The likelihood of an escalated conflict between the Ukraine and Russia has grown in recent years, and it reached a new level of intensity last November with Russia’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels.
But Russia’s meddling extends beyond the battlefield. Russia is also interested in impacting and corrupting foreign elections.
Europe will host a slew of elections this year. Now is the time to study Russian propaganda, how it works, and how to defeat it.
In the days following Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, Russia began a disinformation campaign to control the narrative. The campaign’s objective was to paint Ukraine as the aggressor with skewed news reports from Kremlin-owned media sites like Russia Today (RT), Sputnik, and TASS.
These sites incorrectly claim that Russian FSB patrol boats were justified in detaining Ukrainian vessels because those vessels had violated international waters surrounding Crimea.
But in fact, it was Russia that broke the law. The international community does not recognize Crimea as Russian authority—and even if it did, Russia’s detention of the Ukrainian vessels still violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that all countries’ ships and aircraft “are allowed ‘transit passage’ through straits used for international navigation.”
At this point, no one should be surprised that Russia weaponizes disinformation. Russia (previously the Soviet Union) has engaged in a global propaganda campaign for over a century, the purpose of which is to steer national and international politics to Russia’s strategic advantage.
“Active measures” is a term often used to describe these disinformation campaigns.
According to Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, the former KGB director of foreign intelligence, subversion and active measures were “the heart and soul” of Soviet intelligence, meant to weaken Western alliances like NATO and sow discord among allies.
While Soviet active measures can be traced back to the Cold War, a new iteration of Russian information warfare has come to the forefront. This new wave of disinformation uses the internet and social media as conduits for an instant propaganda delivery service to millions of newsreaders.
These campaigns intend to undermine the solidarity between European states and alliances such as the European Union and NATO. And there are many examples of these campaigns having real effects on their target states.
In April 2007, for example, following the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a Soviet monument, false reports from Russian media claimed that the statue, and nearby Soviet war graves, were being desecrated. This disinformation led directly to riots and looting among ethnic Russians in Estonia and preceded a wave of major cyber-attacks against the country’s financial, media, and government institutions.
There are many other examples. Russia employed influence operations in the 2008 war with Georgia, in the lead-up to the 2016 referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, in Catalonia in 2017, and during the 2017 German election, according to a 2018 report by the European Parliament.
2019 will be another busy year for Russian disinformation, and the fight against it will be imperative.
Ukraine, Estonia, Moldova, and Poland will each hold parliamentary elections this year. Ukraine will also elect a new president, as will Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Romania.
In addition, the European Parliament holds its elections this May. And while Germany doesn’t hold elections again until 2021, it could face turmoil after German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down from leadership of the Christian Democrats at the end of her term., which she has vowed to do.
Luckily, efforts to counter Russian propaganda have found moderate success from both EU offices and private citizens.
The European Union set up the East StratCom Task Force to identify Russian disinformation and to effectively and honestly promote European policies. Since its inception in 2015, the task force has identified thousands of cases of Russian disinformation and published that information online in 18 languages.
Private citizens are also taking part in the struggle. Volunteer journalists and students from Ukraine have helped create websites like Infosprotyv and StopFake.com, which refute fake news stories about Europe. Such crowdsourced efforts have helped debunk deceptively false stories about Germany ending sanctions against Russia or about Ukraine’s credit rating falling.
Europe ought to maintain these initiatives and even amplify them in order to shed light on Russian active measures, and to keep Western institutions and values free from corruption.
During the Cold War, Russian disinformation campaigns ranged from false reports that AIDS was an American-created bioweapon to forged documents suggesting America’s support for everything from coups in Africa to nuclear first-strikes against Moscow.
Western countries countered this propaganda by creating institutions like the U.S. Information Agency and Voice of America, which aimed to expose Russian disinformation, circulate the truth, and bolster media outlets against Soviet disinformation attempts.
We’ve routed the Russian propaganda machine once before and seen the dissolution of the Soviet empire and its lies. Now, we must confront and defeat these active measures once again in the new medium of internet and social media.