warnings were told that about 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies were estimated to be present in the European capital. The EEAS also warned that certain restaurants and a café were to be explicitly avoided.

Of course, the presence of spies in the European and NATO capital is nothing new, even to be expected, but such an explicit warning from the EEAS is noteworthy. To further underscore this escalation, Die Welt also quoted parts of the yearly intelligence report from Lithuania. China is said to be especially interested, economically and politically, in NATO and EU nations. Lithuanian citizens have been subject to recruiting and coupled with the high number of spies present in Brussels, this should be worrisome. The yearly report also states that “when abroad, Chinese intelligence traditionally operates under diplomatic cover, […] [also][using] students studying abroad.” This aligns closely with the new warnings coming from the EEAS.

The European Committee of the Regions joins the fight

Last Thursday, the European Committee of the Regions released a draft opinion in which it urged the European Commission and member states to increase efforts in countering disinformation. The opinion notes that, as the representative of EU’s local and regional authorities, the Committee of Regions is particularly well suited to conduct meaningful discussions on disinformation, as well as to initiate measures in tackling it. That is because much of the disinformation spread online is often local in nature and may thus fall under the radar of larger EU initiatives. The opinion even identifies three areas which Committee members could effectively address: civic education, support for non-governmental organisations and civil society, and support for local media. This is another positive indication that EU authorities are taking the disinformation threat more seriously and are trying to rise to the challenge – especially in the context of the upcoming European Parliament elections in May.

Russia moves forward on ‘sovereign internet’ bill

A ‘sovereign internet’ bill, the first of its kind, has been submitted for its first reading in the Russian Duma. The bill proposes creating an independent internet infrastructure on Russian soil. This would ensure that data passes through centralized nodes, or “traffic exchange points,” allowing all traffic to be monitored as it enters and leaves the country. Not only would this system allow a more pervasive system of monitoring, but the creation of these independent domains would give Russia the ability to completely cut off contact with the outside world, while continuing to run Runet.

Some of Russia’s major tech companies have pledged their support, citing their security as a primary interest, which they say would be better protected under the new system. However, the overall mood remains tentative as the fiscal and technical feasibility of such plans remains questionable. Especially worrisome is the increased possibility for sweeping censorship that this legislation would enable. Roskomnadzor’s content restrictions could reach new highs as all outside domains could be cut off completely in the event of an emergency (such as civil unrest). 

Senator Klishas, speaking to the radio station “Говорит Москва,” said that the bill allocated over 20 billion rubles in spending on the new project. Given how active Klishas has recently been, pushing his “anti-fake news” bill through the first reading in late January, this legislation fits into the broader trend of Russian cyberspace policy.

The importance of demographic targeting in anti-disinformation efforts

A recently released study from the Caucasus Research Resource Centre in Georgia, which focused on strategies for targeting disinformation in Georgia, stressed the importance of demographic awareness when crafting responses. The study notes that resources should be dedicated primarily at “ambivalent groups” – those who hold positive and negative opinions about both the West and Russia. Those are the most likely to be persuaded. Trying to persuade pro-Russian groups in Georgia is likely to reinforce their existing opinions, and should be discouraged.

The study identified that older people, people with lower levels of education, and individuals living in predominantly ethnic minority settlements in Georgia are significantly more likely to be ambivalent and would thus be more likely to be persuaded by anti-Western propaganda. On the other side, people who reported a higher level of political engagement were deemed to be less at-risk. The study stresses the importance of sophisticated and targeted responses to disinformation if they are to be cost-effective and deliver results.

US Developments

Russian propaganda machine: first Donald Trump, now Tulsi Gabbard?

Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential hopeful for the 2020 election who is perhaps best known for her anti-establishment leanings, is garnering considerable attention from the Russian propaganda machine and its US proxies. A number of Gabbard’s political positions, such as favoring the restriction of refugees and earlier anti-LGBTQ and pro-life remarks, diverge from the Democratic party establishment. More disturbing yet, however, is Gabbard’s apologism for tyrants like Bashar Al Assad. Gabbard opposes US intervention in Syria and has said that "Assad is not the enemy of the United States because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States". Remarkably, Gabbard took an unannounced trip to Syria and met with Assad; when she returned, she dismissed the entirety of the Syrian opposition forces as terrorists and said: “Whatever you think of President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria”.

Experts have tracked what they believe is the beginning of a Russian campaign of support for Gabbard. Since Gabbard announced her intention to run, there have been at least twenty English language stories on Sputnik, RT, and Russia Insider. All three outlets celebrate Gabbard’s candidacy, and their coverage of Gabbard’s campaign far exceeds that of other Democratic presidential candidates, despite Gabbard’s lack of voter recognition in the US. Russian sources have proclaimed Gabbard as a “rebellious, straight talking candidate, who will shake up the establishment”, similar to how Donald Trump was portrayed in 2016. An RT article said that,  “With Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) entering the 2020 presidential fray, establishment figures on both Right and Left are scrambling to smear the anti-war congresswoman”, and Sputnik said Gabbard is the only candidate that is telling the truth on Syria. Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke endorsed Gabbard as a candidate who would finally put America first rather than Israel (a claim that Gabbard rejected). Gabbard has responded to the report about a burgeoning pro-Kremlin campaign by saying that NBC was using journalistic fraud to discredit her campaign because she is an anti-establishment candidate.

The US military quietly launched efforts to deter Russian meddling

With limited public knowledge, US Cyber Command, the US military’s new department for combatting electronic attacks against the US, has launched operations to deter and disrupt the Kremlin. The Cyber Command’s operations are limited to preventing further escalation of Russian cyber warfare. For now, the aim of the agency is to put Russians on notice that their covers have been blown and that their ability to work and travel freely have been affected. General Paul Nakasone,  the Cyber Command’s current commander, has described the operation as allowing America to “kill the [Russian] archer rather than dodge arrows [propaganda]”.

US officials believe the disruption prevented the Russians from targeting the recent midterm elections. Yevgeny Zubarev, director of the St. Petersburg Federal News Agency – which is part of the same covert action network as the Internet Research Agency – has confirmed that US Cyber Command targeted him; he said “The United States Cyber Command writes to me to say that what I am doing is wrong, that their job is to fight trolls…We are defending the motherland on the information fronts” and denied he was involved with “trolls”. Potential Russian operatives who might have been targets of Cyber Command warnings were identified in an indictment describing a Russian bookkeeper’s role in managing a conspiracy to sow division in the US political system. This confirmed long-held American suspicions, and the implication is that Americans have access to names, dates, or any other details that passed through the bookkeeper’s electronic connections. Nakasone has said in the past year they have passed information they obtained about Russian trolling on to the FBI, who in turn warned social media platforms to take precautionary measures. As a result, Facebook and Twitter recently suspended hundreds of accounts.

Russian and U.S. New Start Treaty is in trouble

The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister has said that Washington’s refusal to negotiate an extension to the New Start Treaty signals Washington’s desire to let it expire in 2021. He warned that time is fast running out to save the agreement, which was signed in 2010 by then-President Obama and his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. The US undersecretary for arms control and international security at the State Department has argued that there is plenty of time to discuss the treaty’s extension. “We have until 2021… It’s a relatively simple treaty to extend, so we have time for that”, Thompson said. Rybakov, however, has demanded that talks to continue the agreement must start this year, because he believes that the upcoming US presidential election could disrupt negotiations for renewing New Start. This debate in playing out in the aftermath of the suspension of the INF treaty, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declaring that Moocow will develop two new land-based missile systems before 2021, in response to the US exit from the nuclear arms control agreement.

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The Kremlin's Current Narrative

Deconstructing NATO: The Kremlin’s ongoing agenda

It is no secret that the Kremlin sees increasing NATO activity on the European continent as a major hindrance to its neo-revanchist geopolitical aims. Accordingly, Russian state-owned media sources have recently been showcasing the alleged desire of Germany and other EU nations to remove themselves from this “American yoke,” while also claiming that the financial contributions of EU members towards NATO developments equates to “lost money in the wind.” The main focus of such stories continues to be the desire to portray Europe as a “hostage of Russian-American relations,” and to sow fear and to portray the existence of NATO as further “evidence of the US’ ambitions towards global domination.

In addition, Russian state-media sources have been publishing reports warning Ukraine of the dangers of increasing EU and NATO cooperation, citing alleged loss of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty as a consequence. Given the state of contemporary geopolitical developments in Central and Eastern Europe, such media propaganda campaigns from the Kremlin only serve the purpose of distorting objective truth and warping public opinion to sow doubt and discomfort towards NATO presence. A weakened and divided Europe, devoid of any coordinated military cooperation and genuine democratic development, is the core of the Kremlin’s geopolitical aspirations, underscoring the need for greater media literacy in Europe and awareness of Russia’s expanding disinformation tactics.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The Kremlin’ Trojan Horses 3.0

Previous instalments of the Atlantic Council’s three-year-long project have established that the Kremlin’s tentacles do not stop in Eastern or Central Europe. Now, the third and final instalment explores Russia’s efforts to establish a political presence in Northern Europe. The report includes detailed analyses of the cases of Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Even though public opinion toward Russia remains decisively negative in all four cases, the pro-Russian far right seems to be gaining traction. The authors examine political and historical contexts around Russia’s relationships with each of the four countries and outline key policy recommendations, emphasising the importance of acknowledging the Russian threat as the first step of building long-term resilience.

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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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