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

Dear readers,

With the holidays fast approaching, we decided to do something special for the last Kremlin Watch Briefing of the year. This week, we summarize the major successes and failures of the fight against the Kremlin's influence operations in Europe and the United States.

The first part features a Hall of Fame and Hall of Shame for actors that made the most progress in confronting the Kremlin threat, and those that made the least.

The second part provides a round-up of developments in US policy for 2018, focusing on relations with Russia and China. For our non-US readers, we also include a current synopsis of the Special Counsel investigation’s proceedings, which are edging ever closer to President Trump’s inner circle.

The third part summarizes the Kremlin's biggest lies in 2018 – not an easy task considering the vast sea of disinformation churned out by the Russian propaganda machine.

Last but not least, we’ve compiled a cheery holiday reading list of the best longreads and reports on Russian influence efforts that were published in 2018.

Finally, we’d like to express our sincere gratitude to all our readers and supporters – it has been a challenging year, and your support means a great deal to us. As always, please don’t hesitate to share our newsletter with friends or colleagues who might be interested in the topic of Russian disinformation and hostile influence. You can also follow us on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

We’ll take a short break from authoritarian threats over the holidays. Enjoy it while it lasts!  The next Kremlin Watch Briefing will go out on January 8th.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

The Kremlin Watch Team

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KREMLIN WATCH HALL OF FAME 2018

1. The United Kingdom

After GRU agents deployed Novichok in Salisbury in an attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, the British government responded quickly and robustly, directly and publicly attributing the attack to Russia and expelling 23 Russian diplomats from the UK, among other targeted measures.

What’s more, the UK successfully managed to coordinate a strong and an unprecedented response from the West with 20 countries and NATO expelling a total of 150 Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK and in condemnation of Russia’s brazen assassination attempt.

The well-coordinated international response both diplomatically and through proactive communication in the media served as a counterweight to Russia’s own disinformation activities following the Skripal poisoning, exemplifying how decisively the West can and should act in response to Russian belligerence and hostile activity.

Furthermore, the British government’s decision to name and shame Russia by making elements of the Skripal investigation public (including the passports of the Russian agents) led to a landmark investigation by Bellingcat, which used open source information to establish that the agents, claimed by Russia to be “tourists”, were in fact GRU operatives.

In addition to its handling of the Skripal affair, the UK also deserves credit for setting up a parliamentary inquiry into disinformation and 'fake news’, which has already published numerous reports and recommendations on how to counter disinformation campaigns. This is a measure that should be replicated in other Western countries.

2. Elves vs. Trolls

Often cited as a key success story in the fight against disinformation, the Lithuanian elves are an example that other groups are now trying to follow. The elves, an online community of volunteers, work online to report and remove fake material and accounts, while at the same time promoting the truth. The fight between elves and trolls is relentless but has proven effective in raising public awareness about disinformation. 

Part of the elves’ success comes from their collaboration with other civil society, military, and news organizations. The collaboration between the elves and Military Strategic Communications reaches 90 percent of the Lithuanian population.  This model has been exported to countries like the Czech Republic which have started elf networks of their own, harnessing ordinary citizens’ sense of patriotic duty to protect their (online) communities.

3. EU Action Plan 2.0 on disinformation

The EU recently published its second action plan on countering disinformation. Unlike the first action plan from 2015, the new edition directly calls out Russia as the main source of hostile Russian disinformation in Europe. Under the new action plan, the budget for the EU’s strategic communications will be increased to 5 million euros and over 50 new specialists will be recruited for stratcom teams and EU delegations.

Since the EU should have adopted these measures much earlier, and because we still cannot be sure that the plan’s provisions will be implemented effectively, we award the EU third place. The new plan is a significant improvement from the 2015 original, which fails to name Russia as the source of disinformation, despite this being declared in the EU Council’s conclusions. The Council explicitly called on the EU to take measures to counter Russian disinformation campaigns.

Given the reluctance of certain EU member states and the EU’s senior staff to take a decisive stand against Russia, the new action plan is a significant victory for those countries that take Russian disinformation seriously and for the expert community that has repeatedly called for the EU to step up its efforts to counter Russian disinformation campaigns. Consequently, this award is foremost dedicated to them for their continued efforta to improve the EU’s response to Russian disinformation.

KREMLIN WATCH HALL OF SHAME 2018

1. The German government

First place in the Hall of Shame goes to the German government for its continued support of the Nord Stream II project. That the Kremlin uses energy as a tool of political blackmail is well-established, but unlike most Central and Eastern European countries, German policy-makers seem intent on ignoring this threat. Russia’s lobbying efforts have been enormously successful in persuading the majority of Berlin's political establishment to become allies in the Kremlin’s energy game.

At present, it seems almost inevitable that the Nord Stream II pipeline project will come to pass. It has been supported by the CDU and SPD ruling coalition parties as well as parts of the opposition. After the project starts, Russia’s Gazprom will consolidate its position against its competitors, but also against Berlin itself. The pipeline will enable Gazprom to potentially charge higher prices in Central and Eastern Europe and increase security risks in the Baltic states.

Many experts and representatives from other countries have been warning Germany against the project, most recently the US Ambassador to Germany, who appealed to German leaders to cancel the project in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. He has joined the voices of countries in the proximity of Russia who have been warning of the dangers of the pipeline and Russian influence for years. The European Parliament has also called for the project to be cancelled, citing security concerns.

2. Facebook

Facebook had a rough year following multiple revelations and scandals about its data privacy practices and its role in spreading disinformation. Mark Zuckerberg testified before three congressional committees about Facebook’s (mis)handling of user information and data privacy following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that the data of 87 million Facebook users was secretly harvested and exposed, allowing Russia and other groups to use the platform for political influence. The 3500 Facebook ads that were bought by Russian sources during the 2016 presidential election are estimated to have reached at least 146 million Facebook users.

However, despite reassurances that the company was better prepared to safeguard its users against cyber-attacks, Facebook disclosed news of its worst ever security breach in late September. According to a company statement, upwards of 50 million accounts may have been compromised after hackers discovered several software exploits enabling them to steal login credentials.

Facebook has repeatedly tried to divert attention from these problems by attacking its critics and shifting blame to users, saying it is up to them to report false content. However, facing increasing public and political scrutiny, including the serious allegations that the platform had spread messages inciting violence and killings, Facebook began taking some token steps to save it reputation (no doubt motivated by a 20% dip in stock prices).  But these measures are hardly enough. Most recently, The Guardian reported that journalists working for Facebook as fact-checkers are limiting their cooperation with the company due to minimal results, and complained about being used “for crisis PS”.

Increasingly, it appears that despite its progressive “community” rhetoric, Facebook is wilfully refusing to accept serious responsibility for its role in spreading disinformation, tolerating shady political campaign financing, and neglecting data privacy. Most of its corrective measures are designed only to improve public perceptions of the company, not actually address these problems in any meaningful way. As of the end of 2018, Facebook remains one of the biggest distributors of false information, in-authentic content, and harmful messages.

3. The Austrian government

Austria has been plagued by scandals involving Russia throughout the year. Back at the beginning of the year, the Austrian interior ministry, led by the far-right party in government which has a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party, ordered a raid on the Austrian intelligence agency. That raised concerns that senior Austrian officials could be passing Western secrets to Moscow, leading the former German intelligence chief to warn against sharing secrets with Austria. In addition, the Washington Post also reported that Western allies had stopped sharing intelligence with Austria amid these fears.

Concerns about Austria’s chumminess with the Kremlin rose again shortly after Austria assumed the EU Council Presidency, when President Putin was invited to the wedding of Austria’s Foreign Minister. Footage of the Austrian Foreign Minister dancing with Putin made international headlines.

Furthermore, in November, it was made public that an Austrian colonel was under investigation for being a Russian spy since the 1990s and for providing information to the GRU. Notably, Austria was also one of the few EU countries that did not expel any Russian diplomats in response to the Skripal poisoning, and has moreover actually hosted Putin twice since then.

2018 ROUND-UP OF US DEVELOPMENTS

1. The US shifts its strategic focus to Russia and China

Indicating a major strategic shift, the United States’ National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2019 has specified that US military focus will move from combatting terrorism to countering the military development of Russia and China. The NDAA calls for the addition of over 15,600 troops to the armed forces and the administration of $716 billion in spending. In addition, the NDAA is set to tighten security reviews of American exports consisting of sensitive technology to China and is aimed at bolstering the defenses of European nations bordering Russia. Provisions regarding Russia include the imposition of new sanctions on the Russian arms industry, prohibition of military-to-military cooperation, and increased funding for cyberwarfare. With respect to China, the NDAA imposes prohibitions on the use of certain Chinese-made telecommunications equipment and services.

2. Russia sanctions and indictments

Despite President Trump’s personal friendliness towards Russia, this year’s US policy has been anything but amiable. Beginning in January with a Treasury ‘blacklist’ of Russian oligarchs with known Kremlin ties to US preparations for withdrawal from the INF treaty following Russia’s violations, Washington stepped up its response to the Kremlin’s belligerence. The US imposed several new rounds of sanctions against Russia, Russian nationals, and Russian companies, some of which stemmed from indictments made by the Mueller investigation due to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Congress also slipped sanctions into its spending bill. Further sanctions were imposed on Russian companies accused of assisting the Kremlin in spying on targets in North America and Western Europe. Measures against Putin-friendly oligarchs hit the Russian economy hard.

Finally, in response to the Skripal poisoning in Britain, the US expelled 60 Russian diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle, followed by additional sanctions, which the Kremlin called a “declaration of economic war”.

3. The US wakes up to the Chinese cyberthreat

Russia has not been the only country in the headlines for its subversive activities in the US. This year was heavy on stories of Chinese cybertheft and cyberespionage, including the arrest of a Chinese spy who had surveilled American scientists and engineers, the controversial story of Chinese infiltration of  US companies and government agencies using tiny microchips, and the arrest and extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer in Belgium charged with stealing trade secrets from several US companies, among others.

The Trump administration has begun a major crackdown on Chinese cyberespionage and theft of trade secrets. Besides the aforementioned arrests, the US has also announced new foreign investment restrictions designed to impede Chinese access to American companies. The US is also considering new restrictions for Chinese students due to espionage concerns, and is warning allies about the telecoms risk of Chinese tech firms.

4. Last but not least… The Mueller investigation forges ahead

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has been steadily closing in on President Trump’s inner circle. Despite losing the cooperation of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort over breaches of his plea deal and lying to the FBI, new inroads into the panoply of crimes committed by fellow Trump loyalist, Michael Cohen, provide insights into the 2016 election and the question of other campaign violations. In recent court filings, prosecutors allege that Cohen acted at Trump’s direction when, in breach of campaign finance law and “with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election”, he arranged payments to suppress damaging media relating to Trump’s extramarital affairs. "Time and time again, I thought it was my duty to clean up his dirty deeds," said Cohen of the president.

Inquiries into campaign finances, though separate from the Mueller investigation, have also extended into possible financial breaches relating to the millions raised for Trump’s campaign and inauguration committees. According to the New York Times, the criminal probe, which is reportedly in its early stages, seeks to determine whether individuals from Middle Eastern nations (including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) illegally funneled contributions to Trump’s campaign in an effort to buy influence with the new administration. 

More immediately concerning is Cohen’s recent admission that, while deep into Trump’s presidential campaign, he and other Trump associates continued to negotiate with Russian entities over a planned Trump Tower in Moscow – otherwise referred to as the “Moscow Project”. Moreover, prosecutors identified that during negotiations, Cohen briefed Trump and his family members multiple times and had ‘substantive’ correspondence with a Kremlin aid, in which he reportedly floated the idea of giving Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse in the complex. Despite Trump’s profuse claims that he has or had “nothing to do with Russia” during his campaign and beyond, Cohen’s revelations draw previously undisclosed links between numerous Russian nationals at a time when Moscow mounted an aggressive campaign to tilt the election.

However, whether the outward dealings of Trump’s associates during his campaign point towards broader collusion may be better answered by the latest challenge to the Trump Campaign’s denied foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ publications. According to a draft plea deal, prosecutors allege that days after WikiLeaks published hacked DNC emails in July, Trump advisor Roger Stone asked his fellow associate, Jerome Corsi, to contact WikiLeaks in regard to the existence of further material that could be used to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign – which later manifested in the October Podesta email leaks. The document also asserts that Stone was “in regular contact with senior members of the Trump campaign, including with then-candidate Donald J. Trump,” when he asked Corsi to scope out new WikiLeaks information. The question for investigators is whether, despite firm denials, Stone communicated to Trump any such advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ activity.

THE KREMLIN'S BIGGEST LIES IN 2018

Narrowing down the Kremlin’s firehose of disinformation is not an easy task. Even so, 2018 brought a few breaking stories that kept Russian propagandists exceptionally busy – busy denying, fabricating alternative versions of reality, and accusing their victims of being Russophobic. Here are the top three Kremlin lies of 2018:

1. Salisbury

We wouldn’t be surprised if those who made the call to use Novichok in Salisbury curse the day they first thought of the idea. The Kremlin has invested enormous energy and manufactured a firehose of lies to obfuscate its role in the assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Despite extensive incriminating evidence, the Kremlin blithely denied every single line of accusation. They tried so hard that their efforts will no doubt go down in history: RT’s interview with hitmen “Petrov and Boshirov” was a total failure and an utter embarrassment for Russian propagandists. Nevertheless, it brought us endless memes and delight in seeing Kremlin ridicule itself. Remember, there’s nothing Russia hates more than being laughed at.

2. International electoral interference

Apparently, the Kremlin really liked the results it got in America in 2016, so it decided to continue interfering in other countries as well. Fair elections are the cornerstone of a democracy, which makes them a particularly desirable target. Troves of evidence demonstrate that Russia is responsible for malign cyberactivity and efforts to manipulate voters. Russia’s response to these charges is a classic one: “we are innocent, you are just Russophobic and see Russia’s hand in every bad thing that happens!” Well, not everything is Russia’s fault, but let’s not kid ourselves: a lot of things are.

3. Brexit and Russia

Coincidence or not, two of past year’s biggest lies are connected to Britain. And this time it’s not just a matter of bots and trolls being used to disseminate fake news and disinformation. Russia really wanted Brexit to happen, so they poured significant funding into the Leave campaign. Aaron Banks and his shadow deals with Russians prove that disinformation tactics left the online world quite a while ago. Where trolls aren’t enough, Russian dirty money comes into play. Of course, the notorious Twitter account of the Russian embassy in London would tell you otherwise, but don’t be fooled by those high-level trolls masquerading as diplomats.

It’s worth mentioning that, just a few years ago, most of the Kremlin’s biggest lies would have been about Ukraine and Russian activities there. But times have changed, and Russian information warfare left Eastern Europe long ago. Now, Russia is waging an all-out information war against the West.

DON’T MISS: BEST LONGREADS FROM 2018

Countering Information Influence Activities: The State of the Art

If you want a truly comprehensive overview of current thinking on countering information influence activities, this report by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and Lund University is a must. The report not only compiles a list of countermeasures but also critically evaluates the different options. Taking the approach that understanding a problem is key to addressing it successfully, the study draws upon modern scientific knowledge of cognition and other topics, enabling the reader to effectively grasp the mechanisms of information influence tactics.

International Security and Estonia 2018

Considering that Estonia is a global role model in countering Russian influence, the publications of its security services are no doubt worth reading. Besides the annual reviews of the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO), we also recommend the reports by the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet). In its latest edition, you can find a handy summary of Russian activities that are more than useful even beyond Estonian borders.

Virtual Russian World in the Baltics

This joint study by the Estonian National Centre for Defence & Security Awareness and the NATO StratCom COE analyses online behaviour and ideological content among Russian-speaking social media users in the Baltic states. It is a particularly good read for those who like numbers and empirical data, but we recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about the narratives and types of users found on these networks and their connection to pro-Kremlin propaganda.

2018 Ranking of countermeasures by the EU28 to the Kremlin’s subversion operations

Indulge us some self-promotion: this year, among other things, we published an updated version of our landmark summary of attitudes, policies, and strategic responses of the EU-28 to Russia’s disinformation campaigns and other hostile influence operations. Besides the overall ranking and new developments, we also include detailed chapters on the status of each country.

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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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