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Kremlin Watch Briefing: Moldova is banning Russian news programmes

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

Topics of the Week

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The Presidential elections in the Czech Republic are over, with the Kremlin’s ally, Miloš Zeman, winning his second five-year term. You can read about the details of the Kremlin’s influence on the Czech election in our new Kremlin Watch Report.

Moldova has passed new legislation to ban Russian news programmes. Is it a step towards fighting disinformation campaigns or a power play between Moldovan political actors?

Three top Russian intelligence officials travelled to the US last week, two of whom were forbidden to enter the country according to current sanctions. The visit occurred days prior to the Trump administration’s decision not to impose new sanctions on Russia for its electoral interference.

According to a new study published by the NATO StratCom CoE, the views of the respondents from the Nordic-Baltic region on pro-Kremlin narratives do not necessarily correspond with their consumption of the most significant pro-Russian channels.

Good Old Soviet Joke

An American tells a Russian that the United States is so free that he can stand in front of the White House and yell, “To hell with Ronald Reagan.” The Russian replies: “This is nothing. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan,’ too.”

Policy & Research News

How the radical far-right helps legitimize the Putin regime

Vladimir Putin is intent on maintaining a robust level of legitimacy, domestically as well as internationally. Apart from some notable exceptions, most of democratic politicians and established international organizations do not grant him that. As Anton Shekhovtsov describes on his blog, during the upcoming Russian presidential elections, we can expect various pocket organizations and international observers to be invited to the Russian Federation and illegally annexed Crimea to affirm the fairness and legitimacy of the vote. Read the article to find out how exactly these “observers” work and what their origins are.

European intelligence services slowly acknowledge the threat

The Norwegian Police Security Service pinpointed Russia as the biggest threat to Norwegian interests in its annual threat risk of espionage. Among others, there is the possibility that Norwegian politicians, researchers, journalists and ministry employees could be contacted by intelligence officers working undercover. Similar assessments have been made in recent years by many European intelligence services, including the Czech BIS. However, there are also cases where Russian espionage activity has been high without an adequate national response.

Moldova joins the club

The Parliament of Moldova passed a new law banning the rebroadcasting of foreign news, military, or political programmes that have been produced outside the EU, the United States, Canada or the signatory countries of the European Convention on Transfrontier Television. In short, the ban primarily targets Russian news programmes. The bill has been pushed by the Moldovan Democrats with a controversial response. President Igor Dodon previously vetoed the legislation, after which he was suspended by Moldovan courts. Officially, the goal of this legislation is to fight disinformation and propaganda on TV. But even local experts on countering disinformation campaigns claim that the confrontation between the President and the Democrats is contrived and the whole legislation is a powerplay.

US Developments

Sanctioned Russian officials traveled to the US prior to sanctions decision

Mike Carpenter writes for Politico that the Trump administration’s decision “to forgo mandatory sanctions on individuals doing business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors and its failure to publicly name and shame corrupt Kremlin insiders only underscores its dereliction of duty and disregard for our national security.”

Instead, three top Russian intelligence officials traveled to the US last week, two of whom met with CIA director Mike Pompeo allegedly to discuss matters related to counterterrorism. Notably, two of the three officials are barred from entering the US according to current sanctions, on grounds of responsibility for or complicity in ‘malicious cyber-enabled activities’. According to reports, their approval to enter the US would have likely been granted by the CIA director, the White House, or the State Department. Predictably, the visit has raised eyebrows amongst observers and government officials; it is unprecedented in US history that officials would meet with foreign sanctioned individuals. The visit also occurred just prior to the Trump administration’s decision not to impose new sanctions on Russia for its election meddling.

Due to concern about Russia’s increase in tactical nuclear weapons, the US plans to expand its nuclear capabilities. According to the document, the Nuclear Policy Review, the US “strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable.” The primary reason for the expansion is that officials believe that Russia perceives extant American nuclear capabilities to be inadequate, and therefore an insufficient deterrent.

The US Treasury department has stated in a new report provided to Congress that expanding the sanctions against Russia to include its new sovereign debt would have “negative spillover effects” on global financial markets and business, due to Russia’s large economy and deep integration in world markets. The chief concern cited throughout the memo is that such a sanctions expansion would harm US investors and businesses.

Tillerson warns Mexico about Russian electoral meddling

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned Mexico to keep an eye on practices of Russian electoral meddling around the world, following concerns of similar interference in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election in July. US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster cautioned late last year that indications of interference were already noticeable, but did not go into detail. The current frontrunner (and anticipated Kremlin favorite) is left-wing former Mexico City mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. In remarkably poor taste, following allegations of his favor with Russia, he has taken to wearing a jacket embroidered with the name ‘Andres Manuelovich’.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Zakharova is back in full force

When looking for a fresh dose of Kremlin narratives there is no better place than thebriefings of Maria Zakharova. The holiday period in Russia is finally over and we feel it in the tone Ms. Zakharova’s speeches.

Her first victim is British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and his recent comment that Russia is looking to damage the British economy by attacking its infrastructure. Zakharova reacted to this in typical Russian manner: “It appears that when the Secretary of State for Defence was making these statements he imagined himself taking part in a new James Bond film”. She then carried on with traditional Kremlin style attacks: “We understand that the UK is going through a difficult time due to its exit from the EU and an internal split within British society that also has an effect on the current developments. It is understandable that an external enemy is needed to distract public attention”. Now, you see how it works? In a few sentences she managed to insult an official, emphasized Britain’s current preoccupation, and exploited internal divisions, making them look so deep that Brits need an external enemy as a distraction. Of course, she also repeated that: “They earlier tried to connect the British people’s decision to leave the European Union with the Kremlin but that did not really work out”.

Twist the blame, always

It is well understood that one of the Kremlin’s main tactics is to shift blame – to attack those who raise questions and accusations of Russia. A fresh example: how did the Russian MFA react to the report that the Dutch domestic intelligence service AIVD had access to the infamous Russian hacking group Cozy Bear and the Dutch government alerted the United States to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election? The MFA raised the assumption that the timing of the report is no coincidence and has a hidden purpose. “To put it bluntly, why has nobody told us about this for two and a half years? They could have communicated this information to us. Why would the Netherlands become so engaged in the matter now? It seems we have the answer. It all adds up. Next March, the Netherlands are holding municipal elections alongside a consultative referendum on extending the authority of the Dutch security services”. So, the way Zakharova puts it, suddenly we don’t have a noble group sharing truth but ordinary manipulators who use information for their own sake. Trust no one, doubt everything – this is the world Russia want you to live in.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Russia’s Footprint in the Nordic-Baltic Information Environment

The Nordic-Baltic region has been one of the main targets of Russian information warfare for quite some time, thanks to which we now have a lot of information about the tools and methods used by Russia and about their effectiveness – which is exactly what NATO StratCom CoE’s new publication offers. The in-depth analysis is based on an ongoing project for monitoring Russia’s information influence in the NB8 region (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Latvia, Lithuania, and Sweden) and deals with topics such as the actual aims of Russia’s information activities, its use of compatriot policy as a tool of influence, and how Russia exploits the media space in the region.

While most of the findings presented in the analysis are “only” well-summarized current knowledge, its last chapter might be interesting even for those who are already familiar with the subject. It contains a lot of thought-provoking data on public opinion about Russian media and the narratives they share, laying out intriguing questions for further research. For example, the study found that that the overlap in views of respondents with narratives promoted by the Kremlin is not necessarily correlated with their consumption of the most significant pro-Russian channels. More in the paper!

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