ASSESSMENT OF THE KREMLIN’S MALIGN INFLUENCE IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA, MONTENEGRO AND NORTH MACEDONIA
This Report is a final output of year-long cooperation between non-governmental organizations and think-tanks from Central Europe and the Western Balkans. The goal of this cooperation within the #BalkansWatch project was to use the experiences of the countries from the Visegrad group in mapping and assessing the malign foreign influence of third countries, adapt their approach and apply it to the current situation in the Western Balkans. This Kremlin Watch Report focuses on tools of foreign influence which aim at disrupting democratic processes and attacking the trust of societies towards democratic institutions.
All of our products dedicated to the region of the Western Balkans, including a specialized newsletter Balkans Watch Briefing, can be found on our website.
Topics of the Week
UK official position on Russia’s various attempts to infiltrate and influence the country is now to acknowledge and counter the threat
CNN investigation: Russia outsourcing trolls targeting American elections to Africa
Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Coronavirus amongst the geopolitical competition
Good Old Soviet Joke
During the communist era, an old woman is trying to get into a speeding tram. In the end, she succeeds and sighs: “Thank God!”
A man turns to her and says: “But Grandma, don’t you know that nowadays we have to thank Stalin, not God!”
“Right”, grandma says and thinks about it for a bit. “But what if Stalin dies, who are we going to thank then?”
“Then we will thank God!” the man replies.
Policy & Research News
The UK acknowledging Russian subversion in the country
UK official position on Russia’s various attempts to infiltrate and influence the country is now to acknowledge and counter the threat, as reported by the Guardian. The stance shift was urged by the recent hacking on emails and their dissemination on Reddit. The act was suggested to be part of “hack and leak” Russian strategy started earlier with the so-called “Secondary Infektion” operation. The emails were part of UK-US trade talks and were used extrapolated from the context to support a narrative depicting the UK submissive towards the US. Previously, a full dossier was presented, highlighting how Russia was deploying witting and unwitting agents of influence in the UK to target Kremlin’s critics in the country, and to influence public opinion, and that several assets were used as facilitators or perpetrators in cases of money laundering and corruption, forming a “western buffer network”. The dossier was first released and then classified, before the December 2019 general elections. Here you can read the full report.
MH17 trial starts amidst Russia’s thwart attempts
Trial over MH17 downing started on 9 March. Here you can follow updates to the trial.
The four defendants (in absentia) Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko are accused of causing the crash, and the death of the 298 occupants of the flight in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. While the four were identified as GRU and former GRU and operated a BUK TELAR belonging to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, Russia denies any linkage to the terrorist act – and actively attempted, according to the MIVD to throw off the investigations, as reported by the NLTimes.
These attempts, include: a multi-track disinformation campaign, on person harassment on OVV investigators, the stealth of their working material and hacking, and are expected to continue, the AFP contends. At the start of the investigation, the Russian MAK that had to collaborate with the OVV was immediately replaced by a committee led by a former KGB officer, and two of its members are ex GRU – spotted calling the Kremlin, after each meeting, to discuss how to “edit” the Malaysian investigation board. Netherlands and Australia hold Russia responsible for the crash, while Malaysia maintains there is no hard evidence of it.
Russia outsourcing trolls targeting American elections to Africa
According to a recent report from CNN, Russia is now outsourcing its troll farms, dedicated to stoking tensions in the United States prior to the American presidential primaries, to Africa. Farms were uncovered in Ghana and Nigeria. Trolls in these countries have assumed African-American personas and claim to reside in a variety of U.S. states. The overwhelming purpose of their posts is to inflame race relations in the United States. Their strategies include fabricating and posting personal experiences of discrimination, posting and sharing black power messages, and expressing anger at police brutality and white Americans in general. Trolls were told to post when Americans were up and active on social media in order to reach more individuals and were found to engage on a healthy variety of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It was also uncovered that internal African politics were also targets of the disinformation farms. It is presumed that the Russians are outsourcing to avoid detection and to divide their operations to maintain activity in the case of one or two farms being discovered.
Trial against Russian hacker commences in San Francisco
Nikita Kislitsin is a former employee at a major Russian cybersecurity firm accused of hacking LinkedIn, DropBox, and other services and stealing millions of usernames and passwords, presumably to later sell on the black market. It is suspected that he is a close contact of other important Russian hackers. He was arrested in 2016 in the Czech Republic and successfully extradited to the United States in 2018, despite the pro-Russian Czech president’s initial attempts to have him sent back to Russia. The trial is continuing after medical experts determined that he was mentally fit to stand trial. Officials began to question his preparedness due to the fact that he refuses to communicate with his defence team about the trial. However, they judged that this was a conscious choice and not the result of a disability. The trial is supposed to continue through March 27 in San Francisco.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Coronavirus amongst the geopolitical competition
Over the past weeks, the spread of coronavirus has been a ubiquitous theme in the news across the world. The topic has been covered from many different angles, with Russian state media contributing in its own way to the debate. A common thread connecting large part of the Kremlin’s narrative can be observed in the attempts to push anti-US sentiments or condemn Washington for its inability and reluctance to contain the virus. In this sense, the Kremlin hints at possible US calculations aimed at exploiting the virus to profit vis-à-vis economic competitors – Beijing – or punish politically hostile actors – Teheran. In doing so, Russian media outlets resort as in other instances to the statements of foreign officials and authorities, like when RT headlines: “Feast in time of plague?”, reporting the comments of the US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on the benefits that the virus could bring to the American economy at the expenses of China. Other times, these same media outlets opt for original accounting, for example when stigmatizing Washington for preventing Iran from receiving assistance by means of an “overzealous enforcement” of its sanction regime.
As some might be expecting, Russia’s narrative stretches as far as to embrace conspiratorial content as well. From this perspective, the Kremlin again echoes the claims of the chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that the virus could be the product of a US biological attack directed primarily at China and Iran. RT further amplifies this narrative by asking its Twitter community if anyone is “going to be surprised if it ever gets revealed that #coronavirus is a bioweapon?”.
Meanwhile, inside Russia, it seems safe to say that the emergency caused by the virus has been taken very seriously within the high political circles. In this direction, measures to prevent the spread have consistently multiplied over the past few days. Despite this, to increase was also the scepticism about the particularly low number of reported infections – only 93, as of March 17. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has rejected allegations whereby Russian authorities could be downplaying the numbers of patients in the country. But according to some analysts, the Kremlin may be interested in limiting the panic not to discourage Russian citizens from going to the polls on April 22 to vote on the current constitutional changes – as a low turnout could call into question the very legitimacy of the reform.
EU budget and the failure of the Baltic States
Brought to you by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis
Even though the most successful years for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been as members of the European Union, Kremlin-sympathetic media claims otherwise. In fact, after the European Council summit on the EU’s 7-year budget ended without a deal due to internal disagreements, Russian media hurried to launch a disinformation campaign against the European Union and the Baltic states, forcing readers to question the necessity and the validity of a successful relationship between the EU and the Baltic nations.
According to lv.sputniknews.ru, the Baltic states’ call on European Commission not to cut cohesion funds after 2020 has ended up in a farce. The article continues to claim that “old Europe has now sucked out everything it could from poorer regions” and will be putting an end to “financial benefits to new Europeans”, therefore, stating that EU-members such as France, Germany and Italy have been using the Baltic nations for its own financial benefit.
To provide a sense of significance to such unsubstantial claims, Sputnik News cited Alexey Zubets, a pundit from the Financial University under the Russian Federation Government, who claimed that “the full financial potential of the Baltic states has now been fully exhausted” while reaffirming that “everything that the old EU members could absorb has already been absorbed”.
In articles published by rubaltic.ru and pravda.ru, the Baltic states are labelled as “extremely problematic” “needy” and “parasitic” when it comes to deciding on the next seven-year budget without the UK as part of the EU. Authors of these articles continued by introducing its readers to a “standard Baltic set”, which includes “high inequality, lacking taxation system and humanitarian problems”. They also carried on with claims that “the Baltic tigers are seriously ill, defenceless and unable to independently earn their own food”, reinforcing the myth that the Baltic countries have always been nothing more but “ungrateful and money-seeking failed states”.
In order to resolve all above-mentioned problems, a Russian-language news site bb.lv presented the Russian Federation as the only way to salvation for the Baltic states. According to Aleksey Korenev, an Analyst at FinAM Group, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will have to either raise taxes or seek help from Russia in order to compensate for reduced cohesion funds from the European Union. However, he continued by stating that due to the nature of Russophobic sentiments in the region, such cooperation may not be possible.
Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion
Hearing on “The Global Engagement Center: Leading the United States Government’s Fight Against Global Disinformation Threat”
Alina Polyakova, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
On March 5th, Alina Polyakova, President and Chief Executive Officer at CEPA, testified for the United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee Hearing on The Global Engagement Center: Leading the United States Government’s Fight Against Global Disinformation Threat. In her testimony, Dr. Polyakova outlined the scope of current Kremlin disinformation campaigns and how their approach has adapted, her insights into how the United States should respond to the evolving threat of disinformation, and how The Global Engagement Center (GEC) is critical for countering state-sponsored disinformation.
Since 2016, other states have adopted disinformation techniques from the Russian playbook, including states such as China and Iran. Russia has expanded its disinformation campaigns most notably to Africa, where it is deploying a combination of disinformation, private military groups, and corruption to exert influence in over 8 states. Further, Russia has become more sophisticated in concealing the origins and avoiding detection of their campaigns.
Dr. Polyakova advocated for a whole of society approach in dealing with Kremlin disinformation: governmental policy along with the private sector, specifically social media platforms and civil society groups are integral for a solution. In light of the Russian “ecosystem approach” (where “disinformation campaigns work across digital and traditional media and in concert with other tools of political warfare”), Dr. Polyakova called for an ecosystem solution by investing in longer-term societal resilience and close cooperation between the public and private sector. She highlighted how it has been “difficult to assess who in the U.S. government owns the problem”, as the size, complexity and compartmentalization of the government lead to difficult cooperation. Though the GEC has the mandate to oversee this cooperation, Dr. Polyakova suggests to additionally empower the GEC politically through a Congressionally-approved appointment. Further, she highlights how it is integral the GEC builds information-sharing relationships with social media companies to facilitate this governmental-private sector approach.
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.