Information warfare and hybrid threats have become a security challenge for many countries in the 21st century. They reflect significant changes in the nature of international security, especially related to the aggressive revanchism of the Russian Federation. In 2014, Russia started an open war against Ukraine, and at the same time, Moscow began to actively implement operations of influence against Western democracies.
The threat of Russian disinformation is becoming increasingly relevant for all European countries. Some countries have begun to realize the severity of the threat, but other governments still doubt whether such a threat exists for them or even tolerate a Russian presence in Europe. Many governmental and non-governmental initiatives and institutions, especially in the Central and Eastern European region, have tried to identify, analyze, expose and tackle Russian propaganda.
Czech analytical project Kremlin Watch Monitor has divided the EU countries into three parts according to their reaction to Kremlin propaganda: from Moscow collaborators to active fighters against disinformation. According to their classification, the leaders in countering the Kremlin’s disinformation machine are the Baltic states, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Most European countries are “concerned”, although not very much, and about a third of countries simply deny the problem, and Greece and Cyprus openly support the Kremlin’s narratives.
Most European countries are not ready to fully investigate and expose Russian networks of influence in their countries. Apart from the UK’s parliamentary bodies, no comprehensive official investigation has been conducted on the European continent into Russian networks of influence, Russian ties to European political parties, or Russian interference in various European elections and referendums.
As the Kremlin Watch Monitor project explicitly notes, most European governments do not make sufficient efforts to protect their democratic states and do not provide their citizens with public information on these major threats. EU member states agree on what should be done at the EU level, but due to a lack of political will, most member states are unwilling to finance practical measures to counter this threat. Most countries that understand the Russian threat are small and medium-sized, and most of them are recipients of subsidies from the EU budget. The major member states, such as France, Spain, Italy or Germany, do not implement the necessary measures. For example, the German political establishment insists on implementing the Russian geopolitical project Nord Stream 2, which contradicts European geopolitical and security interests.
Russian instruments of influence
The Russian military doctrine considers information warfare as a permanent “war in peace”. For Russia, creating hybrid threats is its main strategy. An important aspect of Russian information and psychological operations is the so-called reflexive control (RC), which is closely related to the Chinese concept of “stratagems” and the American concept of “perception management”.
Modern Russian propaganda focuses primarily on disinformation campaigns, and its methods do not include promoting a particular worldview, ideology or way of life, but rather relativizing and fragmenting information in order to destroy the foundations of rational perception of any information and destroy the foundation of social trust in EU countries.
It should be noted that there are several important elements in the strategy of the Russian Federation in conducting an information warfare. First, Russia’s approach to the information struggle is a holistic (integrated approach), that is, it combines digital-technological and cognitive-psychological attacks. Although military and digital sabotage is aimed at disorganizing, disrupting and destroying the managerial capacity of the state, psychological sabotage is aimed at misleading the victim, discrediting the leadership, disorienting and demoralizing the population and armed forces.
Secondly, it is unified (“unity of efforts”), since it synchronizes the information struggle with military, political, etc. actions and it is also unified from the point of view of cooperation and coordination of the spectrum of state and non-state actors, such as military, quasi-military and non-military.
Third, an information campaign is a continuous (the principle of “continuity”) strategic effort. It is conducted both in “peacetime” and wartime simultaneously in domestic and international media and social networks.
Russia uses the “soft power” tools to disguise the efforts of “soft coercion” aimed at preserving its sphere of influence. The activities of influence groups combined with the Russian state administrative resource and security apparatus, as well as the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, pro-Russian elites, mass culture and the media can seriously damage the political processes and democratic development of countries in the region. The events in Crimea and Donbas have shown the important role of Russian non-state actors in fueling the conflict.
The Kremlin does not always create socio-political problems, but it has learned to use existing contradictions to its advantage. The migration crisis and terrorist attacks in Europe have been used by the Kremlin to criticize the “West” and incite hostility within EU countries reinforcing the dichotomy of a “strong Russia” against a “weak, decadent West.” For example, in Germany, public concern and interest in hostile information operations was caused by the Lisa case, in which Russia tried to increase anti-immigrant sentiments.
Brexit also gave Russia a chance to take advantage of anti-European sentiments and strengthen its illiberal allies. The part of the agenda for changing Russia’s image abroad is to emphasize the country’s role in preserving “traditional European values” and elevate Putin as a “conservative icon”.
The Russian strategy to promote its interests in Europe is based on the following areas.
Russian economic instruments
The companies associated with the Kremlin use economic means to exert political influence in targeted European states. Their activities are most prominent in the energy sector. The strategic energy agreements between European countries and firms help the Kremlin to impose its political and geopolitical interests. They increase the state’s dependence on friendly relations with the Kremlin, and can potentially be a tool for blackmailing the political leadership.
Search for political allies
The Kremlin is trying to develop relations with political actors in high positions. These key figures can be supported financially, ideologically, or in the media in exchange for the Kremlin’s support. One example of this practice in Europe is Czech President Milos Zeman, Marie Le Pen in France, and many others.
Support for European radical and extremist groups
Especially, but not exclusively, in European countries where Russia has failed to secure high-level support, the Kremlin uses the support of radical and extremist forces. Their political and ideological orientations do not have a fundamental difference, but the anti-systemic factor is crucial. Through these groups and movements, the Kremlin incites confrontation within these countries and purposefully destroys democratic institutions.
Use of “public diplomacy” and public organizations
The interests of the Russian Federation are often promoted by allegedly non-governmental organizations or non-governmental organizations incorporated by the government. The purpose of their activities is to influence European public opinion and shape an “understanding” of the Russian view of politics. These organizations play the role of influential actors who use legitimate means of democratic discussion to legitimize the Russian regime and politics abroad. For example, these are the organizations such as the “Dialogue of Civilizations” think tank in Berlin, which is headed by Vladimir Yakunin, who is closely associated with Vladimir Putin. This organization is used to promote Russian interests and support some politicians and influential figures, including former Czech President Vaclav Klaus or former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, open or covert support for such organizations should be a matter of concern for the EU.
The Russian media, especially international resources such as RT and Sputnik, have become an important tool for spreading anti-Western narratives and disinformation on Russia’s international relations and foreign policy.
Ethnic minorities and “compatriots”
Ethnic Russians living in European countries are considered by the Russian Federation as a potential base that can be used for military and foreign policy purposes. The “protection” of the Russian minority or “compatriots” abroad, including access to relevant cultural, ideological and patriotic information and education, in particular in the Baltic states, Germany and the Czech Republic, is another reason for Russia to spread its influence.
European response to information threats
In recent years, many thorough investigations have been carried out that examine in detail the ideological and conceptual basis of the Russian approach to information warfare and describe in detail the prompt measures taken by the Kremlin.
According to the Action Plan against Disinformation adopted by the EU, disinformation carried out by the Russian Federation poses the greatest threat to the EU. It is systematic, but Russia has sufficient resources and it is of a different scale compared to other countries.
In order to counteract the policy of the Russian Federation on the spread of fakes, the European Union in 2015 established a working group on strategic communications called East StratCom Task Force. Based on the Strategic Communication Action Plan adopted on 22 June 2015, the mandate of the East Strategic Communication Task Force includes three areas of measures: 1) effective communication and promotion of EU policy regarding the Eastern Partnership countries; 2) strengthening the media in the Eastern Partnership countries and member states, including supporting media freedom and strengthening independent media; 3) Improving the EU’s ability to predict and respond to Russian disinformation.
On December 5, 2018, the European commissioners presented a plan to counter disinformation designed to protect the elections in Europe from possible interference. The EU Communication Task Force (East StratCom Task Force) has identified more than 3 thousand cases of disinformation from Russian-language media in two years. The plan presented in 2018 provides for an increase in the budget from 1.9 million euros this year to 5 million euros.
EUvsDisinfo is a project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force. It was created in 2015 to better predict and respond to the current disinformation campaigns of the Russian Federation affecting the European Union, its member states and neighboring countries. The main goal of EUvsDisinfo is to raise public awareness and understanding of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations and help citizens in Europe and beyond develop resistance to digital information and media manipulation. Using data analysis and media monitoring in 18 languages, EUvsDisinfo identifies, collects and exposes cases of disinformation originating from pro-Kremlin media distributed in the EU and Eastern Partnership countries.
NATO Strategic Communications Center (https://stratcomcoe.org) started working in January 2014. An example of the activity of pro-Russian “bots” was the visit of Donald Trump to Europe in 2018. According to the data of NATO Strategic Communications Center (Stratcom), during the period from May 1 to July 31, 2018, bots and trolls wrote 49% of all Russian-language messages about NATO in the Baltic states and Poland. At the same time, the 2018 NATO Brussels summit fell on July 11-12. Among the accounts that was used to write in Russian, 36% were automated (bots). For comparison, bots made up 14% of all English-language accounts and created 19% of all English-language content in the quarter.
As indicated in the report of the UK Parliament’s Commission for the investigation of Russian influence, although the UK Government has provided evidence of Russian activities in the Skripal poisoning case, it is reluctant to accept evidence of interference in the 2016 referendum on Britain’s exit from the EU. (For example, research has shown that Russian accounts posted more than 45.000 Brexit messages in the last 48 hours of the campaign alone.) According to this report, the UK, like other countries, is clearly vulnerable to covert campaigns of information influence, and the government should conduct an analysis to understand the extent of manipulation of voters by foreign players during the past election. The legislation should comply with the latest technological developments and clearly highlight the illegal influence of foreign players on the democratic process.
At the same time, the Russian information influence on the destruction of Euro-Atlantic solidarity is yielding results. For example, 53% of French citizens and 58% of German citizens stated in a 2015 Pew survey that their country should not use military force to protect a NATO ally if Russia attacks it. In 2020, when asked whether or not their country should use military force to protect a NATO ally from a hypothetical Russian attack, only five of the 16 member states surveyed, namely the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania, believe that they should use such force.
The belief that their country should respond to Russia’s hypothetical attack on a NATO ally has become less common in several countries over time. In Italy, for example, only a quarter of respondents in 2019 stated that their country should protect a NATO ally, up from four out of ten in 2015. A similar reduction during this period occurred in Poland (-8 percentage points), Spain (-7) and France (-6). However, support for the protection of other NATO member countries has increased in the UK since 2015 (+6).
The countries of Eastern and Central Europe have become a proving ground for new Russian methods of propaganda and the special targets of information warfare.
Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, as Member States of the European Union, respond best to Russian disinformation due to their political recognition of threats and the actions of their governments aimed at fighting information threats.
Estonia received NATO support in 2008 to establish the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn. In 2014, Riga became the base for the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence which is another NATO organization fighting Russian influence.
To oppose internet trolls in the Baltic states, the “elves movement” was born in 2016. These are activists trying to expose information manipulation on the internet. In 2018, “elves” began to develop actively in the Czech Republic.
In 2015, two leading Czech think tanks launched specialized programs on Russian influence and disinformation. The Kremlin Watch Monitor program is aimed at identifying and opposing tools of Russian influence and disinformation, and it is a program of a non-governmental organization European Values Think-Tank, and also the Prague Security Studies Institute has launched its initiative to counter Russian influence.
Since the end of 2015, three major central European think tanks: GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Political Capital Institute and European Values Think-Tank publish the weekly Information Warfare Monitor.
In addition to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty located in the Czech capital since 1995, Prague publishes news in Russian via Russian Language News Exchange, a program mainly funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
In October 2016, the Association for International Relations (AIR) has launched a Czech version of the Ukrainian website StopFake.org, the purpose of which is to verify or refute disinformation about the situation in Ukraine.
Bellingcat.com is an innovative group of investigative journalists who use social networks and information from open sources to analyze events on the ground in conflict areas, especially in Syria and Ukraine.
Free speech and information threats.
The free speech is an extremely important element of the European architecture of democratic governance. However, in situations of external influence, free speech also becomes the “weak link” that the Kremlin uses to promote its influence. “The Kremlin utilizes the idea of freedom of information to introduce disinformation into society.https://imrussia.org/media/pdf/Research/Michael_Weiss_and_Peter_Pomerantsev__The_Menace_of_Unreality.pdf The effect is not to convince (as in classical public diplomacy) or gain trust, but to sow confusion through conspiracy theories and spread lies,” as Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss described the Russian information war.
To reach an audience in European countries, Russia uses loopholes in EU regulations. The Russian media constitute the biggest problem for the countries with a significant part of the Russian-speaking population. The Russian-speaking population and older people are the groups that are most affected by Russian propaganda. Of course, native Russian speakers are not a homogeneous group and have rather different political preferences and levels of integration. The most significant factor is the level of use of Russian media.
According to EU law, it is possible to register a media outlet in any EU member state if one of the members of the media company’s management board resides in that country. The Baltic states point out that this approach does not allow them to properly regulate media companies, since they are subject to the laws of other countries. Despite this fact, Lithuania and Latvia already have experience in temporarily blocking the broadcast of television channels with Russian content violating domestic law.
In Latvia and Estonia, four of the ten most popular TV channels also actively broadcast Russian content, and therefore often spread Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. One of the reasons for the attractiveness of Russian TV channels in the Baltic states is the significant difference between the financing of Latvian and Russian channels. According to the Prisma think tank study, these channels have an audience of 24.8% and 16.3% in Latvia and Estonia, respectively. Latvia is introducing a law that facilitates the fight against disinformation of the Russian Federation. In addition, Latvia has introduced amendments according to which 90% of the content of the main packages of television services shall be in EU languages. Since the Russian-speaking part of the Lithuanian population is much less numerous, Lithuanians are noticeably less influenced by Russian media and less likely to use Russian social networks.
Also in 2017, Moldova banned the re-broadcasting of analytical, political and military programs of Russian television.
The UK media regulator Ofcom also accused the Russia Today channel of violating the British Broadcasting Code at the end of 2018.
In 2018, France also joined the countries that have a law that allows blocking Russian propaganda channels. After Russia openly interfered in the French election campaign, President Macron initiated laws against the manipulation of information. “Russia Today and Sputnik didn’t behave like organs of the press, they behaved like organs of influence and propaganda, and mendacious propaganda,” Macron said bluntly. One of the innovations grants the regulator, i.e. the Superior Council of the Audiovisual (CSA), the right to stop broadcasting during the pre-election period if a broadcaster disseminates potentially dangerous information and is under the influence of foreign countries.
After several years of Russian aggression in Ukraine, after a number of attempts to interfere in European national elections, after several investigations conducted to understand the extent of the Kremlin’s influence in Western countries, European governments are finally gradually moving from the question of whether there is even a threat to adoption of measures to effectively counter it. In recent years, numerous efforts have been made to intensify governmental and non-governmental activities aimed at increasing resilience, analyzing or countering disinformation campaigns and operations of the Kremlin’s influence.
More and more EU countries are paying attention to fighting propaganda at the institutional and individual levels. However, greater coverage of propaganda threats at the regional level is still lacking, and greater involvement of national institutions is required.
Changes in the response of European countries to the Russian threat.
After several years of Russian aggression, there is considerable evidence that it is impossible to deny the existence and relevance of this danger. The EU’s action plan against disinformation adopted in 2018 officially identifies Russia as the main source of threats. While in the early years there were heated discussions about the level of Russian aggression, today almost no one denies this fact because of the evidence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the beginning of massive Russian influence operations.
Despite the challenges associated with Brexit, the UK has been clearly a European leader in responding to this threat in Europe. Despite hesitating to respond to the problem of dirty Russian money inside the country, the UK has mobilized the EU, especially after the Skripal poisoning operation.
While most European governments still do not provide sufficient funding to their respective civil societies to address this problem, the general public is the driving force behind European understanding and response to this threat. Civil society in most European countries has recognized this threat, often in contrast to its own political authority.
What could be done
EU countries should be able to respond to disinformation in a timely manner and ensure that fakes are refuted by providing groups vulnerable to Russian propaganda with information based on facts. So far, neither in Eastern nor Western Europe has there been a special agency that would analyze the impact of Russian (or other) propaganda on different audiences.
All EU member states should launch their own parliamentary investigations into Russian networks of influence in their countries.
Every country and the EU as a body should possess daily situational awareness and ability to destroy myths through practical counteraction to disinformation incidents.
The European countries should stop legitimizing Russian disinformation means that are presented as “journalistic platforms” that are effectively managed by the Russian government, whether it is RT, Sputnik or other Russian state-owned TV channels.
Doctor of Political Science,
Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies,
Academic Director of the Center for Public Diplomacy