Topics of the Week

Ilya Zaslavskiy: Israel should acknowledge the threat of the Kremlin’s hostile influence and act accordingly.

Are the US midterms already in jeopardy?

RT is fond of Trump, but not so much the United States.

Robotrolling: Russian-language messages about the Baltics and Poland mainly produced by humans for the first time

Good Old Soviet Joke

A foreign correspondent asks a Czech citizen: “What’s the situation after Prague Spring? Are the Russians your brothers or friends now?”

“Brothers of course. You can choose your own friends!”

Policy & Research News

Israel and Russia: Friends or foes?

We typically focus on the threat the Kremlin’s disinformation and influence operations pose to Europe and the United States. In a recent interview for the Times of Israel, Ilya Zaslavskiy, Head of Research at the Free Russia Foundation, warns against similar activities targeting the State of Israel and its citizens and describes them in remarkable detail. He also proposes several recommended steps for Israeli institutions:

  • Acknowledgment of the problem, which should be followed by investigations and exposure of the threat
  • Robust policy of containment
  • Halting money flows
  • Expelling Russian oligarchs
  • Stricter anti-money laundering measures
  • Consulting security services with regard to strategic purchases related to security, defence, or the national interest
  • More funding for independent investigative reporters

Cyber security of election technology

In 2019, the European Parliamentary elections will take place in 27 EU member states (excluding the UK), with each using unique voting procedures and systems. An incident or a threat affecting the legitimacy of an election in one Member State will inevitably affect the legitimacy of the entire election across the European Union. This is why ensuring electoral security and legitimacy is of paramount importance across the EU.

To this end, over 20 EU member states have contributed to the creation of a compendium on the cyber security of election technology, an effort led by Estonia and the Czech Republic. The compendium brings out methods to increase cyber security of election technology through universal practices in regard to voting technology, comprehensive risk assessment and management, testing and auditing of voting systems, concrete technical measures to protect elections, security measures in all stages of an election, and protecting different stakeholders participating in the elections.

Russian influence on the European “power ministries”

In his recent article for the American Interest, Neil Barnett compares the current phenomenon of populist political parties in Europe, like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Lega Nord in Italy, which both formally cooperate with the ruling United Russia Party, taking control of their national interior ministries. He compares the situation with the 1940s, when the Soviet Union used so-called “power ministries” for undermining democratic systems in Central Europe, preparing the ground for further subversive activities.

The state of play in Austria has already decreased the level of security cooperation and intelligence sharing with European countries, with Germany publicly questioning the reliability of Austrian allies. The author therefore calls for these developments to be monitored closely and warns that this could be one of the “most effective, and overlooked, tools in the subversion kit.”

US Developments

2018 US midterms already in jeopardy?

The vulnerability of the US electoral system remains concerning ahead of the 2018 midterms as Russia continues to pull the strings of its digital marionettes, with Facebook’s ex-security chief Alex Stamos warning that it is now “too late” to preempt foreign interference. Mr. Stamos’ assessment, delivered just after Facebook removed652 disinformation accounts linked to Russia and Iran, follows Microsoft’s revelation into emergent Russian-linked disruption operations. In a statement released by Microsoft’s president, Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit identified and interdicted six domains created by the hacking group ‘Fancy Bear’ (affiliated with Russian military intelligence) in an attempt to spoof addresses linked to conservative think tanks and even the US Senate.

While the damage from this attack was ultimately limited, Russia’s boldness and perseverance continues to augur little confidence in US electoral security. Equally alarming are the claims that vital CIA sources within or close to the Kremlin have increasingly and abruptly become recluse. Lost sources, in addition to the earlier expulsion of 60 US diplomats and closure of the St Petersburg consulate, compounds the already challenging task of divining Russia’s long-term strategy ahead of the midterms. Whether through Kremlin-branded cloak or dagger, the November elections remain fraught with uncertainty.

US Senators demand answers over Helsinki

Following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s puzzling defense of the frenzied Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Senate Democrats are now requesting Pompeo to release all materials pertaining to their private two-hour discussion. Under dubious and extraordinary circumstances, the world leaders initially held their July rendezvous without any members of their delegation, making Trump’s interpreter, Marina Gross, the only other American behind closed doors.  Despite Russia’s Ministry of Defense going on to announce that they were “ready for practical implementation of the agreements reached”, no communique regarding Trump’s one-on-one has been issued, leaving US state officials, lawmakers and the general public clueless as to what promises and agreements their President may have made.

“We continue to hear more information – accurate or not – from the Russian government than from our own”, Senator Bob Menendez added. Now Menendez, along with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who was targeted last month by phishing attacks, are demanding answers, formally requesting access to all classified and unclassified cable traffic, memoranda of conversations, interpreter’s notes and policy directives related to the meeting.

The Russian trolls behind the anti-vaccine debate

Researchers argue that Russian-linked Twitter accounts were ‘weaponized’ in a failedattempt to probe the cultural fault lines of the anti-vaccine debate in the US. After sampling a set of over 1.7 million tweets from July 2014 to September 2017, researchers examined the nature and frequency of vaccine-related tweets. Their conclusion? Russian-linked ‘troll’ accounts and sophisticated bots tweeted about vaccines “significantly more often than average users”, targeting and attempting to control both sides of the narrative following a tactic “consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics”. Moreover, the report uniquely identified “#VaccinateUS” tweets with troll accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (aka the Russian troll factory).

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

U.S. bad, Trump good

RT appears to be mirroring the position that the Kremlin is taking towards American political elites: criticize the U.S. but defend Trump.

RT cites Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s triumphant speech, “the US will not change Russia’s political course with restrictions”. She declared, All charges voiced by the US side are ephemeral but the restrictions introduced today are very real, even though they are largely a copy of the already existing ones… And the exclusion of supplies related to space research programs and aircraft safety from the sanctions regime  only confirm the hypocrisy and bias of the American authorities.” Zakharova added: “Unlike the US, Russia remains true to its obligations – its chemical arsenals have been completely destroyed and this was confirmed by international experts, including American ones”.

So the U.S. political elite and so-called ‘deep state’ is hypocritical and irresponsible, we get it. But apparently there is a ray of light in American politics, and who should that be but Donald Trump. RT cites long-time Trump supporter and contrarian Peter Thiel, a co-founder of a PayPal.

“I got to meet a lot of people running for president on the US Republican side in 2016 and they all felt like zombies,” Thiel said. “They couldn’t say anything different other than programmed ideological soundbites. Trump was a very healthy corrective to that.I fully understand why people think of President Trump as a rude, mean person. But I think that’s often better than telling beautiful lies about the way the country is working. I believe it was incredibly important to articulate certain things about how our political institutions and our society were not working as well as before”.

The Kremlin and the pro-Kremlin media don’t want their biggest asset in the U.S. to get sacked, and will do their best to whitewash Trump and demonize mainstream American leadership in order to continue mobilizing the anti-establishment base.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Robotrolling Issue 3

In the latest issue of Robotrolling, experts from the NATO Stratcom CoE analyze social media posts related to NATO, Poland, and the Baltic states from May to July 2018. Just over a third of English-language and Russian-language activity on Twitter was from anonymous or low-quality accounts, which are a suspected product of the Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency.

Influxes of messages on Twitter related to NATO, the Baltic states, and Poland coincided with military exercises, statements by the Polish Ministry of Defence, and President Trump’s European tour. Interestingly, messages in English and Russian diverged. The Russian online space was dominated by commentaries on events surrounding military exercises, Russian international relations, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and internal Russian politics. Bot activity first spiked in late May when the Polish Ministry of Defence proposed to fund a permanent US base in Poland. The authors observed that for the first time Russian-language messages about the Baltics and Poland were mainly concocted by humans, rather than automated bots. This is likely a result of Twitter’s effort to restrict automated users, although automated bots still produce half of Russian-language content online.

In contrast, the English Twitter conversation was dominated by dissenting opinions of US politics, US elections, Black Lives Matter/police brutality, and Syria/international terrorism. Compared to Russian posts, English posts were twice as likely to be directed to other users, and three times as likely to contain hashtags. Further, English posts are tailored to specific groups as content tended to be specialised and focused on a particular topic.

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.