Topics of the Week

The expulsions and arrests over Russian espionage in Europe are not over yet, this time in France.

Disinformation campaigns in the US use racial appeals and focus on American civil unrest.

What are the Kremlin’s expectations from the elections in Montenegro and the upcoming regional elections in Russia?

Belarus – what comes next? (on-line panel debate)

Ales Lahviniec, Belarusian political analyst and activist, a lecturer at the European Humanities University (Vilnius), former advisor to Aliaksandar Milinkevich, presidential candidate (2006)
Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Political analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a fellow at the GMF
Jakub Górnicki, Polish journalist, co-founder of
David Stulík, Senior Analyst of the Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Center for Security PolicyIf you missed the live stream of our last online debate about the developments in Belarus, you can watch the recording on YouTube.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A farmworker greets Josef Stalin at his potato farm.

“Comrade Stalin, we have so many potatoes that, piled one on top of the other, they would reach all the way to God,” the farmer excitedly tells his leader.

“But God does not exist,” replies Stalin.

“Exactly,” says the farmer. “Neither do the potatoes.”

Policy & Research News

The mission is not accomplished: French military officer detained over espionage for Russia

A French soldier serving in NATO’s southern command in Naples was arrested for spying for Russia. The Defense Ministry of France stated that the suspect might have collected the top classified information for the Russian intelligence apparatus and will face legal proceedings for the security breach. It is established that previously the French lieutenant-colonel passed the secret documents to the GRU

The market of ‘informants’ employed by the Russian intelligence corpus who are thirsting for inside information is quite wide and they remain to be active abroad during the last decade. However, over the last few years, there is an explicit surge of espionage scandals involving the Kremlin which are followed by the expulsions of Russian intelligence officers from multiple Western countries. 

Only this year, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Norway, Czech Republic, and Austria have already expelled several Russian diplomats or detained their own citizens over alleged espionage with Kremlin intelligence officers. Such expulsions are becoming a ‘new normality’ and also signal Russia that NATO and EU counterparts will not tolerate undermining covert activities on their soil, while blatant impudence of the Russian intelligence corpus will not be left unnoticed and unpunishable.

The Kremlin is creating inviting opportunities for interference in Belarus

The post-election chaos in Belarus is escalating. The number of arrests is increasing daily, and already reached at least 200 detained demonstrators in total, accreditations of international journalists were revoked, yet crowds of protestors keep flooding the streets; whereas the risk of Russian intervention is still up in the air. 

Last week Putin announced that he will send the Russian military troops to assist Lukashenko in deterring the pro-democratic unrest if it goes violent. It was also spotted that last Wednesday the plane with FSB top officials landed in Minsk, yet Russia emphasized that they are not aware of what kind of personnel could be on board and what was the reason for their arrival. Another Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations aircraft carried out a flight to Minsk on August 30

The question of whether Putin will openly intervene in Belarus is dominating the current geopolitical debate. Although, there is a belief that the Kremlin’s encroachment with little support inside of Russia will likely result in a 180-degree turn of Belarusians against Russia, the danger of the overt intervention should not be ruled out. Putin’s actions and statements explicitly signal that Moscow will not tolerate any color revolutions in its ‘backyard’ and will exert any efforts to prevent any pivot towards democracy.

Furthermore, military intervention is just a part of the already unfolding intervention. In the age of hybrid tools, Russian influence in the country is already maintained through the exploitation of the network of Russian intelligence and security corpus, the economic dependence of Belarus on Russia, and censorship and propaganda via media channels. Russia is already deeply integrated with Belarus, so it has sufficient instruments for leverage and to preserve its presence regardless of who is the Belarusian leader. Nonetheless, the potential for intervention’s escalation remains high and should not be downplayed, since the geopolitical and security setbacks of this invasion for Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine would be dramatic.

Meanwhile, Western leaders are want Putin to stay our of Belarus. The EU already reached a political accord over sanctions against Belarus, and Angela Merkel warned the Kremlin to not intervene in Belarus and to allow people to exercise their fundamental rights. The Baltic states also imposed travel sanctions against Lukashenko and some other state officials. The Western coalition should stay vigilant, be prepared to deter any aggression stemming from Putin, and keep on calling for peaceful engagement with civilians and the resolution of this crisis.

US Developments

Black voters specifically targeted in disinformation campaigns

Recent disinformation campaigns coming out of Russia, Iran, and China have featured racial appeals and a focus on American civil unrest, as confirmed by major social media companies who have recently announced the removal of fake accounts suspected of attempting to manipulate online audiences. During the 2016 election, Russian operatives masquerading as Black Americans using account names such as “Blacktivist” and “BlackMattersUS” achieved a remarkable level of disinformation transmission over social media.

According to a report for the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian disinformation efforts in 2018,  “[Russia’s Internet Research Agency] created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem.”

Disinformation experts expect that social media will “be central to foreign and domestic efforts to mislead voters” in the coming election. These campaigns, such as those tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, would appear to borrow heavily from KGB strategies which frequently sought to exploit racial division in the U.S.

Russian-linked outlet fights Facebook transparency in U.S. courts

As Facebook and other social media platforms ramp up transparency efforts, the companies have seen increased push back from the very pages they have been labeling as “state-controlled.” The parent company of a popular Facebook page, “In the Now,” has filed a lawsuit against Facebook over their labeling of the page as a state-controlled media outlet.

With nearly 5 million individual followers, the page covers hot-button social issues like police violence, racism, and conflicts over mask usage. The page remains operational despite documented ties to the Russian state-controlled news network Russia Today.

The lawsuit will likely be thrown out, as a similar one was, although the matter “helps illustrate how pages can try to evade transparency initiatives – and how those interested in spreading misinformation/disinformation can exploit gaps in the American legal system to sow confusion among unwitting readers, especially in the United States.”

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Is “fall of the regime” in Montenegro only natural?

According to the official results of the Sunday’s general elections in Montenegro, the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists lost by a tight margin with 35,12% to the main opposition coalition For the Future of Montenegro with 35.5%.

Some Russian channels, including RIA News, connect this outcome with the strong support of the Serbian Orthodox Church for the opposition. In fact, the member of Russian State Duma, Elena Panina, suggested that the defeat of DPS is only “natural” because Milo Djukanovic “tried to turn a country […] of religious and state traditions into a pro-Western protectorate”. According to her, he also followed “an anti-Russian trajectory” in foreign policy and tried to organize “a church schism similar to the Ukrainian scenario”.

Zdravko Krivokapic, the leader of one of the main opposition bloc, has already proclaimed Montenegrin support for sanctions against Russia “a mistake”,  as reported by Sputnik. He added that Russia deserves better relations with Montenegro, because of “the historical ties and contributions to the country’s economy”. The Federation Council supports this statement; member Sergei Tsekov told RT.

Ambiguous forecasts for the Russian one-day elections on September 13

On September 13, the elections  of heads of regions (“gubernators”) in 18 constituent entities of the Russian Federation will take place

According to some forecasts, the polls will be completed in a single round, and most interim governors will be re-elected, due to their high ratings. However, “Kremlin is not afraid of the second round”, fedpress writes, because either way the heads of the regions will be elected “absolutely legitimately”. And even though the chances of candidates from the opposition may get higher in the second round, separate victories will not be significant.

RIA News actually points to less activity from the opposition’s side this year, despite the information from Navalny’s opposition base. The latter promotes their “Votesmart” website, which openly calls to try to undermine Putin’s “main support”, United Russia, by subscribing to the website to receive a “recommendation” for a protest vote before the elections.

Echo of Moscow states that the results of elections will instead “shock Kremlin”, but also warn against stretching the voting over several days, as it would make it more challenging to monitor the polls. Moreover, they consider the use of digital technologies on September 13, merely a test-run for the future voting to Russian State Duma in 2021. Therefore, they believe it is in Kremlin’s best interests not to attract too much attention to the upcoming elections.

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.