Topics of the Week
Jakub Janda on how to counter Russian electoral interference like a Swede
Who is attacking US diplomats in Cuba and China?
Special focus: Update on the ongoing autocephaly project within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Pro-Russia Twitter accounts from the Baltics, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus likely to exhibit bot-like behavior
Good Old Soviet Joke
A group of tourists with a guide pass the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum. They come across a painting showing two pairs of feet sticking out of a bucket of hay.
The guide says, “This work is called Lenin in Finland.”
One tourist asks, “Oh, are the feet with the downward-pointing toes Lenin’s feet?”
“No, those are the feet of Nadezhda Krupskaya.”
“Oh, so Lenin’s feet are the ones with the toes up?”
“No, those are the feet of Leon Trotsky.”
“And where is Lenin?”
Policy & Research News
Countering Russian electoral interference like a Swede
Jakub Janda, the director of European Values and head of the Kremlin Watch program, has written an overview of how Sweden managed to fend off any major Russian influence attacks against the recent Swedish elections. Sweden had over two years to prepare for the elections and was therefore able to train public officials and set up election security task forces drawing experts from a range of institutions.
The elections were carried out on paper to preempt cyber-attacks, while the abilities of Russian intelligence to operate in Sweden were constrained by their lack of resources (lack of Swedish language skills and a small Russian minority). Due to Sweden’s political landscape, there was also no party that could function as a Kremlin proxy, other than the Alternative for Sweden, which has not yet established itself as a viable political movement. Additionally, since NATO membership was not a central theme, the elections were not strategically relevant to Russia. Nonetheless, there was still a massive spike in bot activity ahead of the elections, with disinformation circulating in the Swedish Twittersphere that focused on delegitimizing the conservative party and encouraging Sweden’s exist from the EU.
VOSTOK 2018 – Largest Russian war game since the collapse of the USSR
Kalev Stoicescu has written an overview for the International Centre for Defence and Security about the political and military significance of Vostok 2018 military exercises. Official figures indicate that over 300,000 troops, 36,000 pieces of heavy military equipment, and over 1,000 aircraft will take part in the exercises, making them the largest Russian military drill since 1981. China will also be taking part in the war games for the first time on Russian soil with a contingent of 3,200 troops. Turkey has not answered Russia’s invitation to participate.
With the exercises coinciding with the Eastern Economic Forum Summit, Putin hopes to demonstrate Russia’s military might whilst offering a chance for enhanced economic cooperation. For North Korea, Russia aims to demonstrate that it could serve as an alternative security partner with its military might and willingness to support authoritarian regimes, as it has done in Syria. Domestically, the exercises are a chance to demonstrate Russia’s military might and glory and thus distract from other troubling domestic issues. The exercises show that Russia’s relative strength lies predominantly in its military, which the Kremlin is desperate to modernise and exhibit.
Fighting disinformation in the Balkans
The New York Times has published an article on the ongoing disinformation campaign in Macedonia aimed at undermining the national referendum on the country’s name, which has been in dispute for over three decades between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece. The biggest obstacle to NATO membership for Macedonia could be resolved on September 30th, with citizens voting on changing the country’s name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, based on an agreement with Greece reached in June 2018. Russia is going to great lengths to undermine the referendum, using disinformation campaigns and fake news as well as hooligan gangs and motorcycle club members to stoke tensions ahead of the vote. Despite this, public support for a positive outcome remains high. Russia is thus also aiming to depress the electoral turnout, which would force the issue back to parliament and stall the process. According to Western diplomats, 40 new websites are popping up every day encouraging people to boycott the referendum or to burn the ballots.
Russia suspected over ‘targeted attacks’ on US diplomats
Since 2016, 26 employees stationed at the US Embassy in Cuba have developed unexplained illnesses borne from a yet-unknown source, with the afflicted presenting a ‘constellation’ of neurological symptoms consistent with acquired brain trauma. Believed to have ceased in late 2017, two recent cases have elevated concerns of a ‘targeted attack’ on US personnel. While the cause continues to evade explanation, the US response has been demonstrably clear: permanent reduction of embassy staff in Havana and the earlier expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States – moves that have damaged vital US-Cuban relations.
Although Cuban officials previously accused the US of lying about the allegations and recently denied any proof of a collective attack, curious reports emerged in April indicating that US diplomats in China have experienced illnesses similar to those reported in Havana. Between extraordinary claims of exotic microwave weaponry and mass hysteria, NBC News reported that, according to multiple US officials briefed on the investigation, intelligence gleaned from communications intercepts indicates culpability of a familiar Russian caliber.
New US sanctions against foreign interference
Following congressional pressure for greater action against foreign interference, and with US midterms less than two months away, Donald Trump signed into effect Executive Order 13848, which authorizes the President to impose discretionary sanctions upon foreign entities that meddle in US elections. Under this order, intelligence officials must assess breaches in electoral security within 45 days of any US election. If foreign interference is identified, a battery of automatic sanctions may be imposed and the administration may prompt further “remedial actions” at the President’s discretion.
While the move has galvanized some support in Republican quarters, particularly as Trump’s policy vis-à-vis Russia has been routinely challenged, its discretionary nature drew bipartisan skepticism from lawmakers who were pushing for a legislative based position against Russian interference. In response, Senate Democrat Sherrod Brown stated that the executive order “won’t substitute for mandatory sanctions required by law” and should not be used to sideline congressional momentum for introducing legislated sanctions, which fellow Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen introduced at the beginning of the year.
US officials raise concern over “deepfake” technology
Three US Representatives have requested that the intelligence community evaluate how emergent video and image editing technology could threaten the integrity of US national security. Popularly known as “deepfakes”, new technological capabilities that harness facial mapping and artificial intelligence enable users to generate spoof video and audio content that can convincingly replicate a target’s facial expressions, body movements, and voice. “By blurring the line between fact and fiction, deepfake technology could undermine public trust in recorded images and videos as objective depictions of reality,” stated Representatives Adam Schiff, Stephanie Murphy, and Carlos Curbelo.
The bipartisan group called upon Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, to assess how foreign adversaries could use “hyper-realistic digital forgeries” to spread misinformation, following similar ventures commissioned by DARPA to develop technology that can detect and analyze deepfake videos and images.
In the wake of a geopolitical crisis
Following recent events surrounding the ongoing autocephaly project within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Russian state media outlets have been working overtime to publicize the “dangers” of these developments.
On September 14th at an emergency session of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate protested against the move, claiming it in violation of canon law and noting that the Russian Church would take “retaliatory steps in the near future”. Such outbursts were to be expected, especially as the Kremlin endeavors to utilize the Russian Orthodox Church as a “soft power” tool and maintain its ecclesiastical hegemony within the Orthodox world. Moreover, hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, such as Metropolitan Antony of Borispol and Brovary, have spoken out against autocephaly, stating that “our Church will never co-officiate with the newly established Church” and that “conflicts will flare up in the Ukrainians’ families, our churches will again undergo assaults, and brothers will rise up against brothers.”
It appears as if the Russian Orthodox Church, its proxy in Ukraine, as well as the faithful who are loyal to Moscow are genuinely convinced that they will be persecuted in the future due to the development of the autocephaly project. The developments come simultaneously with Vladimir Putin’s recent announcements that Russia will continue to strengthen its armed forces so that “they are able to defend the sovereignty of the country and support allies.”
Further monitoring of the autocephaly situation is paramount as this particular split within the Orthodox world could have severe geopolitical ramifications; namely, the reception from the Orthodox faithful who are loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, and from the Russian government’s official response to the crisis.
The Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Let’s blame the Americans… again
The Russian propaganda press misses no opportunity to demonstrate that the White House plays much harder than the Kremlin in Syria. The pretext for such deliberate media portrayals came when US National Security Adviser John Bolton warned the Syrian government against using chemical weapons and later noted that “another use of chemical weapons will result in a much stronger response.”
NTV Russia commented on these statements by headlining their latest news under the title “West Awaits Provocation with Chemical Weapons to Hit Syria”. The news outlet emphasized that “the Trump administration has already bombed Syria twice in response to the alleged use of poisonous substances—in April 2017 and 2018.” Furthermore, Russia refuses to admit that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has launched chemical attacks on its own civilians, and even goes so far as to ignore the Kremlin’s previous support in this scenario. Of course, it is far more convenient for the Kremlin to blame the US for aggression and to completely sidestep the facts of Russian military involvement in Syria.
RT is absolutely convinced that a civil volunteer group known as the “White Helmets” have “shot nine videos, in Jisr al-Shughur city in Idlib province, of a staged chemical attack” that is to be blamed on the Syrian government. Supposedly, the “militants” have selected 22 children and their parents from several villages in the Aleppo governorate who will play roles in staging fake chemical weapons attacks.
Moreover, according to the same source, the Russian military has obtained information that the “White Helmets” are collaborating with terrorists to prepare “actual poisonous chlorine-based substances” which will be used upon the participants of the fake videos.
All this is yet another example of how the Russian propaganda press prefers entertaining conspiracy theories rather than seeking fact-based explanations of events on the ground.
Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion
Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe
Todd Helmus, on behalf of the RAND Corporation, testified before the Select Committee on Intelligence to the US Senate, detailing his work on Russian social media influence in Eastern Europe. He noted how the pro-Kremlin social media infrastructure does not work in isolation but rather as part of a larger campaign that includes television (such as RT and Sputnik), civil society organisations, political parties, think tanks, and private citizens. The objectives of these social media campaigns vary depending on the region. In Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ (countries including Ukraine, the Baltics, Belarus, and Moldova) the narrative aims to divide Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian populations between their host governments, NATO, and the EU. In the West, the narrative aims to achieve policy paralysis and mistrust in democratic institutions.
RAND analysed a large collection of Twitter data from the Baltics, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus and uncovered two large and highly influential communities – pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists. RAND then randomly selected 2,000 accounts from each community and discovered that pro-Russian community accounts were statistically more likely to exhibit bot-like behavior than the pro-Ukrainian accounts, although the figure remains below 10% for both communities. Next, the team developed a fingerprint of the word pattern of the pro-Russian community and compared that to a panel of accounts linked to geographic regions. They found that an extremely high number of accounts (15-20%) in Crimea and Donetsk shared the same linguistic pattern as the pro-Russian Twitter community. Interestingly, they found that the rate drops the farther one goes away from the Russian sphere of influence.
This article was originally posted in the Kremlin Watch Briefing by European Values.