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

Topics of the Week

The Kremlin is trying to conceal information about events in Russia. Is it successful?

What’s behind the Russian spy plane over the US Midwest?

The RAND corporation gives recommendations on how media literacy can prevent “truth decay” in their new study.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A schoolteacher asks her pupils, how they would describe socialism. The children answer:

“Like a beautiful rose in the meadow.”

“Like a cloudless blue sky.”


Suddenly, little Johnny raises his hand and says: “Like a ship in a stormy ocean!”

“Oh, you mean the feeling of security?” the teacher asks.

“Not really. Everybody is sick and no one can get out!”

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Policy & Research News

Deception through non-information

In the wake of regular protests in Russia and the recent nuclear-powered missile accident, the Kremlin has been relying on concealment, another tactic in its disinformation toolkit.

The protests in support of independent candidates to Moscow’s city legislature have received very little coverage from Kremlin-controlled media. The few independent outlets were prevented from reporting, while the riot police harassed and arrested journalists covering the protests. Thus, most of the reporting was done either by foreign media outlets or through social networks. The Kremlin responded with accusations of foreign meddling addressed to the US Embassy, German public broadcaster DW, and Google. To discourage foreign media from further reporting, on Monday, August 19, the Russian Parliament created a committee assigned with a foreign meddling investigation, mimicking the investigation into election interference in the United States.

Another event that the Russian authorities would have preferred to sweep under the rug was the explosion of a nuclear-powered missile reactor on August 8 near Severodvinsk, which killed five nuclear scientists and left three others injured.  Initially, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a liquid propellant engine was involved. On August 10, an official statement by Rosatom vaguely mentioned an “isotope power source in a liquid propulsion system” without explicitly stating that the missile had been nuclear-powered.  Still, two days later, Tass continued to stick to the liquid-propellant-engine story. What is more, although the Severodvinsk administration initially put out a warning on its website about a radiation spike on August 8, it was then removed. It took the weather service to confirm on August 14 that a temporary 16-time radiation spike had indeed occurred.

As emphasized by, it has been increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to resort to the old Soviet trick of concealing facts to win some time and prepare a response, hence its efforts to control social media in Russia.

Mercenaries in service of the Kremlin

Warsaw Institute, a Polish think-tank, has published a report on Russian private military companies (PMCs) explaining their importance to the Kremlin, describing their activities, and clarifying the nature of their relationship with the authorities.

According to the report, relying on private military contractors allows the Kremlin to pursue its foreign policy while maintaining plausible deniability which significantly reduces political risks and financial expenses. Admittedly, the Kremlin is not always able to disguise its involvement.  For instance, the Wagner PMC is known to train its members at a GRU facility. When many Wagner mercenaries were killed in a US bombing in Syria, the Kremlin suffered reputational damage.

Russian military contractors take part in the fighting in Syria (Wagner, E.N.O.T. Corp.), Donbas (the former two, MAR, RSB Group), and Libya (RSB Group).  In the Central African Republic, Russian PMCs support government forces fighting Muslim and Christian militias. They also trained Sudanese troops until Sudan’s former president was toppled. In Lybia and Sudan, the Kremlin intends to receive permission to install its military facilities and uses the PMCs to achieve this. Russian Wagner contractors were also sent to Venezuela to assist the Kremlin’s ally President Maduro amid massive protests against his rule.

Although the PMCs help the Kremlin in pursuit of its foreign policy goals, they remain officially illegal. It helps maintain plausible deniability and provides additional control over the mercenaries: they can be prosecuted if necessary. A few members of ultra-right E.N.O.T. Corp., notorious for its brutality, were arrested after the organization started taking liberties the authorities perceived as incompatible with their interests. Also, legalizing the PMCs could lead to the creation of oligarch-controlled private armies which the Kremlin would prefer to avoid.

We should deter disruptive influence campaigns by public attribution

With the ever-evolving and encompassing threat of disinformation and erosion of trust in democracy, a comprehensive policy inoculating individuals from the harmful effects of influence campaigns must replace current, and insufficient, reactionary measures. Bruce Schneier’s proposed guidelines identify eight measures to stay ahead of influence campaigns that emphasize the urgency of enacting a coordinated effort between government, internet platforms, media and others against disruptors in political discourse.

Schneier’s policy guidelines consider the life of disinformation and the role of social media platforms in spreading damaging narratives. In addition to identifying and refuting disinformation, a tactic currently favoured by social media platforms and government, Schneier emphasizes the importance of public attribution and digital media literacy that deters disruptions and empowers citizens to navigate online discussions without falling prey to alternative and motivated narratives. By balancing the freedom of speech with measures to combat alternative falsehoods damaging to democracy, Schneier’s proposed policy conveys an understanding of democracy’s dilemma: that the tools of a free society, in fact, makes us vulnerable to such disruptive speech; however, his tools for delegitimizing and confining malicious speech empowers citizens to expertly and freely navigate the online community.

US Developments

What’s Behind the Russian Spy Plane Over the US Midwest?

A report by TIME magazine’s Tara Law helps explain the peculiar and well-documented Russian spy plane that flew over the American Midwest this week. According to Law and a series of experts, to include Stephen Schwartz of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the flight is not as concerning as Americans might wish to think. The Russian Tupolev Tu-154M aircraft was granted passage by the United States as part of a 17-year-old partnership named the Open Skies Treaty which allows signatories a set number of surveillance missions per year. Despite heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, flights such as Tuesday’s aim to increase the transparency of military capabilities of the once Cold War foes. After both nations’ recent withdrawal from a decades-old missile treaty, the US would permit Russia to conduct such a flight is seen as a voluntary effort to help prevent another arms race from escalating.

Despite limited trust in the Kremlin’s geopolitical intentions, it is likely that the States permitted this operation to maintain a thread of optimism amidst of sea of bilateral threats and missile rhetoric. Schwartz concludes that a renewed arms race between Russia and the US would be both incredibly expensive and timely and therefore should be averted through such means of added transparency. 

Russia Vows not to Deploy New Missiles if US Does the Same

A quote from Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu insinuates that Russia will not deploy or install any new missiles according to Reuters. Amidst ongoing back-and-forth allegations regarding new missile technology and treaty violations, Shoigu’s declaration follows a sort of Russian political mimicry that has echoed out of the former Soviet state for the past few years. Here, Moscow’s tit-for-tat diplomacy intends to let Washington know that so long as it chooses not to place new missile systems in Russia’s near abroad, that it will refrain from the same, but also piggybacks on a recent quote from President Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin is equally ready to develop missile technology in step with the US. Nonetheless, these types of assurances from Russia’s ministry serve for little more than public relations sound bites considering their recent history of mistruths and empty promises. After all, it was the US and NATO’s discovery of prohibited Russian missiles that led to the collapse of the intermediate missile treaty to begin with.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay

The RAND Corporation published a follow-up to their 2016 report on Truth Decay. They define Truth Decay as the diminishing role that facts, data, and analysis play in today’s political and civil discourse. The new study, titled, “Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay,” attempts to inform efforts to apply media literacy education as a countermeasure to Truth Decay. Increasing media literacy is a common recommendation to countering disinformation as the reliance on facts, data, and analysis decreases, the potential space for disinformation to enter the narrative grows, as does its potential to be shared and spread.

Broadly defined, media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate media messages in a variety of forms. Media literacy education teaches participants to consider the implications of message construction from numerous angles, including motivation, framing, potential bias and how to determine the credibility of authors and sources. Properly taught, media literacy can potentially help participants gauge what sources to trust, decrease participation in disinformation loops, and could even help rebuild trust in institutions.

One of this study’s most important findings is that context matters. They found that media literacy competency is highly individualistic and based on numerous contextual factors. Thus, improving media literacy education must be designed with enough flexibility for educators to adapt it to their needs. Further, it is important that media literacy teaches participants how to think and not what to think. The study also recommends greater collaboration between the various disciplines studying media literacy. Developing commonalities and overarching definitions can help form a basis for research and practice.

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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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