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

NEW PUBLICATION

2018 Ranking of Countermeasures by the EU28 to the Kremlin's Subversion Operations

This report, which builds on the Overview of Countermeasures by the EU28 to the Kremlin’s Subversion Operations (published in May 2017), summarizes all the new initiatives, developments, and policies implemented in the last year, analyses the major trends, and provides a current ranking of the EU28 on the basis of their resistance against the Kremlin’s subversion efforts, from collaborators to full-scale defenders. Over the last several months, we have witnessed a number of both positive and negative changes, with countries like Austria and the Netherlands stepping down the ladder, while other countries Spain and the United Kingdom becoming more active in their counterefforts against the Kremlin's disinformation and hostile influence. The report is available in full here.

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You can find the study on our new website http://www.kremlinwatch.eu/, where you can browse an interactive map which includes references to 740 projects, activities, and initiatives from 47 countries, as well as the European Union and NATO.

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Topics of the Week

From The Washington Post: Have the sanctions against Russia had the desired impact?

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Newly approved NDAA suggests countering Russia and China will be a priority for the US in 2019.

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Read about the reaction of pro-Kremlin media to the new wave of US sanctions.

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Read about the Cyber-Digital Task Force's take on the electoral process.

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Good Old Soviet Joke

This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: “What is permitted and what is prohibited?”

We’re answering: “In England, what is permitted, is permitted, and what is prohibited, is prohibited.

“In America everything is permitted except for what is prohibited.

“In Germany everything is prohibited except for what is permitted.

“In France everything is permitted, even what is prohibited.

“In the USSR everything is prohibited, even what is permitted.”

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Policy & Research News

Volunteers expand the research of the “troll factory” tweets

Last week, almost 3 million tweets produced by the Russian “troll factory”, otherwise known as the Internet Research Agency, were published on FiveThirtyEight. Since then, this vast amount of data has been further processed and analysed by many researchers all over the world. Oliver Roeder mentions some of them.

Andrew Cook from Johns Hopkins University identified types of topics covered by the trolls. “Large swaths of the Right Troll network are devoted to topics such as media outlets, free speech, American jobs and discrediting the FBI. The Left Troll network skewed more towards topics such as racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

New platforms emerged for storage and easy searching of the data. Others revealed that, unsurprisingly, the United States was not the only target of the tweets. According to Roberto Rocha from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, almost 8,000 of them targeted Canada. Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Israel may have been included as well. 

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Why does it make sense to keep the sanctions in place?

In light of the new US sanctions against Russia in response to the Novichok attacks in Britain, Maria Snegovaya reviews the impact of the ongoing Russia sanctions in the Washington Post. She reports the following:

  1. The sanctions limit the Russian Federation from boosting economic growth.
  2. The Kremlin has fewer resources to reward its supporters and therefore loses backing in many constituencies.
  3. Russian elites lost many opportunities to make money in the West and are now fighting for them at home, which sometimes results in different branches of the security forces to arrest their rivals.
  4. The Kremlin changes its approach due to the circumstances and uses more repression instead of rewards to coerce the elites.

Ms. Snegovaya also notes that Russian officials have changed their rhetoric about the sanctions, admitting that they have been harmful, which may suggest that the Kremlin might become more cooperative on some foreign policy issues in the future.

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The story of Czech courtship towards China

Much has been written, by us and others, about the pro-Kremlin stances of the Czech President Miloš Zeman. Now, the New York Times has chosen to focus on the evolution of Zeman’s inclinations towards China and what this means for the Czech Republic.

During Zeman’s visit to Beijing in 2014, a business deal was made between a Czech financial firm and the Chinese energy company CEFC, which is headed by Ye Jianming, who has rumoured connections to the Chinese president. Several acquisitions were subsequently made by CEFC in the Czech Republic, including stakes in the big office complex Florentinum, the Czech national airline, two hotels, two Renaissance-era buildings, a brewery, and a football team. CEFC also hired a former minister of defence to run its operations.

The benefits of Chinese business deals in the Czech Republic are still unclear. In addition, Mr. Ye has been recently detained in China for officially unknown reasons. Nonetheless, the Czech president plans to visit Beijing once again this year.

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US Developments

The US announces new sanctions on Russia

The US has declared the imposition of new sanctions against Russia in response to the Novichok poisonings in Britain and Russia’s continued efforts to meddle in the US electoral process. The news of the sanctions – which the Kremlin has called “draconian” and a “declaration of economic war” – sent the rouble tumbling and triggered an asset sell-off. Russia’s finance minister said the country would reduce its investment in the US economy to the bare minimum.

The State Department says the new sanctions will be enacted by the end of August, and come in two parts: the first, which targets American exports of national-security related products (e.g., gas turbine engines, electronics, integrated circuits and testing and calibration equipment), has deep exemptions and many of the items it covers have already been banned by previous restrictions. The second is more serious, and will be activated after 90 days if the Kremlin fails to provide sufficient assurances that it will no longer use chemical weapons and allow on-site inspections by the UN or other international observer groups: it includes downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending Russian state airline Aeroflot’s ability to fly to the US, and cutting off almost all exports and imports.

Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, notes the dichotomy between Trump’s personal policy towards Russia and that of the government: “Yet again, these new rounds of sanctions underscore that the Trump administration has one policy toward Russia, while Trump himself has his own personal policy.” More expert reactions to the sanctions are available here.

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US strategic focus shifts from terrorism to countering Russia and China

Recently, the United States adopted the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2019 fiscal year, which indicates a shift in US military focus from combatting terrorism to  countering the military development of Russia and China. The approval of the NDAA is an important step for safeguarding American interests by counteracting both the immediate aggression and the long-term imperialistic ambitions of Russia and China, respectively. The NDAA was approved by big majorities in both the House and Senate, calling for the addition of over 15,600 troops to the US armed forces, and the administration of $716 billion in spending – $16 billion more than the previous fiscal year. 

In addition, the NDAA is set to tighten security reviews of American exports consisting of sensitive technology to China and is aimed at bolstering the defenses of European nations bordering Russia. In regard to the ongoing threat of Russian aggression and disinformation, the NDAA calls for an assessment of the possibility of permanently stationing a US army brigade in Poland, as well as improving the security initiatives of the US Cyber Command and strengthening the ban on funding anything that recognizes Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The bill also outlined the policy to be taken by the US military in other geopolitically fragile nations – such as Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan – calling for a strengthened commitment to US allies and partners and the deterrence of any efforts aimed at undermining US national security interests.

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Growing threat of Russian cyberattacks in US midterms

Although the 2018 US midterm elections are still three months away, security experts are already warning that the threat of Russian interference is urgent and that not nearly enough is being done by the Trump administration to mitigate the risk. Indeed, at least three congressional candidates have already been targeted by online phishing attacks that strongly resembling the Russian sabotage efforts during the 2016 presidential elections. Worse still, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has recently noted that Russian hackers have successfully penetrated some of Florida’s election systems ahead of the upcoming midterms, warning that the hackers now have “free rein to move about”.

The news is a predictable (if unnerving) revelation about the Kremlin’s ongoing machinations to undermine American democracy, sow discord and confusion within the electorate, and further inflame existing tensions. To this end, Russian hackers are also utilizing social media and the insubstantial nature of certain US election systems as effective tools to “throw fuel on already divisive fires that are burning”, said Michael Sulmeyer, the director of the Cyber Security Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. It is imperative that the Trump administration acknowledges these alarming developments and that the federal government adopts necessary precautions to pre-empt further Russian interference.

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

As the rouble tumbles, propaganda is on the rise

In light of the new Russia sanctions that have made the Kremlin very angry, let’s look at how the Russian media is covering the latest round of American sanctions, which are already hurting the Russian economy. In particular, note the difference in narrative for American vs. Russian audiences.

First, the reaction of the Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Upper House Committee for International Relations: “If these sanctions are implemented in their full announced volume this would mean that the United States is yet another time using the behavior of a police state that extracts evidence from suspects through torture and threats and eventually executes punishment for non-existent crimes, in the worst tradition of the infamous Lynch Law.”

In another article, RT divides guilt between Trump and his administration and suggests the sanctions are the result of political chaos and the machinations of the “Deep State” – a pejorative, conspiracist term preferred by Trump himself to describe the essential US government, legal, and intelligence bureaucracy. “US President Donald Trump is not in control of his own administration, as evidenced by the latest round of sanctions imposed against Russia for the alleged involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals in the UK in March. For that reason, the timing appears to be suspect, suggesting strongly that Trump has his own foreign policy while the Trump administration, comprised mainly of bureaucrats referred to as the Deep State, have their own. Right now, they appear to be in control, not President Trump, over his own administration, and it is having the adverse effect of further alienating Washington and Moscow”. Russian propagandists have taken a page out of Trump’s playbook in appealing to the feverish conspiracy beliefs of the American right.

Vzglyad, meanwhile, adopts a notably different tone and analysis for its Russian audience: “The Russian economy won’t be hurt further because there will be no second round of sanctions […] This is a move aimed at the American electorate on the eve of the autumn elections [...] We shouldn’t distract Trump from winning the elections, we will be able to talk to him later under calmer circumstances [...] Sanctions won’t influence Russia’s direction in building a new, post-American world order.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Report of the Attorney General’s Cyber Digital Task Force

The Cyber-Digital Task Force, established by the US Attorney General within the Department of Justice in February 2018, has recently published its first report in which it deals with how the Department is responding to cyber threats. We recommend especially the first chapter which focuses on countering malign foreign influence operations and defending the country’s electoral process. The Department considers this issue to be of high importance, as the Intelligence Community has recently assessed that Russia, which it considers to be the most capable and aggressive source of this threat, views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for continued influence operations. In the report, you can read not only about the various threats the US faces but also about the specific responses employed by the Department.

Following chapters deal with other significant cyber threats, such as data theft, fraud schemes, attacks on critical infrastructure and many others. Space is also devoted to the FBI’s response to cyber incidents, and discusses how the Bureau manages and trains its workforce on cyber matters.

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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.

  • For comments related to content or media inquiries, please contact the Director of the European Values Think-Tank Jakub Janda at janda@evropskehodnoty.cz (+420 775 962 643)
  • For Monitor suggestions or technical comments, please contact Kremlin Watch Coordinator and Analyst Veronika Víchová at vichova@evropskehodnoty.cz 
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