The US and NATO are preparing for Russia to go after troops at their home
The US imposes sanctions on Nord Stream 2 pipeline project

Kremlin’s Current Narratives: “Inventing another Skripal case” and Hong Kong Unmasked

Good Old Soviet Joke

Russian election committee was reviewing videos which were supposed to prove the falsification of the election results. After diligent research, the committee stated that 146 % of the videos are fake.

Policy & Research News

The US and NATO are preparing for Russia to go after troops at homeIn early 2017, after Dutch fighter pilots deployed to Lithuania on a Baltic Air Policing rotation called home using their own phones, their families started getting sinister phone calls. Later that year, after US Army Lt. Col. Christopher L’Heureux took command of a NATO base in Poland, he had his personal iPhone breached with an attempt from Russia to reset his password. Those incidents and others like them reflect the ongoing attempts by Russians to misinform and intimidate both civilians and troops in Europe, as The Business Insider reports.US Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, head of US European Command, recognises the threat these attempts pose, stating while a comprehensive defence involves air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace, as recognised by NATO as the five domains, hybrid activity is on the fringes of these domains. Wolters argues that “parts of hybrid activity happen to be information operations, and from a malign influence standpoint we see that often from Russia”.Former US Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, has praised the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (CoE), which was set up in 2017 by some members of the EU and NATO in response to the increasing threat of Russian malign influence. Mattis stated the CoE allowed each Member State to learn from one another while “building resistance to those with malign intent toward our democracies”.It is put forward by Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, that NATO forces must undertake training and exercises under the assumption that not only are they at risk of a cyber-attack but also “individual and personalized information attack”.

Finland is winning the war against fake news

In 2014, the Finnish government launched an anti-fake news initiative to teach residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to cause and increase divisions. The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach Finland is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex issues of the digital world. As CNN reports, this would suggest the Nordic country is well aware of what is at stake. 

Finland has battled against Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But after 2016 when Moscow annexed Crimea in the way it did, it became clear information warfare was moving online. President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against disinformation. In 2016 Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news and to develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.

While more recently, Finland’s strategy was on public display ahead of last month’s national elections which actively encouraged citizens to think about fake news. Moreover, officials didn’t see any evidence of Russian interference in the election, which may be a sign that Russia has stopped thinking of the Finnish electorate as a soft target.

Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to replicate Finland’s strategy on how to win the war on disinformation. Representatives from many EU Member States, along with Singapore, have come to learn from Finland’s approach.

US Developments

The US imposes sanctions on Nord Stream 2 pipeline project

All the mobile apps developed in Russia, including the popular FaceApp, are a threat to US security, according to the FBI. The statement comes after Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer sent a request to the FBI to conduct a security review on mobile apps developed in Russia. FBI writes that Russian intelligence is able to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request to ISPs.” This makes all the apps developed in Russia inherently a potential counterintelligence threat. Democratic National Committee has already warned all the 2020 presidential candidates against using the Russian FaceApp.

Russian hacker confesses he was ordered to hack the DNC

In a Moscow court hearing, Russian hacker Konstantin Kozlovsky claimed that he has taken orders from FSB for years, including in 2016 when he took part in the Democratic National Committee server hacking and Hillary Clinton’s email server hacking. Kozlovsky, who is the leader of the Russian hacking group Lurk, was in court for stealing $300 million from Russian bank accounts. Kozlovsky claimed that his FSB contact person was Major Dmitry Dokuchayev, who was FSB’s top cybercrime expert before he was arrested for treason in late 2016. Along with the 2016 presidential election hackings, Kozlovsky also claimed that he took part in hacking many international sports organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA and WADA.

NATO conducts a study on social media manipulation

NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence spent $333 to buy social media engagement from 11 Russian and five European companies. The study was conducted as a part of the preparation for the 2020 US presidential elections. The three-month study focused on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, and the $333 investment into fake social media engagement netted 3,500 comments, 25,000 likes, 20,000 views and 5,000 new followers. NATO identified all the 18,739 accounts that were used for creating fake engagement and reported them to the platforms. After three weeks, only five per cent of the accounts were taken down. Twitter was the most responsible actor, removing half of the accounts that took part in the study. Facebook blocked many of the accounts but removed only a little content from its platform. YouTube was the worst at deleting fake accounts, and Instagram was found to be the easiest and cheapest platform to buy fake influence. 

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

“Inventing another Skripal case” and Hong Kong Unmasked

Back in August, the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who had fought against the Russian troops during the war in Chechnya, in Berlin was linked to Russia, but any involvement was categorically denied by Moscow. However, after Germany’s decision to expel two Russian diplomats on grounds of not sufficiently cooperating with investigation authorities, the Kremlin once again promised to retaliate, claiming that this “politicized approach to the investigation” is “unjustified and unfriendly.”

This suits Moscow’s narrative perfectly: Russia is being demonized by the West, and it is unjustly blamed for everything. According to state media, this is merely another example of a Western country “joining the cohort of those playing the old-time blame-Russia game,” passively dismissing any validity to the accusations of involvement. In fact, the Kremlin likened the Khangoshvili case with the Skripal saga in the sense that in both investigations, “no evidence presented to the public, but the blaming started immediately.” In an attempt for priming, one article on the topic ends with a statement that Germany has been under US pressure over its relations with Russia, subtly and very implicitly hinting that this may be a part of a larger plot against Moscow.

On another note, RT released an exclusive report about “real reasons and instigators behind anti-Beijing riots” called Hong Kong Unmasked on December 1. The themes of the documentary are the United States collusion against China and the destruction sown by violent protestors in the city. At the beginning of last month, the Kremlin Watch Briefing reported that the narratives of Russian state media were in line with China’s own preferred portrayal of the events – a trend that reportedly goes back to 2014. Upon the release of the exclusive report with a fairly wide reach, however, RT “gained a surge of praise” from Chinese netizens. This also reinforced the sentiment that China’s overseas media strategy is not as effective as Russia’s one. Realizing this, China’s leadership has reportedly been studying the propaganda strategies of Moscow through regular people exchanges, annual forums and media summits. Until the PRC’s international media presence improves, however, the Kremlin remains Beijing’s best ally in the disinformation war against Hong Kong.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Britain’s Secret War With Russia

By Tom McTague, for The Atlantic

In this long read, Tom McTague analyses the timeline of the Skripal affair and the subsequent information war between Moscow and London, outlining the Kremlin’s strategies and the lessons learned by Britain. In order to base his analysis, the author spoke to several current and former officials, as well as members of the intelligence services. Experts on security, diplomacy and cybersecurity were also consulted, making for a comprehensive analysis of the western perspectives on the crisis. The Russian embassy in London declined to comment.

In the aftermath of the April 2018 attack on the former Russian spy and his daughter, Russia reacted quickly and set in place an elaborate disinformation campaign. Moscow’s goal was to flood social media with false narratives and information – four weeks after the incident, 138 different narratives about the Skripal poisoning were released by Russian outlets. Through those efforts, Russia was effective in casting doubt on the British and Western positions. The final aim was not to offer one particular alternative explanation but to muddy the waters in order to make people question all the narratives on the subject. As the UK was caught unprepared, their response was slow and convoluted, which gave margin to the Russian efforts.

Besides deliberate and opportunistic disinformation campaigns, Russia also employed “diplomatic DDoS attacks” on the UK’s Foreign Office by flooding them with scores of official diplomatic correspondences containing detailed questions on the investigation. Additionally, British officials calculated that there was a 4,000 per cent increase in malign Russian bot activity online during the period of the crisis. Malware attacks on one of the laboratories investigating the poisoning were also attempted, as well as a hacking operation in the headquarters of the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), which is based in The Hague and was the body organising the investigation both on the Skripal affair and on the Syrian use of chemical weapons.

In response, the UK created a national-security communications team based at the heart of the Government Headquarters. They also reduced the number of teams involved in the investigation of the poisoning in order to avoid leakages. On September 2018, Britain finally turned the table on the conflict by publicly announcing the arrest of the spies responsible for the Skripal poisoning. The release of the information was made by surprise, which guaranteed British dominance on the narrative. This destabilised Russian responses and marked a turning point in the crisis. In October, the UK also announced the arrest of four Russian spies charged for the attempted operation at OPCW HQ. The spies had been arrested in April, but the announcement was held in order to be coordinated with the charges from the US’s Department of Justice against Russia on attempts of hacking the World Anti-Doping Agency, the OPCW, and a US nuclear-energy facility. This PR battle between London and Moscow has made the UK better prepared to deal with Russian disinformation efforts. They are now in a position to fill the leadership gap where the US cannot or will not do.

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.