Topics of the Week

The Brexit campaign had close links to Russia and its ambassador to the UK

According to Donald Trump, Crimea is a part of Russia because “everyone there speaks Russian”. (So, by that logic, should the British take back America?!)

The US has imposed sanctions on Russian companies accused of assisting the Kremlin in spying on American and European targets

The World Cup is a major PR victory for Putin, and we have handed it to him on a silver platter

Good Old Soviet Joke

A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is very long. The man loses his composure and screams, “I can’t take this waiting in line anymore, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!”

After some time the man returns and elbows his way back to his place in line. Someone asks him if he succeeded in killing Gorbachev.

“No,” he responds. “That line was even longer.”

Policy & Research News

News from Europe:

New evidence uncovered by the British media reveals that the Brexit campaign had close links to Russiaand its ambassador to the United Kingdom, the Observer writes. According to the report, Arron Banks, the millionaire businessman who sponsored the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, held multiple meetings with Russian embassy officials in London in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum. The Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, was their main liaison, reportedly helping Banks facilitate his connections with Russian businesses.

A Helsinki court will deliberate on “a critically important case about the limitations on free speech in Finland,” according to the story in Up North Magazine. The Magazine reports that the trial pertains to an “aggressive trolling campaign” against Jessikka Aro, a well-known Finnish journalist whose work exposed the St Petersburg troll factory (aka Internet Research Agency) in 2014. Aro has been targeted by Finnish and Russian trolls since her report four years ago, including through repeated tracking of her movements and activities.

Reports to check out:

A new analysis by the Henry Jackson SocietyA Definition of Contemporary Russian Conflict, warns that the West faces a new kind of conflict waged by the Kremlin: one in which military and non-military tools are combined in a dynamic, efficient, and integrated way to achieve its political aims. Until now, there has been no common agreement on what exactly we are fighting, saysBritish MP Bob Seely, author of the report. The Conservative lawmaker and Russia researcher argues that the Kremlin uses at least 50 instruments of state power in waging this current conflict.

The Russian Federation has a range of instruments at its disposal – from military to economic, political, diplomatic, and informational – that it uses to undermine deeper EU integration by Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, according to a recent report by the Stockholm-based Swedish Institute of International Affairs. The report says that Russia’s influence operations in these countries come in different forms, including direct support for parties, politicians or influence groups; financial influence through businesspeople in politics; strengthening separatist movements; etc.

Russian fairytales in Moscow-Kyiv gas cooperation

The DiXi Group, a Kyiv-based policy think tank, says Russia has been using natural gasas an instrument to achieve its political objectives in Ukraine. The report details Russian-Ukrainian gas relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, including on how natural gas disputes were used to bribe and blackmail Ukrainian officials and to influence decision-making in Kyiv. The authors argue that the Kremlin has employed the “Russian fairytale” technique: “reassuring partners and lulling them into a false sense of security with verbal promises, while leaving them in impossibly hopeless positions at the very last moment.”

Security strategy for society: Building a safe Finland together

Finland has decided to update its Security Strategy for Society, seven years after its major review in 2010. The 100-page document, passed in the form of a government resolution last November, harmonizes the set of national principles regarding preparedness in Finnish society and guides the preparedness actions taken by the administrative branches on a range of possible threats. The role of psychological resilience, one of the vital functions, has been underlined as a fundamental factor underpinning the security of society.

US Developments

How sanctioned Russians are benefitting from the World Cup

Despite the stringent sanctions imposed by the US against Putin’s inner circle, it has come to light that a number of targeted Russian companies and oligarchs were among those securing the best contracts linked to the 2018 World Cup. For example, most of the World Cup’s stadiums were constructed with funding from oligarchs including Gennady Timchenko and Oleg Deripaska, while multinational companies such as Visa celebrated the event by launching a Visa World Cup together with the sanctioned Sberbank. Ilia Shumanov, deputy director for Transparency International in Russia, explains that such links are unlikely to be regulated due to the oligarchs’ adroitness at evading sanctions and meaningful legal scrutiny.

The World Cup celebrations only continue to turn more sinister as they provide lucrative public relations opportunities for despots such as Ramzan Kadyrov, warlord and head of the Chechen Republic, and of course Vladimir Putin himself. Recent photographs of soccer legends celebrating together with Russia’s elite epitomize how the World Cup is being politicized to whitewash and legitimize the Putin regime.

The US issues further sanctions

In a novel move, the US has imposed sanctions on a number of Russian companies accused of assisting the Kremlin in spying on targets in North America and Western Europe. The targeted firms were allegedly involved in increasing the offensive cyber-capabilities of the Russian intelligence services. Most prominently targeted is the Russian firm Divetechnoservices, which manufactures equipment designed to tap underwater communications networks. According to US officials, the firm was paid $15 million by the FSB in 2011 to design equipment for such purposes.

Three individuals related to Divetechnoservices were also added to the US sanctions list for their involvement with the company and its activities. They have also been targeted for their involvement in the devastating NotPetya cyberattack that hit Ukraine and Europe last year, and for their involvement in a global cyber campaign to target network infrastructure devices. The individuals will be barred from conducting business with American companies or citizens.

Mueller warns about Russian meddling ahead of midterms

Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller claimed in a court filing that “uncharged individuals and entities” are still engaging in election meddling operations. The claim came as part of an effort to block foreign individuals from reviewing the evidence against them because, according to prosecutors, “information within this case’s discovery identifies sources, methods, and techniques used to identify the foreign actors behind these interference operations, and disclosure of such information will allow foreign actors to learn these techniques and adjust their conduct.” This would undermine future and ongoing investigative efforts of interference practices that the special counsel says are continuing to this day.

Particular emphasis was placed on preventing Russian intelligence services from having access to the information. In addition, the information that Mueller is requesting not to be disclosed contains “thousands of communications and documents involving uncharged U.S. persons who were … unwittingly recruited by certain defendants and co-conspirators to engage in political activity inside the United States.” There are still legal means by which the defense attorneys could gain access to the information and make it public, despite the protective order. All of the defendants in the case, including 13 Russian nationals, are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Other charges include identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud.

Norway invites US troop deployment amid Russian belligerence

Norway has invited US troops to remain on its territory through 2019 and possibly longer – a request that comes after 300 US troops were invited to the country last year, for the first time since World War II. This time, more than double that number have been invited and are expected to stay for much longer. The troops will be stationed throughout Norway, some in regions bordering Russia. Norway, along with other countries bordering Russia, has expressed concern over the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior. The move is seen as a response to Russia’s increasingly revanchist tendencies, as well as President Trump’s hints that the US may not honor Article 5.

Predictably, Russia has vowed consequences for Norway’s invitation. The Russian Embassy posted on Facebook that the move “could cause growing tensions, triggering an arms race and destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.”

Meanwhile, on the eve of the World Cup, US-led military exercises were launched in countries bordering Russia. The drills, known as Sabre Strike, involve 19 countries and have been held for eight years. According to the American army, the exercises are “a demonstration of the commitment and solidarity of NATO forces at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow.” They serve as an attack simulation, with the US Army stressing that they are “not a provocation.”

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Putin’s Cup

Like with the Sochi Olympic Games, it’s no secret that Russia wanted to host the World Cup for the accompanying international recognition and PR benefits. Sadly, the world has willingly given Putin this boost, choosing to ignore the inconvenient truth that Russia today is at its most repressive since the Soviet era.

Vzglyad writes: “The World Cup is not only a sports celebration but also a political event. It not only shows Russia’s real face to the world but is also a good occasion for high level meetings and negotiations”.

However, the author is quick to explain away the rather modest showing of global leaders at the opening ceremony: Apparently, “Kings, presidents, and prime ministers come to football matches when their countries make it to the finals or semi-finals”. This is followed by the hope that France and Germany will play well and that Macron and Merkel will come to Russia to support their national teams. And, of course, talk to Putin.

Vzglyad also couldn’t help but emphasise how great the Italian election is for Russia: “Austria will be represented by deputy chancellor Strache, Germany by minister of the interior Seehofer. Both are known as cheerleaders of normalizing relations with Russia, therefore their presence should be seen as a clear political gesture. It’s a pity Italy didn’t make it to the World Cup, otherwise Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini would be perfect company for Seehofer and Strache.

For many international leaders, the World Cup is a good occasion to see Vladimir Putin, and discuss all possible subjects from military cooperation to the Korean issue, from the Syrian war to oil prices. Regardless of who wins on the football field, Russia has already won on the geopolitical one.

It is a sobering question: how much of this victory have we, our countries, and our leaders willingly handed to Putin on a silver platter?

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Winning the Normative War with Russia: An EU-Russia Power Audit

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argues that Russia is engaging in a normative war against the West with the frontline constituting Europe’s domestic political sphere. The root of this attack is a normative disagreement over the rules and taboos of the international order, leading to a clash between liberal universalism and authoritarian statism. The aim of this normative war is to erode and undermine trust in EU politics and institutions. The direct effects of the Kremlin’s influence operations in Europe have been questioned but it has generated an indirect side effect where awareness of the Russian threat has crossed over into unhelpful paranoia, according to the authors.

Most important in the normative struggle with Russia is internal EU unity, which already exists to a partial degree. This is illustrated by the EU’s five principles on future relations with Russia that received the full support of 21 EU countries. Even though some member states such as Hungary, Greece, Austria, and Bulgaria have taken a more conciliatory approach towards Russia, they still remain committed to the principle of solidarity amongst EU member states.

The study also proposes that the EU builds resilience as a way to mitigate the potential effects of Russian influence rather than simply focusing on specifics such as exposing trolls and fake news and banning Russian TV channels. Specific resilience-building measures include: ensuring effective domestic and foreign intelligence sharing; reviewing legislation on political party financing; ensuring robust anti-money laundering legislation on both the national and EU levels; developing a robust cyber security framework; and countering both the supply and demand side of fake news.

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.