Topics of the Week

Four individuals, including 3 former Russian intelligence officers, charged in the MH17 investigation.

The U.S. is launching cyber attacks, displaying a shift in geopolitical warfare and deterrence.

New Atlantic Council’s study summarizes the foreign interference into 2017 French presidential elections and draws lessons learned for other European countries, including publicizing and striking back against cyberattacks.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Two rabbits on a road during the Stalinist terror of 1937.
First rabbit: “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
Second rabbit: “Haven’t you heard? There’s a rumour going around that all camels are to be castrated.”
First rabbit: “But you’re not a camel.”
Second rabbit: “After they catch you and castrate you, try proving you’re not a camel.”

Policy & Research News

Four individuals charged in the MH17 investigation

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team charged 4 individuals in the MH17 case on Wednesday, June 19. The indicted individuals are Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, nationals of Russia, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian residing in the non-government-controlled area. Igor Girkin is a former FSB colonel who headed the ministry of defence of the self-proclaimed DNR at the time. When asked about the indictment by Interfax, Girkin replied, “I don’t provide any comments. I can only say that the militants didn’t shoot down the Boeing.” The ambiguous reply led some Russia-watchers to speculate that Girkin’s comment was a between-the-lines recognition of the Kremlin’s responsibility for the downing of MH17.  Both Dubinsky and Pulatov used to serve in the Russian GRU, according to the prosecutors. The last suspect, Leonid Kharchenko, was leading a combat unit of the Russian-backed separatists.

On the very same day, Bellingcat Investigation Team published a new report identifying the individuals heard on the phone call recordings related to the case and intercepted by the Security Service of Ukraine. Aside from the suspects charged by the JIT, Bellingcat identified 8 more individuals. According to the investigators, most of them played a role in the downing of MH17.

The trial is set to begin in March 2020 and the suspects will most likely be tried in absentia. Fred Westerbeke, the Dutch chief prosecutor, said that Russia had not cooperated with the investigation. Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad dismissed the indictment as politically motivated and claimed that Russia was not responsible in contradiction to the Malaysian JIT member who supported the conclusions. It is alarming that a top official of the country that participates in the investigation chose to publicly question the indictment’s credibility and thus delivered a high prize to Russian propaganda outlets.

Several disinformation cases targeting the EP elections linked to Russia

Last Friday’s Report of the Presidency to the European Council on countering disinformation and lessons learned from the European elections reflects on counter-disinformation efforts by European institutions and includes several recommendations for their improvement and expansion from the European Commission.

The report revealed the number of disinformation cases linked to Russian sources by the East Strategic Communication Task Force in 2019 has more than doubled in comparison to 2018. During the election, these campaigns focused on narratives that aimed to undermine trust in democracy by polarising political debates and exploiting “wedge issues” such as climate change and migration to suppress or influence the vote. Demands for clear rules for online information dissemination must remain a central focus of the European Parliament and EU member states.

The Commission identifies collaboration, coordination and raised awareness as the best methods to respond to digital interference with sustainable results that maintain the integrity of both European democracy and fundamental freedoms of expression. The report emphasizes the success of the Rapid Alert System and electoral cooperation networks developed in advance of the elections that allow for “rapid and secure exchange of information” between EU Member States so as to address disinformation efficiently and collaboratively. While acknowledging the success of these efforts, the report emphasizes the “need for a permanent state of preparedness.”

US Developments

The U.S. is launching cyber attacks, displaying a shift in geopolitical warfare

Recent U.S. cyber-attacks on the Russian power grid and a number of Iranian command systems may be hinting at a new, “softer” trend in American warfare and threat deterrence. Dating back to the advent of the radio, weaker opponents in combat scenarios have sought technological means to employ methods of asymmetric warfare. The Kremlin has illustrated this concept in recent years with its infamous bot and troll farms. Despite the resources and aptitude to mirror this highly economic and efficient concept, the States did not retaliate in kind.

However, in what could be perceived as a shift in the tendency to its global adversaries, the U.S. conducted two cyber attacks in just over one week. This is significant not only due to the multiple occurrences in a small time frame but also because it shows that the U.S. may be pivoting away from traditional retaliatory strikes and focusing on what could ultimately prove to be more detrimental to hostile nations such as Iran or Russia. Only time and persistence will tell if such a strategy will serve as a stronger deterrent for the States, but this can be seen as a less aggressive, yet more contemporary geopolitical strategy. By avoiding salacious headlines about citizen deaths and collateral damage, the U.S. can reduce its militant footprint and maintain the pursuit of its international goals in a less violent way.

U.S. policy lags behind Europe in tackling Russian disinformation

According to a recent article by the Brookings Institution, despite an assault on its 2016 elections and the constantly evolving threat of Russian misinformation, the United States is still struggling to implement policy to better defend itself from the Kremlin’s belligerent tactics. Even though the European Union (EU) and its member states have their own unique struggles, the rollout of the Action Plan Against Disinformation (APAD) is an encouraging step in the push for resiliency against Moscow’s ever-shifting methods of interference.

This is not to say that the EU has a proven, systematic strategy to combat Russian influence. Rather, the key point here is that they have managed to at least deploy a plan focused on this unique problem. Accepting the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to Russian tactics, the U.S. may be staggering behind the EU primarily for its inability to transparently delegate specific tasks and responsibilities to its numerous institutions responsible for protecting its democratic values and security. Unlike the Active Measures Working Group from the end of the Cold War era; which was designed specifically with combating Russian propaganda, the U.S. lacks a clear-cut agency to spearhead the battle against Russian misinformation. This matter continues to sputter along as excessive bureaucracy seems to inhibit any governmental body from taking a leadership role in the ongoing fight for the truth.

Although a number of pro-transparency bills have been presented to Congress with language targeting Kremlin disinformation, each has yet to pass. Additionally, increased pressure on social media entities and dialogue regarding stricter platform regulations are a menial effort in comparison to what some progressive European nations are employing. The U.S. needs to find cohesion in their defensive strategy against Russian interference before it falls further behind. Again, clearly there is no one way to tackle Moscow’s misinformation campaign, but the United States could benefit by following the EU’s cohesive lead for a change. Even if the APAD has its flaws, forward progress is better than bureaucratic stagnation.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The “Macron Leaks” Operation: A Post-Mortem

In a study for the Atlantic Council, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer performed a comprehensive review of interference in the 2017 French presidential election. Vilmer does not attempt to reveal or uncover new facts but set out to compile a detailed account of what happened, who did it, why it failed, and what lessons can be learned. This case must be studied because the operation failed – Macron was elected despite the campaign against him.

A classic information operation was run against the Macron presidential campaign. This operation can be broken into three parts: the disinformation campaign, the hack, and the subsequent leak. The French government has been reticent to identify a specific culprit, but Russian intelligence and the American alt-right are the most likely perpetrators.

Numerous elements contributed to the campaign’s failure. Structural factors like the short presidential campaign season, two rounds of elections, a more regulated media, and the media blackout starting the day before the election truncated the timeline for meddling. Cultural aspects such as the tradition of serious journalismand a population that reads primarily mainstream media sources prevented disinformation from taking hold and spreading. Lastly, a dose of luck made by the late emergence of Macron’s viability and the relative sloppiness and mistake-riddled campaign. There are fifteen key lessons from the 2017 French presidential election. Some lessons are broad such as learning from others, undermining propaganda outlets, and call on the media to behave responsibly. Others are more direct, e.g. making all hacking attempts public, staying focused and striking back, and gaining control over the leaked information.

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.