Kremlin Watch Briefing: Pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts promoted Brexit

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

New Publication

The Czech disinformation scene was studied and described in depth by one of our analysts, Markéta Krejčí. The study, published in New Eastern Europe, not only describes the disinformation ecosystem in the Czech Republic, including both fringe media and political representatives, but also points out that the government and civil society are putting a good effort to address the problem.

Topics of the Week

A network of Twitter accounts with ties to the Russian government-linked troll army that meddled in U.S. politics posted dozens of pro-Brexit messages on the day of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union in June 2016, a CNN analysis has found.

The EU is now discussing and taking a strong position on defending its energy securityThe European Commission proposed new regulations that would introduce common jurisdiction for all gas pipelines entering the bloc and the negative reaction in Russia suggests that it was the right move. The question is whether the Germans will keep pushing for Nord Stream 2, the Kremlin’s geopolitical project, which is a threat to European security.

Pressure on Russian media institutions yields positive results, as demonstrated by RT’s capitulation to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The FARA framework demonstrates that it is indeed possible to curtail hostile information/media operations in a way that does not breach freedom of the press. The first step in the right direction.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Joke: Five precepts of the Soviet intelligentsia:

Don’t think.

If you think, then don’t speak.

If you think and speak, then don’t write.

If you think, speak and write, then don’t sign.

If you think, speak, write and sign, then don’t be surprised

US Developments

RT capitulates to FARA

RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, has announced that after a months-long negotiation with the Justice Department, the network’s US branch, RT America, will register with federal authorities as a foreign agent. Of the decision, Simonyan offered the following statement:

“The American Justice Department has left us with no choice. Our lawyers say that if we don’t register as a foreign agent, the director of our company in America could be arrested, and the accounts of the company could be seized. In short, in this situation the company would not be able to work. Between those consequences and registering as a foreign agent, we are forced to choose registration. […] We will continue to work and continue to fight this as long as it’s possible.”

According to the Russian embassy in Washington, the decision allegedly followed an ultimatum by the DOJ that RT must register as a foreign agent by November 13, otherwise the US government would begin freezing its bank accounts and potentially arresting staff. Following similar comments made by Vladimir Putin, the embassy warned that restrictions of Russia media activities in the US “would inevitably entail immediate and reciprocal measures.”

Although it remains to be seen what concrete effects RT’s registration under FARA will have on its media presence, activities, and influence in the US, this first symbolic step is one in the right direction.

Senate Democrats pursue an independent Russia probe

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) have been pursuing their own investigation independent of Republicans about what they call “Russia’s malign influence around the world.” The group is preparing a major report on the Kremlin’s international efforts to subvert democracy, erode trust in its elites and institutions, and promote civic divisions and radical polarization. According to spokesman Sean Bartlett, “the report describes how these efforts are led by the [Russian] government’s security services and buttressed by state-owned enterprises, Kremlin-aligned oligarchs, and Russian criminal groups that have effectively been nationalized by the state.”

2018 NDAA update

Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have announced that language from their Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act (signed into law last year), which emphasizes the importance of improving US capabilities to counter hostile information efforts, has been incorporated into the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The goal is to “promote more seamless coordination between the Department of Defense and the State Department in countering foreign propaganda and disinformation.”

According to their press release: “the FY 2018 NDAA will consolidate the Department of Defense information operations and cyber-enabled information operations within a single task force that would be linked to the Global Engagement Center, which was established by their legislation last year. By incorporating the Department of Defense’s operational capabilities and resources with the State Department’s overarching strategic guidance and civilian grant programs, the United States will be better situated to counter foreign propaganda.”

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Zero evidence. Really?

An old Russian proverb says “the hat burns on the thieve’s head”. That was our first reaction to RT’s article “zero evidence that Russia hacked DNC”. William Binney spoke to RT about his recent meeting with CIA director Mike Pompeo, where they discussed accusations that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election by hacking the Democrats. Binney goes as far as suggesting there’s an intelligence agencies conspiracy against president Trump and the entire American nation. “The analysis from VIPS implies the intelligence community is not telling the Trump administration what really happened,” Binney said. “They keep the population ignorant, uninformed so they can manipulate them any way they want. This is the same thing the mainstream media is doing.” Well played? Predictable we would say.

Nord Stream II

On November 8, The European Commission proposed new regulations that would introduce common jurisdiction for all gas pipelines entering the bloc. According to the new rules, all major gas pipelines entering EU territory would have to comply with the 28-member bloc’s rules on transparency, accessibility, and efficiency. The reaction of Russian media was lightning fast: the new rules are brought about by a clash of European lobbyists, who care only about their benefits and not about the interests of individual countries. Furthermore, Vzglyad states that the new proposal is a result of a plot of Central and Eastern European gas companies and a politically motivated decision, and goes as far as to accuse Commissioner Sefcovic of lobbying for the interests of Slovak companies. Vzglyad doesn’t forget to mention Ukraine and to say how highly unreliable partner it is and how old and outdated its transit system is. Looks like the EC decision was a very painful surprise for the Kremlin…

Want to divert attention? Mention Nazis!

Stalin’s man-made famine in 1932-1933 killed 7 to 10 million people in Ukraine (estimate). One of the biggest crimes of the 20th century long remained a secret due to the Soviet politics of denial, later echoed by Russia. Anne Applebaum’s recently published “Red Famine” shed new light on the tragic events and urged Russia to renew efforts on the denial front. This time, the Russians tell that Holodomor is a myth that was invented by an American Nazi. Ukraine is being accused of a privatization of the tragedy of the Soviet Union (the one that the Soviet Union itself denied ever existed) and politicization of the matter. Traditionally, Russian propagandists claim that the numbers were exaggerated, that famine also occurred in other regions of the USSR, or that the myth of it being a genocide of Ukrainians was invented by a certain American Nazi. The Russian pattern is clear: have nothing to say? Blame Nazis. Or Soros.

OUR CORRECTION

We are not immune from disinformation either and we would like to offer our apology for referring to a piece written by Mr. Bershidsky for Bloomberg in our previous Kremlin Watch Briefing. He completely ignores all the evidence and blames the US intelligence community for being wrong about the Russian influence in the US elections. We have not missed his twisted rhetoric on Crimea and Catalonia. One more time we were reminded how the so-called soft propaganda is dangerous and can slip in between your fingers.

Policy & Research News

Back to basics

For people who would like to know the basics of Kremlin-sponsored disinformation but are not up for a long-read, Euromaidan Press published a brief summary of the main points to bear in mind. Apart from highlighting where disinformation comes from, they also warn that disinformation stories can look like regular news, using pre-existing knowledge and prejudice in order to sound more real.

Tomáš Čižík, on the pages of the European Security Journal, further explains how disinformation campaigns differ in specific regions. False reports and manipulations are tailored specifically in order to resonate with the target audience, based on the country’s weaknesses and divisions. He focuses particularly on Scandinavia, the Baltics and Central Europe, which is the most vulnerable one according to the article. The author sees a solution in cooperation between governments and the non-governmental sector, as well as between the countries on the international level.

With a focus on disinformation campaigns on social media, B+C offers a guide on how to identify a bot or a troll on Twitter or Facebook. The article offers a set of best practices for each of the platforms, including watching the number of Tweets a day, checking personal information the (potentially real) person shares about themselves, or finding out if the account posts content which is not political.

Disinformation in Africa

In recent weeks, Kenyans have been a target of disinformation campaign spread on social media and disinformation websites, The Times reports. Spotted false reports have been suggesting that the United Kingdom has been interfering in the elections in Kenya. According to a senior Whitehall source, Russia is being suspected as a sponsor of the campaign.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

NATO’s Changing Its Posture Against Russia From Assurance to Deterrence Does It Matter?

Over the last two years, the approach of NATO to Russia, which tries to regain its former dominance in Eastern Europe, has changed. No longer the alliance focuses on assurance, on which it relied during the post-Cold War era, but it rather practices deterrence, resembling more its posture against the Soviet Union. This change occurred as a result of Russia’s actions in recent years, which prompted NATO to boost its political and military responsiveness and increase the readiness of its force.

However, as Christopher J. King from the U.S. Air Force writeseven though this shift is crucial for enabling NATO to successfully deal with the threats that Russia poses to its members, it does not make the alliance suddenly fully prepared. For years, NATO members have been underfunding their defense, and even though some countries have recently started to increase their defense spending, it is important that all members meet the agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP target as soon as possible. As of now, only five of NATO’s 28 members meet it. Also, since NATO again faces a real nuclear threat from Moscow, it must cultivate a serious policy of and capability for nuclear deterrence. Last but not least, a permanent basing of a deterrence force in Eastern Europe would help to successfully deter Russia.

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