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


The European Values Center for Security Policy recently launched a new newsletter: Balkans Watch Briefing. On a monthly basis, it will provide information about countering foreign interference in the Western Balkans region, with a special focus on developments in the non-governmental as well as governmental and political sector. The newsletter is a joint output of the European Values Center for Security Policy, Center for Democratic Transitions, Institute for Democracy 'Societas Civilis' – Skopje and Zašto Ne.

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A new report published by the European Values Centre for Security Policy focuses on NATO's newest member, Montenegro. Its admission into NATO is viewed as a big win for the Alliance in terms of the message it sends to Russia and other Western Balkan nations. However, despite NATO membership, Russian influence in the country remains significant and has shown no signs of going away. This influence is seen most prominently in the economic, political, civil society, media, and religious realms. Russia relies heavily on disinformation and uses its proxy agents to promote its agenda directly and indirectly in the country. The high level of corruption in Montenegro and its weak institutions provide the fuel that allows Russian influence to take hold and infiltrates all levels of society without any resource. This poses a major threat not only to Montenegro but to the broader Western Balkan region and to both NATO and the EU.


The leaked UK-US trade documents were amplified similarly to the known Russian information operation “Secondary Infektion.”

U.S. companies bow to Russia, show Crimea as part of Russia.

Kremlin's Current Narrative: The plan to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange is a symbol of dystopian times.

Good Old Soviet Joke

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

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

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Policy & Research News

UK/US trade documents leaked similarly to “Secondary Infektion”

The unredacted UK-US trade documents that leaked in the lead-up to Britain's general election were amplified online in a way that closely resembles the known Russian information operation “Secondary Infektion”, according to a new report from Graphika.

Secondary Infektion is the name given to a long-running information operation originating from Russia that Facebook initially exposed and attributed in May 2019. While the report states similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive evidence, they could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or an attempt by unknown actors to mimic it.

The leaked UK documents spent over a month going unnoticed on the internet. It was only after the emails and the subsequent press conference in late November that they entered the public debate. This case demonstrates how hard information operations try to land their products in front of influencers using sites such as Reddit and Twitter, and the impact it can have when influencers respond. Graphika’s reports state the mirroring, which included the same combination of websites, the same type of single-use burner accounts, and similar language errors, appears to be too close to be coincidental.

Russian trolls are using uplifting tweets to increase their audience

Professional trolls are not the stereotypical trolls that use social media to seek to antagonize or abuse liberals or conservatives. Professional Russian trolls are not angry or narrow-minded and do not lack basic English language skills. This is according to an article on Russia’s disinformation operations produced by two experts on social media and propaganda, Dareen Linvill and Patrick Warren. As the Rolling Stone article states, amateur trolls do exist on social media, but it is not them who are a threat to Western democracy, professional trolls are. To combat the threat they pose, they must be understood and taken seriously.

Linvill and Warren spent the past two years studying online disinformation and building a deep understanding of Russia’s strategy, tactics, and impact. Looking at a range of behavioural signals, they have begun to develop procedures to identify disinformation campaigns. Their article describes how professional trolls have studied us and aim to manipulate our emotions subtly; this is why uplifting tweets are used to expand their audience and amplify division. Moreover, Russian disinformation campaigns are not just about elections or referendums but part of a long-term strategy to increase our differences and damage our democracy.

US Developments

U.S. companies bow to Russia, show Crimea as part of Russia

Last week Apple was criticized for its decision to comply with Russia's request to show Crimea as a part of Russia. Both Apple Maps and Weather now recognise the annexation of Crimea to Russia, which is a continuation of the process which already in March lead Google to show Crimea as a part of Russia in their Google Maps app. A common solution for the situation in Ukraine is to use a dotted line to mark the disputed territory of Crimea. Apple promised to “take a deeper look” at the issue of how they will handle disputed borders in their maps.

Apple is also having problems with Russia's new legislation which requires all Apple products to have Russian software pre-installed from July 2020. Russia argues that the reasoning for this is to promote local Russian companies and make it easier for Russians to use their technology, but the larger concern is about the potential surveillance and spying that the software could enable. Apple has threatened that it will withdraw from the Russian markets if these requirements are put into effect. The legislation is linked to Russian new internet laws, which restrict the operations of search engines and messaging apps. Russia's medium-term objective is to build a “sovereign internet” isolated from the Western root servers.  

US study: Russian trolls ineffective, worries more about hack and leak

Russian trolls with ties to Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) were found to have been mostly ineffective in their campaign to sow discord inside the US on Twitter. A study, which looked into Russian trolls' behaviour in late 2017, found out that the trolls were mainly interacting with people who were already highly polarized. These frequent Twitter users had their own echo chambers, which meant that they had mostly made up their minds before they interacted with Russian-made narratives, which only strengthened their opinions. A more successful part of IRA's work seems to have been its hack and leak operations, which included the Democratic National Convention email leak. IRA might also have had more success on Facebook, where the users did not follow politics as much.

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Kremlin's Current Narrative

Dystopian times

In the past few days, the planned extradition and prosecution of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has come under the spotlight again following an open letter from medical professionals and a private briefing in the Parliament of Australia. Against the backdrop of Western media’s alleged, deliberate dismissal of the case, Russian state media was quick to weigh in on the issue assessing the situation as a “symbol of dystopian times.”

Despite allegations of “brutal torture” in the United Kingdom Belmarsh Prison, the main antagonist is the US and the central theme is the United States’ manipulation of other countries for their own ends. Citing John Shipton, father of Assange, Russian media asserts that the detainment of Julian Assange is merely one of the many cases of US “abusing the legal systems of other countries to target its political enemies.” According to Moscow, this case is one that can set a dangerous precedent as the United States is essentially criminalizing truth-telling in a dramatic attack against freedom of speech.

The alleged US plot against Julian Assange, however, goes deeper: new “troubling revelations” claim that “Undercover Global,” a Spanish security firm accused of spying on Assange during his stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, has ties to US intelligence agencies. According to the source, David Morales, CEO of the company, has boasted about “[playing] in the first league” and “working for the dark side […] the US Secret Service.” Though the company has denied affiliation with any party other than the Ecuadorian government, this further highlights the purported US manipulation plot against its enemies.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Online Disinformation and Political Discourse:

Applying a Human Rights Framework

By Kate Jones, Chatham House

Considerations about disinformation campaigns have been present in virtually every major contemporary discussion about democratic political processes, within and outside academia. The attention given to this issue is justified by the danger they present to democracy, as they distort the playing field by spreading fake information and divisive content; and exploit algorithms, bots and fake accounts to distribute this material. The tactic is also especially effective, as the perpetrators tend to focus on the most vulnerable people through micro-targeting and psychological profiling on social media.

Disinformation campaigns have also outpaced regulatory initiatives and there is no international consensus on how to tackle them. Meanwhile, digital platforms focused on revenue from advertisements, continue to provide an environment that is ripe for this kind of manipulative technique. International Human Rights Law (IHRL), however, may provide a normative framework able to underpin responses to online disinformation.

The framework is designed to protect individuals from abuse of power by authority and to foster an environment where the control of interests is balanced. Thus, IHRL applied to the online sphere is a critical tool to delimit the appropriate boundary between legitimate and illegitimate influence. It could be used, for example, to frame the way digital platforms exploit decision-making biases and emotion-arousing information as a breach of freedom of thought and opinion. The right of privacy as stated in IHRL can also be extended to the online sphere, legitimising initiatives that allow people to opt-out from being profiled on the basis of their personal data.

Finally, states should be responsible for setting the boundaries of what is permissible content online. However, IHRL is critical in this process, as this delimitation by the states should abide by the right to freedom of expression. Platforms should also be far more transparent in their content regulation and decision-making, and in order to do that, expertise on IHRL should be integral to their systems. In order to tackle disinformation, states and digital platforms should ensure an inclusive online environment for debate and IHRL, with its focus on protecting individuals from abuse of power, should be a building block in this effort.  

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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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