Jakub, you are leading the European Values Think Tank’s program Kremlin Watch, which is analyzing the growing influence of Russian propaganda. How does the Russian propaganda exactly work? What are the main tools and actors?
Let me slightly clarify what we focus on. There are generally accepted tools of legitimate influence states use to sway other countries towards their interests and policies. General diplomacy, soft power such as culture, or regular business. Then, there are tools which for a pretty hostile playbook which is being used be aggressive dictatorship regimes. From our point of view, being based in a Central European democracy, we can see Russian Federation using at least seven tools to manipulate domestic affairs of targeted countries – from Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, through Germany to US elections. This Kremlin playbook is variably adjusted based on what works where.
First, there are intelligence and influence operations. Most of people ever heard of espionage, but that is not all. Bribery, intimidation or comport are also well used by todays Russian intelligence. Then we have seen cyberhacks used for influencing behavior of an electorate (such as the DNC hacks), or influence operations such as working on specific Western politicians for decades in order to sway there into Kremlin-friendly positions.
Second, Kremlin uses its proxies to create massive disinformation operations which help weaken the targeted societies will to resist and respond to Kremlin aggressive steps such as invasion to Ukraine. There are dozens of examples across Europe, you can find them in weekly Disinformation Review compiled by EEAS East STRATCOM Team.
Third, Kremlin very well supports and harvests its political allies – the trojan horses it has across the Western world. There are some which support or appease its aggressive policies for ideological reasons such as hating the US, having personal grievances or adoring authoritarianism. There are different shades of grey – from Marine Le Pen which openly praises Putin and his actions, to European appeasers such as Jeremy Corbyn who simply don’t want to stand up to actions of Russian Federation.
Fourth, support for European far-right, far-left and extremist groups is also visible. Putin offers them vanity and feeling of being important, they give him their presence at so called “observation” mission at fake “elections” in territories Russian illegally occupies.
Fifth, Kremlin orchestrates NGOs and GONGOs – government – organized NGOs. Our analyst have written a major study on that. Russia for example uses its Orthodox Church or Russian Peace – something like Goethe Institute – to advocate explicit political agenda under cover of cultural or religious activities.
Sixth, Russian Federation uses parts of Russian communities in targeted states to justify its foreign policy steps – such as it did in September 1939 as Moscow invaded Poland, the same fake argumentation is used today. Germany has seen its during case Lisa in early 2016.
Seven, Kremlin orchestrates some of its economic operations to achieve its political or geopolitical goals. Example could be how Russia acquired dominance in Serbian energy market, or how Kremlin skillfully pushes for Nordstream 2 which would effectively raise German dependence on Russian energies. There is a sad saying within security expert community – if Putin could buy a former German chancellor, why couldn’t he buy any other Western leader?
What is the ultimate goal of the propaganda? (Legitimization of the Russian policies? EU disintegration? Lower trust among people in general? Information chaos?)
The ultimate goal of Kremlin hostile influence and disinformation operations is to weaken its opponents will to resist. Simply, to manipulate the West, its politicians and its societies, to stop resisting invasions of Russian Federation to foreign countries. This overarching aim has collateral and subgoals – such as trying to disintegrate the US, drive a wedge between Europe and the US, help Kremlin-friendly politicians to grow to power, attack politicians who stand up to Kremlins aggression, or to legitimize Russian policies – domestically and internationally.
Was Russia actually successful in achieving its goals?
Yes, Kremlin is pretty successful. The West is currently implementing almost zero response to the hostile influence threat. Russian Federation has successfully infiltrated and manipulated part of national public debates on Dutch AA referendum, on Brexit, or within the US elections. And they are aiming for more – German, French, or Dutch elections in 2017. It is a zero-sum game. If Western democracies don’t adopt counter-policies to push illegitimate hostile influence out of their countries, they will see manipulation of their public debates, policy and decision-making.
What can be done to prevent the damage? What shall be done on the EU level, on MS level, what is the role of civil society?
With several dozens of European experts, we have published a 50-measure full-scale strategy. This year, we have consulted in twelve countries on how to set up national policy response. Everytime, I have to dare to ask one simple question – outside of your intelligence agencies, how many full-time professionals does your government task with looking into Kremlin disinformation operations?
Most of the European governments outside of Poland Baltics and Scandinavian countries have dedicated very limited resources. That is why their policies are usually virtually non-existent or weak at most. So one thing is easily said – as a government, you need to establish hostile foreign influence as a standard part of security agenda – alongside traditional threats such as extremism or terrorism. Then, the governments need to dedicate resources to create complex multi-level policy response. Some governments call them hybrid threat centres, STRATCOM teams, or security hubs. No matter how you call it, this is a first step. Without it, it will be only think-tanks and journalists looking into the threat, which means the state is not defending itself yet. We have written a brief recommendation for Bundeswehr Academy BAKS what this centre should do to prevent or mitigate the next “Lisa” case in German context.
Europe will mark a series of very important parliament elections in 2017. Given the attacks of Russia to US election, what do you expect to happen?
I would assess that the next target of full-scale disinformation operations of Kremlin will be Chancellor Merkel. She is one of last Western leaders with a principled position standing up to Russian dictator and the Bundestag elections are coming up in fall 2017.
There are at least six options I expect Putin can take:
First, massive disinformation operations focusing on falsifying stories about migrants in Germany must be expected. Merkel puts all her political weight behind her immigration policy decisions and therefore any incident related to migrants in Germany will hurt her. Obviously, there will be many genuine cases of migrant’s wrongdoings, but as we have seen since 2015, Kremlin disinformation campaigns will be focusing on creating an even bigger chaos with false victims, fake stories, and by overall developing a narrative that Germany is simply collapsing because of Merkel’s policies.
Second, Putin’s blackmailing chance lays in Ankara. The EU-Turkey deal limiting the number of arrivals to Europe is a cornerstone of how Merkel bought some time for Europeans during migration crisis. If Putin would be able – probably in times of another crisis or before the Bundestag elections – to persuade Erdogan to open the flows of migrants towards Europe, it would again hurt the Chancellor. The Balkan route is closed, but a large humanitarian disaster in Greece would again lie on her shoulders. No matter what solution she would find, Moscow would be able to take her campaigning time, energy, political leverage, and some portion of the voters.
Third, as German intelligence agencies already stated, cyber-attacks can be expected. The Chancellor would be the target, but also her relatives, party members, and German political institutions in general. It does not need to be one big blow, rather a series of tiring attacks in Wikileaks style, portraying her as a corrupt American puppet – a cold war warmonger against brother Russians – that would cost her some percentage of the votes.
As a fourth tool, the Kremlin’s use of more Russians living in Germany can be projected. As the early 2016 case “Lisa” has shown, there is a potential for thousands of German Russians to go out to demonstrate against Merkel; no matter if the whole story is fake. SPD will most probably play the PutinVersteher appeasing card, finding a cleavage against CDU. The chancellor can find another pressure group fighting her – if the Kremlin again presses the button to use part of the Russian communities living in Germany.
Fifth, we have seen the Kremlin support for the European far-right, far-left, and extremist groups. This might intensify inside Germany during this elections year as well, despite a very deep look German intelligence agencies are trying to have. The aim is simple – bring chaos in critical moments. Trained or inspired hit squads can for example attack mosques and start a circle of violence during key moments of the campaign.
The sixth tool of Kremlin influence in German politics is an obvious long-term strategy. Moscow uses economic operations to fulfil political goals such as taming SPD politicians or to reach geopolitical aims such as increasing German dependence on Russian energies. The name of Gerhard Schroeder is a synonym for political corruption serving an aggressive autocrat who is responsible for least 10 000 dead Ukrainians on Ukrainian soil. The more influence Moscow extends over SPD, the more ways it has to attack Merkel. Another hostile influence operation designed to lobby pro-Kremlin positions in Germany is the so called “Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute,” run by former KGB officer Vladimir Jakunin.
Jakub Janda is Head of Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director at the European Values Think-Tank based in Prague. He specializes in response of democratic states to hostile disinformation and influence operations and advises Czech Ministry of the Interior on that issue.