Topics of the Week

The European Parliament pointed out that Russia is not a strategic partneranymore and calls for new Magnitsky-style sanctions.

Russian oligarch sued the U.S. government over sanctions posed on him last year.

Vladimir Putin “celebrated” Crimean residents as heroes and survivors of the “Crimean Spring.”

ENISA’s forward-looking recommendations to improve the cybersecurity of electoral processes in the EU.

Good Old Soviet Joke

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Policy & Research News

News from the European Parliament

On Tuesday, members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution officially noting that the EU-Russia relations have further deteriorated. According to European Interest, the main factors for this deterioration are Russia’s interference in countries such as Syria, Ukraine, Libya and the Central African Republic, as well as Russia’s support for far-right and anti-EU movements in Europe. The resolution also recommends that the EU review its current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia and condemns Russian disinformation and cyber-attacks in Europe ahead of the EP elections in May. Notably, the MEPs recommend a substantial increase in funding and resources diverted to the EU’s East Stratcom Task Force.

“The time for nice and diplomatic language is over”, said Sandra Kalniete, an MEP from Latvia, Vice-Chairwoman of the EPP Group responsible for foreign affairs and the author of the report in question.

On the next day, the EP passed a joint motion for a resolution that would lead to the establishment of a Europe-wide sanctions regime against any individual or entity that has committed or assisted in committing, gross human rights violations and abuses, as well as acts of systemic corruption related to gross human rights violations. The sanctions measures would include asset freezes and EU-entry bans and would be intended to supplement and not replace existing measures. While the motion is not explicitly aimed at any country specifically, it notes that the EU sanctions regime should “explicitly and symbolically carry Sergei Magnitsky’s name” in reference to the anti-Russian sanction regimes adopted by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. However, despite resolute and determined language in both the motion for sanctions and the report on the EU-Russia relations, it remains to be seen whether the EU will develop the ability to stand up to Russia despite economic and political pressures and the EU’s current track record of ineffectiveness and inertia.

So, what kind of response can Europe expect from Russia? According to an op-ed by the European Council of Foreign RelationsRussia might be becoming disillusioned with its policy of covert interference in Europe’s affairs.

The article explains that Russia tends to assess the workings of Europe incorrectly, leading to significant international miscalculations such as miscalculating Europe’s response to the invasion of Crimea or celebrating the end of the EU, only to have it reasserted after the election of France’s President Macron. There are intersecting reasons for this, such as Russia’s historical worldview that understands the world as a great power competition – badly suited to interpret the EU’s model of consensual multilateral compromise – and the tendency to overstate economic power due to a Marxist education and history.

Due to a series of highly public international blunders in the last decade and the seeming inability of Moscow’s EU allies to change the course of the Union, the ECFP argues that Russia will not be interfering in a significant overpowering way in the coming EP elections. Rather, Russia will watch the elections closely to gauge Europe’s future political direction and whether to even engage with Europe as a political actor that’s substantially independent of Washington. An election result that would confirm Europe’s unity and ability to respond to its sceptics would demonstrate to Moscow that the EU is here to stay and thus a unit to accept and reckon with.

Spain to launch cybersecurity group ahead of spring elections

The Spanish government has initiated the creation of a group of experts to track hybrid threats ahead of its various local, regional, and European wide elections. The move comes as authorities have become more and more aware of the danger of disinformation and cyber threats. La Moncloa has admitted that the threat is vast and the focus is currently more on identifying the threats.

In terms of cybersecurity, all computers linked to the elections will have to be certified by the National Encryption Center to ensure that outside influence is not possible. Spain did move to create a joint group with Russia late last year that would ease friction caused by cybersecurity threats, a move that did not jive well with other EU nations.

La Moncloa admitted that the threat of disinformation is much more complex, El Paīs reported. “For now there are no computer tools that can guarantee the detection of fake news. We are asking high-level companies to work on detection programs, but it is not easy.” With memories of the Catalonian referendum still fresh, Spanish society is worried about disinformation and cybersecurity. Spain will have more than 100 police officers scanning the web for signs of both, as large companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter continue to move slowly in creating detection programs.

Denmark to create a Cyber Security Council

As the Centre for Cyber Security in Denmark receives another round of funding from a recently agreed upon bill, the Ministry of Defense has created a Council where different levels of government and members of the relevant private sector can advise the government on further developments to “national cyber and information security strategy.” The Council will increase the cooperation within Denmark between private and public sectors, while also creating a new space for research and public education opportunities. With a broader mandate than the previously set up advisory board and a larger staff, the Council hopes to greatly bolster Denmark’s cybersecurity toolbox against attacks, said Minister of Innovation Sophie Løhde.

US Developments

U.S., Canada, and the EU place new sanctions on Russia

The U.S. in coordination with Canada and the EU has placed new sanctions on more than a dozen Russian officials and businesses due to Moscow’s continued aggression in Ukraine. Friday the U.S. Treasury said that the US will sanction six officials, six Russian defence firms, while two Russian energy and construction firms were targeted either over the November 2018  seizure of Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait or for their activities in Russian-annexed Crimea or the Donbass region.

Four of the officials are Russian border guard or coast guard officers who have been singled out for their role in the Kerch strait naval confrontation in which the Russian navy opened fire on Ukrainian ships and captured twenty-four Ukrainian sailors. The other two individuals are Ukrainian separatists involved in organizing elections in Donetsk. The six sanctioned defence firms have been targeted over their misappropriation of Ukrainian state assets to provide service for the Russian military in Crimea. The sanctions will freeze all property and interests in property belonging to the designated individuals and entities and prohibit U.S. citizens from transacting with them. Canada placed additional sanctions on Russia, 114 individuals and 15 entities, including Vladimir Yakunin, a friend of Putin and the former head of state-owned Russian Railways. While Yakunin was included in 2014 U.S. sanctions, he escaped the Canadian list at the time because of his close ties to Bombardier INC, a Canadian air and train maker.

Also on Friday the U.S., Canada, and the EU again pressed Moscow to release the still detained Ukrainian crew. Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S State Department spokesman Robert Palladino have reiterated that Russia needs to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that their ongoing aggression in Ukraine will not continue to go unchecked. A Washington DC Russian embassy spokesman described the sanctions as a regrettable action that further threaten the already weakened bilateral relations between Moscow and the US and Canada.

Russian Oligarch sues the U.S. over old sanctions

Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin sued the U.S. government on Friday, demanding that they lift old sanctions on him, dating back to last April, that he claimed have cost him billions of dollars, made him a pariah in international business circles and exposed him to criminal investigation and asset confiscation in Russia. The lawsuit called Deripaska “the latest victim of [the U.S.’] political infighting regarding the supposed Russian interference in the 2016 elections”. The lawsuit also said that American anti-Russian hysteria prevents Deripaska from having a meaningful opportunity to challenge the sanctions, which were imposed on him personally. with the American Treasury Department.

In January the U.S. dropped the sanctions on Deripaska’s two main companies Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer outside of China and its parent company the En+ Group, after Deripaska agreed to relinquish control over his corporate empire. However, sanctions continue to apply to Deripaska himself. The Treasury Department has not commented on the pending litigation, and sanctions experts have given the lawsuit a low chance of success. The sanctions were placed on Deripaska because the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) alleged that Deripaska was profiting off of his ties to Putin and from global Russian malign activity. Deripaska’s case asks OFAC to directly remove him from the sanctions list, however experts say this is unlikely to happen because OFAC will defer to their parent agency the Treasury Department.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Crimean Citizens Hailed as “Crimean Spring” Survivors

The year 2019 marks the 5th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing aggression within the eastern Ukrainian region. To fittingly commemorate the event in the eyes of the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin recently took part in the “festivities,” hailing Crimea’s residents as heroes and survivors of the “Crimean Spring.” The entire event coated in a sense of dreamy nostalgia reminiscent of the Soviet era. Interestingly, the event coincides with public proclamations from the Putin regime that attempt to distort reality and propagate the fears of a NATO takeover of the Crimean region.

In addition, Russian media outlets have been promoting the idea that any further NATO or EU integration with Ukraine is a “minefield for the architecture of European security.” Clearly, the Putin regime, desiring a sense of longevity, still feels its need to preserve a pro-Moscow geopolitical alignment within the post-Soviet region. Doing so only promotes an endless and vicious cycle of an omnipresent aura of fear and a longing for “strongman” leadership amongst the Russian populace. Thus, the need to promote a sense of media literacy, sound judgment, and keen discernment is continuously necessary to counter the development of such conniving disinformation.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Election cybersecurity: Challenges and opportunities

Our this week’s recommendation is a paper released by the EU Cybersecurity Agency, which presents the opinion of the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) with regard to the cybersecurity of elections. ENISA accounts for the key areas that could be targeted by malicious actors around elections. Motivations for interference may vary from financial gain and national interests to attempts at subverting political opposition and undermining trust in democracy, while some examples of the common methods are spear phishing, disinformation, and data theft. In light of the upcoming 2019 European Parliament elections, in particular, it is important to safeguard the whole election cycle, from the maintenance of the electoral register to the delivery of results.

ENISA provides forward-looking recommendations to improve the cybersecurity of electoral processes in the EU. These include deploying technology that would identify unusual traffic patterns, ensuring the availability of back-up channels/technologies to validate the results, and developing more exercises aimed at testing election cybersecurity. Furthermore, it emphasises the importance of upholding values set down in the Treaty of Lisbon while tackling disinformation and increased cooperation among the Member States in strengthening cybersecurity across the EU.

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