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


We are pleased to announce that Ukrainian media and communications expert Liubov Tsybulska is joining the European Values team as a Kremlin Watch Special Fellow. Drawing on her rich professional experience in the Ukrainian state and media sector, she will create guidelines for the Western international community for impactful assistance and support for Ukraine.

Ms. Tsybulska is the co-founder and director of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group. She has also served as the strategic communications adviser to the Chief of General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and assisted the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. From 2016 to 2017, she directed the press office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

Topics of the Week

The GRU breached the Czech Foreign Ministry, likely obtaining access to the email accounts of all employees.

The White Helmets in Syria are being targeted by pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad disinformation because their use of helmet cameras brings attention to human rights abuses and indiscriminate bombing in Syria.

Two pro-Kremlin mouthpieces have been appointed to the board of Italy’s national public broadcaster.

The US State Department has unsealed charges against a Russian national, alleged to be the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta”: a multimillion-dollar Russian information warfare operation.

US President Donald Trump has announced that the US will depart from the INF Treaty due to Russia’s violations of it.

Good Old Soviet Joke

This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: “Is it true that American skyscrapers are the tallest in the world?”

We’re answering: “Yes, it's true, but on the other hand Soviet-made transistors are the largest in the world.”

Policy & Research News

The GRU breach of the Czech Foreign Ministry

In a collaborative piece between Re:Baltica and,  Ondrej Kundra examines the extent of breach of the Czech Foreign Ministry and the GRU’s hacking record in Europe. Although the hack was first publicly announced in 2017 as nothing more than a few emails, new information suggests that the GRU first obtained access in 2014 and has likely had access to the email accounts of all Foreign Ministry employees. In the investigation it was also revealed that China had obtained access even before the Russians, and while they likely were aware of each other’s actions, were probably not working together. Considering the amount of information that the GRU has accumulated through this breach, there are serious concerns about the potential for blackmail, disinformation, and leaking to try to influence future elections.

Source: Re.Baltica

Why Russian and Syrian disinformation target the White Helmets

A new article by Janine di Giovanni explains why the White Helmets in Syria are being targeted by Russian and Syrian disinformation campaigns and by bombs on the ground. The Kremlin’s narrative regarding the White Helmets is that they are Western agents whose purpose is to undermine and overthrow the Assad regime. In the case of the chemical attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in 2017, the Kremlin claimed that the White Helmets themselves orchestrated the chemical attack. This message was so widely spread by bots and trolls on Twitter that it became the number one trending topic in the US and reached an estimated 56 million people. Consequently, the disinformation narrative reached more people than the coverage of the attack by the mainstream media.

The article argues that the main reason for targeting and discrediting the White Helmets is not that they are funded by numerous Western and non-Western governments, but rather that they bring awareness to rampant human rights abuses and indiscriminate bombing in Syria through the use of helmet cameras. According to Ben Nimmo, the Kremlin wants to prevent capture of video footage of Russian bombers, which have targeted civilians, schools, and hospitals.

Kremlin apologists appointed to the board of Italy’s public broadcaster

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies features an article  on changes to the board of Italy’s national public broadcaster, Rai. Two new board members, Giampaolo Rossi and Marcello Foa, both share Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, and pro-Russian positions. Both of them have cast doubts on Russian guilt in the poisoning of the Skripals and have shared pro-Kremlin narratives online. Marcello Foa’s promotion to president of the board derives from a compromise between Italian Interior Minister Salvini and Berlusconi. Ultimately, it appears that the new appointments to the board will continue the long tradition of often-blurred lines between Italian policy views and promotion of pro-Kremlin messaging through Italian media sources.

US Developments

Project Lakhta: Unraveling Russian disinformation in the US

Coinciding with a joint warning issued by US intelligence officials over “ongoing campaigns” to subvert electoral security, the State Department unsealed charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova: a Russian national alleged to be the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta” – a multi-million dollar Russian “information warfare” operation conducted against the US, among other nations. Under the auspices of Yevgeny Prigozhin – a key Putin ally among the 13 Russians indicted in February – Khusyaynova oversaw the purchase of domain names, proxy servers, and disruptive advertisements across social networks. Within the affidavit, however, are illuminating details concerning the sophistication and political acuity of the Kremlin’s current disinformation strategy.  

Unlike the patterns of influence found in 2016, “Project Lakhta” does not appear to be strictly aligned with conservative positions or a specific political candidate. Rather, according to internal memos, Russian trolls were directed to stir wanton “political intensity” along sensitive fault lines of American society (namely gun control, race relations, and LGBT issues, among others) and to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population”. In doing so, Russia has developed a more fluid doctrine for seeding public angst, blending within partisan groups and developing counter-narratives characterized by a greater command of the US political landscape.

Pentagon – “just beginning to grapple with scale of vulnerabilities”

As part of a series of reviews on the Pentagon’s efforts to improve its cybersecurity, a federal audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed "mounting challenges in protecting [DOD] weapons systems from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats". Though the GAO had reportedly warned the Pentagon of these risks for decades, tests conducted between 2012 and 2018 “routinely found mission critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapons systems that were under development,” with researchers adding that by “using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of these systems and largely operate undetected”.

Additionally, though the GAO had acknowledged the DOD’s efforts to protect traditional network systems (as opposed to weapons) their findings come ahead of a recent DOD security breach. Though no classified information is reported to have been stolen, Pentagon officials have disclosed details of an ongoing investigation into a cyber-attack on DOD travel records that compromised personal and credit card information of an estimated 30,000 personnel.

US prepared to withdraw from nuclear treaty with Russia

Following warnings issued by Washington’s envoy to NATO over Moscow’s alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), President Donald Trump announced the heavily anticipated plans to depart from the landmark Cold War arms agreement. Speaking after a political rally, President Trump informed reporters that “Russia has not, unfortunately, adhered to the agreement so we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out” adding that “[Russia] has been violating it for many years”. The 1987 INF Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, mandated the elimination of ground-launch nuclear missiles with effective ranges from 500 km to 5,500 km.

In comments to state-owned media outlet Sputnik, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that in response to a ‘clumsy’ unilateral US withdrawal, Moscow “will have nothing left to do but to take retaliatory measures, including ones of military and technological nature”.

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Special Focus

Russian Orthodox Church still thinks Ukrainian autocephaly never happened

On October 11, 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarchate officially recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, setting it on a new route of spiritual development free from the imperialistic influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. The move was hailed as a victory by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko but declared a “catastrophe” by Moscow.

In fact, in a clearly politicized move, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church met for an emergency session on October 15th in Minsk, calling for a canonical break with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and prohibiting the recognition of the newly established Ukrainian Orthodox Church structure as legitimate. Not only does the Russian Orthodox Church openly refuse to acknowledge the decision, but it has made a serious effort to further erode the credibility of recent events. In fact, the Russian Church continues to run numerous stories claiming that the new structure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is already allegedly failing to unite. Likewise, Russian state media outlets are constantly running stories to remind their listeners that the recent granting of autocephaly will lead to numerous humanitarian crises.

Needless to say, both the Russian state media goliath and the Russian Orthodox Church are zealously working to enforce their ideological narrative. Of course, such recent developments are a significant hindrance to the Kremlin’s revanchist ambitions and the spread of Russkiy Mir. At the same time, the Kremlin has yet to officially respond in any other way than public criticism of the issue. Taking into consideration the fact that the major sacred sites of the Orthodox faith in Ukraine are still operated by the Russian Orthodox Church, the possibility of violence erupting over attempted real-estate acquisition could force the hand of the Kremlin to act.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Russian dissatisfaction: NATO “dares” to expand airbase in Estonia

Once again, Russian state media is expressing its dissatisfaction with NATO’s recent activities in Europe; namely, the expansion of an airbase in Estonia. RIA Novosti commented satirically about the development, specifically attempting to humiliate Estonia for allegedly being a ‘poor and peripheral’ state. RIA Novosti also criticized the fact that the new military installation was built in just 15 months, as if to imply that Estonians are overly obedient to NATO. Indeed, in a different article, RIA Novosti singled out the country for allegedly “obtaining happiness from its slavery to the United States” and for claiming NATO is ill-equipped as it is.

Of course, from the Kremlin’s perspective, such military cooperation is somehow destined to act specifically against Russia in the future. Such was the theme of a recent Sputnik publication, which, once again, played the victim card and attempted to claim that the Kremlin has absolutely no intentions of expanding its territory against NATO.

Such news renditions are part of a classic Russian disinformation attack upon NATO and its allies, with the intended goal of chastising European states, in this case Estonia, for collaborating with NATO instead of returning to the fold of Russian geopolitical influence. It is a tactical propaganda initiative also aimed at eroding confidence amongst NATO and EU member states, as well as facilitating an environment of discord, confusion, and doubt.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Disinformation on Steroids: The Threat of Deep Fakes

The Digital Cyberspace Policy Programme of the Council on Foreign Relations has recently published a brief concerning the use of deep fakes – altered yet highly credible video and audio content. Deep fakes utilise rapid advances in deep-learning algorithms and use real video and audio as ‘training data’. In the current political climate, already well-situated to distribute false information, deep fakes pose a harmful threat to liberal democratic values and possess serious foreign and domestic policy implications. For example, a deep fake involving a presidential candidate in a scandal may be used to alter the outcome of an election.

It is difficult to limit the harms that deep fakes can eventually cause. Strong detection programs are evolving, but they still lag behind the rapid technological advancement of deep fakes. Moreover, even if a strong detection method emerges, social media and digital companies will still have to agree to incorporate them into their platforms. Incorporating a broad digital provenance (metadata that establishes the validity of content) strategy across all digital platforms and devices is also difficult to implement.

Current recommendations include pushing social media companies to use the detection techniques currently available, flag any suspicious content for further scrutiny, provide warnings to users, and remove known deep fakes. Another recommendation for serious organisations and individuals is to possess life-logging services which log one’s whereabouts and speech. However, this encroaches on individuals’ privacy and exacerbates mass surveillance in society. The simple notion of spreading awareness about deep fakes is also recommended, yet it simultaneously entails the risk that people may begin to doubt their own eyes and ears when confronted with real video and/or audio content. It will be easier for liars to dispute video evidence and ‘the cry of fake news [may] become the shout of deep fakes.’

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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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