Kremlin Watch Briefing: The Trump team welcomed Russian disinformation

Topics of the Week

European Commission has assessed the Code of Practice on Disinformation, says current efforts to detect Covid-related disinformation are not sufficient. 

Russia and China agreed on mutual cooperation on disinformation.

Ukrainian lawmaker sanctioned by the US for interfering in the United States 2020 election on behalf of Russia.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Little Vovochka decided to become president when he grows up. And he did.

Policy & Research News

European Commission reviewed the Code of Practice on Disinformation

The European Commission has undertaken the recent assessment of the Code of Practice which is aimed at combating disinformation. 

The initial code was released in October 2018 with the purpose to curb the spread of disinformation before the 2019 European Parliament Elections. The code promoted the idea of strengthening the collaboration between government, the tech industry, academy, and civil society which remains at odds and not sufficiently coordinated. As of now the Code of Practice on Disinformation has been signed by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, TikTok, and Twitter, along with the trade association representing online platforms (EDIMA). Earlier in June of this year, the Commission pressed the tech giants and called for more action being taken to detect pandemic-related disinformation and ads. June’s report also added that the Commission should consider the introduction of “sanctions and redress mechanisms”.

One of the paramount highlights of the recent assessment is the need for big tech companies that are signed up for this code to advance their accountability and transparency and boost their proactiveness in thwarting disinformation outbreaks. The EU concluded that although platforms have exerted some efforts to detect malign influence operations, those efforts were not sufficient to expose COVID-related Info Ops. EU lawmakers also stressed that without a legally binding framework, the tech sector will not be capable of overcoming existing hardships.

“The time has come to go beyond self-regulatory measures. Europe is best placed to lead the way and propose instruments for more resilient and fair democracy in an increasingly digital world”.

According to the assessment to fill the existing loopholes, the alterations in the code should be undertaken “by providing commonly-shared definitions, clearer procedures, more precise and more comprehensive commitments, as well as transparent key performance indicators (KPIs) and appropriate monitoring. Participation should be broadened to include other relevant stakeholders, in particular from the advertising sector”.

It is also acknowledged that opaque oversight over paid-political ads, namely the political micro-targeting, alongside engagement of users with the exposed disinformation campaigns require further reforming by the tech companies. 

New amendments to the Digital Service Act are also underway. Those should be adopted to enhance social media’s responsibilities and liability for content on their platforms.

Now it is official: Bilateral Russia-China cooperation on disinformation

The previous week during the joint press conference in Moscow, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a statement that parties reached a broad consensus on strengthening cooperation in multiple areas, including anti-COVID-19 and peacekeeping, and also combating against disinformation. 

The special attention was given to the info-security and cybersecurity. Both parties expressed their concerns over the dissemination of disinformation amidst the pandemic by certain countries, which contributed to the emergence of “the barriers for citizens of countries to learn about each other”. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Director-General has posted on her Twitter that in response states call “on all governments and media outlets to strengthen coordination and reject disinformation. No country should interfere in others’ internal affairs or level groundless accusations at other countries’ political system or development path.”.

Prior to this announcement, some small steps have been already taken on this path. For instance, in 2018 China Media Group signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian news agency; Huawei announced that will supply technologies to Rossia Segodnya and some other mutual efforts were done in this dimension. However, the recent announcement signals more straight-forward political development between the parties.

US Developments

The Trump team welcomed Russian disinformation, the Trump administration further confirms

The US Treasury Department has announced new sanctions against Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker accused of interfering in the U.S.’s 2020 election on behalf of Russia. Derkach has close ties to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and was identified by the US intelligence community as helping Moscow’s ongoing efforts to weaken the Democratic campaign against Trump several months ago. Guliani told CNN that “I never put any of his information in my report to State, and met (Derkach) long after my investigation was over.” Several incidents over recent months have connected President Trump, his administration, and his campaign to Russian disinformation efforts, including a retweet of edited audio of Vice President Joe Biden’s and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s purported phone call. 

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

A Friend is Known in Trouble: Meeting of Putin and Lukashenko

On September 14, Putin met with Lukashenko to discuss “the key questions of strategic partnership” of Russia and Belarus. According to the Press Secretary for the Russian president Dmitry Peskov, among the main topics were economy, defence and fight against coronavirus.

One of the most prominent outcomes is arguably the promise to provide Minsk with a loan of $ 1.5 billion. Peskov stated, however, that it cannot be considered an intervention into domestic affairs of Belarus, but rather an act of help for the economy of the brotherly country and a major ally of Russia. In addition to this, Putin pointed out that Russia still remains one of the most significant investors in Belarus, with around 50% of the foreign trade turnover “falling on” Russia. 

Even though Kremlin underlined that the loan would be provided to Belarus, and not to the president Lukashenko, Putin confirmed that Russia recognizes Lukashenko as a legitimate president of Belarus and as Putin’s “vis-a-vis” in the interstate relations. The Russian president also supports Lukashenko’s plans for constitutional reform, adding that “neither Moscow nor other European capitals” should get involved in the resolution of the situation in Belarus.

During the meeting, Putin has also confirmed that Belarus will be the first country to receive the Russian coronavirus vaccine and has already joined the last stage of the trial.

Finally, as a result of the summit, the Russian military reserves for Belarus are leaving their position on the border of the country, since the “extreme measures” to suppress the protesters were not needed. However, both leaders agreed to further cooperate in the sphere of defence, as the joint Russian/Belorussian military training “Slavic Brotherhood – 2020” begins.

In general, Moscow will adhere to the previously established agreements, even from the times “before Putin”, such as the established principles of the Union State and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Thus, relations between the two states are to remain practically the same.

Lukashenko thanked the Russian president for the support in this post-election period and stated that Belarus should “stick closer to the older brother” in such complicated times. He added that the protests in Belarus are a lesson that both Minsk and Moscow successfully “endured”.

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.