Kremlin Watch Briefing: US and UK strengthen their positions, the EU and the Dutch trip over their own feet

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

Topics of the Week

The European Commission’s high-level group of experts have issued a report on disinformation. It has little significance in practice and completely circumvents the issue of hostile disinformation operations.

Meanwhile, the EEAS East STRATCOM Task Force, the only EU institutional group with serious clout in countering disinformation operations, is under fire by the Dutch Parliament.

Who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter? According to the Kremlin’s official channels, it might have been British intelligence, the CIA, or even Ukraine, but certainly not Russia!

In its strongest response to Russian interference thus far, the Trump administration has imposed new sanctions against a total of 24 Russian entities, including the 13 Russian individuals and three organizations charged in the recent Mueller indictment for meddling in the 2016 election.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Stalin is dead and, relatively speaking, things have begun to lighten up. An old couple live in an apartment in Moscow and she sends him out to buy some meat for supper. After queueing for the obligatory three hours, he finally arrives at the counter, only for the clerk to announce “No more meat, meat finished.”

He cracks and starts raving, “I fought in the Revolution, I fought for Lenin in the First World War and for Stalin in the Second World War and we are still in this shit?”

A leather-jacketed brigade takes him aside and says, “Look, old man, you know you can’t talk like this. Just think, a few years ago you would have been shot for saying these things.”

The old man trudges home. Seeing him empty-handed, his wife says, “Run out of meat again, have they?”

He replies, “It’s worse than that – they’ve run out of bullets.”

Policy & Research News

The EU says it wants to be more active against disinformation. Does it?

The high-level expert group established by the European Commission in January, which is tasked with advising on policy initiatives to counter disinformation, has issued its first report. Here is our brief analysis:

  • The report, which was prepared by 39 experts over several months, does not deliver much new knowledge or innovative policy recommendations. It is a missed opportunity with only limited added value in terms of addressing disinformation as proliferated via online platforms. It is positive, however, that the report correctly prefers the term “disinformation” over “fake news”.
  • Despite focusing on disinformation, the report completely ignores the foreign and security policy dimensions of this issue. It reads like a report prepared by academics and journalists aimed at the latter as well as social media platforms, and neglects the majority of the policy debate on the phenomenon of hostile foreign influence and disinformation operations, ongoing for at least the last two years. The main source of hostile disinformation in Europe – Russia – is not mentioned at all.
  • As one of the dissenting authors acknowledges, the report even fails to mention “the link between advertising revenue policies of platforms and dissemination of disinformation”, which, in some countries (e.g., Slovakia) has been successfully tackled by civic action.
  • The report rightly mentions the need to fund research on this issue but fails to explain what sources of funding are viable in practical terms. For example, while it recommends using Horizon 2020, it misses a core problem: Horizon 2020 funding can be used for academic research, but most counter-disinformation initiatives have problems obtaining it precisely because of their focus on counter-efforts, which goes beyond the scope of traditional academic research.
  • Despite the EU having a significant European Council-mandated initiative for countering this threat since 2015, the EEAS East STRATCOM Task Force is not mentioned in this report even once. The Task Force has the only EU+EaP-wide database of disinformation, with over 3800 samples, that benefits numerous practitioners. Moreover, when the report calls for European centres for research on disinformation, it fails to mention the leader in this field, StopFake.org.
  • Many established practitioners in the field of countering disinformation were not accepted to take part in this research group. We are amazed by how many senior names were rejected. In the end, the group consisted of only a handful of practitioners with some experience at all in this specialized field. Most of the HLEG members are not insiders who have dealt with this issue for years on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, the EEAS East STRATCOM Task Force, the only EU institutional body with any meaningful impact on countering disinformation operations, is under fire by the Dutch Parliament. Dutch MPs asked the Minister of Interior and the Prime Minister to suggest deleting the Task Force website, EUvsDisinfo, which includes the largest public database of disinformation cases.

This move came after the EUvsDisinfo website flagged a report in Dutch media as pro-Kremlin disinformation. The MPs seem to be forgetting that the Kremlin forcefully attacked the Dutch media space with disinformation about the MH17 investigation, as well as during the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement referendum.

Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think-Tank, is among the experts who defend the Task Force. He says, “The EU website got its red flags right 99.9 percent of the time and showed, over the past two years, that their work does not limit freedom of speech at all.”

US Developments

White House issues new Russia sanctions

Last week, the White House authorized a new set of sanctions against several Russian individuals and organizations in response to the country’s interference in the 2016 election, as well as other “malicious cyberattacks”. Specifically, the sanctions target the 13 Russian nationals and three organizations charged in the recent Mueller indictment, as well as two further organizations and six persons implicated in several cyberattacks dating back to March 2016. The practical impact of the sanctions involves freezing assets and barring business transactions with American entities.

In unusually stern language for the administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyberactivity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyberattacks and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure. These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”

These sanctions mark the strongest action yet taken against Russia by the Trump administration.  At Kremlin Watch, we laud the US government for this move and consider it a positive – if symbolic – step towards punishing the Kremlin and its allies.

Russian hackers are increasing their attacks against US infrastructure

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have jointly warned that Russian hackers are conducting a broad attack on sensitive US infrastructure, including the electrical grid, water processing plants, and aviation facilities, among other targets. This follows news from July of last year that Russian hackers had successfully breached more than a dozen power plants in seven states – efforts that have now also expanded to numerous other states. According to national law enforcement agencies, waves of Russian government-linked cyberattacks against critical elements of US infrastructure, as well as US government entities, have been underway at least since March 2016 – and appear to be growing increasingly more audacious. Although this recent report does not state whether or not these attacks are successful, it describes the hackers as “extremely sophisticated”.

How Putin weaponizes incompetence

Masha Gessen has written a post-mortem for The New Yorker of Vladimir Putin’s recent interview with American journalist Megyn Kelly. She describes how Putin successfully manipulates conversations, disarming and undermining even skilled interlocutors like Kelly, by ‘weaponizing’ incompetence and (pretend) ignorance. Gessen’s analysis aligns neatly with the familiar strategy of deflection observed in Russian propaganda and disinformation:

 “The Russian President was not merely pleading ignorance as one would plead ignorance of, say, a conspiracy to commit a crime. Putin was performing ignorance, strategically. Someone who is incompetent cannot be held accountable. Every time Putin said that he didn’t know something, what he was really saying is that he refusedto know. He wielded his lack of interest, lack of expertise, and even (if he was to be believed) lack of ability to supervise his own press secretary like weapons.”

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

One word: Salisbury

There is an apt Russian saying: An uneasy conscience betrays itself. The way Russian propaganda channels have covered the Skripal poisoning and contamination of Salisbury is a valuable example of how the Russian propaganda machine adjusts to ongoing crises in real time.

The key objective for The Machine is clear: to deny that the Kremlin is behind the Salisbury poisoning, which was undeniably an act of aggression on the sovereign territory of another state.

The Atlantic Council’s DFR lab prepared a timeline of the propaganda narratives of Sputnik International, starting from “it was a British false flag operation” to “it was EU trying to interfere in UK-Russia relations”.

Sputnik International disseminates propaganda narratives for international audiences. It  is therefore interesting to look at domestic Russian media to see how the regime is trying cover up its crimes in the eyes of its own people.

Vzglyad says it boldly: Skripal poisoning is part of the conspiracy of Western powers“It is very probable that MI6 agents could organize an operation to poison Skripal to blame Russia for that”. According to Russian ‘journalists’, the main aim of the perpetrators who used the nerve agent in Salisbury was to discredit Russia and Putin. They need “another episode of the artificial drama ‘Russia is interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries’”.

But the article also suggests another peculiar line of reasoning: organizers of the poison attack were also aiming at British government, forcing it to enter into the conflict with Russia at a moment when it cannot afford further crisis. The implication is that forces really running Western countries – the so-called “deep state” (a term also popular with the alt-right) – aren’t happy with Trump and Brexit and the changes they are bringing.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Democratic Defense Against Disinformation

The transatlantic community has already moved beyond acknowledging that disinformation poses a real threat to our democratic societies, and it has gleaned three valuable lessons: the problem is broader than Russia or any single actor; a democratic response to malign influence must engage the whole of society; and we must work together to learn from each other’s mistakes and successes as we craft governmental and nongovernmental strategies and solutions. Of course, identifying what works will require trial and error and constant adaptation to the ever-changing environment; however, it is important to bear in mind that we have options about how to respond, and we must do so now.

A useful overview of all these options is presented in a new paper published by the Atlantic Council, outlining potential tools to fight disinformation available to the United States, Europe, and the transatlantic community as a whole. The authors offer different recommendations for national governments, civil society, and tech companies, all of which, however, must work in coordination. The paper also proposes the creation of a “Counter-Disinformation Coalition” – an informal group of like-minded governments and non-governmental stakeholders to develop best practices for defending against disinformation.

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