Topics of the Week

The Night Wolves, a Russian biker gang, are a tool of Russian intelligence

The US indicts 12 Russian intelligence officers in connection with the hacking of the DNC, while Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights advocate, is arrested on charges of conspiracy against the United States

The Kremlin’s current narrative: British authorities are blocking successful investigation of the Novichok attacks

Study: 10% of Russian-speaking social media users in the Baltic states generate 70% of the ideological content on these networks

Good Old Soviet Joke

Q: Why is communism superior to capitalism?

A: Because it heroically overcomes problems that do not exist in any other system.

Policy & Research News

This week saw a deluge of fascinating reports and studies from European and American think-tanks. To save you time reading them all, here are the most interesting tidbits:

The Night Wolves: a useful cover for intelligence activities

The Night Wolves are much more than just a rebellious biker gang, says Matthew A. Lauder in his report for the National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces. They belong to a vast network of proxies used by the Kremlin to outsource activities that are usually the domain of intelligence and defence institutions.

According to the report, the Night Wolves serve a variety of roles, including  recruiting local agents for the Russian intelligence services, as well as leveraging members of Russian minorities living in the West.

Focus on the Western Balkans

Two studies recently published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute look closely at the Kremlin’s influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.

Through cooperation with Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (especially in the security sector), the first report says, the Kremlin is actively trying to divide and destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina. How can NATO, the EU, and the US prevent Bosnia from becoming a Russian client state?

  • Commit one or two contingents of the US armed forces to an ongoing presence and training of Bosnian armed forces in the Brčko District
  • Broaden US sanctions to include key state officials of Republika Srpska for their continued support of the illegal 2016 Republika Srpska referendum
  • Use the Magnitsky Act to sanction corrupt individuals in Bosnia
  • Cease all communications, training, and military and technological assistance to Republika Srpska’s Ministry of Interior

As we have seen in the case of Montenegro, the Kremlin’s influence has already experienced a few defeats, for example since Montenegro decided to become a NATO member in 2015, despite Russian efforts to the contrary. But according to the second FPRI report, the Kremlin hasn’t given up, but merely changed its strategy: specifically, it is “stoking political and ethnic divisions to destabilize Montenegro and preclude further Western integration.” The authors also provide suggestions for pre-empting the reversal of Montenegro’s foreign policy: NATO must engage more with the country to strengthen military cooperation, facilitate democratic reforms, accelerate the EU accession process, and renew financial support for programs focused on the rule of law.

How should NATO defend the Suwałki Corridor?

The Center for European Policy (CEPA) highlights the importance of the Suwałki Corridor, a vulnerable area between Belarus and Kaliningrad. Its defence is crucial for guaranteeing the security of the Baltic States in case of Russian intervention in this territory. How should NATO prepare for such a situation?

  • Increase its threat-recognition capabilities
  • Speed-up decision-making protocols
  • Accelerate the movement of reinforcements across operational lines and national borders

The role for state institutions in countering foreign interference

The Alliance for Securing Democracy offers several recommendations for different US state institutions about how to counter authoritarian interference in democracies (which are easily transferable to other democratic countries). Here are those we find especially important:

  • Raise the cost of conducting malign influence operations
    • Executive branch: articulate publicly that malign foreign influence operations are a national security threat; employ cyber responses
    • Executive and legislative branches: impose broader sanctions against individuals and entities conducting these operations
  • Close vulnerabilities exploited to undermine democratic institutions
    • Executive branch: Appoint a senior-level Foreign Interference Coordinator; establish a Hybrid Threat Center to coordinate policy and intelligence across the government
    • Executive and legislative branches: Close loopholes that allow illicit financial and covert foreign political influence
  • Depoliticize efforts to unmask and respond to hostile foreign operations
    • Legislative branch: Establish mandatory reporting requirements for the administration to inform lawmakers of foreign attacks against the electoral infrastructure
    • Political parties and candidates: Pledge publicly not to use weaponized information obtained through hacks or other illicit means
  • Strengthen partnerships with Europe to improve the transatlantic response
  • Make transparency the norm in the tech sector
    • Legislative branch: Help foster a culture of transparency, e.g. by passing legislation that ensures citizens know the sources of online political ads; ensure that personal data is protected on social media platforms
  • Build a more constructive public-private partnership
    • Executive and legislative branches: Establish a more constructive relationship with the tech sector to share information and prevent the exploitation of emerging technologies
  • Expand dialogue about hostile foreign interference
    • Executive branch: Help raise awareness about the threat; establish partnerships with civil society

US Developments

12 Russian intelligence operatives indicted for US election interference

Last Friday, in a bombshell development in the Mueller investigation, twelve Russian intelligence officers were indicted in connection with the hacking of numerous Democratic Party organizations and the Hillary Clinton campaign as part of an explicit effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The full indictment noted that the conspirators first attempted to compromise email accounts used by the Clinton office staff on July 27, 2016 – the same day that Trump urged Russia to hack her electronic correspondence and “missing emails” at a press conference in Florida. The indictment also described that all the Russian operatives were officials of the GRU – Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate.  In addition, the indictment revealed that Russian interference in the 2016 election involved a greater effort to compromise sensitive information than previously acknowledged: hackers specifically targeted a US company that manufactures computer software used to verify voters’ identities – a key component in the administration of US elections.

While DNC Chair Tom Perez noted that these latest indictments show the alarming magnitude of the Russian operation, the White House made no statements addressing the charges.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a grand jury indicted Maria Butina, a Russian national with deep ties to the NRA, on charges of conspiracy against the United States and acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian government (that is, a spy). Specifically, she is accused of seeking to build bridges between the Russian government and conservative US political leaders via the NRA, infiltrating these groups to advance the interests of the Russian Federation in the US. Butina was arrested on Sunday on orders of the Justice Department, separately from Robert Mueller’s special investigation. Butina worked closely with Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian banker and gun-rights advocate (notably a lifetime member of the NRA), who was sanctioned by the US in April and is no longer allowed back into the country.

Back in December, we reported that Congress was investigating the role of the NRA in connecting the Trump campaign with Russians, and specifically focused on a meeting between Torshin and Donald Trump, Jr. in May 2016. Earlier this year, Torshin was under investigation by the FBI about whether he illegally funnelled money to the NRA to help sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Through Torshin’s connections with the NRA, he and Butina both were invited to attend Trump’s inaugural celebrations in February 2017.

#TreasonSummit: The unprecedented capitulation of an American president

News of the special counsel indictment broke just days before Donald Trump was set to meet with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki – an event that international observers and US diplomats expected to be a political disaster. John Beyrle, a retired career diplomat who previously served as the US Ambassador to Moscow, voiced concern that no historical precedent exists for such a high-stakes US-Russia meeting to commence without any advance preparation. Indeed, the outcome was largely worse than predicted, with Trump giving the Russian regime an enormous geopolitical victory as he showered Putin with praise, railed against the Mueller “witch hunt”, and sided with Putin on the matter of Russia’s electoral interference, in blatant opposition to the US intelligence community.

Never before in history has an American president grovelled so pathetically before a foreign dictator, let alone sided with one against his own country and its institutions. At this point, as one commentator points out, there are only two possible explanations for Trump’s conduct: either he truly is an agent of Russian interests (either witting or unwitting), or he is so abysmally ignorant and narcissistic that he did not realize he was giving Putin exactly what he wanted, at terrible cost to the country he claims to be “making great again.”

Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that Trump’s performance in Helsinki “exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors’” and was “nothing short of treasonous.” John McCain was even more blistering in his criticism, calling the press conference in Helsinki “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

Trump inflates tensions at NATO summit

Last week’s NATO summit in Brussels, which preceded the disastrous Helsinki Summit, also didn’t help reinstall confidence in the transatlantic alliance – an outcome attributable in almost exclusive measure to Trump’s showing. Arriving late to the summit, Trump first stunned NATO leaders when he accused Germany of being a “captive of Russia” by approving the Nord Stream II pipeline and becoming more dependent on Russian energy. (While we believe Nord Stream II should be cancelled, it is a stretch to call Germany a ‘captive of Russia’, and it was Trump’s condescension and boorishness that really struck a nerve.) The US president then roundly criticized EU member states for failing to increase their defense spending and declared that if spending is not up by January 2019, the “United States would go it alone”. Additionally, when asked whether he would consider scrapping military exercises in the Baltic region if Vladimir Putin demanded it, Trump suggested it could easily be a possibility.

The overall mood of the summit was one of chaos and confusion; however, Trump himself hailed the event as a success and, apparently tone-deaf to the reactions of his allies, insisted that his relationship within NATO was in good standing.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Novichok, again

This time we’ll start with Maria Zakharova’s closing remarks, to get you in the right mood before reading the rest.

“In the name of security on our continent, we call on the May Cabinet to stop the intrigues and games with chemical agents, stop blocking efforts to conduct a joint investigation into what has happened in the UK to Russian nationals”.

Yes, you read that right. A country that is funding terrorism, annexes foreign territory, and invades and occupies other sovereign states is “concerned” about security on the continent.

Zakharova loves conspiracy theories: “the British authorities have lost control of chemical agents”, and “We could have asked why NATO is silent. What does Mr Stoltenberg have to say on all this?”.

Of course, according to Zakharova, Moscow has nothing to be blamed for. The MFA is full of ever greater righteousness: “We call on British law enforcement to avoid being manipulated by dirty political games that certain quarters in London seem intent on playing and to finally cooperate with their Russian colleagues in a joint investigation, not least because Russian nationals have been affected as well.”

It is actually rather sad to see how Russia’s PR agents are running out of creativity and can’t come up with any new theories other than that of a giant global conspiracy against Russia. It’s the same story over and over  again: Russia crosses red lines and commits crimes, blames everyone else for Russophobia, and then gets some people to say “maybe Moscow hasn’t done anything wrong, let’s consider their side”. Yes, Russia likes to play this game – but gets away with it only because we allow it to.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Virtual Russian World in the Baltics

A recent joint study by the Estonian National Centre for Defence & Security Awareness and NATO StratCom COE analyses the online behaviour and ideological content among Russian-speaking social media users in the Baltic States. Specifically, it analyses three social media sites, Facebook (FB), the Russian social media site VKontakte (VK), as well as the Russian-speaking network Odnoklassniki (OK).  It finds that 10% of these social network users generate 70% of the ideological content on these networks. The study finds clusters of active and interconnected ideological users: Writers who specialise in the creation of ideological content; Distributors who distribute the content; Readers who consume the content; and a significant large group of “Active Reserve” who occasionally engage with ideological content and can take on any of the abovementioned roles.

On VK the members of the Active Reserve account for the majority of users, over 70%, and the Writers were most interested in the following macro topics: hostile influence, Russia, Ukraine, and the West, indicating a definite connection with the narratives generated by pro-Kremlin propaganda. In addition, on OK there were fewer ideological users than on VK, and an additional cluster present, that of a Religious user. There are also several national differences. OK is mostly utilised to repost information from ideological groups. On FB the study finds that the majority of the groups linked to ideological content have a pro-Kremlin, pro-Russian or anti-Western orientation, and are tied to each other by a large number of common members.

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.