Kremlin Watch Briefing: National parliaments should use their investigative competences

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

Good morning,

We have recently begun gathering information about investigations into the Kremlin’s influence operations conducted by national parliaments. Thus far, we are aware of cases in the United States, United Kingdom, and Singapore. If you have information about similar initiatives, we would love to hear from you! The European Values Think-Tank enthusiastically supports investigative efforts by national legislative bodies.

Topics of the Week

The US has imposed a new set of sanctions against seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies under their control, as well as 17 senior Russian government officials and a state-owned Russian weapons trading company.

How much money does it cost to orchestrate pro-Russian rallies and hack e-mails? Find out from the last wave of Surkov leaks.

Find out about the alleged Skripal campaign to discredit Russia.

According to the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, foreign intelligence operations conducted mainly by the Kremlin have been one of the main security challenges for Finland in 2017, targeting the debate on NATO, position on the EU sanctions regime, and Finnish countermeasures for countering foreign information operations.

Good Old Soviet Joke

One day in Soviet Russia, dear comrade Stalin is walking down the street when he sees a long line of people queuing up.

He thinks, “Blyat! There must be something nice to be had at the end of that line!”

Being a dear comrade and equal to everyone, he dutifully goes to the end of the queue. The man beside him in line turns around and sees dear comrade Stalin. The very next moment, he leaves the queue!

The same happens with the next person. He sees dear comrade Stalin in line behind him, shrugs his shoulders and leaves.

Stalin is surprised. When the next man also leaves after noticing dear comrade Stalin, he asks: “My dear comrade! Why are you all leaving this line when you see me?”

The man says, “Dear comrade Stalin, this is a line-up for exit visas. But if you want one, then I don’t need one anymore!”

Policy & Research News

Protecting our history

The Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns don’t always pertain to current events. Quite often, they seek to reinterpret and attack the history of European countries that were longstanding victims of Soviet occupation and terror. Many countries of the former Soviet bloc have established institutes for research and rememberance of totalitarian regimes and their crimes. Estonia is now going even further with the new Museum International Research Center on the Crimes of Communism supported by the Estonian government. A key aim of this project is to defend and secure the history of the Baltic, Central, and Eastern European region, with a special focus on active identification and countering of disinformation and manipulation campaigns. Once more, an activity conducted by the Baltic countries will benefit many other countries that often are not willing to invest in similar projects themselves.

How much do pro-Kremlin campaigns cost?

The third wave of the so-called “Surkov leaks”, published e-mails between Moscow-linked figures concerning Russian disinformation operations in Ukraine, show what the Kremlin is willing to invest in these subversive tools. The e-mails sent by a Russian politician to the first deputy of Vladislav Surkov, a Russian businessman and presidential aide, include proposals for Ukrainian locals to conduct cyber-attacks and email hacks for $100-$300 or “troll opponents” on social media and gather personal data of Kharkiv citizens for $130-$500. Other e-mails suggest that the Kremlin orchestrated anti-Ukraine rallies with paid martial arts “sportsmen” or bribed local media. Even though the Kremlin stated that the leaked e-mails are fabricated, the authors of the correspondence in the first two waves of leaks confirmed their authenticity.

What experts think about disinformation

“It’s implemented by the very top hierarchy of the Russian leadership down through its media organisations to the very junior-most foot soldier in the Kremlin troll army. It doesn’t necessarily need to be about targeting elections or referenda. Disinformation operations aim to undermine the whole system of liberal democracy and to sow and to amplify distrust in credible sources of information whether it is government or establishment mainstream media in order to influence the geopolitical direction of a country and of intergovernmental organisations.”

That is a quote from Keir Giles of Chatham House, who participated in the High Level Hearing on “Preserving Democracy in the Digital Age” hosted by the European Political Strategy Centre. You can read the transcript of the hearing, submitted to accompany the European Commission’s public consultation on disinformation, here.

US Developments

The continuing paradoxes of Trump’s Russia policy

While US policy towards Russia has been growing tougher over the past few weeks, President Trump’s rhetoric and his relationship with Vladimir Putin remain at odds with this trend, indicating a growing rift between the president and his national security apparatus.

Last Friday, the US imposed a new set of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and government officials close to Putin. After the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, on British soil in early March, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle. This is the largest number of Russian diplomats ejected by any country (Britain, in second place, expelled 23). Meanwhile, the White House hosted the leaders of the three Baltic states this week, assuring them of America’s commitment to being tough on Russia.

Despite these actions and Trump’s own claim that “no one is tougher on Russia,” the president’s congratulatory call to Putin after his sham election ‘win’ and subsequent offer of a White House visit have drawn ire and confusion about the administration’s real intentions vis-à-vis Russia. In addition, the expulsion of the 60 Russian diplomats comes with a major caveat: since it does not entail a mandatory reduction in embassy staff, Russia is free to refill the empty places. The latest sanctions have also been criticized for their delay, since the targeted individuals have had ample time to predict this move and restructure their US-based holdings.

In some of his final words as National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster stated that the West has “failed to impose sufficient costs” on Moscow. McMaster acknowledged that important steps have been taken to put pressure on Russia, but added, “we must recognize the need for all of us to do more to respond to and deter Russian aggression.” His assessment speaks to the continued inadequacy of US deterrence strategy towards Russia and the troubling nature of Donald Trump’s personal policy towards Vladimir Putin.

Facebook prepares for Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony

This week, Mark Zuckerberg is in DC testifying before three congressional committees about Facebook’s handling of user information and data privacy following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that the data of 87 million Facebook users was secretly harvested and exposed, allowing Russia and other groups to use the platform for political influence. As the story broke, Facebook and Zuckerberg were blasted for their inadequate response to the crisis, blaming “rogue third parties” for the violations and claiming outrage at having been “deceived”. But, as The Guardian reports, the scandal is finally forcing Facebook “to shine a light on its underlying business model” – which depends on guzzling personal data for ad micro-targeting – “and years of careless data sharing practices”.

Facebook has now warned that “most users” have had their data harvested by third-party apps, and is taking long-overdue action to shut down vulnerable loopholes. The data access primarily derived from a key search functionality – finding people by email and phone number – which allowed third-party apps to gather copious amounts of public user profile information. Facebook is now also cracking down on how it allows third-party apps to handle log-ins to other sites using your Facebook account. These sites will no longer be permitted to scrape personal information from user profiles, including “religion and political views, relationship status, relationship details, custom friend lists, about me, education history, work history, my website URL, book reading activity, fitness activity, music listening activity, video watch activity, news reading activity, games activity.”

However, the fact that Facebook actually permitted this data acquisition by external parties, regardless of the hazard to user privacy, should raise eyebrows. As Vox reports, “until Cambridge Analytica exposed this underbelly of Facebook’s open API, all of this was a feature, not a bug, for Facebook. Making user data accessible to third parties, particularly in exchange for allowing websites all over the world to access Facebook logins, essentially allowed it to consolidate power across the internet, making it that much harder for you to extricate Facebook from the rest of your life.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has also announced the removal of over 200 Facebook pages and Instagram accounts controlled by the St. Petersburg troll factory, most of which were in Russian and targeted Russians, Ukrainians, and citizens in other former Soviet states. Facebook said it removed the accounts because the Internet Research Agency had lied about its identity in creating them, not because of the nature of their content. Predictably, the Kremlin derided the move as censorship of Russian mass media.

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

In full swing

Over the last few weeks, the Russian disinformation machine has been busy producing counter-allegations to help the Kremlin save face in the Skripal poisoning. Moscow apparently still hasn’t realized that it has gone too far and is using the full force of its propaganda to twist public opinion. With the official Twitter account of the Russian embassy in the UK as a key information channel, the Russians have used different techniques to distort blame and suggest that the Salisbury investigation is politically motivated. The two main techniques to this end are 1) raise doubts about the fairness of the investigation and 2) invoke a global conspiracy in which Russia is blamed for all mortal sins.

The Russian MFA decided that one Twitter account isn’t enough and threw Maria Zakharova into the fray with some very serious arguments, such as an article written by Friedrich Engels in 1885 blaming Russians for explosions in London. “I do not hesitate, for the time being, to lay blame for the explosions in London […] at the door of the Russians […] it is more than probable that a Russian brain and money were behind it.” “Everybody knows that the Russian officialdom will shrink at nothing if only it leads to a desired end.”  “The history of the Balkan peninsula during the last one hundred years shed enough light on the abilities of Russian officialdom in removing troublesome individuals by means of poison, the dagger etc.”

According to Zakharova, this obscure article proves that Western anti-Russian paranoia is centuries old. “Media campaigns like the one we are witnessing have been used by our Western partners for long time. When I say that it has been used for a long time, I don’t mean contemporary history or even modern history. The Skripal case campaign on discrediting Russia has been cooked up and trumped up along fairly old patterns. It is not even retro, it’s an antique.”

Although this refutation should support the narrative that Russia didn’t poison Sergei Skripal and that blaming Russia is just a part of an enduring global conspiracy, Zakharova’s statement looks ludicrous in light of the investigation outcome proving the Russian origins of Novichok. This is simply another technique the Kremlin is using to ridicule the story and diminish its seriousness.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

2017 Yearbook of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service

The Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) recently published its 2017 yearbook, which identifies the main security challenges facing Finland. One of the major challenges is foreign intelligence operations conducted mainly by the Kremlin. The majority of active intelligence operations in Finland primarily concern information-gathering aimed at projecting Finnish policy outcomes, technology and expertise, as well as operations aimed at influencing Finland’s political decisions. Topics of particular interest for foreign intelligence have been the debate on NATO in Finland, its position on the EU sanctions regime, the security situation in the Baltic Sea, Finnish cyber security, and Finnish countermeasures for countering foreign information operations.

Foreign intelligence services have also increasingly attempted to recruit people for espionage and intelligence gathering on Finnish soil, with the aim of influencing political decisions and public opinion. Foreign state-sponsored espionage in the form of cyber-espionage has not been limited to the political sphere but has also been active within the business sector. In particular, businesses that are part of the critical infrastructure have been targeted, such as the Finnish energy sector. Supo believes the aim of these incursions has not been to steal information, but rather to find vulnerabilities in Finnish critical infrastructure.

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