February 1, 2019  |  Updated April 8, 2019

How the Kremlin Exploits a Crisis

By Jakub Kalenský
Protesters wearing yellow vests watched French President Emmanuel Macron on a television screen at the motorway toll booth in La Ciotat, near Marseille, France, on December 10, 2018. (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier)

Whenever there is a polarizing incident in the Western world, the Kremlin-controlled media, and their proxies and trolls, will immediately try to utilize its strategic potential – sowing discord and confusion, amplifying divisions and quarrels, and creating mistrust of reputable sources of information.

The information operation surrounding the Yellow Vests movement was no different. Russian accounts sought to amplify the street protests and the sudden rise of activity even led French secret services to start an investigation of these operations. Apart from spreading confusion and exacerbating divisions, pro-Kremlin outlets also spread multiple disinformation stories about the origin and goals of the movement and the reaction of French authorities.

Such operations regularly appear following every event that creates strong emotions on both sides of the barricade. As was the case when Russia’s media reported about the referendum in Catalonia, the Kremlin-controlled troll factory attempted to polarize the debate, notably the issue of racial and minority rights in the United States, and when Moscow amplifies stories or invents outright false narratives about the divisive issue of the migration crisis in Europe.

However, calling out this subtle kind of aggression and warning audiences about its effect becomes increasingly difficult thanks to a response consistently repeated after such incidents: that the Russians did not create the weaknesses in our system and they cannot be blamed for our own problems. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin and its channels are always quick to exploit such remarks.

This response has at least four critical flaws: it is illogical, since it misrepresents the nature of Kremlin disinformation operations; it demonstrates utter naivety of the Kremlin’s long-term strategy and misunderstanding of the nature of its aggression; it does not offer the solution to the problem we face, but to a different problem; and it appeases the aggressor, especially by shifting blame onto the victim and allowing attacks to continue.

It misrepresents Kremlin operations by equating, the creation of a situation with the exploitation of that situation. Warning that an aggressor is exploiting a situation is not the same as saying that the aggressor has created that situation. It is very possible for an aggressor to skillfully exploit for their own gains a situation that has originated elsewhere.

It shows a misunderstanding of the Kremlin’s aggression since it fails to acknowledge that it is precisely this exploitation of our problems that is the very basis of Kremlin’s aggression. Moscow does indeed take advantage of Western weaknesses. It is one of the active measures that the Moscow-orchestrated disinformation campaign has repeated since the establishment of Cheka, the forerunner of the Soviet KGB. The Kremlin seeks problems and divisions, then tries to exploit them. It did so at the peak of the KGB’s subversive actions in the 1950s and 1960s and it applies the same mechanism today, only with more advanced tools. But, trying to find our weaknesses, exacerbating and exploiting them – that is still aggressive behavior, even if those weaknesses arose independently.

This misunderstanding means that we are not addressing the problem of the Kremlin’s aggression, but rather a problem of our own weaknesses. The catch is that we will always have weaknesses that an aggressor (be it the Kremlin or anyone else) can exploit. Problems throughout society and divisions in politics are difficult and perplexing issues to resolve. Open society and dialogue inevitably raise problems and questions that have no simple solutions and responses. And during these discussions, an aggressor will always find vulnerabilities for its disinformation machine. Denying the Kremlin any chance to exploit our divisions by ceasing open societal debate is obviously not an option.

And finally, if those on the receiving end of the Kremlin’s aggression continue to blame themselves and refuse to punish the aggressor, Moscow can freely continue to exploit our present and future weaknesses. The West’s weak and predictable responses invite more aggression from the Kremlin and, moreover, will encourage similar behavior by other bullies.

The West must understand that while these tactics exploit weaknesses of our own creation, they are nevertheless acts of aggression. We must not repress the natural conflict that results from open discussion. And although working on our internal problems is necessary and desirable, it does not address the problem of an external aggressor exploiting societal divisions and making them worse.

Once we confront and resolve the external aggression, the West has a much better chance to focus on its internal problems and find the right solutions.

Jakub Kalenský is a non-resident senior fellow focusing on disinformation at the Atlantic Council. 

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