Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.
Topics of the Week
British Parliament moves toward an effective and comprehensive investigation of Russian influence, setting an example for other national parliaments to expose and counter disinformation and influence operations.
The Democratic Party has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Russia, Trump, and Wikileaks for carrying out an illegal conspiracy to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
The US and British governments have issued a joint alert warning businesses about a Russian cyber campaign to hack routers.
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!
Policy & Research News
British Parliament sets example in amping up investigations
Motivated by recent cases of ever bolder hostilities by the Russian Federation – possible meddling in the Brexit referendum and the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – the British Parliament is starting to set some useful examples. Most national parliaments in Europe have the power, at least on paper, to publicly scrutinize and investigate the influence operations of foreign powers (along with any other internal or external issues), but almost none of them actually use it.
It’s a common problem of many state agencies and institutions that even though they are aware of some aspects of the Kremlin’s hostile influence, they do not understand or have the capacity to monitor the whole picture and the connections between issues like political corruption, economic influence, and disinformation operations. The British Parliament has decided to address this challenge by creating “The Russia Co-ordination Group”, consisting of the Chairs of different parliamentary committees, including those dedicated to defence, foreign affairs, internal security, finances and intelligence supervision.
The main goal of this coordinated parliamentary group is to make the scrutiny of Russian-related activities more effective through sharing knowledge about relevant inquiries by the Committees. It will not run joint inquiries, but it will make use of informal meetings to coordinate their work and share existing knowledge in order to make the investigations more comprehensive and maximize the results.
The Chair of the Co-ordination Group is Tory MP Tom Tugendhat. He explained that the group was created due to the need to “understand the extent of Putin’s activity”. According to his statement, “Committees tend to operate separately, they may not have the full picture – seeing the symptoms rather than the cause.” Tugendhat believes the UK should go even further and impose sanctions on oligarchs and government officials with links to Vladimir Putin.
Furthermore, the British Parliament also made public the official proposal of Cambridge Analytica, which reveals its methods and capabilities to influence public opinion before elections or referendums. If you are interested in what companies like this can do for their clients, you can read the full proposal here.
Democratic Party files suit against Russia, Trump, and Wikileaks
Last Friday, the Democratic Party sued the Russian government, Donald Trump and Wikileaks for carrying out a wide-ranging illegal conspiracy to influence the 2016 US presidential election. The Democratic Party claims that Trump campaign officials conspired with the Russian government and its clandestine representatives by hacking Democratic Party computers in order to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Wikileaks is included in the lawsuit for leaking thousands of hacked emails, which the Democrats claim was intended to create conflict within the Democratic base.
Defendants in the multimillion-dollar lawsuit include Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Trump ally Roger Stone, and three people indicted in the Mueller investigation (including Paul Manafort and Rick Gates). The GOP and allies of Donald Trump have called the accusations of collusion “bogus” and the lawsuit a “sham.”
The implications of the lawsuit are unclear as of yet, but there is a precedent: in 1972, the DNC sued then-President Nixon’s reelection committee, seeking $1 million in damages for breaking in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building. The suit was ultimately successful, yielding a $750,000 settlement from the Nixon campaign on the day he left office in 1974. Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, thinks the current suit has merit, even though foreign countries have immunity from most US lawsuits. “There’s no way it’s going to be dismissed,” he said. “At least not on the computer-fraud part of the case, which is really the heart of it. The Democrats have every right to bring this suit as they are aggrieved. My question is: What took them so long?”
Trump administration rejects more Russian sanctions, creating controversy
More signs of disunity appeared last week between President Trump and his national security apparatus. After recent US-led coalition airstrikes hit targets in Damascus, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley announced that further action would be taken by the US against Russia in the form of sanctions targeting Russian companies that are assisting Syria’s chemical weapons program. However, this announcement was contradicted by the White House the very next day, when President Trump announced that no such measures were approved, highlighting the lack of consensus and clear foreign policy strategy. Several officials have stated that the incident occurred because the White House did not inform Haley of its decision to change course regarding new sanctions.
Meanwhile, the sanctions already in place have begun to take a major toll on one of Russia’s industrial titans. What started as a huge selloff of shares and spike in aluminum prices is now impacting the global aluminum supply chain. Steps may have to be taken to make exceptions for some of Rusal’s business entities so that European allies aren’t also affected by these latest US sanctions.
Russian Americans call out the Congress of Russian Americans for disinfo
Back in March, the Congress of Russian Americans (CRA) sent a letter to Donald Trump’s office, which claims to speak on behalf of five million Russian-speaking Americans. The letter, which was supported by the Russian Foreign Ministry and broadly circulated in the Russian media (including RT and Sputnik), lamented the state of relations between the US and Russia and deplored the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats. It also denies Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning.
In response to this letter, 144 Russian-born Americans from various professional spheres sent their own letter to the president last week describing the CRA as a “seemingly pro-Kremlin organization.” They denounce the CRA’s attempt to speak on behalf of all US Russian speakers and categorically oppose its positions, asserting that “there is little doubt that the CRA letter is yet another act in an ongoing informational warfare waged against the United States by the Russian government.” The letter addsthat “none among our numerous respondents reported any incidents of discrimination due to their Russian origin” and points to the CRA letter’s wide circulation in pro-Kremlin media as evidence of its use for the “relentless manipulation of public opinion.”
US and UK governments warn of Russian campaign to hack routers
The US and British governments have issued a joint alert warning businesses about “the worldwide cyber exploitation of network infrastructure devices […] by Russian state-sponsored cyber actors.” The primary targets are “government and private-sector organizations, critical infrastructure providers, and the Internet service providers (ISPs) supporting these sectors.” According to Ciaran Martin of Britain’s National Cyber Security Center, the apparent aim of the attacks was to take control of the devices that connect networks to the Internet and to gain access to ISP customers “for espionage or other purposes.” This attack is part of a growing list of cyber threats coming from Russia including the NotPetya worm, which has been called the costliest cyberattack in history, and computer malware targeting the US energy grid.
Jeanette Manfra, the chief cybersecurity official for the Department of Homeland Security agreed with her British counterpart in blaming the Kremlin for these malicious activities. The warning is part of an ongoing effort by the United States to identify and publicly disclose bad behavior in cyberspace and create deterrents.
The Kremlin’s Current Narrative
With every passing week more evidence comes to light of Russian state involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. The OPCW has confirmedEnglish expert findings that the chemical weapon used in Salisbury was Novichok.
We already know that one of the Kremlin’s favourite manipulation techniques is to deflect blame by accusing the accuser. Thus, Russia tries to discredit individuals, organizations, institutions, and states which provide evidence of Russian misdeeds. In so doing, Russian propagandists challenge the credibility of their opponent and seek to undermine their moral authority to accuse Russia.
Last week, Maria Zakharova provided a masterclass for everyone interested in mastering this technique. With arguments criticizing Britain in this century running out, Zakharova conveniently turned to British history:
“Let’s put aside morals and the law and talk about something different. Maybe the UK Ambassador does not know his own country’s history, role and involvement in processes that took place in other countries over the past centuries […]
Let us talk about state contracts, assassinations and Britain’s reputation […]
The impact of colonial rule in India was extremely devastating […]
Africa has also suffered its share of British abuses. Some 13 million Africans have been removed from the continent as slaves […]
The British were among the first to invent concentration camps for civilians in the Boer War of 1899-1902 […]
In the 1870s, on the orders of the British authorities, a genocide of Zulus was perpetrated in the Cape Colony and in 1954-1961 of the Kikuyu people in Kenya […]
Remembering the notorious Opium Wars would not come amiss […]
The Greeks, too, got their share of British brutality […]”
And so on and so forth. The Russian MFA Communications Department has apparently studied British history books well, given Zakharova’s mention of so many episodes. How any of this relates to the specific issue at hand – the Skripal poisoning – would be a surprise to anyone. In any case, we’ll be waiting impatiently for the Russians to start talking about the dinosaurs.
Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion
Estonian Internal Security Service Annual Review 2017
In its 2017 annual review, the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) identifies the Kremlin’s influence operations as well as its aggressive foreign policy as a serious threat to Estonia. Regarding Russian propaganda, its most common themes in Estonia were ridiculing Estonia over fears of Russian military exercises and blaming the US and NATO for Estonia’s Russophobia. The most inflammatory disinformation targeting Estonia in 2017 was provided by the Petersburg-Channel 5 and its reporter Anatoliy Maiorov, who entered Estonia under illicitly via the Schengen visa area to avoid detection by the Estonian security services. He is now banned from entering the Schengen visa area for three years. The Petersburg-Channel 5 is jointly owned by the National Media Group and the St Petersburg City Council and receives additional murky financing.
In Estonia, Russia also uses various tools to influence young people, especially Russian-speaking youth. It seeks to manipulate history and historical events for propaganda purposes, particularly those relating to WWII and the myth of the Great Victory, as well as to politicize the subject of Soviet and Russian war memorials abroad in order to disrupt social coherence and create animosity between ethnic groups.
Estonia experienced high levels of Russian intelligence activities during 2017. KAPO captured the first ever Russian GRU agent in Estonia, as well as an additional Estonian citizen suspected of working for the GRU. Furthermore, three FSB agents were captured and prosecuted, and two Russian diplomats were expelled for attempting to instigate conflict and create tensions between ethnic groups. A section of the review is also devoted to the protection of state secrets and identifies the most common breaches, offers profiles of people who are most likely to breach classified information, and provides useful security recommendations.