Topics of the Week

Illiberal Hungary witch-hunts critical voices. The civil society plans to build resilience in spite of that.

The unexpected journey of Russian ventilators from Russia to the US and back again.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: The Kremlin denies involvement in Bundestag hack attack

Good Old Soviet Joke

Definition of aggression: The entry of troops of one state into the territory of another without the consent of the Soviet Union.

Policy & Research News

Illiberal Hungary witch-hunts critical voices

The bill adopted 30 March allowing Orban to rule-by-decree due to the pandemic crises, is already showing its authoritarian dividends that pertain not only the constitutional breach or the de facto change in the form of government of Hungary. In fact, the emergency law includes amendments of the Penal Code, specifically, paragraph 337 sets three years detention applicable to those spreading “fake news”.

Last week, the first wave of arrests took place, based on the investigation of 87 cases over alleged “scaremongering” and publishing of “false information” related to the pandemic on social media, the Hungarian police declared. “The police is constantly monitoring the internet”: among those arrested are members of the opposition and critical voices, proving right the severe concerns over the fate of a free press in Hungary expressed soon after the bill was approved.

After Freedom House released its 2020 report registering in Hungary the most significant involution in civil liberties and democracy, Orban summoned the 5 Ambassadors to those countries that declared a “hypocritical” criticism of the emergency law, which was already deemed incompatible with EU values, and in which regard Ursula Von der Leyen threatened to take legal actions.

Orban declined Sassoli invitation to a hearing in the EU parliament over the issue, frustrating the first attempts to intervene institutionally.

Hungarian civil society, in the while, is trying to get resilient on its own, given the fact that Orban government through State-owned media is widely recognized to have repeated and amplified Russian propaganda “to weaken its political competitors and advance its own agenda”, thus resulting in the institutionalization of disinformation, Isan’s report stresses. To counter this massive manipulation, civil society can act, although with an obviously smaller capacity than the State actor, through the building of wider civil synergies, the increase in public media literacy and the stop of dirty money inflow from outside malicious actors, the report shows.

Russian disinfo in Dutch social media, security services alert

The Dutch AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Services) spotted Russian narratives in COVID related disinfo social media campaign, NLTimes reports. Following the finding by the Security Services, the Interior Minster Ollongren addressed a letter to the Parliament, alerting on the threat posed by disinformation campaign in the Netherlands, citing both the difficulties to tackle the threat, given the legal vacuum around it, and the nefarious consequences it may lead to: “this misleading information about 5G may have contributed to the arson of various masts in recent weeks”, as previously happened in the UK.

This unprecedented move by the Minister shows the potential roots of a changed stance the Netherlands might be adopting towards disinformation, after in the past years the Dutch were among the most sceptical actors, to the point of attacking the East Stratcom and calling for the shut down of the EuvsDisinfo website.

US Developments

Developments on COVID-19 aid between the U.S. and Russia

President Trump has announced that the United States will donate 200 ventilators to Russia to help the Russian medical system combat COVID-19. Russia has recently become home to the second-most reported coronavirus cases in the world, second only to the U.S. Russia has not commented on nor confirmed the aid. This comes as Russia suspends the use of a ventilator model after it caused deadly fires in St. Petersburg and Moscow. This type of ventilator was among the aid that Moscow had sent to the U.S. in early April as American cases were peaking. While the Kremlin advertised the equipment as humanitarian aid, some of which was unusable, the U.S. was later charged. Fortunately, according to the American Federal Emergency Management Agency, the ventilators were never deployed in American hospitals.

Exposing disinformation does not violate the American guarantee of freedom of expression

An opinion piece by Brian Michael Jenkins of Rand Corporation claims that the exposure of disinformation does not equate to a violation of freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Some have expressed the concern that the public exposure of disinformation could violate freedom of expression. Some of these concerns stem from the Kremlin’s regular manipulation of Americans’ words to support its disinformation agenda. Naturally, those whose words are manipulated to support Kremlin narratives do not want to be mislabeled as irresponsible citizens or as bad Americans. However, Jenkins argues that this would not be the case under widespread disinformation exposure. He also argues that “exposure is not censorship.” He cites “ample precedents” of curbing foreign interference in the United States, including requiring organizations and individuals operating on behalf of a foreign entity to identify themselves as foreign agents. Using exposure and identification allows for improved interpretation and evaluation of information and simultaneously preserves Americans’ right to not only express themselves as they so choose, but to consume a variety of perspectives.  

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

The Kremlin denies involvement in Bundestag hack attack

Speaking to MPs on May 13, an angered Angela Merkel affirmed to have “hard evidence” of the involvement of the main Russian military intelligence agency (commonly referred to as GRU) in the massive cyberattack that in 2015 hit the Bundestag and also targeted her own emails. Her comments followed the recent report by Der Spiegel that detailed the operations whereby the GRU-linked hacker group “Fancy Bear” allegedly stole some 16 gigabytes of data from the parliament accounts. Earlier this month, German federal prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Dmitry Badin, the Russian citizen who they suspected led the Bundestag hack. Badin is also wanted by the FBI in relation to the attacks to the servers of the US Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2016 elections.

The details of the hack have emerged at a time when relations between Moscow and Berlin are already strained. Last December, the execution-style murder of former Chechen rebel Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin led to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats, following Moscow’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation. Faced with an increasingly long list of charges of conducting covert operations in the Western democracies, the Kremlin has not changed its official position, consistently rejecting all accusations. As in previous instances, Moscow’s state channels have been a good advocate of Russia’s innocence, claiming that no evidence, in fact, exists to prove that the Russian secret services hacked into the Bundestag’s computers and that this is only another case from the West’s “highly likely” investigation file.

In this sense, the Kremlin’s outlets have doubled down on their efforts to accuse the West of periodically moving unsubstantiated allegations motivated by anti-Russian sentiments. Most channels link the Bundestag hack to other examples where “in the absence of evidence” the Russian government was accused of directing external unlawful operations – including the 2018 Skripal case and the 2016 meddling in the US election, where in fact the Kremlin’s involvement has been extensively documented. Finally, even when the presence of the Russian intelligence behind the cyber attack is admitted in principle, the Kremlin’s channels brush it off as “normal practice for special services”, and underscore that the dangers for German sovereignty rather come from across the Atlantic, as Germany would be “under the total and manifold supervision and control by the American intelligence agencies”. This echoes another recurring Kremlin’s narrative claiming that NATO has never stopped exercising its control on Germany since the end of WWII.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Evidence of Russia-Linked Influence Operations in Africa

By Shelby Grossman, Daniel Bush and Renée DiResta

This paper by the Stanford Internet Observatory documents the expansion of Russian-linked companies in the information space in Africa. An increased presence in Africa is part of Russia’s global strategy to reassert itself as a geopolitical superpower, and emerging evidence of information operations, in addition to the presence of military instructors and paramilitary groups, has been documented. Reporting suggests a cluster of Facebook pages tied to the Wagner Group, a Russian organization linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch who runs the Internet Research Agency. Researchers analyzed 7 Instagram accounts and 73 Facebook pages liked by 1.72 million people. This information operation targeted people in Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Pages analyzed by the Stanford Internet Observatory and the Facebook Threat Intel team overall produced universally positive coverage of Russia’s activities in the region and disparaged the UN, France, Turkey, Qatar, and the Libyan Government of National Accord. Often the Pages purported to be local news sources. They embraced several tactics, from lengthy news-related posts to viral-aspiring memes like those produced by the IRA. These operations were distinguished from the IRA’s operations in the US by generally being ideologically uniform and pushing the audiences in one unified direction (with small exceptions), while the operation in the US aimed to sow discord between diametrically opposed groups. Assessing Prigozhin’s and his companies’ actions in Africa provides an insight into Russia’s goals in Africa, as well as possible disinformation tactics used in future operations elsewhere.

An anti-Macron post on “Bangui Buzz” in the Central African Republic. “Vladimir, I’m asking you for the last time to cancel the summit in Sochi, Africa has always been mine.”

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.