Russian battles over historical narratives: the case of Prague’s Konev statue

The recent escalation in relations between the Czech Republic and Russia, relating to the removal of a Marshal Konev statue, is just another case of Russia waging a “battle” with a post-Communist country over historical narratives. The Kremlin has, for a long time, sought to (re)interpret 20th-century history, in particular WWII. 

The removal of a Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn (in 2007) is often seen as the first of the clashes regarding historical narratives. Since then, these disputes have intensified and become more frequent. Furthermore, Russia has used more sophisticated and aggressive methods “to promote” its own historical narratives. 

Below, we not only provide some basic facts and a timeline documenting the recent escalation of the conflict around the removal of the Marshal Konev statue, but also an overview of similar historical disputes between Russian and other post-Communist countries. We conclude with a set of recommendations that the Czech authorities should undertake. These recommendations are rather universal and, as such, could be applied by any other state that finds itself in a situation similar to that of the Czech Republic.


Topics of the Week

The EU should launch a specialized task force to investigate and counter Chinese disinformation.

Developments in U.S.-Russia nuclear relations: The uncertain future of START.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: The Kremlin rejects latest indications of Moscow’s military support to Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Vladimir Putin issued a plan for the new economy. The goal? Make people rich and happy. List of people attached.

Policy & Research News

Experts call for a European task force to counter Chinese disinfo

The Chinese use of disinformation to advance its foreign policy goals and influence the West had clearly been highlighted during the pandemic crises, as the EEAS and DHS concluded, and needs to be countered by immediate and firm response, Jakub Janda and Nathalie Vogel (European Values Center for Security Policy), write.

Chinese State propaganda displayed its disinformation tools to influence foreign audiences perception of the pandemic, in order to belittle its magnitude and to deny Chinese responsibilities, following a disinfo playbook that looks akin to the Russian one. Chinese pressures weren’t limited to the info-war operations but included other offensive measures to exert pressure, as already briefed here.

Relations between the EU and China will be the core of the upcoming geostrategic agenda, and given the already clear asymmetric offensive, China is adopting to weaken Europe, that includes a massive use of disinformation, a special task force, analogous to the EEAS East Stratcom Task Force set following Russia invasion of Ukraine, to counter Chinese disinformation is needed, experts say. “The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, should launch this EEAS task force immediately”, Kalensky (Atlantic Council DFRlab) suggests. It should consist of at least 15 specialists on Chinese disinformation, and be producing weekly analysis to monitor Chinese disinfo to raise awareness among the public, and inform decision-makers. 

China borrows Kremlin playbook, advancing high-stakes novel offensive

Amidst pandemic, Russia and China boosted their asymmetric offensive towards the West, in a coordinated effort that now sees the Chinese, after borrowing the traditional Kremlin playbook, pushing it with a renewed, independent proactiveness. The alarm is launched by a Brookings Institution’s analysis, whose findings are largely shared in the experts’ community.

The Chinese Communist Party long-term goals to weaken the Transatlantic ties were so far exerted through economic pressure and strategically motivated investments abroad, in addition to an info-war far less noted than the traditionally threatening Russian one. The pandemic created a tactical coincidence of interest in the domain of info-war between Russia and China, but Beijing is now abandoning its low profile and starting to advance its goals autonomously.

Among the reasons behind this changed Chinese posture is the apparent impunity of malicious actors in using disinformation to manipulate the public, and the incentive provided by the gain of the desired goal in doing so – as occurred in the purported watering down of the EEAS report on COVID disinfo, following Chinese pressure, the Brookings analysis stresses.

This novel Chinese stance requires an urgent and tailored response, experts say, suggesting the establishment of an ad hoc task force.

US Developments

Developments in U.S.-Russia nuclear relations

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is the only remaining arms treaty between Russia and the United States. According to an article in Defense News It expires on February 5 if it is not renewed by the United States, just over two weeks after America’s next president will be inaugurated. Although Russia has offered to extend the agreement, Trump is holding out because he believes that China should have to join the treaty as well. While Russia appears to agree that a deal including China is necessary, this will obviously be a complicated task, given both the tight time-table and pandemic chaos. In addition, China seems unwilling to even consider an agreement.

If the deal were to end, it would be much more difficult for the U.S. to monitor Russia’s nuclear activities. However, Trump does not seem very concerned with this. When announcing that he would not be renewing the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the U.S. and Russia to conduct overhead surveillance, he cited numerous violations of the treaty by the Kremlin. President Trump may feel the same way about START as well. To make matters more complicated, Trump has suggested that the United States may begin nuclear testing again. The U.S. has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992. The testing would be in response to alleged small-scale nuclear testing by both Moscow and Beijing, however, there is no publicly available evidence of this. The coming months will be very important in determining the next 5 years of nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia.

American coronavirus aid reaches Russia

This week, the first load of American COVID-19 aid arrived in Russia. This delivery included 50 of 200 promised ventilators along with other medical supplies. Both Russian and American diplomats are touting the joint aid as an example of U.S-Russia cooperation, with the Russian Foreign Ministry declaring the aid as a “sincere humanitarian gesture.” Russia is in particularly desperate need of ventilators after having to recall a very common model due to safety concerns. However, the politicization of the aid continues. The Kremlin recently claimed that its Direct Investment Fund covered the costs of equipment sent to the U.S. in April, while the United States claims it was forced to foot the bill. Additionally, while the Russian government banned the operation of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on Russian soil in 2012, it was happy to accept USAID medial equipment as “a return act of good will.”

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

The Kremlin rejects latest indications of Moscow’s military support to Haftar

On May 21, at least eight Soviet-era warplanes reportedly flew from the Russian-controlled Hmeimim Air Base in Syria into the territory under the control of General Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya. If confirmed, it would signal the Kremlin’s readiness to step up its military support for Gen Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), in what risks to escalate into a full-scale proxy war on Libya’s battleground. Earlier this month, Reuters read a UN report revealing the presence in Libya of some 1,200 private military contractors from the Russian paramilitary organisation known as Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group is seen as close to Vladimir Putin and the organisation has been tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious financier behind the Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency – more commonly known under the infamous name of “Troll Factory”. Prigozhin was reported to finance the Wagner Group’s current operations in both Syria and Africa.

The Russian government has consistently denied providing military support to Gen Haftar, with the Kremlin’s outlets obviously aligning with this claim. On RIA, the report exposing the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries is dismissed as full of “mistakes and deliberate falsifications … unverified or clearly fabricated data aimed at discrediting Russia”. Similarly, according to RT, the warplanes were delivered to Gen Haftar through unspecified “foreign support”. Nowhere on the various outlets is the Kremlin explicitly linked to the LNA, and Russia is never named among the governments that support Haftar’s offensive. From this perspective, the Kremlin is portrayed exclusively as a constructive force committed to a peaceful settlement of the war in Libya.

Meanwhile, Haftar is often described as a benevolent man capable of “noble gesture[s]”. In the propaganda movie titled “Shugalei”, released in April and available on RT’s Youtube channel, Haftar is portrayed as a patriotic and sensible general who holds off from forcing his way into Tripoli because he fears for the citizen’s safety.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference

By Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb

This study published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies examines the success of the Active Measures Working Group, a part-time U.S. Government interagency committee established in the 1980s to counter Soviet disinformation. Even though interagency committees are commonly criticized as ineffective, the Active Measures Working Group became the U.S. Government’s body of expertise on disinformation and was highly regarded in both Congress and the executive branch. It succeeded in exposing Soviet covert operations and raising the political cost of future operations by shedding light on the prevalence of disinformation globally.

The group successfully moved the majority of the U.S. national security bureaucracy towards seeing Soviet disinformation as deleterious to U.S. interests. The reports produced by the group and their impact far exceeded the costs of manning the group, and the group’s activities drove the Soviet cost of producing disinformation up to an unsustainable level. Such an effective working group cannot be easily replicated for several reasons, and the current national security system is not conducive to small interagency group success. The study highlights how the Active Measures Working Group was an exceptional case, not the rule. Effective strategic communications, deep and diverse expertise from multiple organizations and exceptional personnel with a high level of cohesion and trust all contributed to the group’s success.

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.