The Kremlin and its allies have started to harvest the fruits of the seeds they have been planting for years. Moscow occupies territories of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine; actively wages war on another part of Ukrainian soil; and is now playing a game of political subversion in several Western states.
In the past few years, Russian intelligence has infiltrated the Dutch Foreign Ministry, the Czech general staff, the Polish Defense Ministry, and Portuguese intelligence. Moscow used its cyber weapons to attack the German Bundestag, and manipulated the US presidential campaign by hacking the team behind a candidate Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to politically wound. A massive disinformation campaign aimed at swaying the UK electorate was manufactured by Russian institutions or the Kremlin’s troll farms in St. Petersburg.
WikiLeaks served Putin’s interests in the US election by waging a tailored, one-sided campaign against the democratic candidate Moscow feared; using the same template, it is now battling one of the last Western leaders standing up to Russian aggression—German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s ideological allies across Europe are given money or other support, like when the chief adviser to the Czech president was recently bought out of his debt by the Kremlin-linked company Lukoil.
There has also been pseudo-media support; Nigel Farage used RT as a platform when he was not getting enough attention in British media. European extremists are not only used by Moscow to falsely legitimize its aggressive foreign policy, such as occupying Ukrainian territory, but also to violently interfere in local elections, as in the Kremlin’s alleged plot to assassinate the prime minister of Montenegro. Economic operations with political goals are also part of the playbook; for example, that is how and why Putin bought a former German chancellor to run the Nord Stream II project and push for greater German dependence on Russian energy.
The situation is not hopeless, but with Dutch, French, and German elections coming up next year, time is running out.
There is a principled and effective way in which democratic countries should approach this multidimensional threat. Start with the mindset. In the early twentieth century, law enforcement was forced to realize that responding to single incidents was not sufficient to counter organized crime: the mafia uses various tools and constantly updates its modus operandi. That is exactly how the Kremlin’s hostile influence operations must be approached. Within Western security institutions, governments must set up specialized hubs to monitor, analyze, and counter foreign government disinformation operations. Tasking intelligence agencies to counter this threat is simply not sufficient: official state policy needs to be adopted.
The first step is to set up a specialized hub. In Europe, it makes sense to position it under a government’s Ministry of Interior, as most of the Russia-backed threats are domestic issues. The unit should have at least twenty Russian-language experts with mixed expertise in extremism, radicalization, sociology, media, foreign affairs, and legal affairs concerning media and politics. The hub would be studying the modus operandi of adversary groups and regimes, or mildly pushing intelligence agencies to dig into specific cases or areas of interest. It should have two major tasks.
The first capability would be real-time reactions to cases relevant to national security, public order, or foreign policy interests of the state. Experts would monitor the disinformation scene in media, disinformation outlets, and on social networks on a daily basis. Within this task, only open-source intelligence gathering would be used; zero censorship or illegal surveillance would take place.
Bringing its expert eyes to our institutions would allow this team to assess disinformation incidents, such as when a fake story about a Russian girl named Lisa sent 10,000 protesters into German streets. The team would look for serious disinformation incidents and would propose communication reactions in real time. No censorship, just using the freedom of speech we cherish to swiftly deliver information to the public debate. In essence, this means asking a minister or police chief to publish information that state authorities have available on a case. Currently, none of the usual state institutions plays this role, and each body thinks only of its narrow mission. Further, not only do they lack knowledge of the modus operandi of disinformation operations, but also the expertise on different layers of hostile influences.
Second, the team would develop regular reports analyzing trends in disinformation operations. Security institutions already develop classified and public reports on extremism, terrorism, and hostile intelligence activities. To have a clear analytical framework, a national vulnerability study on hostile foreign influences first needs to be done, one that will project the next likely moves of the Kremlin’s operations. Latvia has already done this type of assessment. Only with this knowledge and evidence-based analysis can next responses be tailored—from specialized educational courses in specific regional schools to enhanced community work with selected parts of the Russian community.
The Czech Ministry of Interior is already setting up a center to counter terrorism and hybrid threats; Finland plans a similar move. The Baltic states currently operate similar units in their foreign and defense ministries. The US Congress recently passed a bill that would set up a center at the State Department to counter foreign government propaganda. It is high time Germany and other targeted states begin to dedicate resources to defend their democratic systems.
Jakub Janda (@_JakubJanda) is the head of the Kremlin Watch Program and deputy director at the European Values Think-Tank based in Prague.
This article was originally published in UkraineAlert by the Atlantic Council.