Topics of the Week

Russia takes advantage of the power vacuum in the Balkans to expand its economic and political influence.

US Senate sheds light on GRU’s online operations and pseudo-think tanks.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: NATO might be brain-dead, but so are all the European leaders.

Is there a way for the West to engage with Belarus?

Good Old Soviet Joke

Question for the Radio Yerevan: Is it true that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was given a car at the Red Square today?

Answer: Yes, in principle, but it wasn’t Yuri Gagarin, it was Ivan Ivanovich, it wasn’t a car but a bike, and it wasn’t a gift, somebody stole it from him.  

Policy & Research News

Tackling Russia’s economic influence in the Balkans

The recent decision made by the European Union not to begin accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia reinforces the increasing concern the EU may not have the capabilities to integrate the Balkan states within the Euro-Atlantic community. Consequently, this has weakened the gravitational pull of the European institutions and has caused a widening power vacuum within the region that has been exploited by Russia and China.  The Center for the Study of Democracy has produced a policy brief focusing particularly on how Russia has taken advantage of this power vacuum in order to expand its economic and political influence. 

The policy brief details how the Kremlin has “locked in governments from the region in costly large-scale projects” that have been used to increase networks between domestic and Russian businesses, who have a significant influence on policymakers and institutions. Russia has increased its influence in the region through the employment of tools from its playbook that we have seen time and time again. This includes the support of political parties, employing media, cultural and religious ties, sponsoring civil society activities, and manipulating former security services.

In response, the authors propose that the Southern Eastern European countries, with the assistance of the EU, must introduce a diverse group of strategies in order to counter this Russian economic activity in the region and diversify foreign direct investment. Anti-money laundering and anti-trust authorities must clearly establish final beneficial ownership, prevent illicit capital from entering the region, and prioritise work on the risks posed by capital from authoritarian states serving political goals, in particular, large-scale infrastructure projects.

Facebook closes Russian networks targeting African countries

Facebook has released a statement stating it has shut down three Russian backed accounts that were used to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the domestic politics within targeted countries across Africa including Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. The social media company has said the accounts were all linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin – the man allegedly behind Russia’s notorious troll factory and accused of interfering in the US 2016 presidential election. 

However, as The New York Times reports; the tactics used were unlike most of the previous Russian influence campaigns for the networks targeted several countries through Arabic-language posts. The Russians also worked with locals in the African countries to set up Facebook accounts to avoid detection. Similar methods were already tested during the elections in Ukraine when Russian agents tried to pay Ukrainian citizens for access to their social media profile.  

Furthermore, the African operation also had more than double, in terms of volume of disinformation sent out each month, of the Internet Research Agency’s average output in the U.S. 

Russia appears to be trying to increase its sphere of influence in Africa but the new model will also likely be deployed during the 2020 presidential election in the US. As disinformation expert analyst and writer Ben Nimmo states, these tactics are part of “the new KGB playbook for foreign influence.”

US Developments

US Senate sheds light on GRU’s online operations and pseudo-think tanks

Stanford Internet Observatory published a report on Russian GRU online influence operations from 2014-2019. The report was requested by the US Senate intelligence committee and uses data collected from Facebook. The report has three key takeaways. First, operations use the old Soviet propaganda strategy of laundering narratives through aligned publications, useful idiots and GRU’s own participation. GRU has used its own pseudo-think tanks and alternative news sites as content drop sites, which are republished on platforms such as Facebook. The second key takeaway, GRU’s disinformation campaigns have not been successful in achieving internet virality, especially when compared to the Internet Research Agency IRA. GRU’s success has relied on creating alternative narratives, which were later quoted on platforms like RT. The third key takeaway, GRU’s hack-and-leak operations have not gained coverage through GRU’s social dissemination on their pages but have gained traction through third partners such as Wikileaks.

Russian foreign policy thinking studied in the Atlantic Council’s paper

Russian foreign policy think tanks have rebuilt the Russian grand foreign policy narrative since 2014. Atlantic Council’s study notes that Russia has shifted from the idea of Greater Europe to the idea of Greater Eurasia, influenced by the Eurasian union and strategic partnership with China. Different think tanks disagree on whether the current position of Russia is an opportunity or a challenge for Russia. While think tanks do not question the fundamentals of Russian foreign policy such as the war in Ukraine or partnership with China, they have varied views on the shape of the new world order. The report characterizes Russian think tanks role as setting the parameters for the policy, not influencing the actual decision-making process.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

NATO may be brain dead, but so are all European leaders

Following Emmanuel Macron’s controversial statement that NATO is brain dead, Russian state media were quick to comment on the matter, but perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, they were not so quick to agree. In a bizarre series of news pieces with contradicting assessments of Macron’s view, sometimes within the same article, Moscow’s take on the issue seems to be aimed at sowing confusion more than anything else.

One article claimed that while “his remarks simply do not make sense,” “Emmanuel Macron may be right to say that NATO is brain dead.” Various authoritative individuals were also cited for their different views: one suggested that NATO is in an existential crisis and it has become a shadow of itself, while another claimed that this is an exaggeration and NATO may be burnt out, but it is still alive. However, these somewhat conflicting pieces all appear to agree about one thing: the West is deeply divided and NATO is weak.

Russian state media were quick to pick up on the disagreements following Macron’s statement, including Angela Merkel and Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. The divisions between NATO members were also highlighted in another case: Turkey’s “[flat refusal] to bow down to the US demands” regarding the purchase of an S-400 air defence missile system deal with Russia – a system which is allegedly far superior to its questionable US Patriot counterpart.

The emphasis on the West’s weaknesses was also exemplified in the assertion that the Western alliance has very little meaning in practice as it does not always command commitment to military protection. The culmination of this narrative in the past week was the call for the establishment of a new Warsaw Pact by one of most influential Ukrainian oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky. Following the alleged failure of the West’s aggressive strategy in the country, the tycoon claimed that his objective assessment of the situation has led him to the conclusion that “your NATO will be soiling its pants and buying Pampers” if faced against Russia’s might.

NATO yearns for Kaliningrad

Brought to you by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis

Last Thursday an article with a controversial scenario appeared on a Beijing-based news website, stating that in case of a conflict between Russia and NATO, the Alliance could seize Kaliningrad (former Königsberg) within two consecutive days. It is also stated that in response to such offence on its exclave, Russia would carry out a round of attacks on five to eight European capitals within the span of five days.

News as such sparked a chain reaction from Russian media and thus resulted in an avalanche of articles portraying NATO as a source of aggression and instability. For instance, Komsomolskaya Pravda states that “NATO is experiencing an identity crisis” and is, therefore “actively searching for new enemies”. While, Aleksey Pushkov, former head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma, tweeted that “NATO has no chances of annexing Kaliningrad without sparking an armed conflict between the Alliance and the Russian Federation”. 

It is clear that this article was simply meant to create a number of scandalous headlines as both NATO and Russia comprehend that an armed conflict in Kaliningrad would put Europe and the World in jeopardy. However, Russian media has successfully used this chance to promote its narrative that NATO is an aggressive military alliance posing a real threat to international security.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Will Belarus Choose the West? Prospects for Democracy in Minsk

As we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, and as the former soviet state of Belarus re-elects its Parliament this week, the Center for European Analysis takes a look at the convoluted international ties of the country. Whereas some experts believe that the Eastern-European country is at the brink of merging with Russia, Belarus signals the opposite. Minsk just announced plans to exchange ambassadors with the US for the first time in 11 years. This apparent thaw also comes in hand with the president Lukashenka showing intentions of improving relations with the West and pursuing a foreign policy more independent from Moscow.

Russia is undoubtedly the biggest influence in the Belarusian state. Minsk’s regime is based on Russian assistance, and without the military support and foreign trade from Moscow, Lukashenka would not have been able to maintain his grip on power for the past 25 years. Belarus is also undergoing a wave of intense Russification, with 87% of schools teaching in Russian and two-thirds of the media being published in Russian. This means that the Kremlin has ample space for influence campaigns, promoting the idea that Belarusians are not separate people but part of the Russian nation, and therefore the two countries must unite.

However, whenever Lukashenka feels that Moscow is pushing too hard and limiting his autonomy, he responds by flirting with the West. In the past months, Belarus has been working to establish itself as a balancer among Russia, Europe and the West. At the Minsk Forum in September this year, for example, Lukashenka went as far as describing the war in Donbas as being between Russia and Ukraine and clamouring for US leadership on the issue. These gestures, however, are largely cosmetic and do not point to a consistent change in Minsk’s geopolitical orientation.  Thus, the West should take these approaches from Belarus with reticence. However, they also present an opportunity to implement judiciously tailored western engagement, such as cultural exchanges and increased dialogue. Developing investment opportunities for Western companies and helping Belarus to diversify its economy are also ways to reduce the country’s dependence on Russia and help the West to be better positioned in Eastern Europe.

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.