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Kremlin Watch Briefing: Russian diplomats must travel back to Moscow

Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.

Topics of the Week

More than 70 security policy experts from 21 countries have signed our Open Call urging NATO allies and the EU to join our British friends and expel contingents of Russian intelligence officers from their soil.

The complete Open Call with its list of signatories is available here:

17 EU member states have decided to expel Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The US has also announced the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle.

The new $1.3 trillion US government spending bill, signed last week by President Trump to avert a government shutdown, includes multiple strict provisions to punish Russia, including restrictions that disallow many federal agencies from engaging financially or otherwise with the Kremlin and its supporters.

The EU has been underestimating the Kremlin’s subversive influence in Western Balkans. A new study from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung presents recommendations for changing that.

Good Old Soviet Joke

– Hello, is this the anonymous KGB service?

– Yes, Vyacheslav.

Policy & Research News

The West stands behind the UK

The Skripal case is far from being closed – and in the meantime, the international diplomatic fallout is growing. After the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats, Russia retaliated by expelling the same number British diplomats, shutting down all activities of the British Council, and closing a consulate in St Petersburg. In accordance with Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for an EU-level response to show solidarity and send a message to Putin, the EU recalled its ambassador to Russia for consultation. However, the possibility of further sanctions was not even mentioned by EU leaders, indicating an unwillingness at the EU level to take a strong stance against the Kremlin. At the very least, it is reassuring that even though the UK is quitting the EU, a strong partnership based on transatlantic security and the defence of Western norms post-Brexit remains an achievable goal.

Despite the lack of meaningful action at the EU level, 17 EU member governments – as well as the United States and Ukraine – have decided to expel numbers of Russian diplomats from their respective embassies. This is an important first step to limit the numbers of Russian diplomatic staff – many of whom work in undeclared intelligence capacities – which often significantly exceed standard regulations.

Prime Minister May stated that she did not congratulate Putin on his election victory. Germany, meanwhile, was among the first who did. In her message of congratulations, Angela Merkel urged Vladimir Putin to cooperate: “It is more important than ever that we pursue dialogue and promote the relations between our countries and peoples. […] On this basis, we should endeavor to address bilateral and international challenges constructively and find sustainable solutions.” Then there have been more hesitant voices, such as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who said: “We have to express our solidarity to the UK, to the British people, but at the same time we need to investigate”. (Greece has several times prevented action against Russian meddling activities and lobbied to undercut the EU sanctions regime.)

Bot distraction during the Skripal case

According to the British officials, even before Prime Minister Theresa May attributed the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter to the Russian Federation, an extensive disinformation campaign sowing doubts about the murder had begun to spread on Twitter. The number of automated bots participating in the campaign is estimated around 2,800, potentially reaching up to 7.5 million users on the network. According to the report, more than 25% of the suspect posts were created by only six accounts.

Putin’s best friend in Germany should be sanctioned

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has asked the EU to sanction Gerhard Schröder on grounds that “Schröder is the most important lobbyist for Putin worldwide” and is “Putin’s key oligarch”. He further stated: “It is important that there are sanctions against those who promote Putin’s projects abroad”. Within the EU, the German ex-chancellor was among the loudest advocates for trusting Moscow after the annexation of Crimea and warned the EU and US against implementing sanctions. Schröder has extensive and intimate ties to the Kremlin; among other things, he was elected chairman of the supervisory board of Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft last year. Schröder also authorized the since-controversial Nord Stream pipeline projectbefore leaving office in 2005 and then took chairmanship of the company – controlled by Russia’s Gazprom – just a few weeks later.

US Developments

US expels 60 Russian diplomats and shuts down another Russian consulate

In a show of solidarity with Britain, the US has moved to expel 60 Russian diplomats identified as undercover intelligence officers, as well as to close the Russian consulate in Seattle. A statement from the White House says that these actions will “make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security.”

The closure of the consulate leaves only three more across the country – in Houston, New York, and Washington DC. The Seattle consulate was selected due to its close proximity to Boeing as well as a major US submarine base. Naval Base Kitsap, which has eight nuclear armed submarines and is the only Trident submarine base on the West Coast, is one of several military bases in Western Washington.

Congress slipped new Russia sanctions into the government spending bill

Last week, President Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill to keep the federal government open. Hidden within the 2,232 page document are several strict provisions seeking to penalize Russia, following growing congressional frustration that the administration is too soft on the Kremlin. Congressman Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said“The President continues to resist the clear intent of Congress that we want Putin to face consequences for his aggressive and illegal activities. It’s time that the White House listens to Congress and uses the tools we’ve provided.”

The new spending bill includes a targets Russia in numerous areas. CNN reports:

  • One section denies funding for a program that Russia participates in, by stating that money should “not be used for officials of the central government of Russia.”
  • Another section bars funds from supporting any countries that back Russia’s annexation of Crimea; it also directs the Treasury Secretary to pressure Americans sitting on international financial boards to prevent funds from flowing to programs supportive of the annexation or that violate “the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
  • A five-page section titled “Countering Russian Influence and Aggression” flatly outlaws any federal money going to the Russian government and approves $250 million to the Countering Russian Influence Fund (a 150% increase from last year), a program that works to boost the “capacity of law enforcement and security forces […] in Europe and Eurasia” and looks to deepen ties to anti-Russia allies.

The bill also directs funds towards supporting democracy promotion in Russia, including Internet freedom, and allocates $380 million to the Election Assistance Commission to help US states improve their election security and safeguard against cyberattacks.

The precise origins of these anti-Russia provisions are unclear. However, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle spoke positively about their inclusion in the bill and noted the bipartisan consensus behind it.

Congress spotlights election security

Last week, the House and Senate intelligence committees both issued sets of recommendations for securing future elections, beginning with the upcoming congressional races this fall. A major point of consensus is the need for paper-based voting systems and physical accounting that precludes electronic sabotage. Congress also allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for state election security as well as to help the FBI counter cyberattacks. While the decentralized nature of US elections is often considered to be a strength, since it prevents the hacking of a single system and affecting nationwide vote tallies or registrations, local jurisdictions in swing states are being forced to reckon with the threat of major attacks in future elections.

Surprise, surprise: Guccifer 2.0 revealed to be a Russian intelligence officer

Guccifer 2.0, the allegedly ‘lone hacker’ of Romanian origin who took credit for the DNC email hack, has been exposed as an officer of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence directorate. A brief but significant slip-up in GRU tradecraft revealed the affiliation. Guccifer was connecting through an anonymizing service called Elite VPN – a virtual private networking service that had an exit point in France but was headquartered in Russia. Guccifer’s fatal slip-up involved failure to activate the VPN client before logging on, leaving a Moscow-based IP address in the server logs of an unnamed American social media company.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to those following the case. A devastating reportby Motherboard in June 2016, based on an interview with Guccifer, destroyed claims that he was a native Romanian speaker. Then, in January 2017, the CIA, FBI and NSA concluded with “high confidence” (but without providing conclusive proof) that Guccifer was a persona used by Russian military intelligence to hack the DNC and leak the data.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Busy denying

It was a busy week for the Russian disinformation machine, judging by a briefing from the Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department (we noticed the absence of Maria Zakharova, but can’t say we miss her at all!). Some of the topics in question require special attention.

Russia plays a surprised innocence card when it comes to Salisbury. In our previous edition we closely looked at disinformation about the Skripal poisoning shared by Russian media outlets. Of course, MFA can’t go as far as Stupnik has, nevertheless denial is present on all levels of Russian political system. Russian MFA is accusing British government of shifting scenarios of the poisoning and stresses that the EU should rather contribute to the dialogue than join anti-Russia campaign in sending out diplomats. Note for the future: it causes much less trouble not to poison people on the soil of the other country than trying to make people believe you’re not guilty.

Ukraine got a lot of attention at this briefing. Russia never misses a chance to twist news so it can repeat its narratives. Reacting to the news that Ukraine is going to end economic cooperation programme with Russia, Kozhin said that “In this way Kiev is consistently and stubbornly working to advance its “strategic goal” – to damage its own economy as much as possible”. It’s sad he forgot to mention that the only one damaging Ukrainian economy is Russia by annexing and occupying Ukrainian territories. While commenting on including in the Myrotvorets data base several foreign elections observers who have violated Ukrainian state border on their way to Crimea, deputy director didn’t miss a chance to remind that “Crimea is Russia” and accuse Ukraine for not respecting OSCE and UN standards (that is epically ironical in the context of the internationally unrecognized annexation). And of course there was time to remind of the neo-Nazi Ukrainians who have toppled the monument of the Soviet general. Indeed, a selection of Kremlin favourite narratives about Ukraine!

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Propaganda and Disinformation in the Western Balkans:

How the EU Can Counter Russia’s Information War

The Western Balkans are a strategically important region for the EU. Instability in the Western Balkans closely affects bordering EU member states, as witnessed in the past. Nevertheless, EU policy in the region vis-à-vis the Kremlin’s influence operations has been notably absent. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s tactics have been principally successful, primarily because they feed into growing disillusionment with the West in the region. A recent study by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung identifies Russia’s main strategic goals in the Western Balkans as stirring up regional tensions and eroding the EU’s credibility. Russia primarily utilises media influence, supporting Eurosceptic parties and various other fringe or anti-Western elements to gain influence. Russia also engages locally in the region, for example through staging several high-profile, low-cost assistance projects that enforce the idea that Russia cares about the region while the EU does not.

The study thus calls for a number of EU measures aimed at curbing Russian influence in the Western Balkans, such as increasing the visibility of EU projects; supporting local fact-checking initiatives; promoting media literacy and supporting the creation of media literacy programs in schools; supporting media freedom; and making pro-Western media more accessible by translating it into local languages and engaging more directly with local issues. The ultimate goal of these measures is to reduce the growing disillusionment with the West that is rapidly spreading across the region.

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