Topics of the Week

The UK has launched a £10m programme that helps a network of Eastern European groups combat Russian and Russia-supported far-right disinformation.

Pompeo and Lavrov fail to resolve U.S. Russia differences on Venezuela and Iran.

Reading suggestion: The disinformation activities online in Bosna and Herzegovina produced by economically motivated opportunists and political/state actors.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In the time of Stalin’s mass purges, a knock at the door woke a family in the middle of the night. All family members, shaking in terror, jumped up.

“Take all you can carry with you, and get out at once,” a voice sounded. “But, for God’s sake, don’t panic! It’s me, your neighbour. It is nothing serious, just our house is on fire.”

Policy & Research News

UK leads the fight against disinformation in Eastern Europe

The UK has launched a £10m programme that helps a network of predominantly Eastern European groups combat Russian and Russia-supported far-right disinformation in their countries. The groups accuse Russia of intervening in Eastern European societies by supporting far-right and anti-EU messages. About three dozen organizations from 13 mostly Eastern and Central European countries have already joined the Open Information Partnership, which gives out grants, training and other forms of support for fact-checking, journalism and exposing fake news. Britain is thought to be leading EU in building a grassroots campaign against Russia’s attempts. The campaign is lead by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and executed by a communications agency called Zinc Network.

The Kremlin, which runs a large disinformation campaign involving state media outlets such as Sputnik and RT as well as social media accounts, is not the only actor working to undermine the legitimacy of European institutions. Far-right elements within Europe are said to use many of the same tools and narratives as the Kremlin to target the more traditional segments of European societies.

The Lithuanian model shows coordinated efforts against Russia can work

Lithuania, along with other Baltic countries, is seen by Russia as a zone of Russia’s privileged interest, and due to geographic and historical proximity is among the most affected by Russian disinformation. Therefore, Lithuania has been among the strongest voices in support of robust measures to halt Russia’s foreign interference efforts, including sanctions.

Lithuania’s fight against Russian interference employs several methods simultaneously. First, it has changed the management structure of its national cyber-security infrastructure to integrate not only state agencies, but energy companies and other critical infrastructure entities, and centralised their management with the help of the newly-established National Cybersecurity Centre. Second, it has pro-actively countered disinformation by, among other things, blocking the servers of a source that has been used for a cyber-attack or spread fake news. Lithuanian authorities have also blocked some Russian media and broadcasting access to the Lithuanian public information space while, at the same time, working to increase public awareness of disinformation threats. This coordinated and pro-active approach of various state and private actors against the foreign interference threat has proven effective in Lithuania, and could potentially serve as a blueprint for other European states.

US Developments

Pompeo and Lavrov fail to resolve U.S. Russia differences

Despite recent interaction between American president Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the strained relations between the two nations is continuing. U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that the U.S. will continue to apply pressure on Iran and demand that Moscow ceases their support for Nicolas Maduro. He has also warned that any attempts by Russia to intervene in the 2020 U.S. elections will naturally strain relations even further. After around three hours of talks with Lavrov in the Russian city of Sochi, the two men said that both countries desire better bilateral relations and they pledged to start work on potential new arms control negotiations.

This meeting which was followed by talks between both men and Putin was the first one between both nations since the release of the Mueller Report which concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Pompeo told a joint news conference that the U.S. will not alter their position that Nicolas Maduro must be removed from office because “he has brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people”. He expressed that he hopes that Russia will cease their support for the man. However, Lavrov has said that “democracy cannot be done by force, and the U.S.’s current foreign policy has nothing to do with democracy.

Pompeo also rebuffed a statement from the Kremlin earlier this week that called for the U.S. to end their campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran. He said the U.S. will indefinitely apply pressure on Iran until they return to the ranks of responsible nations” However Pompeo also said that the U.S. does not seek war with Iran unless they directly attack their recent deployment of troops to Iraq. Pompeo also said that arms control was on Trump mind and Trump desired a new agreement with China and an expansion of international agreements with China. Trump has expressed interest in meeting Putin next month and Pompeo told Lavrov in Russia that the U.S. is committed to improving their relationship with Russia for the greater good of not only Americans and Russians but the whole world.

Dangerous New Russian ploy: U.S. can trade Venezuela for Ukraine

new Russian narrative says that if Washington gives Russia a free hand in Ukraine they will give Washington a free hand in Venezuela and allow them to unseat the Maduro regime. The narrative also says that Washington should extend the new START Treaty for five years while resuming arms and control talks with Moscow. The narrative contends that since Trump believes himself fully exonerated by the Mueller report, he can now freely improve relations with Moscow because Putin shares the narrative. Therefore Washington should seek to improve these relations and retrieve them from the supposedly dangerous impasse into which they have fallen. Moscow is likely pushing this narrative because it could shatter U.S. credibility across Europe and NATO.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Disinformation in the online sphere: The case of BiH

Last month’s report from Citizens’ Association “Why Not” examines the scope and scale of disinformation activities in  Bosnia and Herzegovina and its neighbouring countries, combining fact checking and data analysis based on over 450 digital media outlets. It finds that misleading media reporting, especially in the form of intentionally fabricated false information appearing on anonymous websites, is prominent in the region. Its spread is facilitated by proliferation, intense content production, and significant reach on social media. Two sources of such content are “opportunistic disinformers” motivated by financial gain and political/state actors advancing their political agenda. Although most sources are based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Russian-government owned outlet “Sputnik” also features in the disinformation hub. The main targets of disinformation, most of which touch on political themes, are USA-based entities, while the EU is largely portrayed as a neutral actor (though not as a “value system”). Conspiracy theories focused on individual member states are also popular. Based on 16 interviews with representatives of relevant institutions, the report finds that key stakeholders have low awareness of disinformation as a problem in the context of hybrid threats.

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.