Topics of the Week

Wagner mercenaries received passports from the same office as the GRU cover agents.

Facebook and Twitter removed thousands of Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan accounts.

Great Britain should use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Actagainst Russia if it attempts to attack British nationals in the future.

Good Old Soviet Joke

After the World Ice Hockey Championship in 1985, the government of Czechoslovakia receives a telegram from the defeated Soviets:

“Congratulations! Stop. You were equal opponents. Stop. Oil. Stop. Natural gas. Stop.”

Policy & Research News

PMC Wagner received passports from the same place as Boshirov and Petrov

On January 28, the Ukrainian Security Agency (SBU) announced that it had intercepted passenger manifests from Russian MoD-chartered airliners transporting mercenaries working for Wagner, a Russian private military company. The SBU also announced that PMC Wagner mercenaries had been issued international travel passports by the same single passport desk that issued the passports of GRU officers Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, suspects in the Skripal case, as well as other GRU undercover officers. A Bellingcat investigation set out to independently verify SBU’s claims. If true, these allegations would prove Russia’s active endorsement of PMC Wagner’s black ops, which are against international law.

The Bellingcat investigation compared a leaked database of domestic air travel bookings in Russia dating from 2014 to 2016 and the SBU’s list. Research into a small sample of names revealed that one travel destination near a PMC Wagner’s training camp was visited by all the verified names. It was often the only destination visited with the passports issued by the same passport desk that issues passports for undercover GRU officers. While Bellingcat’s conclusions are tentative, and the method relies on circumstantial evidence, it nonetheless provides a plausible narrative and supports the SBU’s claim. If proven true, this would significantly reduce Russia’s plausible deniability in conflicts where PMC Wagner has participated.

BBC Monitoring of recent trends in social media manipulation

report produced by BBC Monitoring journalist Olga Robinson and published by NATO Stratcom focuses on recent case studies of social media manipulation to spread disinformation. The report maps recently used techniques such as flooding social media with contradictory narratives that make truth seem like opinion, highly emotional messages on controversial topics tailored to specific groups (like were used during the 2016 U.S. election) ,and the extensive use of bots to rapidly disseminate content. While the report mentions case studies from around the world, it does specifically note that Russia is the key player in a new kind of information warfare and stresses the increasing challenges ahead.

Russia’s disinfo strategy has new suitors and a domestic spin

In a move that underlines the continuing global trend, Twitter announced on Thursday that disinformation campaigns were no longer simply originating in foreign states, but domestically as well. Disinformation campaigns targeting various elections and political factions across borders are nothing new, but following the success of Russian efforts during the 2016 US presidential elections, more countries are becoming targets. The novel aspect is the domestic spin, according to the New York Times. Campaigns linked to attempts at voter suppression (in the US) or the promulgation of clear government propaganda (in Iran) are now originating from within these countries themselves. Most prominent recently are the efforts of both Maduro and Guaidó in relation to leadership over the Venezuelan government.

These examples show that while Facebook and Twitter do take down thousands of accounts a year, the flood is too large to handle alone. The announcements on Thursday, by both companies, were clearly coordinated. Perhaps the criticisms made by lawmakers in the past few years are finally leading to new internal industry initiatives. Yet, as promising as this increased transparency is, the proliferation of the Russian disinformation strategy and the new domestic focus show that political actors of all stripes believe in its efficacy.

Local media in Western Balkans effectively influenced by Russia

Ethno-nationalist divides are nothing new in the Western Balkans. As the region enters a renewed political crisis, local media have shown themselves to be the most effective battleground for internal and external political influencers, the European Security Journal reports. This constellation is dangerous, as it allows the external influence by Russia without the higher diplomatic risks associated with explicit political or financial investment. Local media streams, divided along the post-conflict ethnic lines, report pro-Russian content from networks like Sputnik and stoke social fragmentation.

Not only are these stories anti-Western, but the complicity of domestic news media outlets means that disinformation is harder to fight, and links to the outside are harder to ascertain. This divided media consumption further destabilizes the region, opening the door for Russia to push more effectively for its desired bipolar international system. These media campaigns therefore aid domestic politicians’ success in campaigns based on ethnic divide and allow Russia to further latently assert its power over countries like Serbia and Kosovo.

US Developments

Facebook and Twitter remove accounts from Russia, Iran or Venezuela

Facebook and Twitter have both taken down hundreds of accounts linked to disinformation campaigns originating from Iran, Russia, and Venezuela that were targeting a variety of countries. In a blog post, Twitter employees said that they removed the accounts for spreading disinformation in an attempt to target the 2018 midterm elections. Twitter removed 2,617 accounts and 783 Facebook pages that had probable links to Iran. While neither company could establish a definite link between the accounts and the Iranian regime, Facebook said that much of the content was recycled propaganda from Iranian state media sources. Twitter suspended 418 accounts that had a probable link to Russia and mimicked the language of the Russian Internet Research Agency. Twitter also removed two thousand suspicious accounts located in Venezuela. Facebook and Twitter coordinated with industry peers to root out the activity, and Facebook notified U.S. law enforcement and law makers. This occurred simultaneously with Microsoft revealing that Russian hackers tried to steal data from the International Republican Institute and the Hudson Institute think tanks.

How Russia will be taking advantage of Apple

Russian security services could soon have easy access to the personal data of Apple users in Russia. Roskomnadzor, the Russian government agency that oversees media and telecommunications, has confirmed for the first time that Apple Russia will adhere to a 2014 Russian law that requires companies handling the digital data of Russian citizens to store it on servers located in Russia for up to six months. Considering that Apple products are now able to gather significant information on customers’ lives, the company has positioned itself as a champion of data privacy, to the extent that they refused to unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters involved in the San Bernardino shooting in California back in December 2015. Despite Apple’s official position, in China and now Russia, they have agreed to comply with local laws that give the state access to a significant amount of personal data. It is not clear yet what data Apple will store on its servers in Russia. Russian lawyer Sergey Medvedev says that the Russian government, with this newly implemented law, could be given access to personal photos, music, e-book downloads, and even Apple’s iMessage service. Apple has declined to respond to comments.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Managed Confrontation UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack

In a research paper published last October, Duncan Allan juxtaposes the ways in which the UK has dealt with the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006 (its response described as “late, lame, and lamentable”) and the Salisbury attack in March 2018. In the second case, the UK has taken robust political, diplomatic, and law enforcement measures and was able to diminish, if not close the gap between its firm rhetoric and underwhelming actions. However, a shift from “deterrence by denial” to “deterrence by punishment” is still required to minimise the risk of another violation of UK sovereignty.

The paper offers several recommendations for the British government, which include emphasising the possibility of using the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia if it attempts to attack British nationals in the future and also being prepared to act without the EU. Moreover, there should a be greater focus on making the supervision of the financial sector and related industries more efficient, since this would not only be costly for Russia’s leadership elite but would improve the resilience of UK institutions and its reputation as well. Notably, Allan also assesses the UK’s attempts to reconcile the economic benefits arising from a bilateral relationship with Russia and the duty of protecting its own citizens, asserting that the latter should be the top priority.

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.