GERMAN GROUP SHINES NEW LIGHT ON RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION
31 January 2019
A conference of experts on Russia, the media and ‘hybrid warfare’ has shone new light on the Kremlin’s information war in Europe.
The conference in Berlin was organised by the German working group of the Integrity Initiative, a pan-European network of researchers and activists, which studies the use of disinformation as a tool of hybrid warfare, providing support and capacity building for participating organisations. A cache of documents stolen recently from the Integrity Initiative’s parent organisation, the Institute for Statecraft, and containing several forgeries, was recently published online by an anonymous group.
The stolen documents were then used by state-sponsored Russian propaganda channels in western Europe to smear the Integrity Initiative as part of a campaign to undermine its research into Russia’s ongoing disinformation operations.
Dr Hannes Adomeit, Chair of the German Working Group of the Integrity Initiative and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, said:
“Experts and activists from many different European countries, not just Germany, but also Lithuania, Sweden, Moldova, Spain and the UK, took part in our discussions and briefings about the effect of Russian hybrid warfare and disinformation across Europe. The attempt to smear the Integrity Initiative has only made people more determined.
“Participants at the conference were very concerned about the effect of what is clearly a concerted information and influence campaign, designed to undermine and weaken the West at a time of great volatility. It represents a real threat to western democracies.”
Discussions at the conference were informed by expert presentations and a plethora of statistical data. Oleksiy Makukhin of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group presented a series of video clips and data on how the top three Russian national TV channels and the most popular web sites report on the situation and developments in Europe.
German political scientist and historian Susanne Spahn outlined the results of her work on a project on the Russian media in Germany funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation that included research conducted by the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Arena Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics.
T-online.de investigative journalist Jan-Henrik Wiebe, drawing on his own research, focused further on the organizational structures and programmes of the Russian media in Germany and their significance in Russia’s campaign to influence opinion. Particular attention was drawn to the websites of Sputnik Deutschland, RT Deutsch and the video agency Ruptly TV, which is a subsidiary of RT located in Berlin. At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, Ruptly TV established two subsidiaries that are active in the social media realm — Redfish and Maffick Media. Redfish posts videos under its own name Redfish, and Maffick works online under the titles ‘In the Now,’ ‘Backthen’ and ‘Wasted,’ all of which posted large quantities of content onto Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Dr Harold Elletson, a senior fellow of the Institute for Statecraft and a former member of the UK Parliament, who co-chaired the conference, said:
“Many participants were particularly concerned about the support and encouragement which has been provided to hard right, anti-migrant groups in several European countries. This is all part of a deliberate campaign being stirred up to undermine Western liberal democracies, and it is clearly being amplified by Russian state-sponsored media. People need to wake up to what is happening.”
Investigative journalist Jessikka Aro of the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, told the conference about the how she had become a target of Russia’s ‘troll army’ after her research into the activities of the Internet Research Agency, a so-called ‘troll factory’ in St. Petersburg.
Ms Aro faced a lengthy campaign of harassment and intimidation, which resulted last year in a Finnish court sentencing Ilja Janitskin, the founder of the right-wing, pro-Kremlin website MV-Lehti, to a 22-month prison sentence and Johan Bäckman, a longtime mouthpiece for Moscow in Finland, to a one-year suspended sentence for defamation and harassment.
The conference noted that:
- A Russian state-sponsored malign influence and disinformation campaign is under way in Europe, in tandem with a well organised and generously funded effort to influence public opinion and gain acceptance of the Kremlin’s narratives.
- The campaign’s aims include undermining the stability of European governments and to undercutting European integration and trans-Atlantic cooperation.
- The Kremlin’s campaign cannot be interpreted as a reaction to a US and European military or security challenge or threat (e.g. NATO’s eastern enlargement). It is a part of a patriotic mobilisation set in motion at the beginning of Putin’s third term as president in 2012 and it aims to achieve strategic advantages at the expense of the West through non-traditional means, including the use of what has come to be known as ‘hybrid warfare‘.
- The campaign is centrally organised. The head of the news agency Rossiya Segodnya Andrey Ivanovsky has said that “at least 90 per cent of content on the German Sputnik web site originates in Moscow”. But it is also capable of adapting quickly to take advantage of specific national conditions and their potentially disruptive potential.
- Owing to its economic power and political influence in Europe, Germany and the government of chancellor Angela Merkel are especially important targets of the Kremlin’s current disinformation and destabilisation campaign. One of the main themes of the disinformation campaign, repeated in both media in Russia and Russian media outlets in Germany, is that the Merkel government is trying to revive the Nazi concept of the alleged need for Lebensraum in eastern Europe and that it, as the head of the media empire Rossiya Segodnya, Dmitry Kiselyev, stated recently, wants to ‘swallow’ Ukraine.
- However, at the same time, the Kremlin is also actively supporting several right-wing, nationalist and populist movements and political parties in Europe. The rationale for this support is usually opposition to European integration and trans-Atlantic cooperation. Since this orientation is often shared by various left-wing, anti-American and ‘anti-imperialist’ elements in the German political landscape, the Kremlin also supports them. The parallel but de facto cooperation between the extreme Right and Left, in turn, is reminiscent of the Querfront in the 1930s, the parallel but essentially combined struggle against parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic.
Dr Adomeit said:
“The Integrity Initiative plans to hold further conferences and workshops on issues connected to disinformation, malign influence and hybrid warfare. Together with a variety of partner organisations in our informal network, we will also be publishing our research and recommendations. This is a very important issue and it is vital that people understand what is happening.”