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

Topics of the Week

Germany will seek sanctions over the 2015 Bundestag cyberattack

SpaceX launch according to the Kremlin's channels: a sign of weakness of aggression?

How Russia uses fake election observation as a tool for foreign interference.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Putin opens the refrigerator and sees a plate of quivering gelatin. 

“Stop shaking!” Putin says. “I am only getting the milk.”

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Policy & Research News

5th Global Engagement Center Dispatch on Russian COVID Disinfo

Russian disinformation on COVID started in January with an interview by TV Zvezda to Igor Nikulin, former Russian observer to the U.N. Commission on Biological and Chemical Weapons, the latest GEC dispatch notes. Nikulin claimed COVID was an American bioweapon engineered to hit China and to enjoy revenues from drug selling. While the tragic COVID death toll in the US is enough to prove Nikulin false accusations wrong, the original disinformation piece was widely spread and amplified, following the traditional Soviet “bioweapon disinformation” fate.

The dispatch reports a chronology of the main BW disinformation cases, stretching from the Korean War to the recent Zika virus outbreak. As the Presidium wrote President Mao in 1953, the highest echelons of the Soviet Union themselves have been occasionally misled by BW disinformation: “the spread in the press of information about the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information. The accusations against the Americans were fictitious”. BW disinformation is a classic, that did not end with the Cold War, but after a pause following Perestrojka, restarted during Eltsin era twilight.

On the other hand, US policy towards BW is clear and ruled: in 1969, the U.S. governmentrenounced all development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons and declared its intent to maintain only small research quantities of biological agents, such as are necessary for the development of vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics.” and in 1972, the United States was one of the first signatories of the Biological Weapons Convention.

In the occasion of the current pandemic, Russia aimed at advancing a common narrative highlighting the negative side of COVID management, exacerbating existing tensions; and adding tailored disinformation pieces for each target country. The dispatch cites Debunk.EU analysis on Lithuania, and the EU statement that Russia aims to “aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems, — thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak” as the most effective effort to counter Russian disinformation.

Germany threatens sanctions over 2015 Bundestag cyber attack

German Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced last Thursday it is summoning the Russian Ambassador to deliver the message Germany will seek sanctions over the 2015 Bundestag cyberattack, perpetrated, among others, by a Russian citizen confirmed on May 5 to have been a GRU officer at the time of the attack.

Merkel earlier this month explained the 2015 attack was not targeted to a specific aim, but an indiscriminate accumulation of documents, and that she would have taken “things very seriously”, especially in the light of the “hard evidence” of Russian involvement in the attack, that was frustrating her efforts to “work every day for a better relationship with Russia”.

The cyber-sanctions regime was introduced in 2019 and this would be its first implementation.

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US Developments

SpaceX launch results in jabs and Space Race era tensions

Earlier this week, SpaceX, a private American space travel company, successfully transported two American astronauts from the U.S. to the international space station (ISS). According to Reuters, this is the first time since 2011 that America has launched its own astronauts. According to Radio Free Liberty, Russia previously held “a monopoly” on trips to the ISS. The loss of American contracts to send astronauts to the ISS will deal a blow to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. The new American competition will also force Russia to innovate. Russia currently relies on older technology, and with a budget far smaller than NASA, catching up to the United States would be tough. American success in space also runs counter to the Kremlin’s media narratives suggesting that the U.S. is reliant on Russia and “can’t do anything right.”

In place of celebrating American “failure”, the Kremlin appears to be displaying the SpaceX success as American aggression. The Russian ambassador to the U.S. went so far as to state that “The Americans, with help from NATO and their allies, are purposefully seeking to make space into a sphere of military activity and possible clashes between our countries." This is accompanied by jabs directed at Americans and Russian alike, including Donald Trump and Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos. While it stands to be seen how things will shake out in space, it can be expected that the Kremlin will continue to use American space activities in its propaganda and disinformation endeavors.

U.S. demands the release of an ill American prisoner in Russia

Paul Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges. He recently stood trial behind closed doors, allegedly due to national security concerns, and a verdict is expected by June 15. Prosecutors requested that Whelan be sentenced to 18 years. However, Whelan has complained about unfair treatment. His brother has also spoken out about his mistreatment and subsequent health problems, which resulted in the need for emergency medical attention. The U.S. has repeatedly denounced his detainment and claimed that the Kremlin has made a mockery of justice. Sadly, there are no signs that Whelan’s release is pending.

Kremlin's Current Narrative

The United States’ return to space reignites Cold War rhetoric

Space exploration, once one of the most prominent theatres of Cold War competition, had increasingly become a field of cooperation between Washington and Moscow after the US terminated its Space Shuttle Programme in 2011. Since then, American astronauts had on several occasions “rented” a seat on the Soviet-made Soyuz rockets for their expeditions into space, with the Russian space agency Roskosmos securing a stable source of income and a role as an indispensable partner for space travel. These certainties might have just been shaken, as last weekend NASA successfully launched two men into orbit aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX capsule, marking the first flight from US soil in nearly a decade.

On Russian state channels, attempts to downplay the US feat had begun already last week after the first launch was eventually rescheduled due to uncertain weather conditions. On that occasion, the presenter of Russia-24 mockingly remarked that unfortunately the US “had written the script in advance”. His words found an echo in a piece by Russia’s Federal News Agency, that wrote: “Celebrations began long before the start. But for some reason, there has been neither a new flight into space nor another housewarming party at the International Space Station”.

Russian state outlets have also provided ample space for statements of Kremlin officials that would belittle the success of the launch. The words of the head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin have circulated across several outlets after he observed on Solovyov live: “For nine years the Americans were forced, probably in a humiliating way for them, to fly on Russian ships … [By creating their own] they did what they had to do”.

Security concerns and rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War-era space race were not uncommon either. On Zvezda TV, Russia’s Ambassador to the US released all his resentment: “The Americans, with help from NATO and their allies, are purposefully seeking to turn the space into an area of military activity and possible clashes between our countries”. Rogozin himself, beyond his congratulatory tweets to Musk and hopes for cooperation, framed the event in much more antagonistic terms during an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda radio: “We need to gather everything into a single fist”, he stated. “Only with a single clenched fist can we fend off the aggressive competition from our Western partners today”.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Fake Election Observation as Russia’s Tool of Election Interference:

The Case of AFRIC

By Anton Shekhovtsov

This publication from the European Platform for Democratic Elections details the creation, development, and workings of AFRIC, the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation. AFRIC, created in 2018 and overseen by people linked to Russian businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin (creator of the Internet Research Agency and financier of the “Wagner Group”), was imagined as a network of agents of influence and a platform to disseminate Africa-related narratives beneficial to the interests of the Russian state. AFRIC was created by Prigozhin as a means to benefit his business interests in African countries. Prigozhin managed to convince Vladimir Putin that Russia benefited from this work in Africa and its global standing would be strengthened against the background of its conflict with the West.

Between 2018 and 2019, AFRIC became engaged in politically biased, or fake, observation of elections in Africa. Fake observation aimed at advancing the political interests of particular African politicians and can be qualified as interference in electoral processes. AFRIC interfered in elections in five countries: Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South African Republic, and Mozambique. The “observers'' involved in these elections received remuneration for their services and all of their expenses were covered by Prigozhin’s team. Interestingly, the results of AFRIC’s work do not seem meaningful: Russian consultants supported candidates who were expected to win (legitimately or through fraud) anyway. Russian operatives underpredicted prospective election results in order to attribute their eventual success to Prigozhin’s team.

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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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