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Struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine
Updated: 43 min 21 sec ago

Can Forrest Gump Defeat Russian Propaganda in Belarus?

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 11:27

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Sometimes the simultaneous appearance of two stories apparently unrelated sheds light on issues more clearly than either of them does on its own. That is the case of two stories today from Belarus, one about Moscow’s promotion of Russophile books in that country and the other about the release of a Belarusian version of “Forrest Gump.”

Nasha Niva has investigated how money from the Kremlin has passed through the CIS-EMO, an apparently innocuous organization that stands for the Commonwealth of Independent States – Election Monitoring Organization, money to support books for Belarusians promoting pro-Russian attitudes (belaruspartisan.org/politic/395008/).

The CIS-EMO ostensibly was to be the counterpart of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, but its real purpose is to promote pro-Russian attitudes in former Soviet republics.  It has attracted attention for books likeHuman Rights Violations in Lithuania and The New Europe of Vladimir Putin (with Marie Le Pen on the cover).

Since 2013, this organization has been headed by Aleksandr Bedritsky of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI).  Among the books with a Belarusian dimension it has released since then are Belarusian Nationalism Against the Russian WorldBSSR and Weestern Belorussia, and The White Guard of White Rus, all of which are in Russian.

The CIS-EMO organization gets its money from the Russian state budget via grants for “the development of a humanitarian foundation of Russian-Belorussian integration and the countering of falsification of history.” Last year, it received some 500,000 rubles or about 45,000 US dollars (grants2016.oprf.ru/grants2016-1/operators/perspektiva/requests/zhurnal/rec6880/).

The Russian propaganda books are distributed in part for free but also sold in several Russian Orthodox Church bookstores in Belarus.  How many people read or are influenced by them is unknown, the Belarusian paper suggests. Also unknown is the number of Belarusians who are ready to accept their message.

But this weekend, a competing message will be offered in the Moskva Theater in Minsk when the Belarusian-dubbed version of the American film “Forrest Gump” will be shown to what are expected to be large and enthusiastic audiences who will demonstrate their interest by paying for tickets (charter97.org/ru/news/2017/9/17/263205/).

Indeed, in what is a kind of competition between the Zelig-like American film star and the kind of stick propaganda figures in books like The White Guard of White Rus, there is very little question as to who is going to win.

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

One in Five Russians Would Vote for Fake Putin Protege

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 21:27

Vladimir Putin Kremlin Press Service

By The Moscow Times

Nearly one in five Russians would vote for a made-up Vladimir Putin protege in next year’s presidential elections, an experimental Levada Center poll cited by the Vedomosti newspaper said on Wednesday.

The Central Elections Committee confirmed this week that the next presidential elections, slated to give President Vladimir Putin his fourth term, will take place on March 18, 2018.

Levada’s experiment showed that 18 percent of those polled were ready to cast their ballot for a fictional “Andrei Semyonov,” Vedomosti reported. Another 15 percent said they were ready to support “Semyonov” having never heard of him.

Another 11 percent claimed to have heard of Semyonov, who the pollster suggested enjoys Putin’s support. Levada sociologist Karina Pipiya told Vedomosti they may not be lying on purpose but are either uninterested in politics or “are giving a socially approved answer.”

“But the two-thirds of Russians not ready to vote for this candidate are immune to majority pressure, and collective perceptions do not have a significant impact on their opinion.”

Pipiya said the experiment was conducted in August to gain an understanding of “how the authority of the incumbent president spreads to electoral attitudes.”

She said Levada plans similar polling experiments in the future.

Levada’s real poll cited by Vedomosti showed that 48 percent of those surveyed in August were willing to vote for Putin. Putin’s support grew to 60 percent among those who plan to vote next March.

A think-tank last month ranked Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the most likely successor to Putin, followed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Pro-Kremlin disinformation in Germany: absent or present?

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 08:28

By EU vs Disinfo

After past examples of unbalanced coverage and attempts to influence elections (herehere; see also here), many observers were asking: what about the German general election on 24 September?

Already in January, the Disinformation Review reported an uptick in false reporting about Germany in pro-Kremlin media. Around the same time, observers highlighted how bot activity on social media had been redirected from the US to attack chancellor Angela Merkel.

The themes highlighted in pro-Kremlin media concern some of the favourite topics of pro-Kremlin disinformation:

– The refugee crisis (featured with statements like “The arrival of refugees in Germany was planned by the US with the intention of changing the German mentality and converting Germans into liberals and cosmopolitans”);

– The alleged resurgence of fascism: claims include “The aim of the German contribution to NATO’s presence in the Baltic countries is to be able to attack Leningrad” (sic!) or “the German government is supporting neo-Nazism in Ukraine”;

– The absence of freedom of speech in Germany;

– Mistreatment of children.

Angela Merkel has been a particular target, with fakes such as “Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler’s daughter” and “Merkel is the Führer of the Fourth Reich”.

Symbiosis of pro-Kremlin narratives, far-right, and bot networks

Researchers have identified what they see as some of the key outlets of pro-Kremlin narratives in Germany. They have also noted the links that exist between supporters of the far-right and pro-Kremlin media. DFRLab says that the use of bots to automatically amplify messages on social media has been confirmed: “The analysis shows that the most active amplifiers of these outlets do, indeed, include apparent bots, but they are not the most important factor. The signals are significantly boosted by pro-Kremlin activists, far-right users, and anti-migrant users, who have been known to work together to harass critics.” With bots coming as cheap as US$ 100, this is hardly a surprise.

At the same time, there has been an unprecedented level of awareness of the threat of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Germany:

  • The country’s internal security service, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, has not tired of warning of potential interference in the election campaign, in particular following the hacking of the IT system of the German parliament in 2015.
  • The German office for IT security has hired a 180-strong team to stave off cyberattacks and hacking attempts.
  • Fact-checking initiatives have sprung up (faktenfinder.tagesschau.decorrectiv.org and Facebook has cooperated with investigative researchers Correctiv to fact-check suspicious posts. The Hamilton 68 dash board tracks disinformation in the German Twitter sphere.
  • Robust new laws against online hate speech and fake news approved just before the summer break will enter into force on 1 October. If social networks fail to remove content branded as fake, they can face fines of up to EUR 50 million.
  • German media have extensively covered the issue, contributing to a general awareness of the problem of fake news and disinformation.

Cases of disinformation relating to Germany are available in our database of disinformation here.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Kremlin narratives on Crimea resurface in German election debate

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 21:27

This article is part of ECFR’s Wider Europe Forum

By Andreas Umland, for European Council of Foreign Relations

For the future of Ukraine, what Germany thinks and does really matters.

Last month, the German election campaign saw an unexpected statement by the leader of Germany’s liberals, Christian Lindner. The chair of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) – a centre-right force hitherto known for its hawkish stance in support of international law and all-European integration – proposed accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a “permanent provisorium”. But, while this was unusual, Lindner only expressed a view which can be heard among many politicians, diplomats, and journalists in Germany and other Western countries. In fact, Lindner has – at least within the German political context – not been the most accommodative towards Kremlin expansionism.

For instance, the former chair of Germany’s oldest party, the social democratic SPD, Matthias Platzek, suggested in late 2014 to “retroactively regulate, in terms of international law,” Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Alexander Gauland, the deputy chair of the new right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, which is poised to enter the Bundestag, said this summer that “Crimea is ultimately ancient Russian territory and cannot go back to Ukraine” – thereby fully embracing the Kremlin’s irredentist narrative. The leader of Die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht, had called for Germany to accept the result of the Crimea referendum even before it took place.

The FDP chair was thus relatively moderate in his assessment. Lindner merely stated that, in distinction to the Donbas issue, Crimea’s return to Ukraine is a long-term project. His seemingly pragmatic approach is not only a reaction to Moscow’s manifest unwillingness to return Crimea to Ukraine, and to the very high popularity of the annexation among Russians. Lindner’s approach is symptomatic of larger trends within the EU’s political establishment to go soft on Russian imperialism, and to do so by simply ignoring the actual situation on the ground.

As ECFR’s recent research has shown, there are a number of leading parties which are mainstream but which nonetheless regularly incline towards giving their backing to Russia. As Gustav Gressel wrote, “These parties fully embrace the Western model, open societies, free trade, political liberties, social modernisation, and a secular state. But they also promote closer ties or economic cooperation with Russia, easing sanctions at the earliest opportunity, or are equivocal when it comes to how the European security order should be arranged.” As such, on the specific issue of Crimea, the Kremlin-supported narrative is a particularly popular argument of Europe’s Russlandversteher (Russia-understanders) in business circles, armchair punditry, and radical parties.

One of the most critical early reports on the pseudo-referendum came from three representatives of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights at the office of the President of Russia.[1] One of the members of this official Russian state body had visited Crimea in April 2014. On the basis of this private field trip to the freshly annexed peninsula, the Russian Presidential Council’s report, referring to local interlocutors, estimated that the referendum’s turnout was not 83.1 percent, as officially reported by the Kremlin-installed authorities on Crimea, but rather around 30-50 percent. Support for annexation among those Crimean voters who did vote was not 96.77 percent, as had been reported by the Moscow-controlled authorities, but around 50-60 percent. The latter is a figure not far from the results of opinion polls taken before the annexation, is supported by analyses alleging plain falsification of the voting’s results, and partially confirms even lower estimates by the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars.

Even allowing for a considerably higher turnout and larger real support for annexation in the city of Sevastopol – base of the Russian Black Sea fleet – this would mean that significantly less than a third of the overall Crimean population actually voted in support of the annexation. This is far too little to even partially justify such a momentous change in Europe’s post-war borders. The Russian Presidential Council report, moreover, quoted Crimean experts who said that the “population of Crimea did not so much vote for joining Russia than for, in their words, a termination of ‘the rampant corruption and predatory coercion of the Donetsk appointees’ [i.e. members of the Yanukovych clan dispatched to Crimea in 2010-2013].” In one of the last reliable polls conducted, in mid-February 2014, a few days before Crimea was occupied by Russian soldiers without insignia, a mere 41 percent of the peninsula’s respondents (excluding the special-status city of Sevastopol) supported unification of Russia and Ukraine into a single state.

The various polls that have been conducted after Russia’s military and political takeover seemingly demonstrate large Crimean support for annexation. Yet, for various reasons, this apparently unequivocal public opinion data has limited validity for an interpretation of the events in spring 2014. The more recent polling results partially reflect the effects, on Crimea’s citizens, of the shrill defamation campaign against Ukraine in the Kremlin-controlled media – the only major source of mass information left. Some of the polls also do not address the familiar popular bias towards support for the status quo – an effect that had earlier favoured the peninsula’s continuance in Ukraine even among many otherwise pro-Moscow Crimean respondents.

Most post-annexation pollsters seem to ignore the considerable stakes involved, for their respondents, to say to strangers that they support Crimea’s return to Ukraine. After its annexation by Russia, Crimea has become Europe’s most problematic territory in terms of the protection of civil rights of citizens, in particular of the indigenous Crimean-Tatar population. Moscow and its Crimean proxies work to stigmatise any disapproval of the annexation and are ruthless in their persecution of political dissidents, and even of mere sympathisers with Kyiv, on the peninsula.

There are further reasons why reference to the Russia-organised pseudo-plebiscite cannot serve as justification for an accommodative approach to Russia with regard to Crimea’s annexation. The date of the referendum was changed twice, and there was neither time nor opportunity for Crimea’s citizens to publicly, pluralistically, and freely discuss the choices they would be given in the alleged plebiscite on 16 March 2014. Before the ‘referendum’, the OSCE had explained its unwillingness to send an observer mission to this procedure saying that “international experiences […] showed that processes aiming at modifying constitutional set ups and discussions on regional autonomy were complex and time consuming, sometimes stretching over months or even years […]. Political and legal adjustments in that regard had to be consulted in an inclusive and structured dialogue on national, regional and local level.”

These conditions were not fulfilled, which is why the OSCE and all other relevant election observer organisations refused to attend.

Voting took place under conditions of psychological pressure from visible Russian regular troops without badges (‘little green men’ or ‘friendly people’), and armed pro-Russian irregulars omnipresent across the peninsula. Curiously, no option was presented, on the ballot, for the preservation of the status quo, i.e. the valid Constitution of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea adopted in 1998. Crimean voters were only given the opportunity to vote either for joining Russia, or for the reintroduction of an older, invalid Crimean constitution of 1992. Moreover, both of these two choices were ambiguous in their formulation and content.

The first option promised Crimeans ‘re-unification’ (vossedinenie) with Russia. However, Crimea had never been part of a ‘Russia’ that was politically separate from the mainland territory of the post-Soviet Ukrainian state to which Crimea has belonged since 1991. Most of today’s Ukraine had, for approximately as long as Crimea, been part and parcel of both the tsarist empire and the Soviet Union, ie. those states which the word “Russia” in the referendum apparently implied. From 1783 until 1991, Crimea had thus only been united with an empire sometimes called ‘Russia’, and not with a Russian nation-state. The larger part of today’s entire Ukrainian territory once belonged to this empire as much as most of the area of the current Russian Federation.

Crimea belonged, within the tsarist empire, to the Tauric Governorate that included not only the peninsula, but also most of today’s southern mainland Ukraine. Both post-Soviet republics, the Russian Federation and independent Ukraine, are therefore successors to the ‘Russia’ to which the 2014 ‘referendum’s’ promise of ‘reunification’ refers. As the Crimean peninsula had not belonged to an exclusively Russian state, separate from mainland Ukraine before 1991, Crimea could not have been separated from ‘Russia’ in 1991, and ‘reunited’ with it in 2014.

Until 2014, Russia’s post-Soviet leadership had never officially questioned Crimea’s place in post-Soviet Ukraine. Indeed, it confirmed this in several agreements. The two most important treaties were the 1991 Belovezha Agreement on the dissolution of the USSR, under Boris Yeltsin, and the 2003 Russian-Ukrainian State Border Treaty, under Vladimir Putin. Both agreements were ratified by Russian parliaments (the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and State Duma of the Russian Federation) and signed into law by Russia’s presidents. If one still accepts Moscow’s “historic right” to Crimea, with reference to its annexation to the tsarist empire in 1783, one would have to also concede an as deeply grounded historic justification for today Russia to annex much of the territory of today’s mainland Ukraine – colonised for approximately as long by Moscow as the Black Sea peninsula. In addition, many other territories outside today’s Russian Federation could then be also up for grabs by Moscow – as they had belonged to the same ‘Russia’, to which the 2014 pseudo-referendum refers, for roughly as long as Crimea.

The referendum’s second option, promising a return to the 1992 constitution, was even more confusingly formulated, as there had been two constitutions in force, in that year, on Crimea. The voters were – either intentionally or accidentally – left in the dark as to which of these two alternatives to annexation their choice would actually refer – to the more confederal Crimean Constitution of May 1992, or to the more federal Constitution of September 1992? Had this second option won, it would have been left to the powerholders to choose among these two different basic laws. One even suspects that this unorthodox second option – rather than the more standard option to simply preserve the status quo – was presented on purpose to increase support for the one clear option left: annexation to Russia. The choice that Crimeans were offered in March 2014 was not so much one between Russia and Ukraine than a decision between clarity and limbo.

None of this information is exceptional, secret, or original. The facts listed above and an array of other revealing aspects of these events are well known in Ukraine and among experts within Western academia, governments, mass media, and civil societies. Yet the Russian narrative is still widespread of a perhaps somewhat roughly initiated referendum that, however, eventually led to a decision allegedly supported by the vast majority of Crimeans.

The full outcome of this month’s federal election in Germany is not yet clear. But it is obvious that Moscow will warmly welcome leading German politicians repeating its preferred lines. It hopes that they in time become part of standard Western discourse on Crimea’s annexation.

By Andreas Umland, for European Council of Foreign Relations

Dr. Andreas Umland is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart and distributed by Columbia University Press at New York. Eleanor Knott (London School of Economics), Dmytro Shulga (Renaissance Foundation Kyiv) and Frank Golczewski (University of Hamburg) made useful comments on an earlier draft of this text.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum

Categories: World News

Kremlin Watch Monitor ǀ September 19, 2017

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 14:27

WANTED: Kremlin Watch Intern

European Values Think-Tank is looking for an intern for the Kremlin Watch Program.

SPECIFICATION:

  • Team work and independent activities in the
    Kremlin Watch team, which include:
  • Monitoring and cooperation on weekly Kremlin
    Watch Monitor in English language;
  • Involvement in the preparation of expert
    documentation within the area of disinformation
    campaigns;
  • Participation in the preparation and realization of
    the STRATCOM MiniSUMMIT.

Find out more about the opportunity on our website.

Weekly Update on the Kremlin’s Disinformation Efforts The Kremlin is a victim and is happy to pay for it

The UN Watch, a non-governmental human rights group, challenged the UN’s Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy for claiming in one of his reports that the Russian Federation is a victim of human rights violations due to the “unilateral coercive measures” imposed by the United States and the EU. According to the watch-dog group, Mr. Jazairy received $50,000 from the Kremlin for writing the report.

It’s official!

The Justice Department has allegedly instructed the company that runs RT’s American branch to register as a foreign agent, signifying that RT is being officially branded as an instrument of Kremlin influence. RT announced the news on September 11, but did not name the company in question. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is a statute from 1938, originally intended to combat Nazi propaganda, that requires Americans engaged in political work on behalf of foreign entities to disclose those relationships.

Facebook is a useful tool

Two explosive reports detail how Russian groups exploited Facebook to influence political attitudes in the US. First, Facebook representatives approached congressional investigators to testify that Facebook had discovered it had sold advertisements during the 2016 election to a shady Russian company aiming to target voters. The ad sales, about 3,000 in total and worth around $100,000, were traced to a Russian troll farm notorious for spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda. Second, The Daily Beast reported that Russian operatives using false identities created Facebook events “to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S., including an August 2016 anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho.” These events are the first concrete indication that the Kremlin’s influence operations have moved beyond the mere propagation of fake news to the realm of stoking public action.

What can be done to make internet companies like Facebook and Google more responsible is the subject of one of our recent papers, co-authored by Jakub Janda and Klára Votavová. For a shorter read, you can also find their commentary on the Atlantic Council.

The EEAS East Stratcom Task Force has launched a new website, providing a user-friendly platform in three languages to look up disinformation cases in a searchable database, together with analysis of continuous and systematic disinformation campaigns. You can learn more about the new features in the following video:

Putin’s Champion Award

Our Expert Jury consisting of Jessikka Aro, Peter Kreko, Nerijus Maliukevičius, Anton Shekhovtsov and John Schindler, regularly votes on the dangerousness of several candidates you can nominate via e-mail or Twitter.

The 19th Putin’s Champion Award Recipient is

UN Special Rapporteur & former Algerian ambassador Idriss Jazairy

For reportedly accepting 50 000 USD for writing a manipulated report to show Russia as “victim of EU & USA human rights abuses”

U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers; (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Expert Jury ranked his Putin-supportive job with

4

(out of 5) mark.

The rating signals how much the recipient contributed to the interest of the Putin’s aggressive regime. It is calculated as an average of ratings assessed by the Expert Jury of this Award.

You can find more details about the award and the former recipients here.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

A Second Look at the Steele Dossier

It has been eight months since the leak of the so-called Steele Dossier, a private intelligence report containing allegations of ties between Donald Trump and Russia. The dossier was a past topic of interest in the American media. Now, a new article by a highly respected former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, John Sipher, offers a second intriguing look at it from an intelligence perspective.

The dossier, which was originally published by BuzzFeed, comprises a collection of reports produced by Orbis Business Intelligence, a private intelligence firm, of which the author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, is a co-founder. The reports, produced between June and December 2016, contain allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and key Trump campaign officials, as well as claims that Russians have compromising material on Trump that could be used to blackmail him. Even though the dossier’s publication triggered an uproar, the media repeatedly pointed out that the reports were “unsubstantiated”, and the topic slowly faded away. So, what news does Sipher’s article bring us?

With a 28-year career in the CIA, Sipher looks at the dossier from the perspective of someone who is familiar with the procedures that lead to the creation of such a document and is able to assess the dossier using his expertise. After a thorough examination, which takes into account events that happened after the dossier was leaked, Sipher concludes that information contained in it is generally credible. He points out, for example, that a lot of information learned in past months support the narrative that was presented in the dossier. Even though Sipher also considers certain parts of the reports to be incorrect or questionable, the core of the dossier is, in his view, now more reliable than before.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In the Soviet Union: “We have no problem with freedom of speech; however, freedom after speech still needs more work.”

Euroatlantic experts on disinformation warfare

CEPA reports on the continuous efforts of Russian-language pro-Kremlin media to persuade the population of the Baltic states that Western politicians support the Kremlin’s objectives in the region and criticise their domestic issues. Methods of misrepresentation and taking others’ words out of context are common manipulation and propaganda techniques.

The defence ministers of Sweden and Denmark co-authored an op-ed according to which they plan to cooperate more with respect to countering the threats of “hybrid warfare, including various forms of cyber attacks, disinformation and fake news, which can create uncertainty in societies” coming from the Kremlin.

Politico published an article examining the work of Ben Scott, a former technology adviser to Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 US presidential campaign. He is now part of a group of researchers fighting digital disinformation campaigns prior to the general elections in Germany.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

Categories: World News

StopFake #149 with Lada Roslycky

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 16:47

The latest edition of StopFake News with Lada Roslycky. Among the disinformation debunked this week: President Poroshenko admits returning Crimea to Ukraine is unrealistic; Putin shatters atheism in five minutes; Ukrainians infecting Europeans with tuberculosis andwhat you really need to know about Russia’s government funded agencies RT and Sputnik.

Categories: World News

Stories about Russia “are so hot right now” — so BuzzFeed is partnering with Meduza for more substantive Russia reporting

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 14:36

Photo of paintings of Vladimir Putin by Nicolay Volnov used under a Creative Commons license

“There’s an enormous interest in Russia we really haven’t seen since the Cold war.”

By Shan Wang, for NiemanLab

You may have noticed: Interest in news out of and about Russia is high these days.

“In 2016 and 2017, for reasons that I’m sure are fairly obvious, there was a spike of interest in the U.S. in stories coming out of Russia,” Ivan KolpakovMeduza’s editor-in-chief, told me.

“Audience-wise, I think Russia stories are so hot right now, and there isn’t a huge amount of reporting coming out of there,”Miriam Elder, BuzzFeed’s world editor, said. Elder had been the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief before joining BuzzFeed. “On our side, there’s an enormous interest in Russia we really haven’t seen since the Cold War.”

So BuzzFeed News is beefing up its Russia coverage by partnering with the Latvia-based online outlet Meduza, which has grown rapidly since its launch less than three years ago. (Elder said this isn’t necessarily the first step to a full Russia site for BuzzFeed, the way, say, BuzzFeed Deutschland is for Germany.)

The partnership is editorial, and resources will be concentrated on joint investigations. BuzzFeed is paying for the investigations it commissions with Meduza, according to Kolpakov, though the sites will trade stories and Meduza translate occasional stories of its choosing from BuzzFeed, free of charge. Other exchanges: A Meduza reporter will sit in the BuzzFeed newsroom for a week to take in the BuzzFeed workflows; a BuzzFeed reporter will head to an annual conference Meduza puts on. Elder cited Meduza’s investigations on Russian cyber capabilities as one investigative topic of interest to both outlets.

“BuzzFeed has been a model for us in many respects, productwise and strategically,” Kolpakov said. (Since its earliest months of existence, Meduza has been following BuzzFeed’s growth, and interested in a more substantial partnership. It’s worked with BuzzFeed in the past informally on various exclusives, and Kolpakov was a guest on BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith’s podcast last month.) “We face a lot of the problems that BuzzFeed faces, most importantly with respect to maintaining brand presence across multiple platforms, the production of video and new formats, internal communications, and the convergence of hard news and entertainment journalism, native advertising, and so on. Honestly, I think that BuzzFeed has been more of a model for us than any other outlet.”

“Our story was known in the West, but not our actual product or the quality of our journalism,” he added. (Meduza was born out of Kremlin interference into the Russian site Lenta.ru. A number of Lenta.ru staffers moved to Latvia, safe from Russian editorial interference, and launched Meduza.)

Both sides are interested in growing a global audience interested in Russia stories. BuzzFeed doesn’t offer a breakdown of unique visitors by country, but more than half the monthly unique visitors to BuzzFeed.com come from outside the U.S. (It current publishes in content in Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, French, German, and Russian.) A quarter of Meduza’s readership — Meduza also has a complete English-language site— comes from outside of Russia.

Meduza is interested specifically in growing a subscriber base for its English-language email newsletter, which is targeted at readers who are interested in Russia and post-Soviet countries, but “who do not read Russian fluently.”

“Additionally, this is a way for our reporters and editors to reach an entirely new audience. I don’t think our expectations go beyond that,” Kolpakov said. “It’s a whole new market, and it’s the most interesting market in the world. And of course, it would be great if we could show that Russia has quality journalism, and that Russia is not just Putin and hackers, but a whole lot of other things that are scary, astonishing, and fun.”

By Shan Wang, for NiemanLab

Categories: World News

Russian state TV’s targets last week: Ukraine, Poland and the US as antiheroes

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 13:15

By EU vs Disinfo

  • Below you can find a summary of the main topics on Russia’s most watched state TV news channels last week.
  • The news shows’ agenda in Russia is carefully attuned to serve the Kremlin’s needs.
  • Therefore, following Russian state media sheds light on our understanding of how the Kremlin seeks to influence the Russian-speaking audience in Russia and beyond. Read our story here.
  • Our monitoring of pro-Kremlin disinformation also reveals that many of the themes set out in Russia’s most popular state TV news programmes find their way into European outlets.

1. Undermining the statehood of Ukraine

The fact that former Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili crossed the Ukrainian border even though he was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship was interpreted as a sign of Ukraine’s weakness. The sovereignty of Ukraine was repeatedly contested during the show on Channel One and the ”60 Minut” talk show on Rossiya 1.

Guests were claiming that “there is no Ukraine” but a “southern branch of the Russian people”, a state “built on lies” that “cannot be regarded as a serious state”, “an unformed nation and an unformed state” and finally a state “which is controlled by the USA and Europe and lives off their money and so on, and has de facto ceased to exist”. Speculation went further on Thursday on the same show, when some panelists suggested that Saakashvili might have links to the Kremlin.

As a culmination, Channel One reported on its talk show that Hungarian-American investor George Soros is behind Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine. Soros is one of the most repeated targets of disinformation outlets. Check out individual disinfo cases here.

2. The military have taken over control in Washington

Reporting on the tensions with North Korea, Vesti Nedeli describes the US as a “stratocracy” where political power lies in the hands of the military. The story describes three generals in key positions governing the US: current White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defence James Mattis.

“Of course it’s not a junta, but a sort of a stratocracy, like a power of the military”, TV host Dmitri Kiselyov states.

TV channels in Russia have for some time been actively accusing President Barack Obama’s administration for today’s perceived failures. Now, according to NTV’s news programme, “grim Russophobia and witch hunts” have continued under Trump just like before.

3. Poland, Lithuania, and the battle for history

Weekly news show Vesti Nedeli made two distorted claims in its report from Poland: hinting that Poland might have been the initiator of World War II (Read more in our latest Disinfo Review) and stating that it was Joseph Stalin who handed over the “Polish city of Wilno” to Lithuania.

Both claims undermine the historical facts of the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret protocols in which eastern Europe was divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Eastern Poland and Lithuania, among others, fell under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Vesti Nedeli portrays Poland as a nationalistic aggressor that has during the last century strived to gain control over Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia itself.

A new law in Poland demands the removal of mentions on public monuments that seem to glorify Communism or “any other totalitarian” regime. Channel One with its talk show Vremya Pokazhet discussed this topic and described those responsible as “Europe’s Taliban”, comparing them to Daesh.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Sputnik retouches Soviet memories in Lithuania

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 09:25

By Dalia Bankauskaitė, for CEPA

In recent months, the pro-Kremlin, Lithuanian-language media outlet Sputniknews.lt has disseminated photos about how happy Lithuanians were during the Soviet era. In July, Sputniknews.lt published “Vilnius University in the Soviet epoch” and “Earth salt: Lithuanian heroes of the Soviet era” followed by Basketball Club ‘Zalgiris’ in Soviet times A moment of the past: Vilnius in the time of the USSR Lithuanian women in Soviet times” and “Lithuanian children in Soviet times in August. Each cycle of photos is accompanied by a short comment, the key message of which tells the reader that life in Soviet Lithuania was good, while captions under each photo contain words “Soviet times” “USSR” and “Soviet Lithuania.

Photos show happy faces of young Lithuanians: women and men, students, athletes, writers, artists, workers and children. These photos are part of a joint project called “A quarter-century without the USSR,” launched by pro-Kremlin media networks Sputnik and RIA Novosti.

The campaign shows that pro-Kremlin media outlets employ soft power to follow Moscow’s strategic goal of keeping Lithuanian society vulnerable to Kremlin influence by sowing doubts about the evil of the Soviet regime. Its target audience is likely Lithuanians who grew up under Soviet rule and are today in their early 50s or older, but still active members of society.

Sputnik probably calculates that photos of the days when people were young—whether during Soviet times or not—will move them emotionally and trigger nostalgia for the past. In addition, Sputnik’s moderate tone and omission of explicit praise of the Soviet era makes viewers less likely to be aware they are being manipulated.

In this instance, the Kremlin uses a card stacking technique, showing photos that generate only positive sentiment. Lacking are photos of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, the deportation of hundreds of thousands of its people to Siberia, torture, the country’s isolation from the West during the Cold War, shortages of food and consumer goods, widespread breaches of human rights, or corruption and mismanagement by the Communist Party.

Also notable is the generally moderate, almost neutral tone of Sputniknews.lt in presenting the photos. This brings to mind Corina Rebegea’s analysis of the strategy and tactics of Sputnik in Romania: its moderate reportorial tone creates the impression it is a legitimate journalistic organization comparable to more established news websites in the West—an impression that may help increase its audience.

Sputniknews.lt employs a psychological trick by aiming to engrave into the viewer’s emotionally moved subconsciousness that the USSR was not a bad thing, that the Lithuanian people lived “happy lives in a happy country, the Soviet Union; that people were happy and successful.” Yet the higher the resilience of Lithuanian society to manipulation, the slimmer the chances the Kremlin will succeed.

By Dalia Bankauskaitė, for CEPA

Categories: World News

Kremlin propaganda methods and American extremism

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 08:19

Posted on Sep 15, 2017

By Kseniya Kirillova, for EUToday

The past month was marked in the United States by a series of highly disturbing events. This includes a clash with ultra-right extremists in Charlottesville, and, more importantly, President Trump’s reaction to this event, writes Kseniya Kirillova for EU Today.

Recall that for a long time Trump refrained from criticizing American neo-Nazis, saying that in this tragedy “both sides are to blame”, a position which caused widespread public outrage, but a praise from the right-wing extremists. Then, under public pressure, he was forced to condemn the radical right, but soon returned to his initial statements, saying that some of these people were “real patriots.”

At the end of the month, Trump made another decision which aroused indignation of a large part of the American public. He pardoned the former sheriff from Arizona Joe Arpaio, who on his own initiative created a prison for illegal immigrants and called it a “concentration camp.” As a result, some American media have suggested that the US president is deliberately “flirting” with the extreme right.

In fact, the situation is somewhat more complicated.  It feels as though today’s White House is profiting from the polarization of American society. Even during the campaign, Donald Trump counted on the radicalization of his supporters, creating an image of the destruction and decline of America and exaggerating the existing problems. After the election, this behavior escalated, but this time the target of radical Republican propaganda was not immigrants or minorities, but all critics and opponents of the incumbent president, including journalists, prosecutors, judges, representatives of the intelligence community and even the former director of the FBI.

Earlier, I noted the similarity of the propaganda tactics of the extreme right-wing American media and methods used by the pro-Kremlin propagandists. This includes a direct lie, the denial of proven facts, and all kinds of slander, including all kinds of conspiracy theories.

Kseniya Kirillova

In particular, radical Republican propaganda portrays any criticism of Donald Trump as stemming from the “conspiracy of the left”, “paid for” by George Soros or personally by Hillary Clinton. Thus, in the article justifying an attempt at collusion between Donald Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya, anyone opposing it is stigmatized in the very first paragraph as the “left” and “socialists”. But in reality, in the first place, the extreme left is not very numerous in the Democratic Party itself, since the real left radicals follow rather anarchist views, and have a negative attitude toward the state and any political parties.

In the second place, it is absolutely wrong to reduce anti-Trump attitudes to political differences. The behavior of the incumbent US president is perceived as unacceptable by people of different views, primarily by national security experts, who, because of their work, most often have no particular party sympathies. Moreover, a significant portion of the Republican Party have categorically refused to accept Trump.

Suffice it to say that this is the reason why some previously loyal Republicans broke away from the party and created an alternative conservative movement, acting exclusively from patriotic convictions. The leader of this “Stand Up Republic” movement was former CIA officer Evan McMullin. Recently, there were media reports that in the next presidential election in 2020, there is a possibility that a tandem of Republican John Kasich and Democrat John Hickenlooper will be nominated. Thus, it is obvious that the bulk of American society adheres to very moderate, centrist views. The main problem of the United States is that such sentiments are not yet reflected in the highest echelons of American politics.

However, this whole multifaceted reality simply does not exist in the radical Republican propaganda. Fringe right-wing media actually created their own virtual world, in which “the genius and savior of America” Trump opposes the “left-wing conspiracy,” secretly directed by Obama and Clinton. Since both of them have not influenced US policy for a while, their images are demonized strictly with the help of propaganda. Reading such publications sometimes creates an impression that it is Obama who continues to be the president of the United States, while Trump’s ignorant and offensive statements that are rejected by the bulk of the American society have never been uttered.

By creating an artificial enemy, the new White House administration was able to get away with ignoring all the real problems and maintain the backing of at least the notorious 36% who still support Trump. A side effect of this tactic was the intensification of the activity of various nationalist groups, including those completely autonomous from the presidential administration.

In addition, the right-wing radicalization inevitably causes radicalization at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is also beneficial to the current administration, since the left extremists fit into the propaganda clichés of Trump supporters. At the same time, according to the US edition Politico, US law enforcement agencies note that it was “Trump’s inciting rhetoric and politics – first as a candidate, and then as a president, that contributed to the creation of a situation that has escalated so quickly and so far, and wide that the law enforcement is unable to cope with it.

Of course, left-wing extremism has existed in the American society even before the elections, but what sets it apart from the right-wing extremism is that it has no support on the political spectrum of America, and, in essence, does not seek to lobby its interests through government channels. As mentioned previously, left-wing extremists hold anarchist views, and are hostile to the state as such (recall the protests and riots in Ferguson during the presidency of Barack Obama).

Even under the previous administration, this group of people viewed the state as an instrument of coercion. To attribute the views of these people to the entire Democratic Party, and especially to all of the Trump’s opponents, is a typical propaganda fiction aimed only at strengthening the image of the enemy and dividing the society even further. Moreover, the paradox is that Hillary Clinton’s “shift to the right” during her election campaign pushed this group away from the Democratic Party, and some of the extreme left voted for Trump, agreeing with his populist rhetoric with its occasional neo-Bolshevik passages.

The American extreme left is often characterized by the rejection of patriotism as such. It is they who, even under the previous administration, openly burned American flags and organized street riots. Many of them are sympathetic to Russia and are fans of RT. Most people who hold such views react negatively to any state bodies, primarily law enforcement agencies, seeing in them a mechanism of repression and coercion. The paradox is that, even if some American politicians try to “flirt” with this group, the left-wing anarchists cannot or do not want to effectively take advantage of this situation, and remain steadfast in their distrust of any officials.

The “left-wing” groups, of course, have their own media, but it’s completely wrong to include respected American media outlets among those. Extreme left-wing publications also do not shy away from propaganda, but it mainly boils down to the exaggeration of the ethnic conflicts and the plight of minorities. They are not overly devoted to conspiracy theories, with the most fanciful among them being a story about a complete merger of the Trump’s administration with the law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI. Of course, this does not correspond to reality.

Of course, like any other extremism, left-wing extremism is dangerous and unacceptable, but the paradox lies in the fact that its inherent anarchism makes it much less dangerous than the right-wing one. People of such views are accustomed to expressing their beliefs in the streets, but they prefer to stay away from real politics. They do not seek to lobby their interests through state channels, and thanks to outspoken attacks on state symbols this movement remains very marginal and not so numerous as the ultra-right propagandists would make us believe.

The extreme right is also more dangerous because, first of all, their hatred is not directed at a faceless state, but at distinct groups of people. Their ideology includes openly fascist and Nazi groups, and is not limited to nonspecific anarchism. They are no less inclined to violence than the leftists, but, unlike the extreme left wing, they do not avoid the government. Rather, their anarchism boils down to the struggle with individual American institutions and freedoms, but at the same time they’re not against establishing a dictatorship that is advantageous to them. They support leaders who they consider to be on their side, actively push them into power, and then become one of the important tools of blackmailing the rest of the society in order to retain this power.

Moreover, despite the fact that the Kremlin actively supports radical movements of all stripes, the connections of the far right with Moscow are much deeper and more systemic than those of the extreme left. Several American publications published materials detailing the relationship of several “white supremacists” with Russia, including the odious Russian ideologist Alexander Dugin.  American writer Zarina Zabriski came to similar conclusions and the Voice of America notes that the Russian Vkontakte network has become the home of the American ultra-right. And these sympathies for Russia are another feature that unites extreme rightists with Donald Trump.

Thus, the right-wing extremism in the US, encouraged by the secret complicity of the White House and the open support of the Kremlin, has become a truly dangerous phenomenon. At the same time, left-wing anarchism, which is becoming increasingly radicalized in this environment, only plays into the hands of the extreme right and becomes the “scarecrow”, which right-wing propagandists use to smear a large part of the American society.

By Kseniya Kirillova, for EUToday

Categories: World News

Fake Terrorism Is a Real Threat to the Kremlin (Op-ed)

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 21:10
The string of bomb hoaxes put Putin’s reputation as a ‘security president’ on the line

Valery Sharifulin / TASS

By Mark Galeotti, for The Moscow Times

Could bomb scares, no blood, all bluster, actually be more politically dangerous for the Kremlin than the real thing?

As the tally of false warnings of attacks across Russia continues to rise, the credibility of the regime and the president may find themselves on the line, facing this most low-key of threats.

It is, after all, very easy to launch this kind of campaign. It’s much more difficult — though not impossible — to unmask the perpetrators, especially when someone has the technical know-how to hide their location and IP address using internet telephony.

It could be Ukrainians acting on their own initiative, a Maidan counterpart to the hackers “with patriotic leanings” that Putin conveniently blames for every cyberattack on the West.

It could be homegrown terrorists, seeking to spread confusion or test responses before a real attack. Almost a week into the spree, it could be copycats. Frankly, it could be anyone with an internet connection.

On one level, it is no more than an annoyance, one more irritant of modern daily life, to add to spam in the inbox or traffic jams. But there is a wider significance.

First of all, it will test the resilience of the Russian people to terror challenges. Modern counter-terrorism depends on all kinds of technological solutions, from facial-recognition software to undercover infiltrators.

But maybe the most powerful tools are the familiar ones: a vigilant population willing to speak up if it sees something and a quick response to alerts and instructions from the authorities.

If the response is to become blasé, to assume that every unexplained bag left on the metro is nothing to worry about, that every alarm is just a drill, then the country becomes that much more vulnerable.

Especially given its current commitment in Syria, one unlikely to end soon — defeating Islamic State is only the first stage in winning that messy war — Russia is increasingly regarded as a jihadist target of choice. Although this is no cause for panic or paranoia, the country will likely face more, not fewer, terrorist threats.

But perhaps more strikingly, false alarms may prove more problematic for Putin than real ones. He is undoubtedly a “security president,” one whose legitimacy to a large extent rests on his perceived role as the guardian of Russia from threats foreign and domestic.

Actual attacks, with all the terrible accompanying theater of flashing blue lights, bodies being loaded into ambulances, screaming children and crying mothers, tend to generate a rally-round-the-flag boost for him.

His presidency was born in the apartment bombing blasts of 1999. Periodic incidents, including the recent St. Petersburg metro attack, have played to the sense that a strong hand was needed at the helm of government.

This current campaign, especially if it continues, may prove a rather less useful challenge.

First of all, it is beginning to make the organs of state security look incompetent. There is much they can do, from knocking on (or kicking down) the doors of the usual suspects to tracking down web searches for, say, the telephone numbers of relevant malls, schools and airports.

Putin’s credibility as the man of action and the defender of Russia will not so much be damaged by this campaign, if it continues, so much as become less relevant.

But none of this guarantees a result. And even if some convenient scapegoats are swept up, if the campaign doesn’t stop the Kremlin’s credibility is at risk.

Of course, the best scapegoats are foreign ones, and already this is being mooted. It may well indeed be the case, but this is problematic.

On the one hand, this plays to a familiar narrative of Russia embattled in a hostile world, but it is also an implicit acknowledgment of vulnerability. Blaming Kiev will be tempting, but would the Kremlin really want to admit that the Ukrainians can make Moscow stop trains and empty offices with a phone call?

The other classic temptation is simply to lie, and again there have already been cases where local authorities have sought to present the evacuations as nothing more than drills.

More generally, state media is downplaying the whole campaign, waiting for an authoritative steer from above. Yet for the hundreds of thousands of people directly and indirectly affected, and for the friends, families and workmates they will regale with their experiences, this is real.

Managing perceptions through the media works when the audience has no lived experiences against which to check the official line. Tell Russians that no Syrian civilians were killed in airstrikes and they have little basis to push back. Pretend that there is not a national campaign of what presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov belatedly called “telephone terrorism,” and they will soon wonder what is going on.

Of course, this will not bring down Putin, or on its own put any serious dent into his approval ratings. But it does represent precisely the kind of diffuse, low-key and systemic challenge which he is least able to handle.

His credibility as the man of action and the defender of Russia will not so much be damaged by this campaign, if it continues, so much as become less relevant.

What value does a war leader have, who can’t stop irritations and inconveniences, things that are rather closer to the experiences of ordinary Russians?

Such regimes end not so much with a bang, but a grumble.

By Mark Galeotti, for The Moscow Times

Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and coordinator of its Center for European Security. 

Categories: World News

Three things you should know about RT and Sputnik

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 09:34

By EU vs Disinfo

RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik are the two foreign language flagships of Russia’s campaign to influence international public opinion. Both outlets present themselves as media that provide alternative views to the mainstream in international news reporting. However, before accepting this premise, three fundamental differences between these outlets and what is normally perceived as independent journalism should be kept mind.

1. They are not independent

2. They do not want to be impartial

  • “The period of impartial journalism is over. Objectivity is a myth”, the CEO and editor-in-chief Dmitry Kiselyov told Sputnik’s editorial staff after a reorganisation of the media house to which Sputnik belongs;
  • The management of both RT and Sputnik receive weekly instructions from the Kremlin. These instructions include guidelines on political narratives, what should be covered and whom the outlets should not talk about.

3. They produce fake news to promote political objectives

  • The independent media watchdog in the UK, Ofcom, has on 15 occasions expressed criticism of RT for, among other problems, “materially misleading” output;
  • RT has for example been instrumental in creating the smoke screen of disinformation, with which the Russian authorities seek to cover up the facts about the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine with this article as just one of many examples.
  • For other examples of disinformation produced and promoted by RT and Sputnik, see the links below.

Are RT and Sputnik really media?

French President Emmanuel Macron says no: “Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave as media organisations and journalists, but as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda – no more, no less,” so he told journalists at his joint press conference with President Putin in Versailles on 29 May 2017.

Russian authorities themselves have called the media they control a “weapon” and have describedtheir media role as “like we’re at war”.

If you want to read more about RT and Sputnik, here are some recommendations from international media and from the analysis produced by East Stratcom over the last two years:

Examples of disinformation spread by RT and Sputnik:

This article includes a list with examples of disinformation produced or promoted by RT: Inside RT’s world of alternative news.

A list of disinformation produced or promoted by Sputnik can be found in this article: Sputnik’s short-lived presence in the Slovak press agency.

Whistle blower testimonials:

Some former RT whistle blowers have provided testimonials that are useful for understanding the work of these otherwise secretive organisations: What is it like to work for the Kremlin’s propaganda media?

A German journalist, Martin Schlak, went undercover in RT’s German language newsroom. Here is what he found out: Undercover among Russia Today: Epilogue of the spy.

How does the Kremlin exercise its media control?

The guidelines issued by the Kremlin are called “temniks” in Russian journalistic professional jargon. This story presents an example of how they are used: Temnik – the Kremlin’s route to media control.

“The yellow telephones” are hotlines between the chief editors in leading Russian media and the Kremlin, ensuring the Kremlin’s control over reporting: How the Kremlin and the Media Ended Up in Bed Together. RT’s chief editor admits she has it on her desk “to discuss secret things” with the Kremlin.

Usually the Kremlin’s instructions to media are held in oral form. But sometimes editors print and distribute them: “We don’t promote the English Queen’s anniversary!!!”.

RT itself acknowledges that it has something to hide: Why else would employees face a $50,000 fine for talking about their work at RT? Welcome to The Machine: Inside the Secretive World of RT.

RT sometimes presents itself not as RT

RT has branched out with a series of projects that avoid being associated with Russia Today. One of them is In The Now: RT goes undercover as In The Now.

Another tactic used by RT is to try to turn tables and claim that it is other media, not RT, that produce disinformation. One example is RT’s so-called “FakeCheck” project : KT – Kremlin Today.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

Russian Military Exercise Sparks Information War

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 20:34
The speculation surrounding Russia’s “Zapad” military exercises may suit both Moscow and its Western rivals

By Matthew Bodner, Moscow, Russia, for Codastory

It was all those railway wagons that got the speculation rolling over Russian intentions with its military exercises this week along its western borders.

Thousands of flat-bed wagons have been used over the past few months to transport an army of Russian troops, tanks and other heavy equipment to Belarus, the focal point of the drills, which are slated to last until 20 September.

It didn’t take long for Western commentators to make the inevitable comparison with the First World War and the mass train movements that set it in motion.

MOBILIZING FOR WAR?

With NATO officials quoted as saying up to 100,000 troops will be involved in the “Zapad” (which means “West”) exercise, it has prompted warnings on social media that Russia “is mobilizing for war on a July 1914 scale.” And this all comes against the background of Russia’s annexation of Crimea three years ago, and its continuing military presence in Ukraine.

Ukraine — which neighbors Belarus – is especially worried by Zapad. President Petro Poroshenko has called it “a smokescreen” aimed at pre-positioning reinforcements ready for a new “invasion of Ukrainian territory.” And Russia has past form here. It used drills to get ready for real war in Ukraine itself in 2014, and Georgia in 2008.

Allthespeculationis“nonsense”,accordingtoRussia’sForeignMinisterSergeyLavrov,whoslammedclaimsthatitwasplanningtoleavetroopsbehindinBelarus.

The US military commander in Europe, Lt General Ben Hodges, echoed such concerns in an interview this summer, admitting that: “people are worried this is a Trojan horse.”

All of it “nonsense”, according to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who slammed claims that it was planning to leave troops behind in Belarus. And Russian officials say no more than 13,000 troops will be involved in the drills – to which NATO observers have been invited in accordance with international treaties.

At least according to Russian statements, the exercise’s primary aim is internal. Its forces are linking up with Belarusian troops for a war game where they pacify a separatist movement in western Belarus, near the border with NATO-member Poland.

But Russia’s defense ministry is also running concurrent exercises in other regions, including Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Western analysts say the figure of 100,000 personnel taking part in Zapad comes from aggregating all these drills.

And NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has complained that Russia is not giving as much access to the exercise for its monitors as it has claimed.

WWI echoes?
Credit: Mikheil D

OVERHYPED

The Russian defense ministry must have expected some reaction in Western capitals when it announced a tender for 4,162 railcars to transport troops and equipment for Zapad 2017. As it said only around 3,000 personnel would be involved in the exercise, it looked like a clear sign it was hiding something.

But military analysts on both sides say the figures were misunderstood, and that the number of troops Russia claims to have sent west do stack up.

“This has been overhyped by the Western media,” says Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign policy analyst in Moscow. But Belarus has also played a role, he believes, with its intelligence services using “active measures” to exaggerate the size of the Russian deployment for their own internal and external political reasons.

SomeWesternstatementsare“akintocryingwolf,”agreesMichaelKofman,anexpertontheRussianmilitaryattheCenterforNavalAnalysis,aUSthinktank.Buthesaysthereisalso“causeforprudentvigilance.”

If Russia was planning a major offensive move, one might expect to see elements of its powerful Northern Fleet joining in the exercise. While some of these large ships, such as the Russian flagship Petr Veliky, entered the Baltic Sea in July for Russia’s annual Navy Day celebration, they have since left for deeper waters.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Russia’s nearest Western neighbor, Finland, is keen to play down any immediate threat. “Western countries have taken the bait completely,” said its Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö in a recent interview, calling Zapad “primarily a propaganda exercise.”

CRYING WOLF

Some Western statements are “akin to crying wolf,” agrees Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analysis, a US think tank. But he says there is also “cause for prudent vigilance.”

The US military has been responding to Russian maneuvers, reinforcing NATO units in Eastern Europe, as well as taking charge of operations there. And few believe NATO’s claim that a naval exercise already underway in the Baltic Sea – and which is due to last until late September – is unconnected with Zapad.

There is an information war going on for public opinion in NATO-member states too, with Western governments keen to bolster their case for increasing military spending to counter a resurgent Russian military.

So who to believe? Maybe neither side. After four years of Cold War-style standoff between Russia and the West, sparked by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the trust gap between the two sides is immense.

By Matthew Bodner, Moscow, Russia, for Codastory

Matthew Bodner is an American journalist in Moscow who writes frequently on the Russian military. 
Categories: World News

Get ready for pro-Kremlin tinnitus

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 19:48

Feature image source: MV-lehti

By EU vs Disinfo

Imagine someone whispering in your ear non-stop: “Why would you bother, you will never find out the truth.”

Sometimes the voice could grow to an unbearable scream. One of the basic tools of pro-Kremlin disinformation is to fill the information space with constant noise to confuse the audience – or to at least force it to stop paying attention.

A recent target of this method has been The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), hosted by Finland. This week, pro-Kremlin attempts to obscure the public discussion around the centre grew in both quantity and absurdity.

Finnish MV-lehti published an article claiming that the “NATO hybrid centre has a license to kill”. Actually the Hybrid CoE is not a NATO centre, but an instrument of its participating countries: Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA. More fundamentally, the centre obviously doesn’t have a license to kill, as no one has in Finland.

But the orchestrated disinformation campaign does not end up with one article. What we also saw was the setting up an organisation with a similar name that calls NATO and the EU a threat for democracy in Europe. And in order to further confuse the public, a website was launched – http://hybridcoe.ru/ – [note the Russian domain] – that copies the design of the real centre.

Fake Twitter accounts resembling the Hybrid CoE logo have been circulating since autumn 2016, and some of them got activated again in September. This account has been spreading message that Finnish citizens would be unhappy with the new Hybrid Centre – referring to comments on other disinforming outlets.

Just so you know, these are the actual webpage and the Twitter account of the Hybrid CoE.

Blame the victim!

One of the aims of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is to twist the narrative of WWII. This time, weekly Russian news show Vesti Nedeli accused Poland of initiating the second world war.

We’ll leave it to more reliable sources than Vesti Nedeli to set the record straight on this. But the Russian audience is constantly exposed to this parallel reality. And the results of this disinformation campaign are clearly visible for example in a Levada centre poll on the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret protocols, which reveal that 40% of Russians think it’s true, 17% think it’s false, and 44% are not aware or unsure that the protocols existed.

This week’s disinformation cocktail also included some favourite disinformation themes. We read that Europe’s excessive tolerance towards other religions results in punishing “true” Europeans, and in discriminating against orthodox values.

So disinformation outlets reported about a man being fined for eating bacon in front of Muslims in Sweden and about a Georgian judoka who suffered defeat during the course of the World Championship for wearing a cross around her neck. Visit our table to set the record straight on these two entertaining stories.

And the favourite narrative about EU orchestrating colour revolutions was revived once again. Thus, in a Moldovan disinformation-oriented outlet, the readers were convinced that if the country refuses to join the EU, Brussels will punish it with a Maidan. We are sorry to disappoint, but it is not in EU’s capabilities to instigate a nation-wide revolution.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

The Daily Vertical: What Is ‘Undesirable’? (Transcript)

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 22:56

Brian Whitmore

By Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL

What is undesirable is usually in the eye of the beholder.

Consider the case of the Sova Center.

The Sova Center is a Moscow-based think tank whose sole purpose is to monitor, document, and combat hate crimes.

The Sova Center is generally considered to be one of the leading authorities on extremist organizations, political radicalism, nationalism, and xenophobia in Russia.

The Sova Center is widely respected internationally for its defense of minority rights and religious freedoms.

And Russian prosecutors have now opened an investigation into the SOVA Center in connection with a controversial law banning “undesirable organizations.”

Why? Well, the Sova Center’s website provides links to past donors, which apparently include such undesirables as George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.

So what does it say about Vladimir Putin’s regime if it suspects an organization whose sole purpose is to monitor and combat hate crimes of being undesirable?

It’s a fair question.

Now let’s compare the treatment of the Sova Center to how the Russian authorities have dealt with another organization — the far-right South East Radical Block, or SERB.

In the past two years alone, SERB activists have physically assaulted a 75-year-old protester; thrown feces at an opposition journalist; splashed urine on photos at an art exhibition; splashed antiseptic on anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny’s face, damaging one of his eyes; and tore down a memorial plaque to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

But the Russian authorities apparently see nothing undesirable in any of this.

By Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL

Categories: World News

Agent of Influence: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent?

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 11:45

By Elena Postnikova, Atlantic Council

Read the Publication (PDF)

The US Congress enacted the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA) to ensure that the American people were aware when foreign governments funded media sources; at the time, their concerns focused on the Nazi regime in Germany. Today, this issue has resurfaced with concerns about the Russian propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today). RT broadcasts are reliably consistent with official statements of the Russian government, which is unsurprising, as it is 99 percent funded by the Kremlin. In Agent of Influence, author Elena Postnikova not only argues that RT should register with FARA but makes a legal case for it while laying out recommendations for policy makers. At a minimum, RT’s activities warrant a thorough investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Strong evidence supports the conclusion that Russia’s RT is owned, controlled, and financed by the Russian state. RT advances Russia’s interests abroad and uses communication channels to influence US domestic and foreign policy. RT has not presented evidence to support that it is a bona fide media organization, which would be excluded from registration. If RT fails to respond to a DOJ inquiry or to present ample evidence that it should be exempt, an enforcement action should follow.

By Elena Postnikova, Atlantic Council

Categories: World News

‘The sensible time may have passed’ What happens to American journalists in Russia, if the U.S. government says ‘Sputnik’ is a foreign agent?

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 14:44

Sputnik logo from Facebook

By Kevin Rothrock, for Meduza

On September 11, 2017, Yahoo! News reported that the FBI has questioned two former staffers at the Russian state Sputnik news agency, as part of an ongoing investigation into a potentially undeclared propaganda campaign by the Russian government that violates the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The effort to treat Sputnik and its older brother, RT (Russia Today), as foreign propaganda, rather than foreign news organizations, has been gaining momentum since last year’s U.S. presidential election, when Russian news coverage turned sharply against Hillary Clinton, inciting fears that Moscow was mounting a coordinated campaign to influence the American public. Meduza reviews the case against Sputnik and examines the consequences it could have for U.S. media outlets in Russia.

The FBI versus Sputnik

According to Yahoo! News, FBI agents have interviewed former Sputnik staffers Andrew Feinberg and Joseph John Fionda, who say they turned over work emails revealing the “internal structure and editorial processes” at Sputnik. The emails reportedly document the Kremlin’s strict control over news coverage, and how the outlet intentionally pursues fake stories and conspiracy theories to advance Moscow’s political goals.

Following the news that Sputnik is in the FBI’s crosshairs, Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of RT, another Russian state media outlet, warned that Moscow would retaliate: “There is no doubt that Russia will respond to the FBI investigation in the same way and will check the work of American journalists in Moscow. It’s disgusting,” Margarita Simonyan said.

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors

Though Simonyan didn’t say which “American journalists” Russian police would target, it’s a good bet that Moscow would start with reporters from RFE/RL and Voice of America. Both these outlets are supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. government agency whose stated mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

RFE/RL is designed to produce independent reporting and promote democratic values — “uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate” — in places where this kind of journalism is believed to be absent. The Voice of America was created to represent America and present the policies of the U.S. “clearly and effectively,” along with “responsible discussions and opinion” on these policies. In other words, RFE/RL is supposed to create independent journalism about the outside world, while VOA is meant to report about America itself.

Formed in 1999, the BBG was designed to serve as a “firewall” against political interference in the journalism it oversees. The bipartisan board’s eight members are appointed by the U.S. president and confirmed by the Senate. There are currently only six members of the BBG, plus U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, who is an ex officio board member.

Last December, with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, the U.S. federal government rewrote the allocation of power within the BBG, transferring the bipartisan board’s authority to a chief executive officer appointed by the president. The new CEO will be able to hire and fire senior media staff and determine budget allocations.

Despite the overhaul, the BBG’s bipartisan board still meets, albeit in a diminished advisory capacity, and officials are waiting to see whom the Trump administration will nominate to take the place of acting CEO John Lansing, who’s been in office since September 2015, before the changes.

As recently as June 1, 2017, Politico reported that the White House’s leading candidate for the CEO position at the BBG was Michael Pack, “a conservative documentarian with ties to [now former] chief strategist Steve Bannon.” While Bannon’s ouster likely means curtains for Pack, Lansing is still waiting to be replaced. “The White House could theoretically use the BBG for any kind of messaging,” a senior Washington official told Politico.

So RFE/RL and VOA are America’s Sputnik and RT?

Nobody (currently) employed at Sputnik or RT embraces claims that they’re foreign propagandists. Journalists at RFE/RL and VOA similarly reject such accusations, along with the very suggestion that their publications are even remotely comparable to these two Russian state-funded media outlets.

Audiences will have to make up their own minds when it comes to judging the quality of journalism at these publications, but an important distinction to remember is that RFE/RL is designed to withdraw itself from areas where independent journalism has returned. This, for instance, is why RFE/RL stopped broadcasting in local languages in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and five other European countries in 2004.

An example of Sputnik’s hard-hitting reporting.

Sputnik, on the other hand, describes itself as a “modern news agency” with “products on multiple platforms.” Like RT, the outlet is geared toward “stories overlooked by the mainstream media,” but there is no formula in place for Sputnik or RT to phase out their operations, once the media environment in a host country has reached a certain level of perceived freedom.

When it comes to Sputnik, the closest Russian analogue to the BBG would be Rossiya Segodnya, its parent holding company, which Vladimir Putin created by executive order in December 2013. Unlike the BBG, however, Rossiya Segodnya makes no effort to insulate its media projects from political interference in its journalism. As if to erase even the slightest doubts about this, Putin appointed pro-Kremlin TV pundit Dmitry Kiselyov to serve as the company’s CEO, with none other than RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan joining as Rossiya Segodnya’s chief editor (causing dizziness for more than a few people trying to understand the distinction).

FARA could be too little, too late

It’s important to note that Radio Svoboda has already lost access to radio waves in Russia. In September 2012, the outlet announced that it was switching to Internet broadcasts, following the enactment of a new Russian law limiting foreign ownership in radio stations to 48 percent. In June 2016, Radio Svoboda‘s final shortwave radio transmissions hit the airwaves before the network went permanently silent.

In 2012, Russian lawmakers enacted their own version of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, requiring all politically active and foreign-funded nonprofit organizations to register with Russia’s Justice Ministry as “foreign agents.” RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress through the BBG, and it operates under IRS rules as a private, nonprofit corporation.

In addition to saddling “foreign agents” with crippling police audits, Russia’s FARA-inspired legislation created a new felony offense under article 330.1 of the Criminal Code, making it punishable by up to two years in prison to commit “malicious evasion” of the law’s filing requirements. Russia’s Justice Ministry currently names 88 organizations on its list of foreign agents.

Since it was passed in 1938, there have been only a handful of criminal cases in the U.S. involving violations of FARA, whose registrants are often public relations firms hired to generate positive buzz for foreign governments’ initiatives in Washington. The maximum penalty for willfully violating FARA is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but even these harsh measures wouldn’t necessarily force a “foreign agent” media outlet off the air.

While serving on the BBG’s bipartisan board, Matthew Armstrong argued in an article that convicting RT of FARA violations could fail on two counts, reinforcing the outlet’s anti-establishment credibility while simultaneously imposing relatively weak penalties. According to Armstrong, even the Nazi news agency Transocean could have continued publishing after its top editors were hit with FARA violations in 1941, if only they had complied with the law’s registration requirements. The degree to which RFE/RL and VOA has been pushed from the Russian media market is already more significant than any impact a FARA case against Sputnik is likely to have. If U.S. officials do prosecute and convict Sputnik under FARA, the situation in Russia for American publications could only get worse.

“The sensible time to register RT as a foreign agent may have passed,” Armstrong wrote. That was more than two years ago.

By Kevin Rothrock, for Meduza

Categories: World News

Russian propaganda’s Sputnik news agency probed by FBI – media

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 19:51

Kintarojoe via flickr.com

By UNIAN

The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, the Russian-government-funded news agency, as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), according to Yahoo News.

As part of the probe, Yahoo News has learned, the bureau has obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents — material that could potentially help prosecutors build a case that the news agency played a role in the Russian government “influence campaign” that was waged during last year’s presidential election and, in the view of U.S. intelligence officials, is still ongoing, Yahoo News reports.

The emails were turned over by Andrew Feinberg, the news agency’s former White House correspondent, who had downloaded the material onto his laptop before he was fired in May. He confirmed to Yahoo News that he was questioned for more than two hours on Sept. 1 by an FBI agent and a Justice Department national security lawyer at the bureau’s Washington field office.

Feinberg said the interview was focused on Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.”

Read also Russian bots fight back against bot researchers “They wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow,” Feinberg told Yahoo News. “They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues.”

It is not clear whether the agent and prosecutor who questioned Feinberg were acting as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s broader investigation into Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election and possible links to the Trump campaign. “We are not confirming whether specific matters are or are not part of our ongoing investigation,” a spokesman for Mueller emailed. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment, and the FBI did not respond to questions.

Read also Facebook uncovers Russia-funded misinformation campaign – BBC But the inquiry comes at a time when members of Congress and others have pushed the Justice Department to strengthen its enforcement of the FARA, especially as it relates to the operations in Washington of two Russian news organizations, Sputnik and RT (formerly known as Russia Today).

Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent said that the FBI investigation into Sputnik’s activities “tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there’s a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy.”

Both Sputnik and RT were identified in a U.S. intelligence report in January as being arms of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine” that served as a “platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.” As an example, the report said, Sputnik and RT “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.”

By UNIAN

Categories: World News

Russian Embassy in U.K. Says Everest is Part of Russia

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 19:11

By The Moscow Times

The Russian Embassy in the U.K. said Mount Everest was part of Russia on its Twitter account before deleting the tweet on Monday.

“Good morning! (Mount Everest, Russia),” the erroneous post read, with a photograph of the snow-capped summit attached.

Wedged between Nepal and China, Mount Everest is nearly 2,500 kilometers away from the nearest Russian border.

While the post might have been written off as an honest mistake, some observers quipped that “Crimea is not enough.”

Crimea is not enough:
MK newspaper reports on claim by Russia’s UK Embassy on…Mount Everest https://t.co/NKk69iOM7E

— Jason Corcoran (@jason_corcoran) September 11, 2017


Others referenced “Little Green Men” who occupied Crimea ahead of its annexation from Ukraine in April 2014.

Little Green Sherpas. https://t.co/nIelWI9Ty5

— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) September 11, 2017


By Monday afternoon, the offending tweet had been deleted.

Little Green Sherpas. https://t.co/nIelWI9Ty5

— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) September 11, 2017

Earlier this month, Twitter suspended a Russian state-run news channel’s account after the British government complained it has used the UK Foreign Office’s crest without permission.

RT had launched the @BritshEmb1917 to mark the Russian revolution’s centenary.

By The Moscow Times

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukraine’s Tuberculosis Epidemic Threatens the EU

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 11:10

This week several Russian sites – RT, Vesti, Ukraina.ru – published articles claiming that the European Union is seeing renewed outbreaks of tuberculosis because of the visa free regime with Ukraine.  Citing Russia’s State Epidemiology Oversight body,  they claim the tuberculosis situation in Ukraine has reached catastrophic proportions and is worsening every day.

 

Website Ukraina.ru

Website screenshot RT

Ukraine’s Ministry of Health adviser Volodymyr Kurpita told StopFake that tuberculosis is indeed a problem for the country, but the Russian stories are resorting to fear mongering and ignoring Ukraine’s successes in countering the disease. Ukraine is in fact seeing positive trends in its battle with tuberculosis.

For every 100,000 people there are 67.6 cases of tuberculosis, this is a fact, says Kurpita. But this figure is considerably lower than what Ukraine saw in 2012, where there were 80.5 cases of TB for every 100,000 people.

According to the World Health Organization’s annual tuberculosis report, 4.3% of people sick with tuberculosis in Ukraine have a multi-drug resistant strain of the disease, Russia’s rate is much higher, coming in at 13%.

There were an estimated 480,000 new cases worldwide of multidrug-resistant TB in 2015, according to the WHO. India, China and the Russian Federation accounted for 45% of the combined total of the cases.

RT’s article also claims that TB vaccinations are at an all-time low in Ukraine, if in 2007 96% of newborns were vaccinated with the TB jab, in 2016 only 20% received the vaccine, according to RT.

In fact the level of TB vaccinations is much higher in Ukraine, says Kurpita, in 2015 40% of children were vaccinated, in 2016 vaccinations rose to 72%.

In 2016 and 2017 the Ukrainian government designated $20 million to combat tuberculosis in the country.

 

Categories: World News