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Kremlin Watch Briefing: Czech presidential gambit

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

Topics of the Week

Unusual vigor: In a WSJ interview, President Trump spoke about protecting the integrity of US elections from foreign interference and stated that his administration is “looking at all sorts of failsafes” in order to prevent foreign meddling in the 2018 elections.

Czech presidential gambit: Miloš Zeman faces run-off after topping Czech presidential elections. The President, who has been criticised for his warm relations with Russia and China, received 38.6% of votes and now faces pro-Western candidate Jiří Drahoš (26.6%) in the second round.

Sweden will create a new public authority responsible for countering disinformation and increasing resilience among the public, says PM Löfven.

Information Laundering: The GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy has published a report suggesting a new approach to conceptualizing information influence operations. The authors note an “operational resemblance between the spread of disinformation and the laundering of illicit funds”.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Seeing a pompous and lavish burial of a member of the Politburo, Rabinovich sadly shakes his head: “What a waste! With this kind of money, I could have buried the entire Politburo!”

US Developments

Russian hackers eye the US Senate

Cybersecurity firm Trend Micro Inc. has published a report claiming that the Russian hacking group Fancy Bear that targeted the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign has been preparing an espionage operation against the US Senate for several months. The author of the report explained that he discovered “a clutch of suspicious-looking websites dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate’s internal email system”, whose digital fingerprints he cross-referenced with those used almost exclusively by Fancy Bear.

Kremlin trolls are going after Trump’s Republican critics

report in Mother Jones, based on the cybersecurity project Hamilton 68, details how pro-Kremlin social media accounts are targeting prominent Republican critics of President Trump, including John McCain – the most consistent target – as well as Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker, among others. In what is now a well-document tactic, these trolls typically repost and amplify hyperpartisan material originating on far-right US websites rather than in Russian media. For instance, McCain’s health has been a trending topic, with articles like “As the Trump Dossier Scandal Grows and Implicates Him, McCain checks into Hospital” from the right-of-Breitbart site True Pundit gathering steam with help from the Russian accounts. Read the report for further examples.

“We’re going to be very, very careful about Russia – and about anybody else, by the way.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, President Trump stated that his administration is “looking at all sorts of failsafes” and “working on different solutions” in order to prevent foreign meddling in the 2018 elections. While continuing to maintain that the 2016 election was not influenced by Russia “in terms of votes”, Trump nonetheless spoke with unusual vigor about protecting the integrity of US elections from foreign interference: “We’re going to be very, very careful about Russia – and about anybody else, by the way. […] We are going to make sure that no country, including Russia, can have anything to do with the results of the midterms or any other election, OK? That’s what our country is all about.” As with most things the President says, it remains to be seen whether he sticks to this message or once again changes his mind…

Turning the tables: Washington, DC trolls Putin

The city of Washington, DC has announced plans to rename the street in front of the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader who was assassinated in Moscow in 2015. Federal legislation to rename the street was introduced last year in both the House and Senate, but has not been passed. The Senate bill stipulates that the address of the compound containing Russia’s embassy, consulate, and ambassador’s residence would be changed to 1 Boris Nemtsov Plaza. Russian officials have long been against the move and sought to address it with their US counterparts. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that the decision comes at a time when “bilateral relations between the two countries still leave much to be desired, mildly speaking.”

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Hold on, Twitter

A few months ago, the internet was shaken up by Twitter’s decision to ban ads from RT and Sputnik over Russia’s US election interference. While many saluted this decision as a long-awaited step to counter Russian disinformation, Russian state media and MFA officials vowed “retaliatory measures”. We didn’t need to wait long to see an attempt to destroy Twitter’s reputation. RT published a report by Project Veritasclaiming that “Twitter ‘shadow bans’ undesirable voices, censors free speech” and quotes Steven Pierre, a Twitter software engineer. No need to be a prophet to realize that in the Twitter vs. RT battle, the latter assumes a position of victimhood, accusing Twitter of censoring a certain way of thinking.

“Sanctions didn’t work”

Whenever Vzglyad writes about foreign affairs, it is a classic compilation of Kremlin narratives. Vzglyad never tires of reminding us that sanctions didn’t work. It also claims that sanctions aren’t a European idea but a solely American initiative that pushes EU countries to go against their national interests. Apparently, someone at the newspaper also has a time machine that allows them to see into the future. It’s revealed that Merkel will no longer be Europe’s leader and now it’s time for Macron to take the spotlight. He won’t be able to solve the EU’s internal problems, but will be able to resolve problems in the Eastern neighbourhood by “putting the Ukrainian problem in the corner” and “creating” progress with implementation of the Minsk agreement. Vzglyad sums up this beautiful piece by stating that “restoring relations with Russia will be one of President Macron’s priorities”.

Policy & Research News

Will Russia retain its key ally in Prague?

This weekend, the first round of presidential elections was held in the Czech Republic. During the presidential campaign, experts and several of the candidates warnedagainst disinformation attacks that might influence the public vote. The leading reason behind these concerns is that, for the last five years, the Kremlin’s greatest Central European ally has been sitting in Prague Castle. Czech President Miloš Zeman often visits Russia and frequently shares the views of Vladimir Putin, including his disdain for journalists, the annexation of Crimea being a ‘done deal’, and denying the presence of Russian soldiers in the separatist regions of Ukraine. Zeman’s colleagues also have intimate and questionable ties to Russia: his economic advisor Martin Nejedly previously worked in Russia and the Russian energy giant Lukoil paid a fine Nejedly was given for selling oil from strategic reserves, so that he could remain in his position without security clearance.

The second election round is taking place at the end of the month; we are expecting probable strong attacks against Zeman’s opponent, Jiri Drahoš, whose views are on Russia and the transatlantic alliance are the polar opposite of Zeman’s.

“The deciding factor is expected to be an intensive disinformation campaign directed against Professor Drahoš in the two weeks leading up to the second round. We’ve already seen a growing number of attacks related to migration and his personal affairs, which are likely to intensify”says Jakub Janda, head of the Kremlin Watch Program.

Macron wants to fight “fake news”, but what else?

Alina Polyakova warns in her brief expert contribution to Axios that even though French President Emmanuel Macron presents himself as a Kremlin hawk with respect to disinformation, France still remains Russia’s biggest foreign investor. Furthermore, France plans to double its investments and revive the bilateral economic agenda, despite the sanctions regime against the Russian Federation enacted by the European Union and United States.

People in Donbas have little choice but to be manipulated

Mariia Terentieva navigates a sensitive topic in her article for New Eastern Europe – the public opinion amongst residents of Ukraine’s separatist regions. She points out that these people cannot be blamed for their oft-distorted perceptions of what is happening in Ukraine and for their credulity in the face of disinformation. Often, they have no alternatives to Russian TV, and online fact-checking initiatives rarely reach them. She also points out several Ukrainian initiatives that are trying to address this problem, such as UA.TV, Ukrinform, and Hromadske radio. Still, she warns, once the separatist regions return to Ukrainian control, it will be challenging to reintegrate their citizens after such extensive manipulation.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

U.S. Congressional report: Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe

More than a year after the presidential elections which sparked a contentious debate about Russian electoral interference in the United States, Congress finally released a comprehensive report detailing Russian efforts to undermine the Western democratic order. A new report published by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations explains the Kremlin’s subversive influence tactics and provides an overview and assessment of countermeasures employed by European countries, which serve as a basis for recommendations of how the United States should tackle the issue.

The report, compiled by Democratic senators on the committee, is very critical of President Donald Trump. “Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president,” it says. The senators urge Trump and the country as a whole to start treating the problem with the urgency it deserves and to actively deter Russian hostilities. This failing, the Kremlin will continue to develop and refine its hybrid arsenal to deploy against democracies around the world, including in the upcoming U.S. elections in 2018 and 2020. The report’s recommendations, based on lessons learnt from the European experience, are well-articulated and clever – we strongly recommend having a look at them. Also, we are very proud to be mentioned three times in the report and named as an example of good practice.

Information Laundering

The GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy has published a new report suggesting a new approach to conceptualizing and investigating information influence operations. Specifically, the authors note an “operational resemblance between the spread of disinformation and the laundering of illicit funds”:

“Just as ill-gotten money needs to be moved from an illegitimate source into an established financial institution, disinformation is most powerful when a façade of legitimacy is created through “information laundering.” Russian disinformation follows a similar pattern (as money laundering); only here, the currency is information and the reward is influence.”

The report also comes with its own vocabulary on information laundering:

Image: Alliance for Securing Democracy

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