Lessons Learned from the Czech Experience in Fighting Disinformation for the Western Balkans

Aiming for practitioners and policymakers, this in-depth review catalogues the recent Czech experience in countering disinformation in the public and private sectors. The Czech government is gradually recognizing the importance of the political acknowledgement of the threats disinformation poses. The recommended countermeasures in this paper, coupled with a commitment to transparency, have shown their effectiveness. Czechia’s experience is a reminder that tangible results demand a committed partnership between the state and civil society. Crucially, the private sector should be better engaged as part of a socially holistic solution. From this publication, Western Balkan stakeholders stand to draw valuable lessons for their own struggles against authoritarian influence in the information space.

Review of the Disinformation Scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2020

With this country-specific review, EVC identifies and analyzes the various disinformation themes that dominated BiH’s online information space in 2020. Unsurprisingly, the highest amount of disinformation in 2020 was related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with vaccination-related issues being the most dominant topic of COVID-19 in BiH; false or unsubstantiated treatments and responses to the virus followed closely. Separately, disinformation about the alleged dangers of 5G technology and its links to coronavirus has spread quickly despite the lack of any scientific evidence. Disinformation about face masks, generally portraying them as “ineffective” and “harmful”. In tandem, these pandemic-related topics were used to frame the continual narrative of transatlantic weakness and disintegration.


Topics of this week

Borrell’s visit to Moscow ended as a debacle as the expulsion of member-state diplomats from Russia demonstrates a new low for EU-Russian relations.

Ukraine closes Putin-backed disinformation outlets as its Foreign Intelligence Service publicly identifies Russia as an acute threat.

Western Woes: The sentencing of Navalny

Good Old Soviet Joke

Question for Radio Yerevan: Will there still be a KGB under communism?
Radio Yerevan answers: No! By that time, people will learn to arrest themselves.

Policy & Research News

Borrell’s mission to Russia met with expulsion of member-state diplomats in new low for EU-Russian relations

The rare visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to Moscow last week to express the bloc’s condemnation of the treatment of Alexei Navalny has widely been deemed a failure, even a fiasco. In an explicit rejection of Borrell’s call for constructive dialogue and the release of the opposition leader, on Friday Russia expelled three diplomats from EU member states just hours after Borrell met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. One diplomat each from the embassies of Poland, Germany, and Sweden were accused of participating in “illegal protests” last month.

The move saw immediate international condemnation, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas calling the expulsion “in no way justified”, and Poland summoning their Russian ambassador over the decision. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the expulsions “a crude attempt to distract from Russia’s targeting of opposition leaders, protestors and journalists”, and vowed to stand in solidarity with their European partners. By Monday of this week, all three member states affected by the expulsions had returned the gesture by declaring a member from each of the Russian embassies in Berlin, Warsaw, and Stockholm ‘personae non-gratae’.

In the wake of Borrell’s apparent humiliation in Moscow, a call for his resignation has been quickly gathering support among Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The letter, addressed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and signed by more than 70 MEPs, claims that “Mr Borrell’s misjudgement in proactively deciding to visit Moscow, and his failure to stand for the interests and values of the European Union during his visit, have caused severe damage to the reputation of the EU”.

Despite one of their own diplomats being caught in the middle of the escalating EU-Russian diplomatic clash, the German political establishment still hasn’t been swayed from its support of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In responding to the incident on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the government’s position that the diplomatic expulsions were unjustified, and told reporters that while the German government “reserve[s] the right to continue sanctions, especially against individuals”, the position on Nord Stream 2 “is not affected by this for the time being”. Armin Laschet, the newly-elected chief of Merkel’s party who is likely to become the next Chancellor, further clarified this position in an interview with Reuters where he affirmed his support for continuing sanctions against Russia but stated that the Navalny affair was not grounds to renounce the pipeline project, arguing that “feel-good moralising and domestic slogans are not foreign policy”.

Ukraine closes Putin-backed disinformation outlets as its Foreign Intelligence Service publicly identifies Russia as an acute threat

Three Ukrainian television channels – NewsOne, ZIK, and 112 – identified as platforms for Kremlin messaging and linked to Putin-associate Viktor Medvedchuk, were closed on February 2 following an order from President Zelensky. The President emphasised that the move targeted “Russian disinformation” and that “Ukraine strongly supports freedom of speech.” Zelensky’s spokeswoman, Iulia Mendel, justified the five-year sanctions on the selected outlets and their legal owner – Taras Kozak – by suggesting that there was evidence of direct funding from Russia.

In response, the Russian government condemned the Ukrainian government’s decree as an “outrageous example of political censorship and unfair competition.” Whereas Ukraine’s decision received support from foreign partners including the United Kingdom, the EU reaction has been more restrained. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy acknowledged Ukraine’s right to defend its national security but cautioned that it should not “come at the expense of freedom of media.”   

The media closures come following the publication of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine’s White Book 2021 in January. It is the first time the service has published details of threats facing Ukraine, and the document crucially identifies Russia and Russian disinformation – and hybrid warfare broadly – as major threats. In so doing, Ukraine follows the example of EU member states such as the Czech Republic and Estonia, whose intelligence services regularly publish reports that recognise Russia as a major threat; outline the adversary’s methods and ambitions, and disclose specific malign influence activities.

As part of the long-term de-Russification of defence and security, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence previously declared 2021 the year of Euro-Atlantic transformation, including implementation of reforms focused on “NATO standards” and a “Euro-Atlantic type integrated defence institution.” As such, the Foreign Intelligence Service’s implementation of “terms of openness, transparency and democratic civilian control” along European lines is additional evidence of Ukraine’s NATO aspirations and further embrace of a Western security culture.

US Developments

Biden’s State Department Speech Indicates a Tougher Stance on Russia

Biden gave a speech at the US State Department on February 4, where he condemned Russia’s jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, called for his immediate release, and pledged to take a firmer stance on Russia than his predecessor. Biden stated that he “made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different than my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions – interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens – are over.” This speech came on the same day that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan vowed to hold Russia accountable for ‘malign activities’, signalling a sharp change away from the previous administration’s approach towards Russia.

Three New Pieces of Legislation Introduced in the US Senate Targeting Russia

The bipartisan legislation — two bills and a resolution – have all been read on the Senate floor and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE)  introduced a resolution in the Senate, “expressing the sense of the Senate that the activities of Russian national Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his affiliated entities pose a threat to the national interests and national security of the United States and allies and partners of the United States around the world.” The resolution (S.Res.26), suggests that President Biden should not only maintain sanctions on Prigozhin, his affiliates, and the Wagner Group but also work with Congress and international allies to counter the “malign influence and activities of Prigozhin.” Simple Resolutions such as S.Res.26 are often used by both the House and Senate to express positions and sentiments on certain matters, and thus do not have the force of law.

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), introduced S.158 – “a bill to promote international efforts in combating corruption, kleptocracy, and illicit finance by foreign officials and other foreign persons, including through a new anti-corruption action fund, and for other purposes,” otherwise known as the CROOK Act – the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act. The bill would create an anti-corruption fund to assist countries that are transitioning to democracy. It would also establish a whole-of-government mechanism to strengthen the rule of law abroad with the creation of an interagency task force, anti-corruption points of contact and reporting requirements.

Finally, a group of senators, led by Senator Coons, introduced S.208the Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act of 2021. It seeks to impose sanctions on Russian officials involved in the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and would require reports on both the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and on the assets and wealth collected by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both S.158 and S.208 will need to be studied by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations before they are released to the Senate to be debated, amended, and voted on; if the bill passes by simple majority, it will move to the House of Representatives, to be amended and voted on. In order for S.158 and S.208 to become law, both the House of Representatives and the Senate must agree on one identical version of the bill to be sent over to President Biden for approval.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Western Woes: The Sentencing of Navalny

As Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was ordered to serve the remainder of a 3½-year prison sentence, world leaders reacted in unison. The condemnations made for frank discussion as Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, for diplomatic talks in Moscow. In a joint press conference, Borrell reasserted the EU position on the sentencing, by stating that he had “reiterated our appeal for his release and the launch of an impartial investigation over his poisoning.” Yet, while the EU has been keen to highlight this “low-point” in EU-Russia relations, the Kremlin’s narrative has been one of interference.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova accused foreign countries of interfering in the internal affairs of Russia. The interference, she argues, is part of “a coordinated information campaign,” carried out by the West and aimed at competitors. The Russian Foreign Ministry, who reported on a conversation between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, also framed the Navalny situation in this way: “the minister gave detailed explanations as to the need to respect legislation and judicial system of the Russian Federation.”  Interference, it has been suggested, was also present at the sentencing itself.

Writing on her Facebook page, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said she understood the presence of diplomats, but ultimately Navalny is a Russian citizen and the presence of so many foreign representatives is evidence of the collective West trying to contain Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov struck a similar tone and commented that diplomats should not “allow any action that would somehow try to put pressure on an independent court.” In addition to this narrative of interference, the Kremlin has sought to play down the issues surrounding the sentencing of Navalny.

The state-run news agency TASS drew attention to comments made by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. The headline “Lavrov lambasts West’s hysteria over Navalny case,” was the prelude to an article quoting the foreign minister, where he described the situation as being, “way over the top.”  Furthermore, Sputnik reported on comments made by the Russian embassy in London, calling the UK Foreign Secretary’s demand for Navalny’s release both “rude and incompetent.”  While Russia claims an interest in reviving relations between itself and the EU, both accusations of attempted influence and the downplaying of Navalny’s sentencing seem to have forced the EU to draw its own lines in the sand.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.