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

Topics of the Week

The Financial Times published an interview with Vladimir Putin, which has great potential to serve as proof of the Kremlin's credibility for the Russian state media.

The U.S. is being outpaced by the Kremlin. Has the time come for the U.S. to get on the offensive?

A new report by the Free Russia Foundation: How the Kremlin uses Western institutions to undermine the West?

Good Old Soviet Joke

An old man in the USSR lines up for hours to buy meat, only to find out there’s none left. He flies into a rage, screaming about how horrible and stupid communism is.

A KGB agent walks up to him and tells him to calm down, adding “don’t forget what happened to people like you back in the old days” and making a “gun” shape with his hand.

The old man goes back to his apartment, empty-handed. His wife says, “they’re out of meat?”

He replies, “it’s worse than you think: they’re out of bullets.”

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Policy & Research News

How not to do an interview with an autocrat

Lionel Barber, the Financial Times editor, and Henry Foy, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, sat down for an extensive 90-minute interview with President Putin on June 26. While it is understandable that flexibility was required to get the interview, the degree to which Lionel Barber tiptoed around sensitive issues is remarkable. Naturally, the full interview looks like a great PR success for Vladimir Putin. It may have been the reason why the Financial Times released only a 7-minute clip and attempted to smooth things over in the article. Russia's atrocities in Syria, its war in Ukraine, and disinformation efforts were overlooked. There is little doubt that Russian disinformation channels will utilize the unpublished parts extensively and the newspaper’s reputation will be exploited to provide them with credibility.

During the interview, Putin was able to steer the conversation and seized the opportunity to present Russia as a power that was forced to react to global challenges. What is more, the interviewers focused on big-picture topics like the economy, disarmament, US-Chinese relations, etc. The global matters requiring Russian participation thus appeared to dwarf all the controversies, even the one that Barber did mention, the Skripals’ poisoning. It, too, was dismissed as irrelevant to such an important issue as interstate relations. Although denying Russia’s responsibility, Putin offered the politicians to move on.

Vladimir Putin also borrowed some of the Western populists’ messages that too are employed by Russian propaganda. He claimed that liberalism was obsolete and blamed it for immigration, multiculturalism, and attacks on religion.  The declaration that Western political elites have become disengaged from their citizens will resonate well with European populists’ talking points. Putin’s praise of president Trump for trying to get immigration under control and his claim that globalization had exclusively favoured corporations in the US is also likely to be well-received.

Fact-checkers sound the alarm on disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Fact-checking group Raskrinkavanje’s April 2019 report “Disinformation in the Online Sphere: Case of BiH” is a unique analysis of disinformation patterns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first of its kind, the report uncovers a “virtual ecosystem” of disinformation distributed through public, private and anonymous online media sources with the intent to undermine trust in a democratic society through the exploitation of inherited ethnic and political tensions. The group announced that 32.8% of all political disinformation analyzed in its research was either fabricated or redistributed fake news, with the majority of such disinformation originating from anonymous websites with high reach on social media. Clickbait follows as the second most common type, with 19.52% of disinformation identified as such.

The regularity of such categories of content and its accompaniment of ads, per the group, suggests economic reasons as significant motives for “creating misleading content about political topics.” The potential earnings of such activities become even more apparent when considering the group’s conclusion that anonymous online media is by far the primary source for such disinformation, carrying more than 50% of fake news, clickbait, disinformation and conspiracy theories. In light of those extensive findings, an organized international approach is needed to raise awareness on the roles played by media and major internet companies that impede on the strength of the region’s voice in ongoing conversations on threats to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s stability and sovereignty.

US Developments

Russian global influence is outpacing a divided U.S.

According to a recent assessment by Politico of a 150-page whitepaper shared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding Russian global influence, the United States is falling behind in a race that is unlikely to end any time soon. The U.S. is being outpaced by the Kremlin for a number of reasons, some of which are a result of America’s lack of comprehension at the depth of Russian aggression and others due to the States’ consistent inability to respond to Moscow with a cohesive voice. The article reiterates a common theme shared amongst scholarship that Russia is attacking the U.S. with such a multi-layered attack that often times Russia’s most destructive behaviours lie below the surface of what appears obvious. Through a variety of subtle tactics to include misinformation, the Kremlin is able to more discretely sow discord throughout Western institutions, delay a coordinated American response and meanwhile slowly decay democratic values.

The piece does not acknowledge Washington’s struggle to maintain influence on par with Moscow without offering potential remedies to the growing divide between the nations. Referencing Russia’s strengthening bond with China, the article suggests that it may be time for the U.S. to get on the offensive and respond with its own “influence operations”. Again, this is something that the States have yet to accomplish due to a lack of shared vision amongst U.S. policymakers and government officials who must first settle on what is the “American narrative” and how they might go about promulgating and then defending it.

Trump and Putin meet for the first time since July 2018

Slyly jesting that he would share nothing with the press regarding his private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump did not stray far from his agenda in limited remarks released by the White House from the leaders’ first official meeting since the Helsinki summit in mid-2018. Despite the frustration from American policymakers and staunch Putin opponents, Trump continued to exude optimism regarding U.S.-Russian diplomacy, stating that he and Putin shared a “very, very good relationship”. Trump then stoked the anger of said opponents once again by making light of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Without going into detail, the White House readout states that the two leaders agreed that they would continue discussing a “21st-century model of arms control”. It is worth a reminder that such meetings between high-ranking officials of the two nations often produce little to no results. This is particularly true with the U.S. and Russia as President Trump’s unabashed admiration for Vladimir Putin seems to quickly dissolve as he returns to Washington and Congress reaffirms the States’ Kremlin-weary posture. Besides arms control, the report also mentions talks between Putin and Trump regarding Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela and Iran. As it stands, the presidents sit on opposing sides of affairs in each of the aforementioned nations.

Some consider it rather significant that Trump agreed to meet with Putin despite the fact that 24 Ukrainian sailors are still in controversial Russian custody after their abduction in a Kerch Strait incident dating back to November 25, 2018. Trump symbolically cancelled a previous G20 one-on-one meeting between the two leaders in December of 2018, followed by remarks from U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton saying that he could not see the presidents meeting while the Ukrainian sailors remain in custody.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Misrule of Law:

How the Kremlin Uses Western Institutions to Undermine the West

The Free Russia Foundation has published an anthology report of Russian actions against the West. The report contains fifteen different cases of Russian malfeasance divided into two chapters, The Kremlin’s Attack on the Rule of Law in the West and Active Measures: Russian Manipulation of Western Policy. Fourteen authors contributed to the report, including our own Jakub Janda and Veronika Víchová. The publication covers well-known incidents, such as the attempted assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, as well as lesser-known events like Russia’s co-option of an UN-sponsored anti-corruption agency in Guatemala and abuse of international law enforcement agencies.

The report submits “the Kremlin’s body of bad behaviour” to policymakers and illustrates the breadth and systematic nature of attacks against the West. Taken all together, the totality of their attacks and subversive measures act as a body of evidence against the Russian government. With the level of media attention that Putin and the Russian government have received in the last few years, it is easy for new cases of Russian misbehaviour to fade into the background. Or worse, simply dismissed as the new norm of ‘Russia being Russia.’ Lack of attention or dismissal of these actions undermines countermeasures and encourages future efforts.

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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 (+420 775 962 643)
  • For Monitor suggestions or technical comments, please contact Kremlin Watch Coordinator and Analyst Veronika Víchová at 
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