Topic of the Week

Authoritarian regimes abuse the pandemic in order to tighten their grip on their citizens and to spread their geopolitical influence while helping each other out by spreading disinformation.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A KGB officer comes to the park and sees an old Jew with a book.
“What are you reading, Grandpa?”
“I am learning Yiddish.”
“Why? You will wait years for the Israeli visa. You’ll die before you get it.”
“I am learning Yiddish so that I can talk to Abraham and Moses in paradise.”
“What if you get to hell?” the KGB officer asks.
“I already know Russian.”

Policy & Research News

Russia might turn into a “cyber-gulag” over pandemic

Leaked plans reveal Russia will impose massive surveillance measures to enforce lockdown, The Guardian reports. The new combined monitoring systems would include location tracking apps, CCTV cameras with facial recognition, QR codes, mobile phone data and credit card records and might be released already next week. Yabloko opposition party calls the measures proposed a “cyber-gulag”, and warns such restrictions could remain in force even after the pandemic ends. Already on March 25, an app called “Social Monitoring” was released and then quickly withdrawn, over complains it was too intrusive.

Smart quarantine” measures already implemented elsewhere, encompassing the use of aggregate data to track infection spreading and collect statistics, are handled by independent bodies and used only behind the permission of the owner. In Russia, data collected would be stored and handled directly by the Security Services.

COVID cases in Russia skyrocketed, but the state of emergency was not yet declared, as Putin demands all responsibilities to manage the crises to local authorities. As a result, strict measures of surveillance are already unevenly applied in different regions – like in Tatarstan, where citizens are required to register online any movement – and this uncertainty is stirring up citizens questioning of power.

5G towers torched in the UK by supporters of conspiracy theories

At least 20 5G masts have been set on fire in various locations of the UK this week, the BBC reports, and telecom operators have been harassed on the streets. These actions were promoted by social media conspiracy theorists groups, circulating various fake news claiming the high-frequency waves are correlated – they would “cause” or “facilitate” – with the spread of COVID-19.

These theories have largely been debunked by the scientific community and relevant institutions. Unfortunately, they might discredit the legitimate and concrete civil society debate on the need to implement a secure and sovereign 5G system in Europe, especially vis-a-vis the Chinese tech giant Huawei.

They nevertheless found fertile ground in some layers of the strong anti-5G movement that had developed in the UK in the previous year, largely fostered by Russian disinformation.

The UK government called social media platforms to help to counter this especially dangerous wave of disinformation resulting in harms to vital communication at an emergency moment, Professor Steve Powis, national medical director of NHS England, explains.

In response, UK mobile operators issued a joint statement asking the public to help stop disruptive actions against telecom infrastructures and Youtube already declared it will act to suppress “borderline contents” on the issue. Whatsapp is reducing forwarded messages limit to avoid massive dissemination of disinformation.

US Developments

Kremlin’s medical aid to the U.S. deemed a “propaganda coup”

A recent article in the New York Times has declared medical aid sent to New York by President Putin as propaganda fodder. It is suspected that the act of sending aid to the United States is supposed to prove Russia’s “great power” status to the world. The delivery of aid coincided with a serious rise of cases in Russia. Although the pandemic has not reached the level of severity present in Europe and the United States, according to the New York Times, it is projected that Russia will begin to run short on ventilators and personal protective equipment in the coming weeks. Alexei Navalny, a leader of the Russian opposition, called Putin “crazy” for sending the aid, citing that doctors and nurses are already “sitting without masks and getting each other sick,” putting Russia in no position to help other countries. The aid could lend to additional suspicion surrounding President Trump’s relationship with Mr Putin. Putin also promised or sent aid to other European countries, including Italy and Serbia.

Trump’s former Russia advisor has a warning for the United States

According to an article in CNN Politics, Trump’s former Russia advisor Fiona Hill has expressed concern about the attention that the United States has given the Kremlin and fears that this dynamic is corroding the American political system. She believes that Putin has nearly every aspect of American society “exactly where he wants [them].” She claims that although the Russian government has not created division in the United States, they have expertly and cunningly inflamed pre-existing divisions so as to make Americans question the legitimacy of their political system. The article closes by saying that the Kremlin has been supporting both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders over the course of the 2020 presidential primaries. This problem may continue if America keeps emphasizing Russian activities in American politics.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Criticism of Orban’s power ≠ “fake news by globalist hypocrites”

On March 30, the Hungarian National Assembly, where two-thirds of the seats belong to the ruling Fidesz party, passed a bill granting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán extraordinary powers for an indefinite time amidst the fight against the spread of coronavirus. In practice, the bill deprives the Hungarian parliament of its legislative prerogative, empowering Orbán to rule by decree for as long as the ruling majority deems necessary due to the ongoing emergency. Inside and outside of Hungary, the bill has attracted criticism in that it risks to undermine the rule of law, and a number of concerns have been raised in relation to the danger that the government will extend the state of emergency beyond due time.

The Kremlin’s state channels have not missed the chance to insist on one of their recurring narratives since the start of the coronavirus emergency, namely the lack of solidarity between the EU member states. For illustration, TASS headlines: “Hungary defends itself from coronavirus…and from the EU”, seemingly to remark how not even amidst a global pandemic European states are being able to spare their attacks against each other, and reassures: “the vast majority of [Hungarian] citizens support the measures proposed by Orbán”. Other outlets suggest that Orbán’s actions were necessary as a result of the EU’s inertia vis-à-vis the emergency, similarly to when “[i]n 2015, in the face of a migration surge from outside Europe, Orbán built a fence along the Hungarian border … because the EU had been too slow to act”.

Other Kremlin-sponsored outlets have focused their efforts on delegitimizing the criticism addressed to the Hungarian government by foreign observers. Resorting to the well-established technique of redirecting all accusations to the sender, RT maintains that Orbán’s powers are “far less sweeping” compared to those currently delegated to Macron or Johnson, while Germany is equally condemned for being “about to blow its long-treasured citizen privacy … with a coronavirus tracking app”.

In conclusion, the Kremlin’s outlets dismiss the criticism towards Orbán as mere “globalist hypocrisy”. From this perspective, European leaders are represented by Russian channels as hostages of their liberal ideology and European ideals, and their disapproval towards Orbán is only the reflection of their frustration for not being in the position to adopt the same measures in their own countries – it is argued. A similar frustration is identified in the reaction of “western liberal journalists”, who, as echoed by Sputnik, find themselves overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness in a world that is experiencing a new season of populist and authoritarian rulers.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Bearing Witness: Uncovering the Logic Behind Russian Military Cyber Operations

Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) has used cyber operations over the past decade to disrupt elections and damage both the civil and private sector. This report published by Booz Allen Hamilton presents a framework through which the GRU’s thought process when choosing targets for cyber operations can be understood. This framework was developed by delving into Russia’s military doctrine, a public policy document outlining the circumstances under which the Russian Armed Forces must respond, and the manners in which the forces could react. By better understanding the decision-making process behind the GRU’s operations, future operations could be more effectively predicted and defended against.

By aligning military doctrine with cyber activity, the motivations of state-sponsored actors can be deciphered. As outlined in the doctrine, military threats and risks such as the expansion of NATO, provocation of Russian political or cultural strife, or separatist or ethnic-culturalist terrorism could all elicit a cyber response. The report evaluated 33 case studies of cyber activity linked to the GRU and how this activity consistently reflects the GRU’s purpose to monitor, neutralize and counter the risks and threats outlined in the military doctrine.

Organizations, governments and the private sector can mitigate threats and manage risk by having a deep understanding of the threat actor, in this case, the GRU. The report presents best practices for cyber risk management, including threat landscape assessment, high-value asset identification and threat-hunting, among other strategies. Defending against cyber operations cannot rely only on understanding the methods and tools, but must take into account adversaries’ thought processes and motivations.

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.