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Kremlin Watch Briefing: The US Congress is proposing a bill to counter foreign interference

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

Topics of the Week

The Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE) put forward proposals to act on fake news and misinformation and call on platforms to provide more transparency. Moreover, they emphasise education and media literacy as a crucial tool.

Former national security, intelligence, and foreign policy officials wrote an amicus brief(part of a lawsuit brought against President Donald Trump’s campaign) how the Kremlin used local actors to help amplify the scope and impact of its influence operations, including the one targeting the US election in 2016.

Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland has been recently frequented by the press for his long-time questionable dealings with Moscow.

The US Congress is developing legislation to counter foreign interference: a bill “to improve and streamline information about cyber threats between state and federal entities” will be introduced next week.

President Trump has signed into law the 2018 NDAA Conference Report, which builds on the language of the Countering Propaganda and Disinformation Act.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Q: Is it true that the Soviet Union is the most progressive country in the world?

A: Of course! Life was already better yesterday than it’s going to be tomorrow!

US Developments

Upcoming bipartisan bill to avert foreign cyber-interference in elections

A group of Democratic and Republican senators, led by James Lankford (R-OK) together with Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), are introducing a bill next week “to improve and streamline information about cyber threats between state and federal entities”. The legislation aims to provide resources for states as well as assist identification of and preparation for potential cyberattacks. To this end, it is intended to improve communication between the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and state election offices. The proposed bill has received wide bipartisan support thus far, and is expected to pass prior to mid-term primaries in 2018.

NDAA Conference Report signed into law

President Trump has signed into law the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Conference Report, which builds on the language of the Countering Propaganda and Disinformation Act spearheaded by US Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). Senator Portman issued the following statement with the signing:

“By better coordinating and synchronizing our government’s response to foreign propaganda and disinformation, the United States will be more successful in ensuring that our ideas win. I am pleased the president signed this legislation into law to build on our previous efforts and encourage proper coordination between government agencies so that the disinformation and propaganda used against us, our allies, and our interests will fail.”

US-focused reading suggestions

Edward Lucas argues in The Times of London that the Trump administration, contrary to popular wisdom, has actually been better for European security than the Obama administration. He writes:

“Even those who dislike Mr Trump’s politics are happy with his administration’s help in defending them against the Kremlin. America is selling Patriot missiles to Poland and has deployed a deterrent force there. US special forces are in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, working with local reservists and others to prepare resistance in the event of a Russian invasion. American military ties with non-Nato Sweden and Finland have never been stronger. In Washington, Congress showers money on European defence, not just in bolstering the military deterrent but also for counter-propaganda and other softer forms of security.”

This image is in stark contrast with the Obama White House, according to Lucas: “America’s European allies frequently struggled to get a hearing and senior officials all too often pooh-poohed their concerns. Mr Obama’s disastrous ‘reset’ of relations with Russia in 2009 sacrificed allies’ interests in the illusory hope of a rapprochement with the Kremlin.”

Lucas is not apologetic of Trump’s obvious shortcomings, but rather provides refreshing context for the state of play on transatlantic security relations, concluding: “We may find Mr Trump aesthetically and morally reprehensible. But in many respects that directly concern us and our allies, his administration is still markedly better than its predecessor.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a long investigative piece about the Trump White House’s failure to respond decisively to the Russia threat. The reporting provides intimate insight into the dynamics between the President and his aides and advisers, namely their difficulty in reigning in the President’s pro-Russian sentiments and impulses.

Joe Biden and Michael Carpenter have published a comprehensive article in Foreign Affairs where they explain the sources of the Kremlin’s hostility towards Western democracy and outline strategies for standing up to the regime. Correctly, they do not paint the Kremlin as an invincible Leviathan, but rather describe the regime as a house of cards:

“To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia’s borders to attack what it perceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy. By attacking the West, the Kremlin shifts attention away from corruption and economic malaise at home, activates nationalist passions to stifle internal dissent, and keeps Western democracies on the defensive and preoccupied with internal divisions. This allows Moscow to consolidate its power at home and exert untrammeled influence over its ‘near abroad.’”

Biden and Carpenter recommend that the US and its European allies must jointly strengthen their security and energy cooperation and mitigate the “vulnerability of their political systems, media environments, financial sectors, and cyber-infrastructure” against attempted Russian coercion and influence operations. They maintain that such operations are sure to continue in the future, and that the US must develop effective defense mechanisms, including “meaningful costs” (i.e., deterrence measures) against Russia, to protect elections from future meddling.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

“The tsar hears the people”

Every year in mid-December, Putin gives a great gift to all his devotees: a several-hour long press conference where he answers a wide variety of questions from journalists. This year’s Q&A lasted almost four hours and, as a RT faithfully notes, “some participants appear to lack the president’s stamina…”. Well, perhaps this was due to the president’s answers, not the duration of the event?

For Putin and the Kremlin propaganda machine, this Q&A is an ideal opportunity to reemphasise their messages. For us, it’s a good overview of the Kremlin narratives.

On the Winter Olympics ban:

“The recent decisions by the IOC and WADA are no coincidence given the Russian elections next year. Rodchenkov [the doping scandal whistleblower] is working with the FBI – he might be being drugged to say something, how do we know?”

On Russia meddling in US elections:

“That’s been invented by those aiming to de-legitimize Trump.”

On Syria:

“We see that terrorists are escaping Syria to Iraq and the US doesn’t hit them because they may want to use them later against [Syrian President Bashar] Assad… That’s very dangerous.”

On Donbas:

“There are local militia groups in Donbass ready to counter attacks in the area… we agree with this. Without these, Ukrainian nationalist battalions would start a massacre like Srebrenica there.”

On Ukraine and Russia relations:

“Historically, fundamentally Russia and Ukraine are one and the same nation.”

On the Russian opposition:

“I said the opposition needs positive proposals – what are you offering? The people you mentioned are the Russian versions of Mikhail Saakashvili… Do you want Russia moving from one Maidan-style situation to another?”

Policy & Research News

Pro-Kremlin trolls boosted election fraud claims during Scottish referendum

The day after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, a significant minority of social media accounts amplified allegations that the vote was rigged. Thus far, it is impossible to gauge whether these accounts operated independently or were connected to the Russian troll-factory, Ben Nimmo writes in his report for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The trolls did not create the claims about the alleged election fraud, but they were among the most vocal amplifiers of the videos supposedly ‘proving’ it.

Facebook and Twitter reveal ads bought by Russian-backed accounts

After pressure from the British political community, Twitter revealed that Russian-backed accounts spent more than 1,000 USD to buy six Brexit ads during the campaign period prior to the referendum. Facebook identified three ads bought by Russian-backed accounts concerning immigration. As reported by Tech Crunch, We still don’t know the exact character of the Twitter ads. Furthermore, their reach is yet to be determined, as we have seen in the case of the ads related to the US presidential election.

EU banning Bulgarian food?

As Bulgaria prepares for its presidency of the Council of the European Union (starting in January 2018), its media space is becoming flooded with false reports about EU bans on Bulgarians’ favourite food items. Not only fringe websites but also mainstream tabloids are falsely warning Bulgarians that the EU wants to prohibit the country from producing items like Rakia, a traditional alcoholic beverage, or Tripe Soup. This disinformation originates both in Bulgaria as well as in other EU countries.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will study Russia’s activist foreign and military policies

As a response to increasing concerns about the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle with and disrupt democratic societies, scholars from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace decided to launch a two-year analysis of its policies and strategies in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to two members involved in the project, these activities are meant to “compensate for lacklustre socioeconomic conditions at home.” The efforts of the CEIP should lead to better understanding of the evolution of the Kremlin’s tactics.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Inside the Kremlin’s house of mirrors: How liberal democracies can counter Russian disinformation and social interference

This week, we would like to recommend a new study by The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, which offers a great overview of the various approaches that liberal democracies have employed in the fight against Russian subversion operations and utilizes this knowledge to present clever recommendations for both democratic governments and societies on how to deal with this threat.

The report is based on extensive desk research and in-depth personal interviews with relevant high-level representatives of the actors in question (the EU, NATO, Finland, Latvia, and Ukraine). It contains five detailed case studies in which it analyses the postures, strategies, organizational setups, programs, products, and capabilities that these actors have developed in recent years. Among other things, the authors identify the dilemmas that liberal democracies face when attempting to counter Russian interference. Particular focus is devoted to how overall (top-down) visions, strategies, and capabilities can help provide the best circumstances for societal resilience, such as through (bottom-up) social initiatives.

All of the recommendations found in the report can be very handy for democratic governments and societies trying to tackle Russian subversion operations – which is why we recommend you take a look at them!

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