In just a month, regular elections to the European Parliament will be held, the outcome of which might lead to an increase in the role of the Kremlin in Europe, revision of anti-Russian sanctions, and weakening of the pro-Ukrainian lobby.
Despite all the precautions of the European Union, Moscow will do everything possible to define insiders and outsiders. Russians have numerous motives for this.
The report of Mikk Marran, Estonian Director of Foreign Intelligence, says that the Kremlin clearly intends to split the European Parliament, make Europeans doubt the importance of this institution, discredit sanctions as a method of “retaliation against Russia.” The Russians cannot work out in the open like it was a few years ago, the EU special services warn. They would change tactics and strategy to camouflage their actions. And a number of gaps in European security, to which experts draw attention, will play into their hands.
Thus, Estonian politician Tunne Kelam assures that Europe has not realized the reality of the Russian threat. The Kremlin managed to put down the vigilance of the Europeans, constantly changing their tactics. “The strength of Russia’s approach is that it doesn’t use the same tools everywhere. Instead, its tools differ depending on the country it is targeting. What the Kremlin does in, say Greece, is different to what it does in Ireland, but all of these activities are still part of the same tool kit,” Foxall, from the Henry Jackson Society, said in a commentary for CNBC.
Foxall, on the other hand, is convinced that Russian methods remain unchanged. They use “point propaganda, as well as theft and leakage of information,” carry out large-scale information campaigns in the media, spread fakes and compromising information in social networks, organize international events abroad; they bribe officials, politicians and “experts,” spy and commit cyber attacks.
To clarify, for large-scale information campaigns abroad, Russians have built up a whole system of international broadcasters for years. The RTR-Planeta, Russia 24, RT focused on Russian foreign countries were created.
And with the beginning of the active phase of the hybrid war against Ukraine, the Kremlin reformed TASS and RIA Novosti, established the Federal State Unitary Enterprise International Information Agency "Russia Today" and the international news agency and radio with multimedia information hubs Sputnik. In order to form an "objective image of Russia abroad," a Fund for Cooperation with the Russian-language foreign press has been created.
It is known that the volume of government subsidies for the period from 2018 to 2020 for the companies-owners of these international broadcasters - VGTRK, “Russia Today” and “TV-Novosti” ANO – is about $ 1.7 billion.
To understand the volumes of the audience covered by Russians abroad, take a look, for example, at the monthly statistics of the Sputnik online publication. Thus, Sputnik Germany covers an average of 2.3 million users per month, Sputnik Italia - 700 thousand, Sputnik Poland – 600,000, Sputnik USA – 2 million, Sputnik France – 6 million, Sputnik Czech Republic – 350,000.
As for social networks, the Kremlin uses them through the so-called Internet Research Agency. According to data from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, published in October 2017, it was the Agency that actively participated in the “Russian interference” activities in the 2016 US presidential election.
According to the Estonian intelligence report, for conducting cyber attacks, using simple online tools and tactics, Moscow, as a rule, attracts hacker groups APT28 and Sandworm. And a group of hackers SNAKE APT connected with the FSB for more covert work.
But not all of the above-mentioned intervention methods are as effective as before, since in 2017, NATO and 10 EU members, including France and Germany, created a counter-propaganda center in Finland to counter the “hybrid threat,” and similar NATO units operate in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. In addition, the European Commission is working with information technology companies, seeking to “mobilize capacity” that could help in finding sources of misinformation, and hires special persons to verify the authenticity of the information. Also, there are a lot of public structures in Europe, are engaged in identifying and countering Russian propaganda.
In addition, Facebook and Twitter have introduced appropriate restrictions to struggle with fakes.
It is also important that since 2014, the US and the EU began to approach the activities of the state-owned media of Russia abroad more closely. Since 2015, their activities have been accompanied by arrests of journalists, refusals of accreditation, restrictions on advertising in social media, or even a total ban. For four years, Russian broadcasters have been suffering the greatest losses (primarily RT and Russia 24. The Sputnik agency suffered the least restrictions, in 2016; it was blocked in Latvia and Turkey. But in the same year, it resumed its work in Turkey), in particular, they suffered on the media markets of the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, France, Poland, and Moldova.
With the Kremlin’s legal espionage is under a question too due to the retaliatory measures of the West. In particular, after Skripal’s poisoning, more than 150 employees of the Russian embassies, the vast majority of whom were engaged in espionage under the cover of diplomatic status, were expulsed from the United States and European countries.
Based on these circumstances, there is no doubt that Moscow will change tactics before the elections to the European Parliament and will use alternative methods of intervention.
For example, the peculiarity of the work of Russians in social media might be that network provocateurs try to undermine elections, cultivating messages splitting the society through fake accounts, instead of creating propaganda on their own.
Bloomberg reports about the possibility of such changes, referring to experts on cybersecurity. So the Kremlin-linked Internet research agency might be involved in circumventing the restrictions imposed by Facebook and Twitter. “Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye Inc. “Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, and that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.”
Moscow might rely on the methods of the so-called “public diplomacy,” which implies intensive work with the Russian diaspora, socio-political and research centers. Kremlin began to pay particular attention to the Russian diaspora only at the end of 2015. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the V Congress of Foreign Compatriots in Moscow. His 20-minute speech did not contain sensations, but the very fact of participation in this event said a lot. The experts then noted that the Kremlin is not interested in repatriating Russians and Russian speakers, but in acquiring an instrument of external influence.
In this sense, under Putin, a huge number of organizations and foundations appeared that should be responsible for working with the diaspora and form a positive image of Russia abroad. They are akin to American organizations that first destroyed the Soviet Union, and then rebuilt the post-Soviet space in their own image and likeness. With the only difference that Washington has always promoted democracy, and Moscow – the Russian language and culture. Not only state officials stand behind the American projects, but also party elites of Democrats and Republicans. The ideology of Russia is formed exclusively by the president and his staff. The U.S. relies on civil society, and the Kremlin relies on the Russian-speaking population. The target audience of Americans is about 1 billion people on the planet, and the Russian diaspora is only 30 million.
However, to work with this small audience, the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, compatriots living abroad and international humanitarian cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), the International Council of Russian Compatriots (MSRC), the Russkiy Mir Foundation, Foundation to support public diplomacy them. A.M. Gorchakova, Foundation for the Support and Protection of the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad were created.
But the topic of external campaign financing might be especially sensitive for Europe in these elections. After all, there is no all-European law regulating this industry: political parties are obliged to follow the rules of their states. And according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 4 out of 28 EU countries have no restrictions on funding political parties from abroad: Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands. Another 11 countries have a partial ban on foreign funding, and only 13 prohibit it completely.
The topic of Moscow’s influence on the European parties was quite fully described by Anton Shekhovtsov, Ph.D. in Political Sciences, a research fellow at the Institute of Humanities (Vienna) in his book “Russia and the Western Far Right.” The book is the first detailed study of a critically important trend that has been neglected: the growing connection between Russian and Western far-right activists, publicists, ideologues, and politicians. As an example, the far-right radicals of the National Front and most of the Alternative for Germany should be cited.
Brussels also suspects the Austrian Freedom Party in getting money from Russia. In December 2016, this political force signed five-year cooperation and cooperation agreement with the United Russia party.
There is a Russian trace in the activities of the Hungarian party Fidesz and its leader Viktor Orban through the joint building of the fifth and sixth units of Paks Nuclear Power Plant with reactors using Russian technology.
There are several other cases that demonstrate the obvious connection of European far-right parties with Russia: leader of the Greek far-right Panos Kammenos often takes photos with Russian politicians in Moscow. And according to CNBC, led by Matteo Salvini, the Italian League tried to get Russian funding through a gas supply deal.
EFIS analysts fear that the Kremlin views elections (to the European Parliament - ed.) as a chance to sow political division throughout the continent before a possible invasion of Belarus or the Baltic states...
The notorious report of the Estonians reads that seven new regiments appeared on the western border of the Russian Federation. The majority is on the border with Ukraine and Belarus, but one is on the border with Estonia, NATO member country. Estonia’s foreign intelligence assures that the build-up of forces and the recent drills of Russia suggest that Moscow is preparing for a military conflict with NATO. And not only the Baltics but also Western Europe is at the gunpoint.
However, the Estonian intelligence service considers unlikely such a scenario. Perhaps this is done only in order to keep Europe in good shape and distract on an unusable object.
In the same context, it is worth mentioning the recent aggravation of the situation in Libya, provoked by Moscow, which surprisingly coincided with the election campaign in the European Parliament. After all, against the background of the new Libyan crisis, Italian politicians unexpectedly opened up the seemingly closed question about the admission of illegal migrants.
The Czech iHNed outlet advises Europe to be on their guard. With the help of Khalifa Haftar, Russia can take control of Libya and use the flow of migrants as a hybrid weapon against Western democracies.
In order to somehow resist the obvious Russian interference in the European elections, it is necessary to ensure the exchange of information between EU countries on the fake news, to publicize all attempts of the external influence, not to use stolen data during the election campaign campaigns and increase voter turnout.
European Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová also proposes to intensify activities to ensure the independence of the voters, to protect personal data so that they are not used for political campaigns, to ensure the use of identical standards of campaigning, both in traditional media and on the Internet.
The EU is already implementing some of these recommendations.
For example, on April 16, in Germany, far-right populists from the AfD were fined for illegal funding. And to increase turnout, the European Parliament has conducted “thistimeimvoting” communication campaign called, which calls for democratic participation in elections. There are such words in the appeal to citizens: “As Europeans we face many challenges, from migration to climate change, from youth unemployment to data privacy. We live in an ever more globalised, competitive world. At the same time, the Brexit referendum has demonstrated that the EU is not an irrevocable project. And while most of us take democracy for granted, it also seems under increasing threat, both in principle and practice,” read the message.
You have to admit, that this is not enough.