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


Russian "elections" game: American tech giants remove Navalny's Smart Voting App after bowing to pressure from the Russian government, while Putin emphasizes patriotism and RT makes "foreign interference" accusations.

Zapad 2021 and Russia's military alliance with Belarus.

Sputnik V vaccine approval suspended by the WHO due to manufacturing concerns.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A man parked his car in the Red Square in Moscow.

A policeman rushed to him, shouting, "Are you crazy? Here is where the government is!"

"No problem," the man answered, "I have good locks in my car."

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Policy & Research News

Zapad 2021 and Russia's military alliance with Belarus

Russia's army conducted a series of military exercises and drills in western Belarus last week. According to Russian officials, the joint military operation with Belarus known as Zapad 2021 saw "around 200,000 troops and around 800 units of military equipment". Officials from Belarus viewed the drills to develop more military cooperation and training with Russia, which Lukashenko sees as a critical ally in the European political arena.

Political relations between Belarus and the West are already relatively poor, considering the sanctions forced upon Lukashenko's regime after the anti-government protests that started in May 2020. Geographically, Belarus's strategic location is a critical "buffer zone" for Russia, separating it from the West giving Russian presence meaning in the region.

European officials have pointed out the direct violation this exercise has with international law. Russia's presence is more than the "agreed-upon 11,000 troops in the Vienna document relating to security operations." Former Estonian ministry of defence official Martin Hunt suggested that the "military operations in Belarus serve as a kind of catalyst to increase pressure on its NATO neighbours already with the organized trafficking conducted by the Lukashenko regime."

Sputnik V vaccine approval suspended by the WHO due to manufacturing concerns

The World Health Organization announced that it suspended the approval process for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine a few weeks ago. Its decision came in response to several issues related to the production of the vaccine, including cross-contamination problems within a vaccine manufacturing plant in Ufa. Russia sent its application to the WHO for the vaccine's approval in February 2021.

This decision comes almost in line with the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting, which Vladimir Putin himself does not plan on attending concerning the covid restrictions. In response, Russia's ambassador labelled the UN's policy as discriminatory, given the inability to recognize the Sputnik V vaccine, which numerous Russian state officials, including Putin, have received.

There is a general lack of data related to the vaccine's effectiveness towards the virus. The Russian state-run Gamileya institute rushed in with its clinical trials in 2020 to deploy the vaccine faster than the WHO to distribute it globally. Several investigative journalists have uncovered that the RDIF (Russian Direct Investment Fund) has participated in shady schemes with firms in the Middle East for economic benefit.

The Kremlin seems to understand the need for WHO approval, allowing medical legitimacy and allowing Russian citizens to travel again more freely.  However, the Russian government sees the vaccine policy as something to gain both leverage and supremacy over.

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US Developments

Google, Apple remove Navalny’s Smart Voting App after bowing to pressure from the Russian government

Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, has not been able to run for the September parliamentary elections, but his allies hoped to change the course of elections with an app called “Smart Voting.”

However, the opposition party’s app was removed from the Apple and Google stores last Friday while thousands of Russians were casting their ballots.

Navalny’s Smart Voting app, creating in 2018 shows which candidates’ users should vote for who are not aligned with Putin’s United Russia Party. Navalny’s top strategist, Leonid Volkov said that about 1,300 candidates were endorsed by the app. Candidates were eligible for endorsement if they were opposing the United Russia Party. Alongside the app, the Navalny team also created a “Smart Voting chatbot” on Telegram and published a list of opposition candidates on YouTube and in Google Docs.

Telegram and YouTube both announced the removal of the Navalny team’s Smart Voting apparatuses last week.

Russia’s move to pressure tech companies to remove apps is another example of its goal to seize completely sovereignty over its side of the internet, where anti-Kremlin figures and media typically operate. Navalny himself gained prominence as an opposition figure in Russia because of his astute use of social media platforms.

Apple and Google’s move to shut down the Smart Voting app has been met with criticism from the opposition while receiving praise from the Kremlin. Volkov criticized the American tech giants actions on social media Friday noting that the companies “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”

US government calls out Russia for lack of progress on cybercrime, moves to impose sanctions on cryptocurrency

Top US law enforcement has condemned the Russian government for its lack of progress on cracking down on criminal ransomware operating out of Russia.

Speaking at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance last week, deputy director of the FBI Paul Abbate said there was “no indication” of any action being done on the part of the Russian government.

The American government has repeatedly called on Russian leader Vladimir Putin to act against cybercriminals. The topic was initially breached during the June 2021 US-Russia summit in Geneva where both parties agreed to commence talks on cybersecurity and arms control. The same warning was repeated to Putin during a July phone call with the Russian leader and President Biden.

A July statement issued from Putin’s office denies that such official requests were made by the US administration.

Now the Biden administration is taking steps to prevent further threats of cybercrime from. On September 17, the Biden administration announced a crackdown on the use of cryptocurrencies in ransomware attacks. The Treasury Department also placed sanctions against Russian-owned cryptocurrency exchange SUEX OTC, an exchange allegedly linked to the laundering of ransomware payments by cybercriminals.

The US blames Russia for several high-profile ransomware attacks. In May, an attack by Russian- linked cybercriminal group DarkSide on the Colonial Pipeline forced the company to cut fuel supply to some eastern states in the USA. The company ended up paying roughly $4.4 million in ransom to the hackers, but the FBI managed to retrieve most of the ransom from the dark web.

Kremlin's Current Narrative

Pre-election: Narrowing the narrative and national interests

As detailed in the US developments section, the pre-election period saw the blocking of Telegram and the takedown of Navalny’s Smart Voting app, which helped to narrow the narrative field for the Kremlin’s pre-election propaganda push. At the same time, pro-Kremlin outlets RIA Novosti and RT pushed claims from Ambassador-at-Large Gennady Alskaldovich regarding impending Western interference in Russian elections from those seeking to “impose their vision of democracy on Moscow”, who noted that diaspora polling stations were of particular concern for interference, but that Russia has nothing to hide, as “we do our job honestly.” RT also published the SVR’s Sergey Naryshkin’s claims of Bellingcat allegedly having tie-ins with foreign spy agencies and alternative explanations for Navalny’s Novichok poisoning, namely contamination of Navalny’s clothing outside Russia.

In a pre-election address to Russian citizens, Putin emphasised patriotism, mentioning Russia needs “a strong and authoritative parliament, whom you can rely on as patriots of Russia.” He added that he is counting on citizens’ “responsible, balanced, patriotic civic position” and “desire to elect deputies who will work for the good and in the name of our beloved Motherland”.

Election coverage: External interference and legitimacy

A few interesting examples of RT’s live election coverage include alleged foreign interference and foreign agents, as well as assuring the idea of the legitimacy of in-person and electronic voting. RT reported that the “elections held in Russia were subject to an unprecedented high level of external interference”, and that “more than 20 foreign non-governmental organizations may be deemed undesirable in Russia by the results of the elections.” It also reported that “no serious violations were recorded during the campaign in Moscow - both via electronic voting and at polling stations.”

RT reported that according to the Chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC) Ella Pamfilova, this election was the most difficult during her tenure due to coronavirus and an "unprecedented" level of attacks on digital services used for voting, though the supposed sources of these said attacks were not clarified. One RIA Novosti article disregarded the idea of United Russia’s campaign success as being due to effective PR, citing its improved role in civil society and its investment in “concrete work with people” whilst the opposition exposes the authorities’ shortcomings – a picture of United Russia’s concerted, concentrated effort versus the opposition’s internecine conflicts and outdated ideas.

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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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