TOPICS OF THIS WEEK
The EU condemned the alleged pushing of migrants over borders by Belarus.
New cybersecurity report details Operation Secondary Infektion.
Free Russia Foundation releases an extensive report on the numerous facets of Kremlin activity in the US.
Good Old Soviet Joke
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Policy & Research News
The EU condemned the alleged pushing of migrants over borders by Belarus
The EU ministers of the interior have condemned the aggressive behaviour by Belarus which is accused of pushing migrants across borders with Lithuania. At the emergency meeting on August 18th, 2021, the EU promised to “further consider its response to these situations”. Moreover, the EU is prepared to provide Lithuania with more border officers and financial aid to cope with the problem. The EU ministers believe that this was an attempt to destabilize and pressure the EU.
Lithuania published a video where 12 armed Belarusian police officers pushed 35 migrants across the border. Besides, the Belarusian police also crossed the border briefly which is considered to be a provocation by Vilnius. On the other hand, Minsk has released its video on which nothing from the accusations is visible and where Lithuanian border guards can be seen grappling with migrants. However, this was not the first incident with Minsk. Another provocation was recorded at the beginning of August when a Belarusian border guard was seen with video surveillance equipment on Lithuanian territory.
The migration flow increased after the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus as a reaction to Lukashenko´s crackdown on protesters and opponents. Similar problems with illegal migration in the recent months challenge Latvia and Poland as well. More than 4000 migrants have illegally entered Lithuania from Belarus so far this year and some 2100 migrants have tried to enter Poland only in August. In response, Lithuania is building a razor-wire fence while Poland is sending more soldiers to borders with Belarus. Minsk was accused of flying people in from Syria, Afghanistan, and west Africa and then sending them to the EU. Therefore, Lithuania called for sanctions against companies that help Lukashenko´s regime and countries, such as Turkey and Iraq, which serve as transit states.
The EU’s losing battle against disinformation
The EU´s team tasked with fighting disinformation is understaffed, underpaid, and underpowered, limiting the bloc’s ability to adequately fight against external threats. In March 2021, Josep Borrell acknowledged that the EU is at a disadvantage when faced with Russian disinformation, but the situation is even worse regarding the Chinese campaigns.
The EU has set up the EEAS East StratCom Task Force in 2015, dedicated to counter Russian disinformation with its flagship project EU vs Disinfo, and Rapid Alert System in 2018, a tool for EU states to share insights on disinformation. The task force currently employs 16 people, 2 of them work on Chinese disinformation and 6 of them work on the EU vs Disinfo project with a budget of several million euros. To compare, Russian state-backed media have a budget of more than 2,4 billion euros to expand the global audience. Last but not least, the mandate of the task force is very weak and not adequate when fighting disinformation from Russia-linked actors. The biggest problem is that not all EU officials and member states are prepared to fully confront Kremlin or expose its domestic links to Moscow.
According to Monika Richter, a Czech analyst and former member of the EU East StratCom Task Force, the EU prefers to lean on social media to remove disinformation. However, based on the report by the Court of Auditors, the EU is failing to hold these companies accountable. Besides, even though the existing EU projects are valuable, countries do not use them to fulfil their potential. In June 2021, the Court of Auditors issued a warning that the EU’s fragmented strategy makes the bloc very vulnerable to external threats.
New cybersecurity report details Operation Secondary Infektion: a Russian propaganda campaign around Covid-19
A report released this week by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future provides insight into a long-running Russian information campaign, which researchers have dubbed Operation Secondary Infektion. Receiving its appellation from the 1980s Soviet campaign Operation Infektion, which aimed to persuade populations across the globe that the US military created HIV/AIDS, Operation Secondary Infektion has been active spreading disinformation around Covid-19, with groups in the US and other western countries especially targeted by these efforts.
Key findings in the report include further insight into the influence operation’s tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and the campaign’s attempts to target far-right political communities in the US with virus-themed falsehoods. To the first point, the report argues that the TTPs employed by the operation are reminiscent of those adopted by state actors, thus further bolstering the contention that the campaign is a Kremlin state-sponsored endeavour: “We strongly believe that Secondary Infektion remains consistent but stagnated information operation, with little innovation or significant changes in its TTPs. In many ways, these repeated processes, with little change to alter their results, are representative of a concerted, organized, institutional effort.” Second, the report contends that “Secondary Infektion operators attempted to infiltrate and influence individuals associated with, or ideologically aligned to, the far right in the US,” primarily via the social media site 4chan, a platform which allows for largely unmoderated content. The report highlights evidence indicating that operatives used the platform to “fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and exacerbate COVID-19 disinformation.”
Free Russia Foundation releases extensive report on the numerous facets of Kremlin activity in the US
Published in mid-August, “The Kremlin’s malign influence inside the US” explores Russian activity in the US energy sector and Russian investment in critical infrastructure, the myriad connections between Russian oligarchs and American non-profit organizations, and the Kremlin’s social media presence in the US. The report also explores how Russian information warriors specifically target American far-right audiences with their influence operations.
In the report’s chapter titled “American Disunion: How Russia has cultivated American secessionists and separatists in its quest to break up the US,” journalist Casey Michael describes how Russian actors have propped up numerous far-right political movements. He writes that such movements include those of “white supremacists seeking to create separate racial enclaves, neo-Confederates looking to revive the losing side in the American Civil War, and state-level secessionists who aim to create independent countries out of individual US states, most notably in California and Texas.” In terms of policy recommendations to combat this phenomenon, Michael suggests that the US pursue legislation that would require increased social media transparency, in addition to imposing sanctions against Russian operatives carrying out these endeavours.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Déjà vu : Immigrants as a weapon in Belarusian hybrid war
Pro-Kremlin channels have been actively covering the events taking place on the borders of Belarus, Lithuania and Poland during the last few weeks. Although state-sponsored outlets do not shy away from promoting risky and controversial narratives, they also carefully reference Belarusian state sources when doing so. Overall, the main narrative of pro-Kremlin channels is that Lithuanian and Polish border guards execute violent acts against refugees and migrants.
For example, TASS quotes the Belarusian State Border Committee, which claims that they have detained three groups of illegal migrants who crossed the border from Lithuania. As TASS mentions, according to the Committee, “these people were denied meals and drinks and were beaten by expandable batons while being questioned, which explains their bodily bruises and scratches”.
RIA quotes Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (from Sputnik Belarus), saying that “Poland, having taken out migrants from Afghanistan from its territory to the Belarusian-Polish border, started a border conflict.” RIA also reports that Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to the accusations of the Polish Minister of Defence (made about the illegal immigration crisis at their border), calling them a “clinical attack of Russophobia.” The article also channels the words of the Deputy head of the State Border Committee of Belarus, Aleksey Sytenkov, stating that “neighbouring EU countries violate the norms of international treaties in the situation with illegal migrants.”
Quoting the Belarusian authorities, RIA also claims that “Poland tried to forcefully oust a big group of Afghan migrants to Belarus”. At the same time, Sputnik reports that “armed people from the Lithuanian side tried to provoke an illegal transfer of a group of refugees to the territory of Belarus”.
RIA published a testimonial from an Iraqi migrant in Latvia who claimed that they were well received in Latvia. “At the border, we were immediately offered water, and the children were given pizza. We are also satisfied with the conditions of detention in the centre”. Meanwhile, the same piece claims that “A refugee from Iraq was found on the Lithuanian border in the serious physical condition and subsequently died. Investigative Committee of Belarus opened a criminal case under the article “Murder”.”
Finally, Sputnik quotes Belarusian authorities again, blaming Polish border guards for “leaving a beaten migrant with an injured face at the border” and “for adopting the style of work from Lithuania”. RIA shares a more extended version of the incident, saying that “Having received no help from the Polish security forces, the man turned to the Belarusian border guards. They washed the wound right on the borderline and applied a sterile bandage.” Another RIA piece claims “Lithuanian border guards threw the unconscious pregnant foreign woman on the border with Belarus”.
A few outlets published pieces mentioning that the European Parliament President and neighbouring countries of Belarus consider that Lukashenko uses migrants for a hybrid war with the EU.
You can find a detailed disproof of Belarusian claims on EUvsDisinfo.
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.