Kremlin Watch Briefing: The murderer of ethnic Chechen in Berlin has been linked to the GRU

Topics of the Week

German government remains silent after the murderer of ethnic Chechen in Berlin has been linked to the GRU.

The dangers posed by social networks developed in authoritarian countries remain underestimated.

The US Department of Defense seeks software to help with protection against election interference.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Leonid Brezhnev died in the USSR.

I turned on the TV, Brezhnev was there.

I turned on the radio, Brezhnev was there.

I opened the newspapers, Brezhnev was everywhere.

I am afraid to open a can.

Policy & Research News

The murder of the former Chechen commander linked to the GRU

Ethnic Chechen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in Berlin on August 23rd. The victim had been actively involved in the second Chechen war, as well as during the invasion of Georgia in 2008, both times standing against the Russian Federation. In Russia, he has therefore been labelled as an Islamic terrorist. He was looking for asylum in Germany because of several other attempts for his life when he lived in Georgia.

Shortly after the attack, the German police detained a Russian citizen who has been witnessed shooting at Khangoshvili in a public park. According to the joint investigation by Der Spiegel, The Insider and Bellingcat, the murderer operated under a false identity. He had a Russian passport under the name Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, with a number which has been linked to Russian military intelligence service GRU, but his real identity is not known. Speculation appeared he might be a hired freelancer.

Several media outlets have likened the murder of Khangoshvili to the assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. However, the German government remains mostly silent about the incident, not echoing the more exemplary response of the United Kingdom.

Lithuania accused of plotting a coup against the Belarussian government

Brought to you by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis

“Coup-inducing” Lithuania should rethink its “strategically-problematic” position regarding the launch of Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant.

As a matter of fact, the use of above-mentioned descriptive terminology should not be surprising to readers familiar with Russian propaganda as it is not the first time Lithuania is described as uncooperative and pessimistic towards its eastern neighbours. Articles of conspiratorial leanings on Lithuanian-Belarussian relations have shown that Lithuania’s more positive stance on Belarus (despite Minsk’s plans to launch a nuclear power plant situated close to the Lithuanian capital) have hit the right nerve and thus have challenged Kremlin’s narrative about an “uncooperative Lithuania”.

As new information regarding Nausėda’s plans to “restart” bilateral relations between Vilnius and Minsk had reached the Lithuanian media, Kremlin-backed news outlets came up with their own explanation of what such scenario could mean for Belarus’ future.

According to Baltnews, former President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė “had unfortunately put Lithuania towards the path of self-destruction” by “ruining neighbourly relations with all surrounding countries, including Belarus”. Therefore, it is suggested that recently-elected President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda “should not make the same mistake” and thus shall not support Lithuania’s intent to ban electricity from Astravyets NPP from entering its energy grid. Otherwise, Lithuania is supposedly set to experience “huge loses” as well as “worsened relations between the two countries”.

According to Sputnik, by trying to improve bilateral relations with Belarus, Lithuania is aiming to create favourable conditions for a possible coup. As stated by Matveyev, a columnist at Sputnik, Lithuania “has been given a task from Brussels and Washington to organize another Euromaidan in Minsk”, with a goal to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian government. Additionally, Matveyev mentions that Vilnius’ European Humanities University (EHU) is being used as a “training ground” to prepare “combat squads” with a pro-Western ideological base aimed towards organising Euromaidan in the Belarussian capital.

WeChat, they control

Since the 2016 interference into the United States presidential election by Russia, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have stepped up their efforts to reduce the influence of authoritarian regimes on Western societies. However, social networks developed in authoritarian countries may pose a threat that is sometimes overlooked.

For instance, WeChat, a Chinese messenger and social media service, can be used to influence democratic processes in countries with a significant Chinese population due to its popularity among Chinese speakers. In 2017, Jenny Kwan, a Canadian MP, made a statement on WeChat in support of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, but the platform took it down. Such is the extent of the Chinese authorities’ influence on the platform that they can access private messages, even those previously deleted.  Another Chinese service, TikTok, while not presently known for censorship, has been accused of collecting excessive information from its users. Still, there are suspicions that TikTok will not be able to escape the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, and there is evidence suggesting that censorship related to the ongoing Hong Kong protests is already occurring.

Russian VK is a social network developed in an authoritarian, albeit more permissive environment. In 2014, its former CEO Pavel Durov was forced to sell his shares in the company and hand control to Kremlin-connected oligarchs after he refused to disclose personal data of Ukrainian Euromaidan activists. The Kremlin now can use the service in its interest as it strives for more control of the Internet.

To conclude, both WeChat and TikTok can potentially be used by the Chinese government to spread its influence, especially since it prefers to control overseas Chinese media. The Kremlin in its turn can employ VK, widely used in post-Soviet countries, to destabilize one of them.

US Developments

US Military Spearheading a New Fight Against Disinformation

According to a cybersecurity blog by Bloomberg author Pete Norman, it seems the United States is finally turning to its largest defence entity to help fight fake news and disinformation. Despite constant pushback from Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants custom-designed software to help protect the US against election interference. After showing vulnerability to a host of Russian disinformation mechanisms in the 2016 presidential race, the States have spent the last few years trying to sort out how best to tackle ever-evolving misinformation tactics and who exactly should take the lead in the fight.

According to the article, the Department of Defense (DoD) hopes to develop and obtain this new software in order to serve a couple of primary functions. Firstly, the DoD hopes to confront constantly-improving deep fakes, videos or audio files that seem completely authentic but were crafted with the intent to deceive or confuse their audience. Secondly, the DoD hopes to install a program that can process highly-refined algorithms that can identify fake news stories amidst hundreds of thousands of social media offerings. Due to the depth and time required to refine these technologies, it is uncertain whether or not they will be ready before the 2020 election. That being said, it has been noted on multiple occasions that Russia does not intend to back away from interfering in the next presidential bid, rather 2016 was perhaps only a glimpse of what the Kremlin hopes to achieve.

Congress Shares Renewed Disapproval of Moscow

A recent article by Politico’s Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett highlight renewed tensions in the United States Congress. After President Trump’s upsetting remarks that Russia should be welcomed back into the G-7 and a handful of denied visas, by Russia for upcoming visits by a number of American Foreign Relations Committee members, a revitalized criticism of Moscow’s behaviour has been at the centre of congressional discourse.

The combination of Trump’s Kremlin-lenient message along with the rejected visas has drawn bi-partisan frustration from Congress, to include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer who staunchly opposes any variation of re-admission of Russia into the summits featuring the world’s most industrialized nations. Schumer, among other diplomats, expressed that since Russia has done little to change the course of its aggressive behaviour, there is no reason at all to show favour to a largely unapologetic Moscow. In a note to President Trump, penned by Schumer and signed by a number of Congressmen, a series of reasons are listed as to why Russia has no business being allowed back into the G-7 to include supporting Syria, Venezuela, occupying Crimea, interfering with the 2016 elections. Thus far, Trump has yet to publicly respond to the criticism aimed at his unexpected commentary.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Bot

Pseudoanonymous Influence Operations and Networked Social Movements

Brian Friedberg and Dr Joan Donovan, respectively an investigative ethnographer and head of a Harvard based team focused on understanding and combatting online disinformation and extremism, studied four “pseudoanonymous influence operations” (PIO). They define PIO’s as: politically motivated actors who impersonate marginalized, underrepresented, and vulnerable groups to either malign, disrupt, or exaggerate their causes.

The four PIO’s studied were LGBTUnited and Blacktivist, both minority activist accounts run by the Russian infamous Internet Research Agency; Gay Girl in Damascus, an account opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring that was actually run by a white American male; and Amy Mek, a virulent Islamophobe and Trump supporter believed to be a bot, who was actually a woman from New York state. Their report includes a detailed breakdown of each of these four accounts.

Each of these accounts was active across several social media platforms and garnered large followings by reinforcing our preexisting beliefs or by creating a straw man of who we believe our political opponents to be. Pseudoanonymous accounts are notably different than bots because they are directly controlled by humans, but like many bots, they focus on wedge issues to drive polarization. And while tools exist to detect and remove automated accounts, PIO’s are much harder to identify. This allows the accounts to remain active, gathering support and pushing messages, for far longer.

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.