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Struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine
Updated: 39 min 6 sec ago

Kremlin Watch Briefing: French President will introduce a law against the spread of ‘fake news’

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 16:23
Topics of the Week

French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he will introduce a law against the spread of ‘fake news’ in order to “protect democratic life”. The new rules will focus on the pre-election period, during which time the removal of false content will be permitted. A further goal is to enhance transparency by making the identity of sponsors of social media content public. The precise character of the new legislation remains to be seen.

The Trump administration authorized the commercial sale of defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine. The move had broad support from Cabinet officials as well as Congress.

Vzglyad, an ideologically-driven online newspaper, published a list of the “most interesting articles of 2017”. According to the list, the sanctions against Russia don’t work and the isolation of Putin’s regime is a myth of Western propaganda.

According to Gustav Gressel, the European Union should not be afraid of Austria taking an anti-European direction. However, he considers it to be a threat that Austria may remain part of the European integration project while passing notes to the FPÖ’s allies in the Kremlin.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A New Russian’s son complains to his father: “Daddy, all my schoolmates are riding the bus, and I look like a black sheep in this 600 Merc.”

His father replies, “No worries, son. I’ll buy you a bus, and you’ll ride like everyone else!”

US Developments End of year highlights
  1. The Trump administration authorized the largest US commercial sale of defensive lethal weapons since 2014, totaling $41.5 million. The move had broad support from Cabinet officials as well as Congress.
  2. Michael Morell, former director of the CIA, and Michael Rogers, former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that Russian information attacks via social media are ongoing, and that a primary target is the credibility of the special investigation led by Robert Mueller. Currently, the Russia investigation also faces charges of bias from Republicans on the far right. President Trump has recently said that he believes the Mueller investigation is treating him fairly, but is making the US look “very bad”.
  3. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia lower its levels of violence in eastern Ukraine. Officially, Russia continues to deny that it is operating militarily in eastern Ukraine, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.
  4. A new national security strategy published by the Trump administration asserts that Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of other countries, but stopped short of claiming that it meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. The document claims: “Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.”
  5. Two Republican Senators, Ron Johnson and John Barrasso, have cancelled a trip to Russia after the Kremlin denied a visa to Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who has been a very vocal supporter of legislation against Russia, including the sanctions bill approved by Congress last fall.
  6. A Russian hacker, Konstantin Kozlovsky, claims that he hacked the DNC on orders from a high-level Russian security official and left personal fingerprints in the DNC servers that will corroborate his story. However, Kozlovsky’s credibility remains in question. Andrei Soldatov, who has been researching the case for several months, says that he has not found any evidence to support Kozlovsky’s claims. Rather, he says, “the key question is if Kozlovsky’s been trying to make a deal about his future with FSB – or he has already made it.”
  7. The US Marines are mobilizing forces to improve their efficiency in the new information environment, recently establishing a new Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group (MIG) at all three MEFs. In addition, the Marines published a handbook, the MAGTF Information Environment Operations Concept of Employment, which describes the operational role and functions of the MEF Information Group.
  8. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, was allegedly pranked by two Russian comedians pretending to be Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and acknowledged the existence of a fictional country, ‘Binomo’, in whose elections Russia had supposedly intervened. The authenticity of the video has not been confirmed.
US-based reading suggestions
  1. The Washington Post has published a detailed article describing how Kremlin trolls ran amok online while Washington policymakers protractedly debated response options.
  2. The GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy has published an article in Democracy titled ‘Shredding the Putin Playbook’. The article lays out six steps that must be taken by democratic states to enhance cybersecurity in the face of hostile information and influence threats.
  3. An article in Politico by Anders Åslund and Daniel Fried describes how a congressional request for a list of Russians with close ties to the Kremlin – contained within H.R. 3364, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act – could be used to exert influence over the Russian government, favorably to US interests.
  4. The Daily Beast has published a three-part series on the KGB’s secret training manual for recruiting spies and its relevance for the present day.
Call for applications: GMF Rethink.CEE Fellowship

The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy has issued a call for applications for their new Rethink.CEE Fellowship.

From the GMF website:

The German Marshall Fund of the United States, through its Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, is launching a new fellowship program for next-generation policy experts and analysts from Central and Eastern Europe.


  • Young Policy experts and analysts from Central Europe (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia) and the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine)
  • Maximum age: 35 years
  • Proven track record of innovative policy analysis at a national, regional or international think tank, university, business, governmental institution, or nongovernmental organization
  • Concrete projects for policy research that address the current and coming challenges for Central and Eastern Europe from a regional rather than country perspective
The Kremlin’s Current Narrative Best of?

It’s hard to imagine a more ideologically-driven online newspaper than Vzglyad. Thus, when Vzglyad compiles a list of its most popular articles, you know it will be an exciting collection of the Kremlin’s choice narratives. Let’s take a look at 2017’s ‘best’, according to Vzglyad

February’s most popular article was about a late commander of the terrorist forces in Russia-occupied Donbas, Mychail Tolstykh (aka Givi), who became notorious for his remarkable cruelty in treating captured Ukrainian soldiers. However, according to Vzglyad, “he was a talented military leader who emerged from the ordinary people and became a symbol of national resistance”. It is unfortunate that Vzglyad didn’t bother explaining to its readers which nation’s resistance is currently underway in Donbas… hint: it’s certainly not Russia’s!

Russia continues to claim that sanctions don’t work and that the attempted international isolation of the Putin regime is simply a myth of Western propaganda. Angela Merkel’s April visit to Russia was used to justify this point. As a Vzglyad columnist put it: “The Sochi voyage of not-so-friendly German lady and later phone call with Trump is strong proof that the iron ring of isolation with which EU and US are trying to strangle Russia is very weak.” The article ends on an even more optimistic note: “After 2017, it is simply laughable to talk about the international isolation of Russia. The iron ring has collapsed.”

Unsurprisingly, even tragic events are distorted and exploited for propagandistic purposes. Take for example the commentary on an attack against Russian journalist Tatiana Felgengauer. The Echo of Moscow correspondent was attacked by an armed man and stabbed multiple times. Tatiana and many of her supporters stated that this attack signifies a growing atmosphere of hate and unacceptability of views that are critical of the Kremlin and authorities. Vzglyad, however, took a different perspective: according to them, the attack on a journalist indicates “the steady decrease of the level of adequacy of the Russian liberal opposition.”

Perhaps Vzglyad should change its name to ‘news from a parallel universe’.

Policy & Research News Low point of UK-Russia relations

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Moscow in December, being the first British minister to make an official visit to Russia in five years. Prior to his trip, he stated that “our relations with Russia cannot be ‘business as usual’ whilst Russia continues to attempt to destabilize European states, including Ukraine.” While relations between the UK and Russia are at a notably low point, Boris Johnson stated it would be in the interest of the international community if they improved. However, during a press conference in Moscow, he named several of the Kremlin’s recent transgressions that prevent a restoration of relations, mentioning “abundant evidence” that Russia interfered in German, French, US and other elections.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party has launched a new attack on disinformation after their former leader, Alex Salmond, broadcast a Christmas special of his talk show on RT, the Kremlin’s propaganda channel. On behalf of the SNP and the Scottish Government, Martin Docherty-Hughes, a senior MP, stated, “we firmly support the UK Government’s efforts in tackling Russian disinformation and propaganda”.

Russian spy in Downing Street?

Ukrainian authorities have detained an interpreter for Ukrainian MP Volodymyr Groysman on the suspicion that he was working as an agent for Russian intelligence. The interpreter was allegedly instructed to gather information “about the activities of government structures”. In July, he accompanied Mr. Groysman on a visit to London and was photographed with British Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street.

What should we expect from Austria?

After the People’s Party of Austria formed a coalition with the Freedom Party – which cooperates with Putin’s United Russia party and maintains close ties with Russian conservative intellectuals, oligarchs and cultural organisations – questions have arisen about how Austrian foreign policy will change and how the Kremlin will make use of its new allies. The Freedom Party is slated to control the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence. According to one report, Western intelligence services consider this a reason for reducing their cooperation with the Austrian Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Countering Terrorism (BAT) on cases related to Russia. Der Standard reports the denial of any such claims by Peter Gridling, head of the BAT. The journalist who leaked the story did not reveal his source, but stands behind its veracity.

Gustav Gressel argues in a commentary for the European Council of Foreign Relations that while Austria is unlikely to change its stance on European integration, the new political equilibrium nonetheless poses a threat. The Freedom Party will be in charge of civilian and military counterintelligence services and according to Gressel, the EU might face the challenge of Austria not contributing to the integration process, but rather passing sensitive information to the Kremlin. He advises Europe to pay close attention to Austrian political developments, but emphasises that the Freedom Party was democratically elected and enjoys the right to hold divergent political views.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project: Understanding Hybrid Warfare

Although everyone now agrees that hybrid warfare is a security problem, few truly understand its character and implications. Since the prerequisite for solving a problem is understanding it, this week’s reading suggestion aims to improve public understanding of hybrid warfare by proposing useful tools that should facilitate understanding of both individual cases of hybrid warfare as well as the general issue. The paper, developed under the Multinational Capability Development Campaign, begins with the so-called Baseline Assessment, which aims clear up conceptual confusion regarding hybrid warfare and establish a common language. The authors address a spectrum of instruments of power that can be used by a hybrid warfare actor (MPECI). These are shown in the figure below:

MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project: Understanding Hybrid Warfare

Although everyone now agrees that hybrid warfare is a security problem, few truly understand its character and implications. Since the prerequisite for solving a problem is understanding it, this week’s reading suggestion aims to improve public understanding of hybrid warfare by proposing useful tools that should facilitate understanding of both individual cases of hybrid warfare as well as the general issue. The paper, developed under the Multinational Capability Development Campaign, begins with the so-called Baseline Assessment, which aims clear up conceptual confusion regarding hybrid warfare and establish a common language. The authors address a spectrum of instruments of power that can be used by a hybrid warfare actor (MPECI). These are shown in the figure below:

For that and a lot more, including useful recommendations, take a look at the paper!

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

Russian embassy press secretary tweets misleading facts about World War II

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 15:57

By Polygraph

Nick Lakhonin

Press Secretary, Russian Embassy to U.S.

“Do not forget to mention

– USSR & US were allies

– Baltic states were dictatorships

Hopefully historian Richie will tell how Lithuania received its capital in 1939, about Holocaust in t/ Baltics, Nordic Waffen SS volunteers”

Source: Twitter, January 2, 2018


The press secretary leaves out important facts in his tweet.

On January 2, the official Twitter account of the American National WWII Museum tweeted an announcement about an upcoming historical tour dedicated to the topic of the Baltic region prior to and during the Second World War.

Historian Alexandra Richie introduces a new educational travel tour from The National WWII Museum, visiting Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, and Denmark. Reserve your journey before 1/31 and save: #WWII #history #travel

— National WWII Museum (@WWIImuseum) 1 января 2018 г.

The tour, entitled “Tyranny on Two Fronts,” purported to explore “the tangled web of alliances along the Baltic Sea coast during World War II” and “to trace the complicated decisions the Baltic nations faced as wartime pressure mounted on them to collaborate with either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”

Nikolai Lakhonin, press secretary of the Russian Embassy in the U.S., retweeted the announcement.

Do not forget to mention
– USSR & US were allies
– Baltic states were dictatorships
Hopefully historian Richie will tell how Lithuania received its capital in 1939, about Holocaust in t/ Baltics, Nordic Waffen SS volunteers and arrange a visit to #ww2

— Nick Lakhonin (@RusEmbUSApress) 2 января 2018 г.

While some content mentioned by the press secretary is not untrue, per se, his Tweet has a number of problems.

The first and most obvious is that the United States and Soviet Union were not allies during 1939-1940, the period when the Baltic States were absorbed into the Soviet Union and Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union in what would become known as the Winter War. The U.S. allied with the USSR after June 22, 1941, when the Axis powers invaded the latter.

Prior to that invasion, in August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which entailed a considerable amount of economic and political cooperation. Under a secret protocol to that pact, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, among other territories in Eastern Europe, wereassigned to the “sphere” of the USSR, thus providing for the later annexation of those territories.

In fact, the Russian press secretary’s comment about how Lithuania got its modern capital of Vilnius is a reference to another event that took place thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact — the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 16-17, 1939. Prior to the invasion, Vilnius was part of the Polish Second Republic and known as Wilno. After the Soviet invasion, the Polish-occupied territories of Western Belarus, part of Lithuania, and the Western Ukrainian territories of Galicia and Volyn were joined to their respective Soviet republics.

Map of Nazi Germany and Soviet Union attack on Poland, World War II. Watch the video:

Russia’s official account of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact has been controversial in recent years. Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the pact, stating that the USSR only entered the agreement after it had failed to secure an anti-Hitler coalition with Great Britain and France. While there is some truth to this argument, it also ignores the wealth of crucial material aid (particularly oil, grain, and raw materials) the Soviet Union provided Nazi Germany, including during the latter’s war with the Allied powers right up until the night of the German invasion of the USSR. In fact, Soviet material aid to Germany actually made the invasion of the USSR militarily and economically feasible.

The topic of Molotov-Ribbentrop is so controversial in contemporary Russia that deviating from official history can have legal consequences. In one such case, a court in the city of Perm sentenced a blogger to pay a 200,000 ruble fine for sharing an article which mentioned the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

It is not clear to what extent the Holocaust in the Baltic region is covered by the American National WWII Museum’s tour, but based on the description, it appears that the topic of collaboration with the German occupation forces is covered. Such collaboration occurred in virtually every occupied nation during World War II, including Russia. Russian collaborationist units included the so-called Russian Liberation Army, the 29th Waffen SS Brigade, the SS “Druzhina” Brigade, and various Cossack units, among others.

By Polygraph

© 2018 All Rights Reserved

Categories: World News

Edward Lucas: Russian political theater

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 19:10

By Edward Lucas, for CEPA

Russia is having a presidential election this year. Right? Wrong. In fact, the Kremlin is staging a play about an election, rather than a real contest with real voters, real candidates, real competition and real doubt about the outcome.

The performance will be realistically and expensively staged, with the characters in appropriate costumes, and plenty of expertly produced props. The acting will be excellent. Presumably we can expect some interesting plot twists and some feelings of suspense and uncertainty. The script is largely written; it is just that we do not know the details. The ultimate outcome is not in doubt: as the curtain falls, Vladimir Putin will start another term as president.

To call this macabre political theater an election is to degrade the political vocabulary. The most important feature of a real election is doubt. In a free political system, we do not necessarily know who the candidates will be; in the U.S. political system, the primaries are fiercely contested. We do not know how the candidates will perform. Even seemingly strong contenders, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May, can come badly unstuck in the course of a few weeks. Seemingly hopeless cases, such as the left-wing British opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, suddenly become popular. Least of all do we know who will win. Pundits opine and pollsters take their soundings, but the voters decide. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the courts decide. Nobody knows in advance how they will rule, either.

By conflating such real elections with phony ones, we hand a propaganda victory to the Kremlin. One of Moscow’s main talking points is that there is no real difference between the political systems of the West and authoritarian kleptocracies like Russia. We may have better PR about the rule of law, human rights and political freedoms, but in the end wealth and power are fungible. Rich people decide what happens. The people who run things get rich. Everything else is just decorative.

As with all propaganda, this contains an element of truth. Even in a well-run, free political system, incumbents do have an advantage. Money and media clout matter more than they should. Anyone who has the advantage of living as a citizen of a democracy should never it take it for granted.

But unfairness and imperfection are not the issue. Just as human beings are imperfect, so too are political systems. The real question is how you deal with the mistakes. Here the difference between Western political systems and the regime in Russia is blazingly clear. Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most privileged contender the American political system had seen in modern times, botched her campaign and lost. Some people in Donald Trump’s campaign had unwise links with Russia. They are now under investigation. Angela Merkel, Germany’s once-unshakable chancellor, misjudged the electorate’s mood on migration and is now on the way out. Other examples abound.

No such scrutiny and constraint applies to Putin and his sidekicks. True, Russian political careers can end abruptly; Alexei Ulyukaev, a former minister of the economy, was jailed for eight years on corruption charges last month. But such downfalls reflect the internal machinations of Kremlin clan politics, not the actions of an independent criminal justice system. The prosecution was a sham, just like Putin’s upcoming “re-election.”

Theater can be entertaining as well as instructive. We should follow Putin and the actors playing his rivals closely for clues about how power may be shifting behind the scenes in Russia. But do not mistake what you see on the stage for real life.

By Edward Lucas, for CEPA

Edward Lucas is a Senior Vice President at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Lucas is also a senior editor at the leading London-based global newsweekly, The Economist, where he co-edits the Espresso daily news app and covers cybersecurity.

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Categories: World News

Shoigu: NATO is massing troops along Russia’s western borders

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 06:52

Putin and Shoigu attend a meeting while visiting the Military Academy of Strategic Rocket Troops of the Peter the Great, Balashikha, December 22, 2017

By Polygraph

Sergey Shoigu

Russia’s Defense Minister

I will start with an assessment of increased threats. Since 2012, the number of military contingents deployed by NATO near Russia’s western frontiers has increased threefold. Four battalion tactical groups have been deployed in the Baltics and Poland as well as a U.S. Army armored brigade and command staffs of NATO’s multinational divisions in Poland and Romania. The number of engagement-ready forces of the alliance has grown from 10,000 to 40,000 troops, while their notice period has been reduced from 45 to 30 days.

Source: Kremlin website, December 22, 2017


The alleged perception of threat to Russia of the NATO deployment is significantly exaggerated.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu made the statement at the annual meeting of the Defense Ministry board on December 22. He also pointed to NATO exercises featuring scenarios of a military confrontation with Russia, saying: “We carefully watch every NATO exercise and take steps accordingly.”

The remarks follow statements by Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a former top Russian Defense Ministry official, who claimed in November that NATO and the United States were preparing to start a war with Russia. fact-checked and debunked his claims.

Latvian Army soldiers practice urban fighting during Silver Arrow 2017 multinational military drills involving eleven NATO members in Adazi, Latvia October 29, 2017

Contrary to the statements by Shoigu and Ivashov, NATO’s presence in the region appears insignificant compared to Russia’s substantial military buildup on its western flank.

Moreover, the NATO deployments, announced in 2016, are rotational and defensive. They were initiated as a deterrence tool in response to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Georgia, and only serve as “tripwires” in case of a Russian attack, which would require significant reinforcements.​

The deployments are specifically designed to fill gaps in the deterrence posture of the alliance, beset as it is by low military spending and the weaker military capabilities of its eastern members.

Describing the conventional threat from Russia as “real,” Brian Hook, a senior U.S. foreign policy adviser, said on November 17 at a forum by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC that the “military arrangement of forces in Europe favors Russia.”

In his testimony before a U.S. Senate committee in 2016, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley underscored that the U.S. military is “technically outranged, outgunned” by Russia’s military in Europe.

As for manpower, only 64,440 U.S. troops were deployed in Europe at the end of 2016, a significant reduction from the 285,000 deployed at the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the number of NATO troops in the four multinational groups deployed in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia stands at just 4,760 personnel. The overall number of NATO troops there is 7,200.

Polish Army PT-91 tank during Silver Arrow 2017 multinational military drills involving eleven NATO members in Adazi, Latvia, October 29, 2017

Commenting on the deployments, Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, underlined that the battalions “are not going to invade Russia.” They “provide tripwires” and would require reinforcements to repel a Russian attack, let alone prevail in a major conflict, he explained.

According to Richard Sokolsky, who was a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Office from 2005 to 2015, this “thin tripwire force” could prove sufficient in deterring Russia, as a similar force did in West Berlin during the Cold War. “From NATO’s perspective, this is a prudent approach that serves to bolster deterrence and reassure the Baltic states without presenting a significant military menace right up against Russia’s borders,” he wrote.

Russia and Belarus taking part in military exercises Zapad in Borisov, Belarus, September 20, 2017

Some of Russia’s own experts dismiss or downplay Moscow’s military threat assessments.

Sergey Samuilov with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the USA and Canada says Russia should treat the deployments calmly: “Today their number [U.S. forces in Europe] is about 60 thousand. With such a potential, the Americans and NATO will not attack Russia.”

Prokhor Tebin, an international security expert, argues that NATO’s presence in eastern Europe does not threaten Russia directly. However, he cautions that this development represents “an alarming and vexing factor” if one considers the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Europe and disagreements over the INF Treaty. ( previously examined mutual Russian and U.S. allegations of violations of the treaty in fact-check 1 and fact-check 2.)

Nevertheless, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have strained Russia-NATO ties. In 2016, Russia planned to form three new divisions in response to NATO deployments. A year later, it announced plans to create 20 new units along its western borders by the end of 2017. Russian tanks currently outnumber both U.S. and NATO ones in Europe. And, as of early 2017, Russia had 22 maneuver battalions in the Western Military District and three in Kaliningrad.

Military jets fly during the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad-2017 near Borisov, Belarus, September 20, 2017

Sokolsky says NATO can ready 17 battalions for an “initial forward defense,” besides its four deployed battalions. While these capabilities are not insignificant, he notes that Russia enjoys numerical and qualitative advantages in a number of areas, including heavy armor, artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, combat aircraft and assault helicopters.

According to Sokolsky, the current dynamics in Eastern Europe present a classic security dilemma, whereby one side’s defensive moves are seen as threatening by the other. Therefore, he points out, NATO emphasizes a dual-track approach of deterrence and dialogue with Moscow.

By Polygraph

Categories: World News

Moscow links Syria to WWII

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 12:51

By Donald N. Jensen, for CEPA

  • Putin himself has tried to portray the war in Syria, which began as a national uprising against Russia’s ally Assad, as an analogue of World War II. In 2016, he told parliament that just like the Nazis, “terrorists” threatened the world and only Moscow was alive to the threat.
  • Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matvienko delivered a TV statement on 13 December that portrayed Putin in a manner that would have done Stalin proud: Putin, the supreme commander-in-chief, personally directed the campaign on the battlefield and concurrently handled all of the associated political issues.
  • The comments by Federation Council member Aleksey Pushkov implied that the United States dallied for three years before opening a second front in Syria (A criticism Moscow has long leveled at the Western allies’ behavior in World War II). Thus, while the West fiddled and proved incompetent in the Middle East, Moscow acted, demonstrating unparalleled resolve and prowess. Russia is unquestionably a global power, he added, not a regional one.
  • Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed that the U.S. envies Russia’s accomplishments in Syria, just as it did Soviet achievements in World War II.

Even before Putin’s announcement, Russian officials often made inaccurate comparisons of its operations in Syria with Soviet campaigns in World War II. In October 2017, they compared the U.S.-led bombing of Raqqa to the wartime destruction of Dresden, although CENTCOM spokesmen have repeatedly castigated the Russian Defense Ministry’s continuous claims of pinpoint bombing accuracy in Syria. NGOs have confirmed that Moscow’s bombing has caused huge numbers of casualties—a charge the Kremlin rejects. This propaganda technique is an example of Moscow’s use of the “wolf cries wolf” narrative technique-–vilifying the United States for things Russia itself is doing.

The Kremlin’s use of such techniques actually began during Ukraine’s Maidan demonstrations, when it branded nationalist Ukrainian groups—and later, massive segments of Ukrainian society—as closet fascists. It systematically portrayed armed anti-Russian formations such as Praviy Sector as the reincarnation of the Gestapo, supported by repeated film clips and reports aired by Russian media. But it intensified during the run-up to Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas. More recently, Pushkov has referred to news about the fighting in the Donbas as “reports from the Ukrainian front”  (сводки с Украинского фронта).

Moscow’s expropriation and misuse of World War II verbiage not only magnifies the PR significance of its intervention in Syria and Ukraine, but also reflects a Kremlin effort to rhetorically justify its revanchist actions. By using bombastic propaganda, Moscow hopes to compensate in words for the limited scale of the undertakings, to consolidate support for them at home, and hype Russia’s now resuscitated—but still limited—military power abroad. Nowhere does Putin or any other Russian official acknowledge that most ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq today hail from the Russian Federation. It would, of course, be far less noble for Moscow to admit that its primary motivation in Syria focuses on annihilating Russian Islamists before they can return home, than to package operations there as a selfless effort to save the world—one more time—from a major scourge as it did in the fight against fascism.

If Russia’s aim to instill shock and awe is overdone, it nevertheless appears to have had some effect in Syria. Russian actions themselves—despite their military and diplomatic deficiencies— often established an antiterrorist narrative. But such rhetoric also helps to refute Barack Obama’s dismissive depiction of Russia as a “regional power,” which Moscow in general and Putin in particular found humiliating.

Establishing a linkage between such undertakings and World War II achievements of heroic proportions allows Moscow to bask in its wartime glory. “The Great Patriotic War” remains a sacred theme throughout the former Soviet Union, where virtually every family suffered painful losses—especially in Soviet Europe, which was devastated. Stalin’s actions contributed mightily to these losses, but generations of Soviets—and now, Russians—have been taught not to dare question Soviet wartime conduct or tarnish the reputation of the image of heroic, messianic Victory achieved through self-sacrifice in the face of Hitler’s treachery and the West’s calculated dawdling. Thus, linking Moscow’s actions in Syria and the Ukraine with World War II provides PR cover and safeguards against criticism.

Although Russia is scaling back its presence in Syria, the misuse of World War II as a nationalistic rallying cry will undoubtedly prove useful elsewhere, as situations warrant. This is likely to continue to be the case in Ukraine, where Moscow directs its misappropriation of war against a country that filled the ranks and command echelons of the Red Army and suffered some of World War II’s most devastating losses. It also indicates the premeditated distortion to which Moscow is willing to stoop in its use of agitprop. As shown by a Levada poll released on 21 December, that approach has regrettably worked domestically, promoting the political socialization of the populace and the mobilization of public opinion.

By Donald N. Jensen, for CEPA

Donald N. Jensen is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis where he edits the StratCom weekly Editor’s Note. Jensen is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A former U.S. diplomat, he writes extensively on Russian foreign and domestic politics, especially Russia’s relations with Europe.
Categories: World News

Top Russian general speaks about Syrian war, repeats debunked claims

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 12:39

By Polygraph

Valery Gerasimov

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia

“About eight months ago, they [the U.S.-led coalition] also started to inform, to provide a summary [about airstrikes in Syria]. Of course, the difference is fundamental. They [do it] from time to time, but we [do it] on a daily basis.”

Source: Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 26, 2017


The claim does not correspond with reality

In an interview with the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published on December 26, Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, who is chief of the general staff of the country’s armed forces, answered questions regarding Russia’s military operation in Syria.

Despite the lengthy interview, General Gerasimov provided little new information beyond stating that “[m]ore than 48,000 soldiers and officers have gone through the Syrian campaign,” and adding that a quarter of them had received awards for their service in Syria. Yet this information gave the lie to the long-standing claim by the Kremlin and Defense Ministry that Russian troops had not been taking part in the ground operations in Syria — a claim has previously debunked.

The newspaper’s reporter asked Gerasimov: “The information department of the Russian Defense Ministry and the General Staff has practically daily informed the public after almost every missile/bomb attack on the terrorists in Syria. Why, in your view, hasn’t the American coalition behaved in a similar fashion?”

The general responded: “About eight months ago, they also started to inform, to provide a summary. Of course, the difference is fundamental. They [do it] from time to time, but we [do it] on a daily basis.”

Gerasimov’s claim is false on multiple levels.

The U.S.-led coalition’s mission against Islamic State, called the Combined Joint Task Force “Operation Inherent Resolve,” started releasing information on every airstrike in January 1, 2015, not “eight months ago,” and the reports are as detailed as it gets — not “summaries,” as Gerasimov claims.

The coalition’s “Strike Release” reports have been issued and published on a daily basis, not “from time to time,” as Gerasimov says. Every day of “Operation Inherent Resolve” since January 2015 to the present has been accounted for transparently, and the reports are available to the public. has done multiple fact-checks debunking the claims repeated by Valery Gerasimov in his interview. Here are just a few examples.

FALSE: “It seems to me that the coalition did not set as an objective, neither at that time nor now, the final defeat of ISIS.”

FALSE: “It is actually ISIS. But after the work done with them [by the U.S. instructors], they change their colors, take another name – the ‘New Syrian army’ and others. Their objective is to destabilize the situation.”

FALSE: “Somewhere 25 kilometers west of al-Tanf there are more than 50,000 Syrian refugees. The Center for Reconciliation was created as part of the Russian military group in Syria, which is in fact coordinating and directing the delivery of all humanitarian aid, humanitarian convoys — our Russian ones, U.N ones. These convoys go everywhere, but it is not working out in Rukban: the Americans do not allow them there – neither Syrian nor other convoys. The people are suffering.”

MISLEADING: “We broke the backbone of ISIL in Syria. In fact, our armed forces have routed the enemy.”

By Polygraph

Categories: World News

Will we ever see the end of information control in Azerbaijan?

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 12:32

Police in Azerbaijan detain a young man. Photo by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reused with permission

By Arzu Geybullayeva, for Global Voices

At a meeting of NATO allies in Brussels in November 2017, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev highlighted the importance of free speech and internet freedom.

A summary published on the official presidential website paraphrased Aliyev’s remarks as follows:

“Highlighting democratic development issues, President Ilham Aliyev said the free internet, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other freedoms are ensured in Azerbaijan.”

This and other similar assertions have elicited raised eyebrows from many Azerbaijani journalists. Aliyev’s words are a far cry from his actions over the past five years.

Between 2013 and 2015, a cascade of regulatory changes and arbitrary legal threats put Azerbaijan’s once-vibrant civil society of journalists, activists, and youth organizations in the line of fire. Many were arrested, on bogus charges. Others left the country, out of fear of persecution.

As a result, much of the remaining conversation around democracy, rights and freedoms shifted to the online world. But each year, it becomes ever-more clear that there is not much tolerance for online dissent either.

The latest example came on December 1, 2017, when parliamentarians introduced and adopted a new set of amendments that will hold individuals, officials and legal entities responsible — and subject them to fines — for online dissemination of “banned” information.

If an internet information resource is entered into the List of Information Resources that Have Posted Information Banned from Distribution, it should immediately restrict access to any such information that it contains. Otherwise, the host and internet providers will face fines in the amounts of 1,500-2,000 AZN for officials and 2,000-2,500 AZN for legal entities.

Officials have not indicated how websites that support reader comments or user posts (such as Facebook or YouTube) will comply with these rules, if and when their users post content that falls under the ban

The ban covers a class of content known as “prohibited information,” which was established by a May 2017 court order authorizing the government to censor websites with specific types of content.

As per the court order, “prohibited information” can include the following categories:

  • terrorism propaganda;
  • information promoting religious extremism, revolution, mass riots and other similar propaganda;
  • [information related to] state secrecy;
  • information on production of weapons and spare parts;
  • information on preparation of narcotics, drugs, and similar substances, their sale;
  • pornography (including child pornography);
  • information on promotion of gambling and illegal betting;
  • information on suicide inspiration;
  • insult and defamation as well as information breaching personal security;
  • information breaching intellectual property rights; and
    other information, distribution of which is prohibited by law of the Republic of Azerbaijan

The public prosecutor’s office claimed online resources were blocked for posing a threat — but when we took a closer look at the content shared on these websites, we found that they did not match the criteria for “prohibited information.”

Several of the websites that were blocked primarily featured stories on government corruption, rising suicide rates in Azerbaijan, poor economic and social living conditions, and independent news coverage of local protests. Three news websites and two satellite TV channels were swiftly blocked inside the country. And since then, more than a dozen online resources providing independent news and information have been blocked.

All this begs the question: For whom is this “prohibited information” most threatening?

Indeed, these legal reforms threaten everyone but the ruling elite of Azerbaijan. This is a classic trait of Aliyev’s regime. In the years since he took the presidential throne from his father, Ilham Aliyev has only made the lives of his countrymen more miserable.

It seems that legal reforms in Azerbaijan are never proposed purely out of the goodwill of Azerbaijani parliament members. Although their primary purpose is to serve the public, we as Azerbaijani citizens do not even know for sure whether they were legitimately elected to public office.

And so it was not surprising to see the second wave of legal amendments that were introduced and approved by the Azerbaijani parliament with the end of 2017 approaching. The lawmakers approved amendments to Azerbaijan’s Code of Administrative Offenses, introducing high monetary penalties against owners of the internet information resources or domains for distributing prohibited information (deemed so by the authorities) or failing to prevent dissemination of such information.  December 15, Azerbaijan’s National Parliament approved amendments to the bill on armed forces, prohibiting journalists from seeking certain types of information about military activity.

Organizations and platforms that have been held back by this recent wave of regulatory measures are now increasingly reliant on their Facebook pages and YouTube accounts to keep their voices present online. Many have built mirror websites where they continue covering critical stories and news from Azerbaijan.

Azadliq Radio, the Azerbaijani service for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty updates its readers and viewers at the end of their daily news wrap up, providing an updated URL for their platform. Meydan TV relies on a mobile app.

Describing the fall of free Internet in Azerbaijan, civic activist Ali Novruzov wrote on his blog:

What made the matter worse was that our even hypothetical Internet freedom was not guaranteed in the law books. Loose provisions of the laws were leading to occasional blocking of websites. Aside from some satirical blogs and Iranian-sponsored religious propaganda websites, even Imgur, an innocent photo-sharing platform fell a victim for a short time. However, blocking of websites was an exceptional measure back then. Despite being an arbitrary measure, the government was resorting to it only in selected circumstances.
With oil prices plummeting and economic situation getting worse on daily basis, it was evident that the government was no longer inclined to tolerate any dissent whether it was online or offline. The days of the hypothetical free Internet were also numbered.
While curbing basic rights and freedoms, going after activists, are a rule of thumb when it comes to persecution of active members of Azerbaijan’s civil society, polishing of existing laws seem to have made things far easier for the ruling government especially when it needs to answer in front of the international rights watchdogs and institutions. First it is none of their business leaders like to say, even when a pinch of criticism is steered their way, and secondly, we have laws, according to which the authorities lawfully abide by.

These recent legal amendments, as well as the on-going show of power between authorities and Azerbaijan’s crippled civil society, indicate that President Ilham Aliyev’s talking points about free expression and the internet are just words. In Azerbaijan, free and open the internet is not.

By Arzu Geybullayeva, for Global Voices

This post is part of Global Voices Advocacy, a Global Voices project that reports on censorship and free speech online. Visit the Global Voices Advocacy website.
Categories: World News

McMaster says U.S. must reveal ‘insidious’ Russian meddling to prevent further attacks

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 12:25


Top White House adviser H.R. McMaster says one of the most important tasks in defending U.S. national security is to reveal Russia’s “insidious” interference in elections worldwide to prevent Moscow from meddling again in the democratic process.

“What we have to do is come up with a way to deal with this very sophisticated strategy [of meddling],” McMaster, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, told Voice of America (VOA) in an interview conducted at the White House on January 2.

“This new kind of threat that Russia has really perfected…the use of disinformation and propaganda and social-media tools to really polarize societies and pit communities against each other, to weaken their resolve and their commitment,” McMaster said.

U.S. intelligence officials concluded last January that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” targeting the 2016 election, aiming to undermine confidence in U.S. democracy, tarnish the reputation of Democrat Hillary Clinton, and help Republican Donald Trump.

“Well, I think Russia’s moved from what you might call plausible deniability to implausible deniability.” — H.R. McMaster, U.S. national security adviser

Officials in Europe have also concluded that Russia attempted to meddle in elections there, including in France, Spain, and the Brexit vote in Britain.

McMaster said that “insidious is the right word” to describe Russia’s actions.

“So, one of the most important remedies is to pull the curtain back on it to show this activity, to show what the source of this activity is — what the purpose of this activity is,” he said.

“And so doing this, you’re going to undercut a lot of their ability to exert that kind of negative influence on our society or others.

“The Russians were very active in Europe…in the French election recently, in the Spanish referendum in regards to Catalonia [independence]. You see them active in Mexico already. I mean, what they did in Montenegro to try to foment a coup,” he said.

“Pulling the curtain back on Russia’s destabilizing behavior, I think, is a very important first step, because once everybody sees what they’re up to, they lose a lot of their power to foment [trouble] and to pit communities against each other.”

McMaster noted that Russia has denied interfering in the U.S. or other elections, but he labeled it as “implausible deniability.”

He said the Russians “are the same people” who denied they shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and “murdered” 298 people, that “they have soldiers in Crimea or eastern Ukraine,” or that they are providing cover for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his alleged use of chemical weapons.

Dutch investigators and others say a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that crashed in a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July 2014 was brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

The United States and other Western countries have imposed sanctions on Russia for its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people since 2014.

“[The denials are] just not credible anymore,” he said. “So, what we need to do, I think, with Russia is confront their destabilization behavior. As I mentioned, pull the curtain back on it.”

Nevertheless, he added, it was important for the United States to find ways to cooperate with Russia.

“We also have to deter further conflict with Russia,” he said. “What we’d like to do is find areas where we can cooperate with Russia in areas where our interests overlap,” he said.

“One of those areas we’ve been talking about is in North Korea and other is in Iran.

“How can it be in Russia’s interest to help empower Iran from the Middle East? They’re going to pay a huge price for that,” he added.


Categories: World News

Klimov: Russia never interferes in the affairs of foreign states, including Iran

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 18:59

By Polygraph

Andrei Klimov

Deputy Chairman, Federation Council foreign affairs committee

“Russia does not interfere in the domestic affairs of foreign states. Iran is a sovereign state, they have their own legitimate government, and we in such instances act the same way practically everywhere. As I told you, Russia does not interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.”

Source: Radio Business FM, January 1, 2018


Russia has not only interfered in the affairs of foreign states, but annexed their territory

Until the start of the New Year, Russia was silent about the current unrest in Iran, refraining from making any official statements after the first reports of protests breaking out in Iran hit the media on December 29.

On January 1, Russia’s Foreign Ministry broke the silence, issuing a statement that Moscow “condemns any foreign interference in Iran’s domestic affairs.”

That same day, Andrei Klimov, the deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, told Radio Business FM that Russia “does not interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign states,” a rule that applies to Iran as a “sovereign state.”

Klimov’s statement raises two questions. First, is it true that Russia does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries? Second, is it true that Russia is not interfering in the situation in Iran?

The answer to the first question is a clear “no”: Russia has been accused of — and, in some cases, proven to have been guilty of — interfering in the domestic affairs of a number of countries, sometimes militarily. Among those countries are GeorgiaUkraine (from which Moscow annexed Crimea), MontenegroFranceSpainSyriaand the United States and Britain.

As for Klimov’s claim that Russia is not interfering in the situation in Iran, thus far there is insufficient evidence to rate it as solidly “true” or “false.” Our verdict for this claim is “unclear,” based on the interesting observations of Russian government-media behavior (which has been repeatedly examined and proven indicative of Kremlin’s position), as well as Russia’s official statements and expert opinions.

RUSSIA — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) gestures next to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif during a family photo ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers of the Caspian Sea littoral states in Moscow, December 05, 2017

On December 28, one day before the protests reportedly started spreading in Iran, the country’s ambassador to Russia, Mehdi Sanai, had an audience with Russian Deputy Foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow. According Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the Iranian ambassador requested the meeting, which resulted in a “confidential exchange of opinions” about the “unfolding situation in the Middle East.”

During the subsequent days, Russian government-backed media reports on the situation in Iran practically mirrored reports by Iranian government media. The Russian media reports were dominated by Russian translations of statements by top Iranian officials alleging that “foreign powers” were behind the protests, that “enemies” were “trying to use any opportunity to harm the Iranian people,” “and repeating the claims that the “Revolutionary Guard never caused any harm to the protesters.”

“Support for Iranian regime is certainly a primary driver of Russian foreign affairs,” Rasool Nafisi, a Middle East expert and professor at Strayer University in Virginia, told

According to Nafisi, Russia’s support for the regime was particularly visible in “recent months,” due to cooperation between Tehran and Moscow over Syria.

Russia — Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan (2nd L) attends the 6th Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in Moscow, April 26, 2017

However, Nafisi said he thought it was too early to say “whether or not the Russians are siding with the protest movement that is going on right now in Iran or siding with the government of Iran,” because the future of the protests is not clear yet and they could “fade away soon.”

“If the protest movement takes root and becomes a serious force in Iran,” Nafisi said, then the Russian government, “fearing” that Iran might undergo pro-Western changes, “would interfere, if not with obvious intervention like what they did in Ukraine,” then by “providing weapons, providing information and certainly to support the present Iranian regime.”

By Polygraph

© 2018 All Rights Reserved.

Categories: World News

As screws tighten in Moscow, Russians are turning to diverse regional media, editors say

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 17:35

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

As the Moscow media is increasingly restricted in its operations by the Kremlin, more Russians are turning to media in the regions which are often more diverse and exciting in their coverage than their counterparts in the capital and which can be accessed by the increasingly Internet-savvy regional outlets.

The regional media are under pressure as well, but it varies widely from one region to another.  And as a result, research shows that some outlets are able to do more creative and interesting work and even have an impact on local and regional decisions on issues of broader concern.

That reality was partially documented last summer by research conducted by the St. Petersburg agency Fontanka and now has been described more fully by three editors of regional outlets in conversation of MBK media’s Sergey Prostakov.

The three, Artem Besedin of Krasnodar’s Yuga, Dmitry Kozelev of Yekaterinburg’s Znak, and Stepan Khlopov of Perm’s Zvezda, say that things aren’t rosy for them either but that they have been able to build their audiences via the Internet and reach far more people than anyone could have predicted.

As Besedin put it, “the main positive trend” in regional media work in Russia “is that all has not so quickly been destroyed as it could have been.” One reason is that the outlets in the regions have been able to maintain their advertising base better than some in the capital and thus be more independent.

But another, perhaps even more important, is that they have become Internet savvy and thus capable of reaching far larger numbers of readers and viewers than the populations of their respective regions.  And they have been helped by sites like Yandex and other “recommendation services” which link people interested in particular stories to their publications.

Khlopov adds that many people are interested in special projects his Perm outlet conducts. Among them is one on the fate of small rivers in that region, a series that not only received tens or even hundreds of thousands of hits but also led local officials to take action to address the problems the series identified.

Besedin suggests that the Moscow media in response are beginning to cover developments in the regions more than they did in the past, but that coverage is leading more people including Muscovites to visit the sites of regional outlets to get the kind of fine-grained coverage that the central media can’t or at least doesn’t provide.

Khlopov agrees, pointing out that “it is unjust that in our large country, all power is concentrated in Moscow and important media are located there too.” That doesn’t serve the interests of the country or even of Moscow, and the regional media are now trying to break out from their former provincial status.

“Until recently,” he continues, “even millionaire-cities seemed very much cut off from Moscow. Today, however, thanks to the Internet, this problem is disappearing. For Znak, there are no problems with taking a commentary or an interview with a speaker who is located at the other side of the planet. Our readers are indifferent as to where our editorial staff is located.”

The regional media are also picking up the slack from central outlets whose resources are being reduced or even eliminated altogether.  And they can do so, the editors say, because the government’s supervisory organs devote much less attention to regional outlets than they do to central ones.

Yes, there is official pressure and even censorship, the three continue. But regional outlets protect themselves by maintaining good ties with local and regional officials who then allow them to do their work as long as it does not cause local officials problems.  That gives them more flexibility than many in Moscow have.

The three do express regret that there is an absence of good political cartooning at all levels and of media outlets directed at the conservative portion of the population. There are many publications and sites for liberal groups, but none or almost none for those who have the alternative point of view.

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

StopFake #164 [ENG] with Marko Suprun

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 11:15

Top 10 fakes of 2017

Categories: World News

Putin’s Russia now ‘an empire of lies,’ not ‘an evil empire,’ Pastukhov says

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 23:08

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

At the everyday level, Vladimir Pastukhov says, it is unlikely that Russians lie more than people in other countries do; but in the public sphere, the lie is not criticized but rather encouraged,” making it “almost the norm of public politics not only in the eyes of the authorities but in those of the population as well.

There are many reasons for the official “condescension toward lies,” the St. Antony’s College historian says, including of course the attitudes of the Russian Orthodox Church.  But the main explanations are to be found in the fact that “Russians have always viewed themselves as a cultural minority” forced to fight a stronger opponent (

“In Russia, a lie is viewed as a weapon of the weak against the strong,” Pastukhov continues, “as a justified means of defense against overwhelming force.”  The real problem [with them] is that Russians are often happy that they are lying” and thus view “the lie as an alternative truth.”

This may be one of the reasons why the word “pravda” doesn’t correspond with “istina” and why “in Russia it can be something which corresponds to reality and also something which doesn’t correspond.”  Indeed, the historian says, “the just lie in Russia is valued above the unjust truth.”

“In Russia, they lie with missionary-like ecstasy,” Pastukhov suggests.  And that is the basis of hypocrisy among Russians, “a manifestation of the feeling of incompleteness relative to the strong of this world, a slavish habit which has roots going back to serfdom.”

And it gets in the way of Russians adequately understanding their real relationship to the outside world: “While constantly talking about the greatness of Russia, many Russians in the depths of their souls do not believe in the ability of their country to defend its independence without using lies.”

After 1991, the lie was mostly a matter for internal use in Russia, but in the last few years, Pastukhov argues, it has spread to foreign affairs as well. “Certainly, some of the personal qualities of Vladimir Putin made this possible,” as can be seen when the lie returned in full force at the time of the sinking of the Kursk.

“The unwillingness or inability of Putin to resolve the crisis by telling the truth about what had happened led then to the first serious split of the post-Yeltsin elite” and opened the way to the destruction of Russia’s independent media, first electronic and more recently the print media as well.

Now, “the lie accompanies practically any Kremlin action, be it war with terrorism or prominent court cases,” Pastukhov says. By the beginning of Putin’s third term, “the level of lies in Russian public policy had reached critical mass” and led to a shift from retail lying to organized whole lying with trolls and so on.

“Present-day Russia adopted the tactic of the Komintern,” a tactic which “consists in the creation of artificial contradictions and the intensification of natural contradictions between Western countries and also between political parties within each of the Western countries in particular.”

The Kremlin uses lies both offensively and defensively, Pastukhov says, and today in essence “Russia does everything that it accuses the West of doing, from unleashing a cold war to the preparation of ‘color revolutions.’”  The Russian people know what is going on but support their regime without “the slightest moral discomfort.”

Such a situation when a society is caught up in a web of lies from top to bottom is hardly unique to Russia now. “Something similar occurred in Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.” Indeed, “this is one of the truest signs of the unavoidability of a revolution which will destroy this web of lying together with the entire old order.”

Churchill supposedly said that “there is no anti-Semitism in England” because “we do not consider ourselves more stupid than the Jews.” And lies will be driven out of the public sphere in Russia only when “elites appear who do not suffer from a sense of inferiority to the West or East and don’t therefore need the lie for salvation.”

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

Brazil introduces tougher regulations on ‘fake news’ ahead of 2018 elections

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 20:28

As Brazil creates new mechanisms to prevent the spread of fake news, internet freedom activists are worried this will restrict free speech. Imaged shared by Digital Spy on Flickr, with permission: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Taisa Sganzerla, for Global Voices

In early December 2017, Brazil’s government established a committee to monitor and possibly order the blocking of false news reports on social media ahead of the 2018 presidential elections. The news has raised concerns about censorship among the public.

The “Consultative Council on Internet and Elections” will operate under the auspices of the Superior Electoral Court and includes representatives from the Court, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the army, the national intelligence agency, the federal police, SaferNet (a Brazilian non-governmental organization (NGO) that combats online crime in partnership with the Federal Public Ministry) and researchers from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (a private university).

In its first meeting, the Council proposed to create a tool through which users could file reports to the Council itself of news that appeared suspicious. This would work as an extension of existing hotlines and website forms where voters can submit complaints to report irregularities in traditional media.

The Council has not yet further explained how the tool would operate in terms of asking social media companies to remove news deemed false or targeting people and groups that post false news. Members say they are negotiating support from social media companies, but it remains unclear where this will lead.

When Facebook introduced a “report fake news” feature in December 2016, it showed that many users reported fake content as part of an effort to discredit information or ideas with which they disagreed, even when those ideas were based on verified facts.

This move comes amid deep political uncertainty in Brazil approaching the 2018 elections, which will be the first ballot following the controversial impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party in 2016.

The party’s de-facto candidate for 2018 is former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who leads the presidential polls at 34% and has spent the past few months touring the country rallying crowds despite having been sentenced in July to nearly 10 years in prison for accepting bribes from construction companies during his term. A court is expected to rule on his appeal on January 24.

Large-scale corruption investigations have convicted dozens of politicians in the past three years, opening the grounds for outsiders and far-right candidates like Jair Bolsonaro, the federal deputy and former military officer, notorious for homophobic diatribes as well as tough-talking on criminals and drug-dealers.

Should Lula’s conviction be upheld, a fragmented, polarized and heavily disputed electoral landscape is expected.

More rules aimed at minimizing ‘fake news’

The committee is only one of the immediate outcomes of the Superior Electoral Court’s current preoccupation with ‘fake news.’ The judges have openly defended the creation of additional legal mechanisms to suppress reports deemed as false.

In hearings on the rules for 2018 elections, Justice Luis Fux, who will preside over the court starting in February, spoke of creating preventive measures to curb the spread of false information. This could include the freezing of assets and even prison time for those who could be “preparing themselves to perpetuate this kind of deleterious strategy which, so to say, in informal language, have melted some nominations.”

Additionally, the Brazilian Congress is analysing a bill that would render sharing false reports on social media a crime punishable by two to eight months in prison or a fine of 1,500 to 4,000 BRL (500-1200 USD) per day. The bill makes a criminal offense “to publish or share, through any means, on the internet, false or unfairly incomplete to the detriment of a private individual or legal persons.”

Internet freedom activists speak out

Internet freedom activists have expressed concern over the bill and the creation of the Consultative Council. An open letter published by Coalizão Direitos na Rede (Internet Rights Coalition) during this year’s Brazil Internet Forum (a regional meeting prior to the global Internet Governance Forum) criticised the military’s poor record when it comes to respecting civil liberties in Brazil (Brazil was governed by a United States-supported military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985):

The Armed Forces must not monopolize control over the veracity of facts because 1) they do not possess that constitutional authority; 2) they do not have the technical capacity for this 3) they do not possess the necessary knowledge to distinguish fake news; and 4) they are not neutral in politics. To make it worse, these institutions have left violent and deep scars in the country’s recent history by promoting the curtailment of freedom of expression and public demonstration of Brazilians during the civil-military dictatorship.

The creation of the committee by the Superior Electoral Court was also mentioned in a collective statement signed by 38 organizations from Latin America and the Caribbean as an example of how the discourse on fake news can be used to restrict free speech.

The letter expresses concerns over how hysteria over fake news eclipses the long-standing efforts for better regulation of media monopolies which dominate the mainstream media landscape in the region and has historically engaged in campaigns of misinformation during elections or otherwise:

We cannot discount years of work and debate from the movement for democratization of communications and adopt the “fake news” terminology as a completely new phenomenon in Latin America. To discount old and new power imbalances concerning media ownership concentration, social media monopolies and Nation States political interests to control and manipulate speech — within and beyond its borders — opens space for serious consequences.

By Taisa Sganzerla, for Global Voices

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukrainian Military Looks for Conscripts in Monastery

Mon, 01/01/2018 - 11:45

Last week RIA Novosti reported that Ukraine’s military conducted a night raid on a Ukrainian Catholic monastery looking for conscripts. Korrespondent, Kremlin Press, Russkaya Vesna, Delovaya Stolitsa and others quickly followed suit. The monastery was surrounded and searched, the military were trying to find young men evading service in the army, the sites claim, quoting a priest called Augusyn Loyko.

Website screenshot Russkaya Vesna

Website screenshot Korrecponbent

As their source, the Russian sites quote a dubious website Novyny Zhovkivshchyny I Yavorivshchyny online. Judging from its content, this site appears to have been launched only a few days ago. Its first story is dated November 3, the last November 5.

The site is currently inactive and lists a warning that the story about the monastery raid is a fake.

The monastery at the center of this fake story is the Basilian Brothers monastery in the western Ukrainian city of Zhovkva, Lviv oblast . In a statement published on the Ukrainian Catholic Church portal, the monastery’s abbot Father Volodymyr Malaniuk said that no such raid had taken place, the priest cited in the story does not exist and the photograph used to illustrate the fake story is not of their monastery.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church also wrote to the Regional Military Commissar Alexander Tyshchenko advising them of the fakes being circulated about the alleged monastery raid.

The chief of the Ukrainian Catholic Church Military Chaplain’s office for the Zhovkva region also told StopFake that no such raid had taken place, as did the chaplain of the Lviv Garrison Church Father Stepan Sus.

Categories: World News

Isolating Russia’s three master narratives in Latvia

Sun, 12/31/2017 - 07:13

By Mārtiņš Kaprāns, for CEPA

Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has disseminated three grand narratives about Latvia: that it systematically discriminates against its ethnic Russians; that fascism is on the rise; and that Latvia is a failed state. Although these themes are intertwined with the everyday content of pro-Kremlin news coverage, their actual impact on the Latvian public opinion is an open question.

Discrimination claims focus on Latvian “ruling nationalist parties” that allegedly humiliate the Russophone minority through language and citizenship policies. Accordingly, the primary audience of this narrative is Latvia’s Russian speakers. However, longitudinal survey data show that Russophones are highly split over whether any threat to their language and culture exists (Figure 1). Likewise, the data suggest they are not likely to accept the extreme manifestations of the discrimination narrative. For example, only 2 percent of Russophones believe that Latvia builds concentration camps for Russian speakers (Figure 2), a conspiracy theory promoted by Latvia’s pro-Kremlin radicals. In addition, the percentage of minorities who see ethnic relations in Latvia positively and who think they get opportunities to develop their language and culture has significantly increased since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea escalated the ethno-linguistic polarization of Latvian society (Figure 3 and Figure 4). Arguably, the minority school reform program that intends to strengthen the role of Latvian as the state language may be a litmus test in 2018 of the discrimination narrative’s actual mobilization potential.

The fascism narrative argues that Latvia’s political elite glorify Nazi ideas and deny Nazi crimes. Here, the primary audience is also Latvian Russophones. This narrative usually exploits the Soviet-era myth of the Latvian Legionnaires—soldiers who were mostly conscripted by force into the German Army during World War II. Pro-Kremlin media persistently misrepresent them as Nazi collaborators. Opinion polls, however, show that neither Latvians nor Russophones are united by strong consensus over the Legionnaires (Figure 6). Moreover, only 11 percent of Russophones believe the Kremlin’s claims that fascists rule Latvia (Figure 7). Acknowledging that Latvians in general have become more indifferent toward historical controversies, however, it is reasonable to assume that pro-Kremlin media will continue seeking instances that could substantiate the narrative that fascism is on the rise in Latvia.

The failed state narrative maintains that Latvia is economically and socially dysfunctional, and is doomed to disappear. By downplaying visible achievements—Latvia’s growing economy, increasing incomes and people’s satisfaction with life—pro-Kremlin media insist that Latvia has unique socio-economic problems that are caused by dependence on support from the United States and the European Union, and by hostile relations with Russia. Though doubts about Latvia’s sovereignty and viability have been present in the Kremlin’s disinformation repertoire since the 2000s, the argument that the state is collapsing is a more recent phenomenon.

Overwhelmingly, Latvians do not buy into this argument when asked explicitly whether they consider Latvia to be a failed state (Figure 8). Even Russophone pessimism about Latvia has significantly decreased over the last six years, which perhaps illustrates the limits of Moscow’s ability to demoralize Latvians (Figure 9). To some extent, these data also point to the positive impact of economic growth in recent years.

On the other hand, on a more subtle, implicit level, Latvians are still rather likely to accept the failed state narrative’s core argument: that Latvia cannot sustain itself as a viable, independent state. These high indicators should by no means undermine the fact that the failed state narrative exploits Latvia’s actual structural problems, such as depopulation, a labor shortage, high social inequality, an aging society, a poor healthcare system and corruption. These issues dominate Latvian political discourse and make ordinary people nervous (Figure 12). For that reason, Latvians may become more susceptible to pro-Kremlin disinformation that blames the ruling pro-Western elite as a scapegoat for socio-economic problems and suggests that Latvia’s viability depends on good relations with Russia. Moreover, since these issues largely lack an ethnic character, the failed state narrative can appeal to a much broader group. Such non-ethnicized problems may help Moscow target the legitimacy of Latvia’s statehood irrespective of its citizens’ ethnic origin.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin has won considerable support in Latvia itself for its geopolitical claims. For example, Latvians are now more likely to support the Kremlin’s position than before when it comes to the Russian proxy war in Ukraine (Figure 10), the deployment of NATO forces in the Baltics (Figure 11) and the perception of Russia’s food embargo, introduced after Western sanctions against Russia (Figure 5). This suggests that geopolitical events have a significant, even if only short-term, impact on Latvian society.

Finally, the analysis of pro-Kremlin narratives suggests that understanding precisely how Russian propaganda penetrates Latvia’s public space—and the narratives most effective in shaping public opinion—could be essential for implementing efficient counter-strategies and myth-busting efforts.

By Mārtiņš Kaprāns, for CEPA

Categories: World News

The Fake News Stories That Reeled In Russians In 2017

Sat, 12/30/2017 - 08:00

A fake article attributing explosive claims about Russia to the former chief of British intelligence was quickly debunked after it appeared on a site that looked nearly identical to that of the British newspaper The Guardian

​Fake news — or at least global discussion of the phenomenon — continued to flourish in 2017, so much so that Collins Dictionary named the term its Word of the Year.

Defined by Collins as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting,” fake news also reverberated across the Russian media and political landscape in 2017.

From a purported Western plot to “collapse” Russia to a New York restaurant’s alleged campaign honoring President Vladimir Putin with a massive hamburger, some of these reports — including outright hoaxes — were treated with credulity by prominent Russian media outlets, public figures, and audiences alike.

Some of them originated in Russia — which Western governments have accused of deploying fake news and disinformation as part of its foreign policy. (Moscow has repeatedly rejected such criticism, including accusations that it was behind a flood of fake news aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) Others began elsewhere and were then perpetuated by both Russian state-controlled television and privately owned media outlets — and, in some cases, by senior officials.

Here’s a look at some of the fake-news and other dubious reports that resonated across Russia in 2017.

‘Collapsing Russia’

In August, a website confusingly similar in appearance to that of the British newspaper The Guardian published a fake story attributing quotes to a former head of British intelligence about a purported Western plot to dismantle Russia.

The fake interview quoted ex-MI6 head John Scarlett as saying — in clunky English — that Britain and the United States planned to use the pro-Western former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and a “fictitious quarrel between Ukraine and Russia” in order to bring about Russia’s “re-disintegration.”

“I must admit that the two Georgian and Crimean wars, the most strategic plan of the U.S. and Britain over the past several years for collapsing Russia, ended with failure,” Scarlett was quoted as saying in the fabricated story.

The ruse was quickly debunked, including in an investigation by BuzzFeed, and The Guardian itself noted that it was a “a fake story…on a fake site purporting to be The Guardian.”

Several Russian media outlets picked up the story, however, including the national television network REN-TV. Days after the false report had been debunked, prominent Russian television personality Vladimir Solovyov appeared to give credence to the hoax on his popular political talk show on state TV, though he added the qualifier, “Some say it’s true, some say it’s not.”

Putin Burger

On October 7 — Putin’s 65th birthday — Russian state television and news agencies reported that a New York restaurant was serving a special five-patty burger in honor of the man in the Kremlin. The reports were based on a video produced by Ruptly, a news agency owned by the Russian government-backed TV network RT. Ruptly interviewed an employee at Lucy’s Cantina Royale in New York City who said the restaurant had created a burger weighing 1,952 grams — a reference to the year of Putin’s birth — and featured a small leaflet bearing Putin’s image as evidence of the alleged special menu item.

“It’s not only foreign leaders who are wishing Russia’s president a happy birthday, but ordinary citizens as well. What’s more, they’re doing it in extremely original ways,” an anchor for the state-run Rossia-24 network said in a segment based on the Ruptly report.

But Russian journalist Aleksei Kovalyov, who regularly debunks canards circulating in the Russian media, quickly dug in to the reports about the special burger, which proceeded to fall apart under scrutiny. The restaurant denied honoring Putin with a burger and said “the employees responsible for this hoax have been suspended pending an investigation.” A bartender at the restaurant later said the “Putin burger” was her idea and that she had lost her job. The employee filmed in the Ruptly video was also reportedly fired.

Ruptly later deleted the video, saying in a statement that the story “did not meet [its] editorial standards.”

Kovalyov has long accused state-controlled Russian media of fabricating or twisting news from abroad in order to produce stories for domestic consumption that are aimed at reinforcing Kremlin messaging. “The Putin burger was a particularly egregious example of virtual reality,” he told RFE/RL.

Nobel Winner Alexievich ‘Dead’

In May, a Twitter account purporting to be that of French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen tweeted out that Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich had died. Nyssen had previously headed the Actes Sud publishing house, which her father founded and had published Alexievich’s writing in French, which appeared to lend credibility to the death claim.

Svetlana Alexievich (not dead)

Numerous Russian media outlets — including the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta and state news agency RIA Novosti — quickly ran with the report, as did the website of Current Time TV, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. European outlets also circulated the report, including the French newspaper Le Figaro and popular Portuguese daily Diario de Noticias.

It was, in fact, a hoax. Alexievich, 69, spoke with RFE/RL’s Belarus Service from Seoul, South Korea, with the reports swirling, saying, “Someone’s impatient.”

Shortly after the original tweet, Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti — who had previously published fake interviews with famous writers — claimed he was behind the hoax.

Another Sketchy MH17 Claim

On October 6, the official television network of the Russian Defense Ministry published a claim from a man it said was a defector from the Ukrainian Air Force. The man, identified as Yury Baturin, claimed that the Ukrainian Air Force had moved a Buk missile system to within firing range of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shortly before it was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

The report by the Zvezda network clearly suggested that Ukraine may have shot down the plane amid its war with Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine, though Baturin did not specifically say that Ukrainian forces fired on MH17 with the Buk. The location in question, Baturin said, was the one previously identified by Russian weapons maker Almaz-Antey: a spot near the Ukrainian village of Zaroshchenske.

The Zaroshchenske claim is one of a range of uncorroborated theories that the Russian government and its proxies have proposed about the downing of MH17, including that it was brought down by a Ukrainian fighter jet.

An international investigation has concluded that the plane was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile system fired from territory controlled by the separatists near the Ukrainian village of Snizhne. The Dutch Safety Board and the Dutch-led international investigation have both dismissed the Zaroshchenske theory, citing a broad range of evidence that includes forensic tests, eyewitnesses, and an intercepted phone call between separatist fighters.

The Buk system was brought in from Russia and smuggled back shortly after the shoot-down, the international investigation has concluded. Critics have accused Moscow of trying to muddy the waters of the investigation in order to deflect possible culpability from the separatists and itself.

The Zvezda report was picked up by numerous Russian media outlets, including the state-run TASS news agency and state-run television. But the man’s claims have yet to be corroborated by any other media outlets, leaving Zvezda as the only source. And within 24 hours of the original publication, Zvezda deleted — without explanation — its reports based on the interview.

But in early December, Baturin’s story was again published by Zvezda, this time in a slightly different interview format. Zvezda told the Russian news site Meduza that the original report was deleted because it wanted to give a more thorough treatment to his story.

As in the original story, Zvezda and Baturin strongly imply that a Ukrainian Buk shot down MH17 but note that the former Ukrainian soldier was unable to detect the launch of a missile from near Kharkiv, where he claimed to have been stationed at the time. The Ukrainian military confirmed to Meduza that Baturin had served in its air force but quit in 2016 due to “family circumstances.”

Syrian War (Video) Games

The Russian Defense Ministry in November accused the United States of cooperating with Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria, alleging that Washington was providing cover to the extremist group as Russian and Syrian government forces were targeting IS fighters.

It was an incendiary claim, one that came shortly after an explosive BBC reportalleging that forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition struck a deal that ultimately allowed hundreds of IS militants to leave the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. (The coalition did not confirm the deal but conceded that IS fighters may have left the city along with a convoy of civilians.)

But the Russian military’s accusation, which it posted on Facebook and Twitter, included curious images that it described as “irrefutable evidence” of alleged U.S. help for IS militants. The images purported to show an IS convoy heading for the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Screen shot from the video game AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron

But it didn’t take long for social-media users and investigative groups to discover that one of the images was actually a still from a 2015 promotional video for a video game called AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron. The other images were taken from videos released by the Iraqi Defense Ministry in 2016 about anti-IS operations near Fallujah, online investigators found.

The fake images triggered a wave of ridicule, with some on social media mocking the ministry with footage from other video games, like the famous 1980s game Frogger.

The Russian military subsequently scrubbed the images and published new photos it claimed were “irrefutable evidence” of its accusation. The ministry conceded that the original photographs were fake and said a civilian employee was facing a probe in connection with the matter.

Bin Laden In the White House

The video-game hijinks weren’t the only time a Russian ministry perpetuated a hoax in 2017.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s often-caustic spokeswoman, claimed during a political talk show on state TV in November that the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had once visited the White House.

Zakharova made the claim during a discussion about lobbying in the United States and the U.S. investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and potential collusion between Moscow and Donald Trump’s campaign staff.

“Recall these fantastic, mind-boggling photographs of Bin Laden being hosted in the White House. This is classic lobbying in the true sense of the word,” Zakharova said.

The Saudi-born Bin Laden, who was killed in a 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan, never visited the White House. Zakharova did not specify during the program which “photographs” she had in mind, though some Russian media outlets speculated she was referring to a photoshopped image appearing to show former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shaking hands with the Al-Qaeda leader.

Мария Захарова рассказала фейк про Бен Ладена в Белом доме

— СВОБОДНЫЕ НОВОСТИ (@narodprotiv) 1 ноября 2017 г.

That image, which has circulated online for years, is a fake. Bin Laden’s head in the photo, which was taken in May 2004, was superimposed over that of musician Shubhashish Mukherjee. The firebrand conservative site cited Zakharova’s claim without noting that Bin Laden had never been to the White House.

Days later, Zakharova took to Facebook to say she didn’t mean to suggest that Bin Laden “personally” had visited the White House but rather “his colleagues, his advisers, so to speak.” She cited what she called her “favorite photograph” of U.S. President Ronald Reagan “hosting a Taliban delegation in the White House.”

The photograph in question, which Zakharova attached to her post, shows Reagan meeting with Afghan rebel leaders to discuss the fight against invading Soviet forces. The United States funded Afghan mujahedin fighting — alongside Bin Laden and other Arab fighters — against the Soviets; but the photograph in question of Reagan and the Afghans was taken in February 1983 — nine yearsbefore the Taliban was founded.

Let Them Eat Rat

In October, a columnist writing for the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti published an angry screed decrying what he called “propaganda horror stories” about Russia that are regularly published in the Dutch media. The column, titled Muscovites Eat Rat: Who In Europe Is Writing Fake News About Russia, focused on a short November 2016 article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant about a Moscow restaurateur who serves nutria — a large rodent also known as a river rat.

The columnist, Vladimir Kornilov, delivered a highly skewed and, at times, outright false version of the original article to his readers. He incorrectly suggested that the article claimed Muscovites had started eating rat meat because they were “starving” due to Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

A nutria

“Nonsense, you say? You are correct. But the thing is, such nonsense about Russia is periodically published in the leading newspapers in the Netherlands — a country that is regularly presented as a leader in global media-freedoms ratings,” Kornilov wrote.

He also called the De Volkskrant article “enormous,” when in fact it clocked in at fewer than 400 words.

Kornilov’s column was picked up by several prominent Russian media outlets.

The original article — one of several published in the Western media at the time about Moscow restaurateur Takhir Kholikberdiyev and his nutria-based delicacies— said nothing about Russians going hungry due to sanctions, though it noted that the punitive measures have prompted restaurants to seek alternative and domestically produced ingredients.

“It remains a mystery why, almost a year after an entirely friendly article was published, a RIA Novosti columnist needed to distort its content,” the opposition-minded Russian news site The Insider wrote.

Kovalyov, the Russian media critic, debunked the false characterizations in the RIA Novosti column in a post on his website, Noodle Remover, with the headline: If The ‘Western Media’ Didn’t Lie, No Problem, We’ll Lie For Them And Then Expose Them!

“You are attributing words to the author of the article that he didn’t write,” Kovalyov wrote, addressing Kornilov, “and on the basis of these inventions are accusing ‘the Western media’ of creating fake news about Russia!

By Carl Schreck, for RFE/RL

Carl Schreck is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

Categories: World News

Facebook news feed: replacing Disputed flags with Related articles

Sat, 12/30/2017 - 00:31

By Tessa Lyons, Facebook product manager, for Facebook’s blog

Facebook is about connecting you to the people that matter most. And discussing the news can be one way to start a meaningful conversation with friends or family. It’s why helping to ensure that you get accurate information on Facebook is so important to us.

Today, we’re announcing two changes which we believe will help in our fight against false news. First, we will no longer use Disputed Flags to identify false news. Instead we’ll use Related Articles to help give people more context about the story. Here’s why.

Academic research on correcting misinformation has shown that putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs – the opposite effect to what we intended. Related Articles, by contrast, are simply designed to give more context, which our research has shown is a more effective way to help people get to the facts. Indeed, we’ve found that when we show Related Articles next to a false news story, it leads to fewer shares than when the Disputed Flag is shown.

Second, we are starting a new initiative to better understand how people decide whether information is accurate or not based on the news sources they depend upon. This will not directly impact News Feed in the near term. However, it may help us better measure our success in improving the quality of information on Facebook over time.

False news undermines the unique value that Facebook offers: the ability for you to connect with family and friends in meaningful ways. It’s why we’re investing in better technology and more people to help prevent the spread of misinformation. Overall, we’re making progress. Demoting false news (as identified by fact-checkers) is one of our best weapons because demoted articles typically lose 80 percent of their traffic. This destroys the economic incentives spammers and troll farms have to generate these articles in the first place.

But there’s much more to do. By showing Related Articles rather than Disputed Flags we can help give people better context. And understanding how people decide what’s false and what’s not will be crucial to our success over time. Please keep giving us your feedback because we’ll be redoubling our efforts in 2018.

By Tessa Lyons, Facebook product manager, for Facebook’s blog

Categories: World News

Facebook, Twitter threatened with sanctions in Britain

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 23:40

Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process are displayed as Google, Facebook and Twitter officials testify during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 1, 2017. Now Britain is threatening Facebook and Twitter with consequences over Russia’s use of the platforms in the run-up to last year’s Brexit referendum

By Jamie Dettmer, for VOA

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter could face sanctions in Britain if they fail to be more forthcoming in providing details about Russian disinformation campaigns that used their platforms in the run-up to last year’s Brexit referendum, the chairman of a British parliamentary inquiry committee warned.

The companies have been given until January 18 to hand over information.

Damian Collins, chairman of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport committee in the British parliament, which is looking into Russian fake news’ efforts, criticized both companies earlier this month, accusing them of stonewalling the parliamentary investigation. But he has now warned they risk being punished and he says his committee is exploring what sanctions could be imposed on Facebook and Twitter.

“What there has to be then is some mechanism of saying: if you fail to do that, if you ignore requests to act, if you fail to police the site effectively and deal with highly problematic content, then there has to be some sort of sanction against you,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

He dubbed the lack of cooperation by the social media firms as “extraordinary.”

“They don’t believe that they have any obligation at all to initiate their own investigation into what may or may not have been happening, he said. “They’ve not done any of that work at all.”

Parliamentary committees do not have the power in their own right to impose sanctions on erring companies. But British officials have expressed interest in punishing social media companies for failing to take action to stop their platforms from being exploited by agitators, whether they are working for foreign powers or non-state actors such as the Islamic State terror group.

In September in New York at the annual general assembly meeting of the United Nations, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed frustration with social media companies, saying they must go “further and faster” in removing extremist content and should aim to do so within two hours of it appearing on their sites.

British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., Sept. 20, 2017

“This is a major step in reclaiming the internet from those who would use it to do us harm,” she said.

The prime minister has repeatedly called for an end to “safe spaces” on social media for terrorists. And British ministers have called for limits to end-to-end encryption, which prevents messages from being read by third parties if they are intercepted.

British lawmakers and ministers aren’t the only ones considering ways to sanction social media firms that fail to police their sites to avoid them from being used to spread fake news or being exploited by militants. This month, Germany’s competition authority accused Facebook of violating European data protection regulations by merging information collected through WhatsApp and Instagram with Facebook user accounts.

Collins has written twice to the social media firms requesting information about suspected Russian fake news campaigns in the weeks and months before Britons voted in June 2016 on whether to retain membership in the European Union, Britain’s largest trading partner.

In a letter to Twitter, he wrote: “The information you have now shared with us is completely inadequate. … It seems odd that so far we have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you.”

In response to parliamentary requests for information about Russian interference in the EU referendum, including details of accounts operated by Russian misinformation actors, the social media firms passed on copies of the details they provided to Britain’s Electoral Commission, which is probing advertising originating from Russian actors during the lead up to the Brexit vote.

Facebook said only $0.97 had been spent on Brexit-related ads seen by British viewers. Twitter claimed the only Russian spending it received was $1,000 from the Russian state-owned broadcaster RT.

Russia has been accused of meddling in recent elections in America, France and elsewhere and of running disinformation campaigns aimed at poisoning political discourse in the West and sowing discord with fake news.

In November, Prime Minister May accused Vladimir Putin’s government of trying to “undermine free societies” and “planting fake stories” to “sow discord in the West. “Russia has denied the allegations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson enter a hall for their talks in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 22, 2017

Three days before Christmas, Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, sparred with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, over the issue of alleged Russian meddling in the Brexit referendum.

During his trip to Moscow, the first visit by a British foreign secretary to the Russian capital for five years, Lavrov denied at a joint press conference that the Kremlin had sought to meddle, saying Johnson himself had previously said there was “no evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.” Johnson corrected Lavrov, saying: “Not successfully, is what I said.”

So far the evidence of a major Russian social media effort during the Brexit referendum remains thin, and at least not on the alleged scale seen, according to investigators, during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

An investigation by the New York Times found that “Russian agents … disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service” ahead of the U.S. presidential vote.

In January 2017, the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence concluded: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

In October 2017, researchers at the City University of London found a “13,500-strong [Russian] Twitter bot army,” was present on the social media site around the time of the referendum.

Bot accounts post content automatically. Those accounts in the month prior to the Brexit vote posted a total of 65,000 tweets about the referendum with a slant towards the leave campaign, according to City University researchers.

But a subsequent study by the University of California, Berkeley, and Swansea University in Wales unearthed more pro-Brexit Russian bot accounts, tracking over 150,000 of them.

By Jamie Dettmer, for VOA

Categories: World News

The wrath of trolls

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 23:12


On 27 November, the U.S. State Department issued a press statement expressing concern about legislation it said could undermine anti-corruption efforts and weaken judicial independence. It urged the parliament to “reject proposals that weaken the rule of law and endanger the fight against corruption.” The statement echoes criticism of the bill coming from Romanian civil society organizations, professional associations and members of various legal bodies. In addition, protesters and other critics claim the proposed changes will gravely affect the independence of the judiciary, including that of anti-corruption special prosecutors.

The U.S. communique polarized Romanian politicians and ordinary citizens, triggering criticism even from pro-American mainstream politicians who accused Washington of interfering with Romanian domestic affairs. But it also gave the Russian disinformation machine an opening to roll out its anti-Western narrative about U.S. neocolonialism robbing Romania of its sovereignty. With the multitude of voices inundating both mainstream and fringe media, outlets like Sputnik and its informal affiliates online—mainly pro-Russian Facebook activists—have hyped up the nationalist undertones they try to stimulate in Romania.

Facebook’s pro-Russian “little green men” acted like a rapid response force. They trolled the State Department’s official Facebook page and tried to mobilize their followers to do the same. This call to arms was based on the narrative about Romania being a U.S. colony, that the United States arrogantly scolds Romania over its domestic decisions, but acts cowardly, making sure that Romania’s president signed the Patriot missile deal into law before offering its criticism. Online activists urged everyone to share the rage against “oppressive” American power and help Romania regain its independence and dignity. Pro-Russian trolls demanded that politicians and citizens who do not push back against U.S. criticism should be accused of treason.

Sputnik news also published a flurry of articles in a special section on its website dedicated to U.S. interference in Romania’s internal affairs. These articles accuse the United States and its Romanian supporters of undermining the authority of parliament and recognizing the superiority of another state’s bodies over those of Romania. Various commentators blamed Romanian politicians for submitting to U.S. interests, rather than promoting those of Romania. Critics also accused the United States of hypocrisy for “taking off its mask” and showing who the master is.

The articles showed Sputnik’s own lack of content and displayed its opportunistic behavior by emphasizing subjects that are already part of domestic political disputes. These tactics include:

  • Criticizing Romanian civil society for supporting the State Department press release, which suggested coordination with Washington, and some form of conspiracy.
  • Amplifying the voice of politicians who have made a reputation out of criticizing the United States or its ambassador to Romania and fostering growing anti-Americanism.
  • Commending two speakers of the Romanian parliament for criticizing the United States and praising pro-Kremlin “useful idiots” for “tearing apart the Americans.”
  • With these actions, Moscow’s efforts to blend in with Romanian political tensions and debates are becoming more transparent. By opportunistically exploiting every political event, the pro-Russian disinformation machine is able to stir things up and cover its tracks among the mainstream media debates.
The media controversy over the press release faded away as Romania celebrated its National Day on 1 December. The government had to focus on other issues, such as the death of Romania’s former king and continued street protests over official corruption. What unifies these media events is the U.S. neocolonial narrative promoted by Sputnik and pro-Russian online platforms and activists. From military cooperation to U.S. investments in Romania to political and diplomatic engagement, the many facets of the U.S.-Romania relationship feed into the anti-American narrative. In all areas, the disinformation machine has clearly identified Romania’s main “enemy” and the main target of Russian propaganda campaigns: the United States.

Photo: The U.S. dictates Romania what laws it should pass […] It weakens the [Romanian] state in order to pave the way for its business interests

Photo: “I’m sick of the United States […]The U.S. is more toxic than the former Soviet Union.”


Categories: World News

Russia in the Middle East: A New Front in the Information War?

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 21:49


Russia uses its information warfare capability as a tactic, especially its RT Arabic and Sputnik news services, to advance its foreign policy goals in the Middle East: become a great power in the region; reduce the role of the United States; prop up allies such as Bashir al- Assad in Syria, and fight terrorism. Evidence suggests that while Russian media narratives are disseminated broadly in the region by traditional means and online, outside of Syria its impact has been limited. The ability of regional authoritarian governments to control the information their societies receive, cross cutting political pressures, the lack of longstanding ethnic and cultural ties with Russia, and widespread doubts about Russian intentions will make it difficult for Moscow to use information operations as an effective tool should it decide to maintain an enhanced permanent presence in the region.


Russian assessments of the international system make it clear that the Kremlin considers the country to be engaged in full-scale information warfare. This is reflected in Russia’s latest military doctrine, approved December 2014, comments by public officials, and Moscow’s aggressive use of influence operations.[i] The current Russian practice of information warfare combines a number of tried and tested tools of influence with a new embrace of modern technology and capabilities such as the Internet. Some underlying objectives, guiding principles and state activity are broadly recognizable as reinvigorated aspects of subversion campaigns from the Cold War era and earlier. But Russia also has invested hugely in updating the principles of subversion. These new investments cover three main areas: internally and externally focused media with a substantial online presence (RT and Sputnik are the best known); use of social media (especially online discussion boards and comment pages) as a force multiplier to ensure Russian narratives achieve broad reach and penetration, and language skills in order to engage with target audiences on a wide front. The result is a presence in many countries acting in coordination with Moscow-backed media and the Kremlin itself.[ii]

Western media organizations were entirely unprepared for a targeted and consistent hostile disinformation campaign organized and resourced at state level. The result was Western shock and awe at the initial Russian approach in the Crimea operation in 2014 and the initial stages of the war in eastern Ukraine. Reports from journalists on the ground there identifying Russian troops did not reach mainstream audiences because editors in their newsrooms were baffled by inexplicable Russian denials. Months later, Western media outlets were still faithfully reporting Russian disinformation as fact, but the realization that they had been subjected to a concerted campaign of subversion was beginning to filter into reporting.

In subsequent months, it became apparent that that the Kremlin was using information operations on a far broader front than just Ukraine. The Kremlin saw information warfare as but one weapon in a wide-ranging arsenal including energy, money, cultural ties, and the Russian Orthodox Church, to be used to serve its foreign policy objectives elsewhere, especially against the United States and its European allies.[iii] These goals included reducing the role of the United States on the continent, weakening NATO and the European Union, disrupting the political processes of the Western democracies, and strengthening Russia’s influence in the states along its periphery, often by claiming a “responsibility to protect” ethnic Russians outside the Russian Federation. Although a coordinated strategy to push back has not emerged in the West—either through a multilateral response or by most individual states—there is broad agreement that Moscow’s information campaign threatens to undermine open, democratic societies. Western governments and private think tanks have created impressive centers of expertise to examine Russian narratives, the networks by which they are spread, and their impact on target audiences.

Outside Europe and the United States, however, the Kremlin’s use of information operations to achieve its foreign policy objectives—especially in Turkey and the Middle East—has scarcely been discussed. The questions such operations raise are vital: do such they resemble such activity elsewhere? What are the differences? What impact have the Kremlin’s information activities had on the states in the region? Does Moscow’s use of information operations in the Syria conflict resemble those in Ukraine? Relying primarily on extensive Russian- and Arabic-language sources, this paper will argue that Kremlin information activity has played a significant role in consolidating Russia’s role as a major player in the region, especially in Syria, but that longstanding geopolitical, cultural and other factors have ensured that the impact of that activity is limited.


Russia’s Strategy in the Middle East

In the two years since Moscow’s intervention in Syria, the statements of Russian officials suggest the Kremlin intends to be a major player in the region for the foreseeable future. Russia does not appear to have a clear regional strategy, but Moscow’s actions indicate it is constantly seeking to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of competitors, especially the United States. Nevertheless, the Middle East is less important than Europe and Asia to the Kremlin’s national security strategy, as stated in the 2013 and 2016 Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Foreign Policy Concept Papers. In both versions, the Middle East is listed near the end of the section on “Regional Priorities,” illustrating its relative lower priority in Moscow’s worldview.[iv]

While the longstanding drivers of Russian policy are constant—prestige, trade and stability—the Kremlin has broadened its interests in recent years. First, Russia promotes its ability to interact with many state and non-state actors in the Middle East.[v] Second, Russia is making a concerted effort to reclaim its role as the arms supplier of choice for Arab governments. Third, the Kremlin seeks to stop the spread of international terrorism into Russia. A reported 3,200 Russian nationals have traveled to Syria or Iraq since 2014, and leaders in Moscow worry about foreign fighter returnees as well as Russians who may have been radicalized by Islamic State propaganda. Finally, Russia seeks to support existing state structures and governments against both external intervention and internal insurrection. Russia equates status quo preservation in the Middle East with reduced terrorist threats, increased transactional opportunities with autocratic states, and reduced US sociocultural influence across the region.[vi]Moscow blames the West for the current crisis in the region, a view that aligns with Russian leaders’ concerns about “color revolutions” in former Soviet countries and Moscow’s global reluctance to accept any potentially unfavorable changes to the status quo. In Syria, Russia has helped President Bashir al-Assad maintain his rule. Although Moscow’s military intervention there was an exceptional post–Cold War escalation by Russia that goes against its traditional preference to avoid direct engagement, the intervention is consistent with Russian support for a long-standing ally and Russia’s stance against regime change. It also reflects Russia’s concern about international terrorism and the defense and expansion of its naval and air bases in Latakia and Tartus, which are the only significant Russian power projection facilities in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.[vii]

Despite its successes in the region, several factors work to limit Russian influence, at least for the long term. First, Russia potentially lacks the economic and military power to sustain a long-term strategy. Its economic position also only worsened since the start of the Arab Spring.

In addition to the limitations on what Russia itself can achieve, the Middle East states have the greatest power and agency to determine the viability of any Russian strategy. Those states determine the depth of their relationship with Russia, either enabling or limiting Russian action. Finally, Russia’s own contradictory behavior undermines its effectiveness in the region. Although it presents itself as a conservative power in the Middle East, in the near abroad, Russia is disruptive. It has intervened in Ukraine and seeks to destabilize other parts of Europe. These activities undermine the Kremlin’s narrative about the importance of state sovereignty and nonintervention. Moscow also cooperate works with Iran, which has intervened across the region, and Russia is cultivating relations with opposition groups in Libya.[viii]


Tools of Russian Information Warfare

In order to pursue these objectives, Russia makes extensive used of information operations. It has identified a rich source of material with which to criticize the West, while cultivating sympathetic regional audiences. As with many international broadcasters, the Kremlin supplements news stories produced by a central news operation inside Russia with contributions of local journalists from target states. This programming is disseminated via television, radio and online. Social media’s open approach to content—on YouTube and Facebook, for example—has enabled unreliable and highly partisan material to reach large audiences.[ix] Limited evidence suggests, however, that in contrast to information operations against the West, the number of attacks by Moscow’s troll farms and Russia-sponsored bots in MENA are relatively small.

The Kremlin disseminates news to the Middle East through two prime channels: RT Arabic and the Sputnik News Service.

RT Arabic, formerly known as Rusiya Al-Yaum (Arabic: روسيا اليوم, meaning Russia Today, also called Россия сегодня Rossiya segodnya in Russian) is a Russian TV news channel broadcasting in Arabic and headquartered in MoscowRT Arabic started broadcasting on May 4, 2007. It has steadily increased in importance to official Moscow since the Arab Spring and Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015. The channel covers a wide variety of events worldwide from the point of view of the Russian government. It features interviews, debates and stories about cultural life in Russia, as well as developments in the Arab world. At present, people from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe have open access to the satellite signal of the channel. The channel can also be watched on the Internet all over the world. As of November 2012, it also became available on myTV, a technology platform that streams Arabic-language TV channels to  North/South America and Australia. RT Arabic has correspondents in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States.

RT Arabic Programs include:

  • Panorama, a weekly round-table discussion, where various topics are covered;
  • Person, a 26-minute prime-time program that features interesting people with unique knowledge, experience and qualifications in the political, cultural and other fields;
  • Zoom, a weekly edition covering current or unusual events, featuring public personalities or ordinary people in extraordinary situations;
  • Weekly Report—26-minute news and analysis program that covers main political events over the previous seven days;
  • Press Review—3-minute feature, four times a day, which introduces Arab viewers to interesting items in the Russian and foreign press, with special attention paid to Russian-Arab relations;
  • Documentaries, a selection of documentaries designed to open new horizons and bring viewers facts about Russia.
  • RT Online, a new interactive project that will provide live news to social networks users.[x]

The newer Sputnik Arabic News Service provides coverage of the most important international events and opinions that many other media sources do not report,” by email, FTP-server and though its online news terminal. Sputnik’s correspondent network includes over 80 journalists in more than 50 countries around the world. Its news-writers are native Arabic speakers. The newswire is operated from two locations—Moscow and Cairo. News coverage is 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. Content includes breaking news, analysis and interviews. [xi]


A War of Narrative

Russian narratives on these two media—in the Russian, Arabic and English languages—reflect Russia’s foreign policy line and use the full range of Moscow’s disinformation techniques (See Appendix I). They emphasize that the US and its European allies are responsible for the instability in the Middle East. Although the channel broadcasts statements by Russian officials who stress the need for cooperation with the US in countering the Islamic State, it also gives significant coverage to material critical of Washington, such as the Russian charge that the US is supporting terrorist organizations, including al-Nusra. Another frequent theme is the value of Russia’s regional partnerships with Turkey and Iran. Russian officials are prominently featured.

The war in Syria—at least the version offered by the Kremlin—is a major theme on both RT Arabic and Sputnik. Beginning with the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, propaganda and the Russian narratives have focused on the idea that all massacres are carried out by the “extremist” opposition, with no links made to the Syrian regime or Russian forces. Russian media have insisted on exaggerating and distorting false claims, rebroadcasting them in different formats on different sites loyal to Russian policy.[xii]

This propaganda messaging was especially evident in coverage of the Khan Sheykhun massacre in April 2017 that killed at least 87 civilians, including 31 children, in a chemical weapons attack. On RT and Sputnik, there was no mention of the testimonies of survivors, nor reports about Abdul Hamid Youssef, the Syrian father who lost his twin babies and 20 members of his family. There was also no mention of the documented history of massacres, bombings, and chemical attacks by the Syrian regime, mentioned in international reports. After the event, Russian media, particularly RT and Sputnik, broadcast content almost daily that questioned the root of the massacre or attributed the killing to the armed opposition. For example, RT posted reports attributed to Russian military analysts claiming that images of the town did not feature evidence of the use of live bombs containing chemical materials.[xiii] It also carried an analytical piece about the timing of the bombing, and why such a bombing does not benefit Bashar al-Assad.[xiv] The actual identities of the “experts” cited were not given, nor did the reporting include the evidence upon which RT based its views. Similarly, Sputnik broadcast a report on one channel that claimed the bases of the Syrian regime targeted by US missile strikes did not contain chemical agents.[xv] Again, there was no mention of evidence, nor was credible analysis presented.

One alternative version of events presented by Russian media was a broadcast by Sputnik that claimed that the children who died in the Khan Shekhun massacre were not killed by chemical weapons launched by the Syrian regime, but rather were killed by the civil defense volunteers known as the White Helmets. The news was based on reports falsely attributed to Swedish doctors alleged to have said, according to a Russian site, that they “uncovered the deceit of the White Helmets.” Russian media, through Sputnik and RT, spread this fake news extensively across all social media outlets and other media sources backing the Syrian regime, from Al-Alam to Al-Manar to Al-Maydan. All described the chemical massacre as an “act” produced by the White Helmets who, according to the Russian narrative, “did not rescue Syrian children but instead killed them in order to produce media images and videos that look more realistic.” Some sites that translated the news, such as the English site South Front are registered in Moscow. [xvi]

Russian media spread other disinformation on a daily basis:

  • An op-ed on Sputnik, on September 28, 2017, argues that US forces are illegally deployed in Syria, maintain control of the oil fields east of the Euphrates River and continue to destabilize the liberated parts of Syria.[xvii]
  • On September 29, Sputnik published an article with the title, “Guardian of the World,” claiming that, thanks to Russia, the course of the war has changed, “a ray of hope for the restoration of peaceful life in the republic is shining brighter than ever.”[xviii]
  • An RT article on September 30, 2017, stated that the Trump administration had increased the risk of an armed conflict with Russia by its direct confrontation between US and Syrian government troops.[xix]
  • On September 30, Sputnik commemorated the second anniversary of the Russian intervention in Syria by attempting to delegitimize the efforts of the non-Russian allied international coalition to settle the Syrian civil war.[xx]


Broad Reach

Measuring who pays attention to these RT Arabic and Sputnik narratives, however, is difficult.[xxi] Although recent data on viewership of RT Arabic is not available, a February 2015 survey, seven months before the start of the Russian intervention in Syria, found that RT Arabic was among the top three most watched news channels in six Arabic countries. Anecdotal evidence suggests the rate today may be even higher. The channel had a bigger higher daily audience in six MENA countries than the UK’s BBC Arabic and Sky News Arabia, the US Al Hurra and China’s CCTV in Arabic. In Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Iraq, RT Arabic was watched by 6.7 million viewers every day.[xxii]

  • Eighteen percent of all residents in these six countries watched RT at least once, according to the poll, total of 18.2 million people.
  • Approximately 11.5 million of those—11 percent—are estimated to have watched the channel during the previous month. This level puts RT ahead of Deutsche Welle ArabicCCTV ArabicFrance 24 ArabicAl Alam News and Sky News Arabia.
  • Among the surveyed countries, RT demonstrated the best performance in Iraq: its daily viewership there made up about 44 percent of the country’s population. There, RT was also ahead of BBC ArabicSky NewsFrance 24Deutsche WelleCCTVAl Hurra and Al Alam News.
  • RT’s audience in Iraq is also the most loyal compared to all competing channels: 98 percent of weekly viewers watch the channel daily, vs. 93 percent for Al Arabiya, 85 percent for Al Jazeera, 66 percent for Al Hurrah. Remarkably, of all the Iraqis who have ever watched RT, 100 percent watched it over the past month.
  • RT ranks number one in terms of viewer trust. Only 3 percent of those, who are aware of the channel, but do not watch it, cited mistrust of RT’s news reports as a reason for not viewing the channel. This rate was 30 percent for Al Jazeera, 9 percent for Al Arabiya, 6 percent for the BBC Arabic, 8 percent for Al Hurra, and 6 percent for Sky News Arabia.
  • According to the study, 30 percent of RT Arabic’s monthly audience in Egypt like the channel for its “relevant and reliable news reports,” while 20 percent in the UAE and 14 percent in Saudi Arabia like it for its “alternative opinions,” and being “distinct from other networks.”
  • Fifty-nine percent of RT Arabic’s audience watch it for more than an hour a day on weekdays, while 38 percent of its viewers watch the channel for more than an hour a day on weekends. RT is similarly ahead of all its competitors in the region by its daily-to-weekly viewership conversion ratio: 74 percent of RT’s weekly audience watched the channel in the previous day.[xxiii]

The study also showed a mostly white-collar audience. Fifty-seven percent of RT’s monthly audience in the six surveyed counties were either top managers, mid-level or junior executives, and other professionals and office workers. Here RT also led the competition. Those kinds of viewers made up 56 percent of the audience of Sky News, 54 percent of Al Alam News and 45 percent of CCTVRT also boasted the largest share of audience between the ages of 25 and 34—30 percent.[xxiv]

Despite these impressive numbers, RT may be exaggerating size of its audience. A 2015 investigation by the Daily Beast found that the channel aggressively oversells its success in the West, writing that the site is “pretending that it has had a far bigger impact in the Western media sphere than it has, particularly online.” (These findings were based on documents leaked by former employees at RIA Novosti, a separate and rival Russian state-funded media venture that was defunded in 2015.) The same investigation found that the channel lied in claiming its English-, Spanish- and Arabic-language broadcasts reached 630 million people worldwide. “In reality, that number is just the theoretical geographical scope of the audience,” the Daily Beast wrote.[xxv]

When RT does get attention—mostly through its viral video hits online—it is not for its political coverage. RT’sbiggest hits are clips of bizarre patterns and people doing crazy things. Those videos, according to the Daily Beast, receive “far more traffic than any videos on Russian or Western politics or those featuring Vladimir Putin.” As the Daily Beast writes:

Of the top 100 most watched over five years, 81 percent—344 million views—went to videos of natural disasters, accidents, crime and natural phenomena. RT’s political news videos, featuring the content by which it seeks to shape Western opinion and thus justify its existence, accounted for a mere 1 percent of its total YouTube exposure, with fewer than 4 million views. […] RT Documentary, cited as one of the brand’s least popular YouTube channels, got an average of 200 to 300 views per video in 2013. The Daily Beast found that now, only about 100 of RT Documentary’s videos have had more than 10,000 views. Many of the most-watched are part of a graphic birthing series called “newborn Russia.”[xxvi]

Geographic Variation

RT Arabic satellite television is carried throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe is widely available because it is free. However, Russian-media consumption varies considerably by country. The perception of Russian influence and its media generally is driven by whether a government tilts toward Iran, a Russian partner in the region, or Saudi Arabia, a longtime adversary. Since an overwhelming amount of news in the Middle East is consumed through television, smart phones and radios, and since many of these outlets are controlled or restricted by the state, it is difficult for Russia to propagate narratives that the host government does not approve.[xxvii]

Utilizing the MEMRI project’s TV database, we can access popular and state-broadcast TV programs that provide insight into how Russia is discussed, received or if disinformation is being broadcast in individual countries.[xxviii] This data shows that Iran, al-Assad in Syria and Iraq generally are positive toward the Kremlin and its policies. Whereas, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Syrian opposition movements are openly critical of Putin and Russia’s involvement in the region.[xxix]

The media in Saudi Arabia is privately owned but heavily subsidized and regulated by the government; the media in the UAE is government-owned. RT and Sputnik stories do not appear in either Saudi/UAE newspapers or television, including Saudi-owned satellite television that is broadcast throughout the Middle East (Rotana and Middle East Broadcasting Center, based in Dubai), and Orbit Showtime (Bahrein). Since Saudi Arabia is well of aware of the threat to stability posed by Russian propaganda, it works to counter its influence.

  • Al Alam, Iran’s Arabic news channel, is broadcast throughout the Middle East and is available in Iraq without a satellite receiver. Al Alam regularly uses RT and Sputnik as the source for news articles.
  • Qatari-owned Al Jazeera attempts to maintain neutrality, but is becoming increasingly pro-Iran and pro-Russia.

Perception of Russia appears to be improving in Iraq. In 2017, Iraqi member of parliament (MP) Kadhim Al-Sayadi stated on air that Iraq should cancel its “Strategic Framework Agreement” with the United States and instead join a coalition with Russia and Iran.[xxx] Al-Sayadi’s opinions on Russia may not be unique: Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Units, shared in another interview that there is political cooperation occurring between Russia and the Iraqi government. He stated as well that should the government in Baghdad choose to work closer with Russia, he and his militias will as well.[xxxi]

The media in Jordan maintains a very negative outlook on Russia, especially the state-run media. In 2017, the Jordan Times published a piece by former UK MP Robert Harvey warning against the security threat from Russia. The article explicitly claimed that under Putin, the country is reverting to Cold War tactics against domestic institutions and foreign targets, that Russia’s elections are not free, that Russia it is conducting illegal land grabs in Europe, and that in 17 years Putin has shown himself to be a violent and venal leader who has benefited from oil booms to enrich himself and his friends. The article also mentions that it will only be a short time before jihadist attention shifts from the West to focus on Russia following its destructive involvement in the region.[xxxii]

In Lebanon, the Russian ambassador, Alexander Zasypkin, is uniquely active on the media. Much of the footage available from the last two years is centered around Zasypkin defending Russian interests in Syria, especially Moscow’s involvement in fighting terrorism and supporting al-Assad. Additionally, he makes several appearances in which he works to separate modern Russia from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and to paint Putin as a new kind of global leader. Zasypkin also supports the narrative that Russia is the savior for the Middle East.[xxxiii]

In war-torn Syria, the Kremlin is making the most progress. There, Moscow is s leveraging its military intervention to cement its influence, but using its information machine to talk directly to Syrians: Arabic-language broadcasting by RT and Sputnik appears to be securing a growing audience in government-held territory, helping Russia gain a powerful hold on Syrian hearts and minds. RT has been able to operate remarkably freely in a country that ranks lower on media freedom indexes even than Russia. The Syrian government helps RT reporters obtain swift access to frontline locations and other stories they want to cover.[xxxiv]

This Syrian government’s support has helped RT’s Arabic channel vault ahead of the regional heavyweights, Qatar-funded Al Jazeera and Saudi-funded Al Arabiya, when it comes to reaching Syrian audiences, since Russian forces intervened in the civil war. As of 2016, it has been joined by Sputnik, which produces a daily, live one-hour show for Sham FM, one of Syria’s most popular radio stations. Broadcast from Moscow each day at 6 p.m., the program features a mix of news and features and studio discussion, as well as a 20-minute “Military Monitor” segment, covering the latest frontline developments, with an emphasis on Russian actions. The aim of the show, according to a Syrian media report, is to translate the popular and official Russian position to the Syrian people and global public opinion.” It is hard to find exact figures, but there is no doubt Sham FM reaches a wide audience in Syria, both on radio and via its Facebook page. Not all Syrians in government-controlled areas, however, are happy with Russia’s intervention. Some raise questions about its legitimacy and the long-term price the country will have to pay for becoming so dependent on Moscow for its security. [xxxv]


The projection of Russian power into the Middle East in recent years has been accompanied by an impressive Kremlin information warfare effort intended to advance Moscow’s foreign policy objectives. The media tactic is an important tool in Russia’s arsenal. This campaign was been somewhat successful across the region, especially in Syria. But the effectiveness of that effort is undermined by several factors.

  • First, government censorship in the Middle East is much more prevalent than in more open media areas such as Eastern Europe, where we have seen Kremlin disinformation campaigns be effective. This fact allows host governments to block Russian messaging they oppose.
  • Second, Russia in general receives a mixed basket of popular praise and disapproval. Research by Pew finds that 35 percent of those polled in the Middle East see Russia as a threat; 35 percent have a favorable view of Russia. These findings, moreover, have been consistent over the last few years.
  • Third, there are few cultural, linguistic, historical or other ties between Russia and the peoples of the Arab world. In no country are there ethnic-Russian communities large enough to be mobilized by Kremlin information activities.
  • Finally, Russia is geographically distant from MENA, making its messaging harder to sustain.[xxxvi]

Appendix I: The Kremlin’s Disinformation Techniques 

Russia disinformation and new propaganda can take many forms—from the use of false visuals or misleading headlines, to social media techniques that create an impression that the “majority” understands an issue in a certain way. In the echo chamber of the modern information space, the spreading of disinformation is as easy as a “like,” “tweet” or a “share.” The following are some of the Kremlin’s most commonly used techniques for spreading false stories and disinformation:


Ping pong – The coordinated use of complementary websites to springboard a story into mainstream circulation.

Wolf cries wolf – The vilification of an individual or institution for something you also do.

Misleading title – Facts or statements in the article are correct, or mostly correct, but the title is misleading.

No proof
 – Facts or statements that are not backed up with proof or sources.

Card stacking – Facts or statements are partially true. This occurs when information is correct, but it is offered selectively, or key facts are omitted. The Kremlin typically uses this technique to guide audiences to a conclusion that fits into a pre-fabricated or false narrative.

False facts – Facts or statements are false. For example, an interview mentioned in an article that never took place, or an event or incident featured in a news story that did not actually occur.

False visuals – A variant of false facts, this technique employs the use of fake or manipulated provocative visual material. Its purpose is to lend extra credibility to a false fact or narrative.

Denying facts – A variant of “false facts,” this occurs when real facts are denied or wrongly undermined. The facts of an event might be reported, but an attempt is made to discredit their veracity. Alternatively, the facts may be re-interpreted to achieve the same effect: to establish doubt among an audience over the validity of a story or narrative.

Exaggeration and over-generalization – This method dramatizes, raises false alarms or uses a particular premise to shape a conclusion. A related technique is totum pro parte.

Totum pro parte – The “whole for a part.” An example: portraying the views of a single journalist or expert as the official view or position of a government.

Changing the quotation, source or context – Facts and statements are reported from other sources, but they are now different than the original or do not account for the latest editorial changes. For example, a quotation is correct, but the person to whom it is attributed has changed, or a quote’s context is altered so as to change its meaning or significance in the original story.

Loaded words or metaphors – Using expressions and metaphors to support a false narrative or hide a true one; for example, using a term like “mysterious death” instead of “poisoning” or “murder” to describe the facts of a story.

Ridiculing, discrediting, diminution
 – Marginalizing facts, statements or people through mockery, name-calling (i.e. argumentum ad hominem), or by undermining their authority. This includes using traditional and new media humor, in order to discredit on non-substantive merits.

Whataboutism – Using false comparisons to support a pre-fabricated narrative or justify deeds and policies; i.e., “We may be bad, but others are just as bad” or, “The annexation of Crimea was just like the invasion of Iraq.” This technique is often accompanied by an ad hominem attack.

Narrative laundering – Concealing and cleaning the provenance of a source or claim. When a so-called expert of dubious integrity presents false facts or narratives as the truth. Often, this happens when propaganda outlets mimic the format of mainstream media. A common technique is to feature a guest “expert” or “scholar” on a TV program whose false fact or narrative can then be repackaged for wider distribution. For example, “Austrian media writes that…” or “A well-known German political expert says that…”

Exploiting balance – This happens when otherwise mainstream media outlets try to “balance” their reporting by featuring professional propagandists or faux journalists and experts. The effect is to inject an otherwise legitimate news story or debate with false facts and narratives. This technique is common in televised formats, which feature point-counterpoint debates. Propagandists subsequently hijack a good-faith exchange of opposing views.

Presenting opinion as facts (and vice-versa) – An opinion is presented as a fact in order to advance or discredit a narrative.

Conspiracy theories – Employing rumors, myths or claims of conspiracy to distract or dismay an audience. Examples include: “NATO wants to invade Russia”; “The United States created the Zika virus”; “Secret Baltic agencies are infecting Russian computers with viruses”; or “Latvia wants to send its Russian population to concentration camps.” A variation of this technique is conspiracy in reverse—attempting to discredit a factual news story by labeling it a conspiracy.

Joining the bandwagon – Creating the impression that the “majority” prefers or understands an issue in a certain way. The majority’s presumed wisdom lends credence to a conclusion or false narrative: e.g., “People are asking..,” “People want…” or “People know best.”

False dilemma – Forcing audiences into a false binary choice, typically “us” vs. “them.”

Drowning facts with emotion – A form of the “appeal to emotion” fallacy, this is when a story is presented in such an emotional way that facts lose their importance. An example is the “Lisa case,” in which Muslim immigrants in Germany were falsely reported to have sexually assaulted a Russian girl. While the event was entirely fabricated, its appeal to emotion distracted audiences from the absence of facts. Common variants of this method evoke post-Soviet nostalgia across Central and Eastern Europe, or stoke public fear of nuclear war.

Creating a context – Most commonly found on broadcast news programs, it creates the context for a pre-fabricated narrative by preceding and following a news story in such a way that it changes the meaning of the news itself. For example, in order to send the message that recent terrorist attacks in Europe were the result of EU member states not working with Russia—which is helping to fight ISIS in Syria—commentary broadcast before the news on the March 2016 Brussels attacks described Russia’s success in Syria and its ability to fight ISIS effectively.

Source: Center for European Policy Analysis


[i] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation

[ii] Keir Giles, “Russia’s Toolkit,” in Keir Giles, et al. The Russian Challenge, Chatham House, June 2015,, 47.

[iii] Atlantic Council, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses,, November 16, 2016.

[iv] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 2013, paragraph 88; and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 2016, paragraph 92.

[v] “Russia’s Policy in the Middle East: ‘We Have Crossed the Rubicon’,” Middle East Research Institute, Special Dispatch No. 7171, November 9, 2017.

[vi] Sladden, et al. Russian Strategy in the Middle East. RAND Corp. 2017.

[vii] Sladden.

[viii] Sladden.

[ix] Jack Nicas, “Russia State News Outlet RT Thrives on YouTube,” Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2017,

[x] “RT Arabic,” in Wikipedia,

[xi]Sputnik Arabic News Service,

[xii] Diana Moukalled, “Propaganda, lies and videos: Russian media and the Khan Sheikhun massacre,” Arab News,April 18 2017,

[xiii] معطيات للتفكير.. هل قصف الطيران السوري خان شيخون بالكيميائي؟, RT Arabic, May 4 2017,

[xiv] John Wight, “Chemical Weapons Attack on Idlib: Why Questions Need to Be Asked,”May 4, 2017, Sputnik  Arab News Service,

[xv]لحاويات الغامضة: لم يكن أي أسلحة كيماوية في مطار الشعيرات (فيديو), Sputnik Arab News Service, September 4, 2017,

 [xvi] Ekaterina, Blinova, “White Lies: ‘Syria Civil Defense’ Caught Faking Rescues, Doctoring Dead Children,” Sputnik,April 10, 2017.

[xvii] Ekaterina, Blinova”US’ Plan B? From Alleged Evacuation of Daesh to the Murder of Russian General,” Sputnik, October 13, 2017.

[xviii] “Guardian of the World,” September 30, 2017. Sputnik,

[xix] ” 2 years of Russia in Syria: ISIS shrinking, Iran & Turkey linking, conflict risk with US lurking,” RT, September 30, 2017,

[xx] “Two Years Of Russia’s Military Operation in Syria,” Sputnik , September 30, 2017,

[xxi] Amanda Erickson, “If Russia Today is Moscow’s propaganda arm, it’s not very good at its job,” Washington Post,January 12, 2017,



[xxv] Katie Zavadsky,  ”Putin’s Propaganda TV Lies about it Popularity,” The Daily Beast, February 19, 2015,

[xxvi] Katie Zavadsky,“ Putin’s Propaganda TV Lies about it Popularity,” The Daily Beast , February 19, 2015,

[xxvii] Everette E. Dennis and Robb Wood, Media in the Middle East: A new study shows how the Arab world gets and shares digital news, September 19, 2017, Neiman Lab,

[xxviii]  “Abd Al-Jalil Said, Former Press Secretary for the Syrian Mufti: Russians and Russian Interests Will Become a Target for the Free Army in Syria,” MEMRI TV, February 7, 2012,

[xxix] Bruce Stokes, “Russia, Putin Held in Low Regard around the World,” Pew Research Service, August 5, 2015,

[xxx] “Iraqi MP Kadhim Al-Sayadi: We Should Cancel the Strategic Framework Agreement with the U.S., Sign Another Sponsored by Russia and Iran,” MEMRI TV, January 7, 2017,

[xxxi]  “Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, Deputy Commander of the Popular Mobilization Units: Optimism over Liberation of Mosul Was Exaggerated; No Objection to Russian Military Intervention in Syria; After Mosul, We Will Enter Syria; Hizbullah Trained Us against the Americans after 2003,” MEMRI TV , January 2, 2017,

[xxxii] Robert Harvey, “How Dangerous is Putin?” Jordan Times, March 12, 2017,

[xxxiii] “Russian Ambassador to Lebanon: Withdrawing Our Troops from Syria Encouraged the Opposition to Come to the Negotiating Table,” MEMRI TV, March 15, 2016,

[xxxiv] “The Russian Offensive in Syria You Haven’t Heard About ,” Coda,        

[xxxv] سبوتنيك تبث داخل سوريا عبر شام أف إم في تعاون إعلامي يستهدف الشارع السوري, Sputnik  Arab News Service, , July10, 2016.

[xxxvi] Margaret Vice, “Publics Worldwide Unfavorable Toward Putin, Russia,” August 16, 2017, Pew Research Center,

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Don Jensen WS2 – Media Tactics

By: Donald N. Jensen, for Jamestown

Categories: World News