Topics of the Week

HR/VP Borrell was questioned by the European Parliament on the watering down of the EEAS disinformation report due to Chinese pressure.

Kremlin charges the U.S. $660,000.00 USD for COVID-19 “humanitarian aid”

A new investigation links senior Russian FSB officer to MH17 crash.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Ceausescu met with a Romanian astronaut and asked him why he had been floating in the cabin between the floor and the ceiling. “That’s because the law of gravity doesn’t apply in space,” the astronaut replied.

In the evening, Ceausescu asks his wife Elena, “When did I sign a law of gravity?”

“Don’t ask me,” Elena snapped, “I’m a scientist, not a lawyer.”

Policy & Research News

European Parliament questions Borrell on the disinfo report

Following the EP angering over the watering down of the EEAS report on COVID-related disinformation, Thursday 30 April the EU Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing with HR/VP Borrell whose cabinet is directly accused to have ordered the revision following Chinese pressures.

In his opening statement, Borrell specified the existing difference between the full report – Information Environment Assessments (IEA), intended for internal consumption, and the overview provided to the public through the EUvsDisinfo website, alleging the differences in tone noted by the New York Times last week, among other anomalies, were attributable to the differences in nature of the two reports – the second of which, public, must be published only when certainly exempt from “inaccuracies”. He did not deny a Chinese comment on the report, “as a diplomatic service”, he added, a dialogue with foreign officials is business as usual – but he rejected the claim he ordered to revise the report “bowing” to Chinese pressures.

Nevertheless, not all the MEPs were satisfied with the answer.

“Whether true or not, the damage to our reputation is done and we inadvertently communicated to our adversaries that harassing and intimidating our diplomats will work and they should continue”, MEP Gregorova explained.

In a retaliatory escalation, Czech officials targeted by Russian spy plot

Prague mayor Zdanek Hrib, and district mayors Ondrej Kolar and Pavel Novotny confirmed to be under police protection following an attack attempt by a Russian agent, as disclosed by an investigative article on weekly magazine “Respekt” last week. The Czech officials first appeared to be targeted by a poisoning attempt, but the possibility the plan was to abduct them to be trialled in Russia is currently under investigation.

While Hrib declined to give further details on the ongoing police inquiry, he confirmed his case was already under the authorities attention during the second week of April.

The attack plot comes after an escalation of retaliatory measures undertaken by Russia to punish Prague for the removal of the statue of the controversial Marshall Konev, last 3 April, and to have renamed the square hosting Russian Embassy in Prague after Boris Nemtsov, last February, to commemorate the Russian dissident after 5 years from his murder – along with WashingtonKyiv, and Vilnius.

Following this, Czech Republic was first targeted with a smoke bombing of its Moscow Embassy (5 April), the announcement of opening criminal probe against the removal of the statue (10 April) and a coordinated wave of cyber-attacks aimed at Prague’s airport, the Health Ministry, and several hospitals, during the lock-down. 

The escalation come at a time when Russian espionage in the country is particularly active, and facilitated by the diplomatic cover conferred to the oversized staff of the Russian Embassy in Prague, making the country a “de facto base” “in the Schengen area”, David Stulik, senior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy, said.

Moreover, this coordinated offensive again denotes the importance of historical revisionism in Russian disinformation campaigns, so that “if you are taking down a Konev statue, then you must be a fascist,” Jakub Janda, director of the European Values Center for Security Policy, notes.

US Developments

Kremlin charges the U.S. $660,000.00 USD for COVID-19 “aid”

report by ABC News reveals that the Russian government charged the United States over 600,000 USD for a planeload of ventilators and personal protective equipment to aid healthcare workers in the U.S. The so-called “aid” was offered by President Putin to President Trump in a private phone conversation. While Trump gladly accepted the assistance, some analysts have criticized the “aid” as a “public relations coup”, or as disinformation fodder. In line with this theory, the equipment is being touted as “humanitarian aid” in Russia, despite the attempt to extract money from the United States. To add insult to injury, due to voltage differences and other issues, some of the equipment was not usable. It is important to call attention to these facts to limit the Kremlin’s use of “aid” as propaganda.

New documents related to Flynn investigation suggest case was concocted

Michael Flynn is a former Trump administration national security advisor who stood accused of acting on behalf of the Kremlin. However, according to a Politico article, new documents reveal that in early 2017, the FBI was prepared to close the case against Flynn, having found no “derogatory” information on him. This decision was reversed very suddenly, as directed by the upper echelons of the FBI. Flynn initially pled guilty to lying to the FBI but is now in the process of retracting his statement, citing egregious misconduct and political targeting within the agency. It is unclear what the implications of this new information will be, but President Trump has stated he would consider reinstating Flynn, and the Trump administration has admonished the FBI for it handling of the Russia investigation.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

A new investigation links senior Russian FSB officer to MH17 crash

In a report published on April 28, the open-source researchers of the investigative outlet Bellingcat and Russian news site The Insider have linked Colonel-General Andrei Burlaka, a top officer in Russia’s main security and intelligence agency, to the 2014 downing of the MH17 over eastern Ukraine. From extensive analysis of the call intercepts made available by the Joint Investigation Team, Bellingcat maintains that Col. Burlaka – acting under the pseudonym of “Vladimir Ivanovich” – would be implicated in the transport of the Russian BUK missile launcher that shot the Malaysian airliner after crossing the border into the Donetsk region, noting that Burlaka was “in a crucial position to supervise the movement of weapons from Russia to Ukraine, and thus would have had to authorise the transfer”.

These findings have caused the reaction of Russian state-run outlets, that promptly mobilised to refute the validity of those conclusions, relying also on the opinion of the habitual pro-Kremlin experts and officials. Across the various channels, Bellingcat’s investigation is consistently discredited for bringing no evidence and only containing “unfounded accusations” and “loud statements”. In support of these claims, pro-Kremlin agents insist that the communications that would implicate Col. Burlaka – intercepted by Ukraine’s secret services and decrypted by the Joint Investigation Team – were in fact tampered and falsified with the purpose to corroborate “pre-prepared conclusions” against Russia.

These assumptions are not new in the script played by Moscow to actively thwart the MH17 trial and delegitimize any evidence of Russia’s involvement – as acknowledged by the Dutch prosecutors themselves. Already in previous instances, Russian outlets complained that the tapes were manipulated and that investigators were choosing to ignore irrefutable evidence of Russia’s innocence. In this context, Russia is portrayed as the target of a Western conspiracy, that sees the active involvement of Britain and the US and of which Bellingcat’s investigation is only the latest manifestation.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Risks and Vulnerabilities in the Western Balkans

By the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence

Based on a year-long study by the Global Focus Center, this report published by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence identifies the vulnerabilities hostile actors can exploit to gain influence over the Western Balkan region. Factors such as high economic dependence on non-Western powers, strategic alignment with the political agendas of non-Euro-Atlantic powers and limited integration with the West, in general, can all be viewed as vulnerabilities that Russia may try to weaponise.

To identify resilience gaps exhibited by the Western Balkans, researchers created a Permeability Index, an instrument for assessing a country’s vulnerability to hostile influence. An average score of 1.5 indicates that the vulnerability is not easily exploitable by hostile actors. Overall, North Macedonia and Albania had the lowest scores on the index. Bosnia and Herzegovina fared worst on the Permeability Index, with a high score of 2.05. The deep divisions between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are exhibited through the lack of clarity over strategic orientation. This, coupled with a polarized population divided over NATO membership and many other factors, are matters of very high concern.

If each state recognizes its own vulnerabilities and institutional gaps in order to create a tailored strategy to close resilience gaps, countries will be better equipped to counter hostile influence. Effective tools for immediate action include: increased awareness at all levels, deconstruction and denouncement of the mechanisms of disinformation, uncovering the methods used, highlighting lessons learned and debating best practices and remedies with a wide and diverse audience. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; in the short term, countermeasures should be centred on the response (preventing hostile actions and raising the cost of such actions), but investment in civil society is fundamental to building resilience. Members of the Western Balkans should be able to access expertise from the EU and/or NATO member states; cooperation and sharing of best practices are paramount.

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.