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Kremlin Watch Briefing: Spain will acknowledge “misinformation campaigns” as a threat to national security

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

Topics of the Week

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the US won’t lift sanctions against Russia until the Kremlin withdraws Russian forces from Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Tensions between President Trump and his national security team continue to grow.

Spanish authorities are to pass a new National Security Strategy that, for the first time, will mention “misinformation campaigns” as a threat to the country’s security. Despite the fact that Russia is not named as a culprit, it seems the document will also set out specific measures to counter the threat.

Both state and non-state actors attempted to influence the German election, concludes a study written by experts including Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev. We are seeing a rapid expansion of transnational networks of disinformation and toxic speech, which can operationalize activity around elections.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A train bearing Stalin, Lenin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev stops suddenly when the tracks run out. Each leader applies his own unique solution. Lenin gathers workers and peasants from miles around and exhorts them to build more tracks. Stalin shoots the train crew when the train still doesn’t move. Khrushchev rehabilitates the dead crew and orders the tracks behind the train ripped up and re-laid in front. Brezhnev pulls down the curtains and rocks back and forth, pretending the train is moving. And Gorbachev calls a rally in front of the locomotive, where he leads a chant: “No tracks! No tracks! No tracks!”

US Developments

Trouble in paradise: partisanship threatens to derail congressional probes

It appears that of the three congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, only one is on track to reaching bipartisan consensus. The Senate Intelligence Committee is the only committee where Republicans and Democrats have succeeded in working together without major disagreements or tensions. By contrast, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee are both plagued by severe partisan in-fighting.

Most recently, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), blasted his Democratic colleagues for blocking investigation of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration’s potential misdeeds. He claimed that “true bipartisan oversight is impossible unless it is a two-way street” and blamed Democrats for being “unwilling to ask hard questions and force answers from their own political allies”.

These deflection attempts and finger-pointing come amid growing claims from GOP lawmakers – particularly House Republicans – that Robert Mueller’s special investigation is biased against Trump, and that Hillary Clinton was not subject to the same level of scrutiny for the Uranium One deal and her personal email use. (One can reasonably argue that this is GOP whataboutism: Clinton’s email investigations have been rigorously documented with no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and the conspiracy theory that she sold uranium to Russia in exchange for a donation to the Clinton Foundation has been repeatedly debunked.)

These escalating partisan tensions mean that bipartisan reports summarizing committee conclusions are unlikely to happen in either the House Intelligence or Senate Judiciary committees. Instead, the Democrats and Republicans are likely to publish individual reports with differing findings.

More strong words from Sec. Tillerson

The Secretary of State’s language concerning Russia is growing tougher by the day. Last week’s Kremlin Watch Briefing reported Tillerson’s chiding of Russia’s “malicious tactics” and hostilities towards its neighbors and other liberal democratic states as “not the behaviors of a responsible nation”. Last Thursday, Tillerson upped the ante, declaring that the US will not lift sanctions against Russia until the Kremlin withdraws Russian forces from Crimea and eastern Ukraine. At a meeting of the OSCE, he decisively laid the blame on Russia for escalating violence in Ukraine. In a press conference, he said: “We’ve made this clear to Russia from the very beginning, that we must address Ukraine. It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us renormalizing the relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do.” Tillerson also emphasized that the US would not recognize Russia’s takeover of Crimea, saying: “We will never accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea. Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”

These comments are a welcome deviation from the rhetoric we have come to expect from the Trump White House. The tensions between the President and his national security team continue to grow, and while this is good news for those hoping to see stronger US direction on Russia, it remains to be seen how these power dynamics play out, and whether executive policy will fall in line.

Russian trolls posed as US news outlets on Twitter

The Independent reports that dozens of Twitter accounts that appeared to be local US news sources – frequently in swing states, including Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – were actually operated by Russian trolls from the infamous St Petersburg Internet Research Agency. Together, these accounts acquired more than half a million followers. Moreover, more than 100 (legitimate) news outlets published stories containing the imposter Twitter handles in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Some were even tweeted by high-level public figures, including an unnamed top presidential aide. According to Twitter, these accounts have now been suspended – in sum, the company identified and suspended 2,752 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Anti-Russian conspiracy

Last week, the International Olympic Committee ruled to impose sanctions on Russia for its systematic doping and banned the country from the upcoming Winter Olympics. Evidence of this charge has been straightforward and conclusive – Russia has systematically manipulated the anti-doping system on a historically unprecedented scale. It has also been proven that Russia conducted manipulations at the anti-doping laboratory at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Predictably, Russia has denied all accusations. But the way Russian media have framed the incident is a perfect example of how individual events are distorted to fit pro-Kremlin narratives and bolster patriotic consciousness in the country. According to the Russian media, the IOC decision is first and foremost a blow against Russia or, as Russian Olympic champion and Duma member Irina Rodnina put it, “They have driven a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world.”

The same sentiment was echoed across all major Russian TV stations, newspapers, and websites. Indeed, in the mainstream media, there is no discussion whatsoever about whether country actually did something wrong. Instead, Russian journalists merely regurgitate the line that the IOC ban is yet another confirmation that Russia is encircled by enemies. There is no discussion about domestic investigations or questions asking whether the doping scandal even took place. Every evening last week, all major talk shows discussed the West’s plans to undermine Russia and global conspiracies aimed at diminishing Russia’s global influence. Remarkably, the IOC ban became a top news in the Russian media sphere, even overshadowing the alleged liberation of Syria from ISIS, thanks to Russian efforts.

Apart from their hysterical indulgences in global anti-Russian conspiracies, Russian media and various experts have actively debated whether ‘clean’ Russian athletes should participate under the neutral Olympic flag. Predictably, Russian ‘journalists’ have opined that this would amount to national treason and that Russia should boycottthe upcoming Olympic Games.

The narrative is unusually outrageous and one-sided, even by Russian standards: no major voice has raised concerns that perhaps Russia did indeed do something very wrong to deserve this ban. United in their ‘patriotic sentiment’, educated adults would rather partake in conspiracy discussions and plots instead of admitting a reality check of their own country.

Policy & Research News

A spy in the European Parliament

Hungarian prosecutors indicted MEP Bela Kovacs of spying on the European Union “in the interests of a foreign state and on behalf of the secret services.” They did not clearly state which country Kovacs worked for. However, the intelligence community in Hungary noted he has been in regular contact with Russian diplomats and visited Moscow on a monthly basis.

Kovacs comes from the strongest Hungarian opposition party, Jobbik, which is known for supporting the Kremlin’s foreign policy and repeating stereotypical disinformation narratives. Its representatives praised the so called ‘referendum’ in Crimea as a “triumph of a community’s self-determination” and compared the situation there to Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

A spy in the Polish energy sector

In October 2014, Mr. ‘Stanisław Sz.’, a lawyer with dual Polish-Russian citizenship, was arrested by Polish authorities, at the time for undisclosed reasons. Eventually, the Warsaw district court found him guilty of cooperation with the GRU in gathering classified information about the Polish energy sector. Last week, the Warsaw appeals court ruled that his sentence will be prolonged from four to seven years in jail.

Spain will include the “misinformation” threat in its new security strategy

The Spanish government has not treated disinformation campaigns and hostile influence operations as a priority for a long time. However, things may be slowly changing following the Catalonian independence referendum, which witnessed considerable Russian meddling on social media. Spain’s Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs admitted that about 50% of social media accounts that tried to influence the public with pro-separatist content came from Russia.

Currently, Spanish authorities are poised to pass a new National Security Strategy that, for the first time, will mention “misinformation campaigns” as a threat to national security. Although the document does not mention Russia as a culprit of such campaigns, it seems that specific measures will also be laid out to counter the threat. The Strategy also touches upon the interference efforts during the Catalan crisis, and also during the Brexit referendum.

This is an important step that might launch broader efforts in Spain to prepare and implement a more comprehensive strategy to tackle influence operations. It could also encourage different groups at the levels of political and civil society to develop new initiatives. It therefore appears that Spain is joining countries like the Netherlands and France which ‘awakened’ after they directly felt the impact of the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to destabilize their societies.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

‘Make Germany Great Again’

Kremlin, Alt-Right and International Influences in the 2017 German Elections

This report, written by well-known experts including Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev, focuses on the Kremlin’s and other foreign attempts to influence the 2017 German elections. Specifically, it explores how these efforts differed across three audiences in Germany: the nationalist right, the Left, and the Russian-speaking population. The authors used an innovative combination of methodological approaches: they combined social media monitoring and analysis, broadcast media monitoring, and on-the-ground reporting, all guided by in-depth subject matter expertise.

The German nationalist right is mainly associated with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which maintains strong links with Russia. German far-right audiences rely heavily on social media for political information, which makes them more likely to believe fake news stories and more likely to read and share information that comes either from Russian or international alt-right sources. The German far-right and Kremlin-affiliated media showed a clear bias in favor of the AfD. Moreover, a pro-Kremlin botnet was active during the election campaign.

The Left’s relationship with the Kremlin is more complicated, with some left-wing movements being critical of Putinism. However, the most significant left-wing party in Germany, Die Linke, has grown closer to the Russian government in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and is clearly aligned with the Kremlin’s narratives. These narratives are also reflected by far-left social media, though not in the same volume as by the far-right. The German Left as a whole is more resistant to disinformation. Nevertheless, there is some evidence of a ‘cross-front’ of left and right, as previously witnessed in the 1930s.

The findings regarding Russian-speaking Germans suggests that integration of this community has been far from successful. Politically, they affiliate mostly with the AfD, which was the first and only political party to have a Russian-language campaign strategy. Their opinion is notably shaped by Kremlin-affiliated media, which has significant reach within Russian-German audiences.

In conclusion, the report revealed that both state and non-state actors attempted to influence the German election. In a wider political context, we are witnessing a rapid expansion of transnational networks of disinformation and toxic speech, which can operationalize activity around key events such as elections. In order to fight this issue, the authors offer various recommendations for civil society, policymakers, and media. Have a look at the report to find out more.

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