Democracies should prepare for long fight against Russian disinformation




Russia carries out and encourages ‘active measures’ in Europe to destabilize and confuse governments and societies. But these are often opportunistic and shaped by local conditions, says analyst  Mark Galeotti. There is no grand strategy, beyond weakening the EU and NATO and creating a more conducive environment for itself, he writes in a new analysis for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Nonetheless, there is an effort to coordinate certain operations across platforms. Insofar as there is a command-and-control node, it is within the Presidential Administration, which is perhaps the most important single organ within Russia’s highly de-institutionalized state. Without giving up hope of persuading Moscow to change its policies, Europe must nonetheless address its own vulnerabilities: ‘fixing the roof’ rather than simply hoping the rain will stop. Among other things, this includes addressing democratic backsliding in parts of the continent.

The cycle of propaganda and disinformation laundering (above) cannot be broken by solely coercing or squeezing out an adversary’s media outlets and their followers, notes Boris Toucas, a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.:

In the case of Russia, the main challenge is not to forcibly cut the information flow it delivers, but rather to manage the debate its mere existence generates. If any “Russian active measures” were deemed successful, it would be because in part the mainstream media sphere has failed to contain the pernicious messages they convey and channel them in a productive way to enhance information quality standards and democratic practices. It would also be because state institutions have failed to generate a convincing narrative upstream about the benefits of the existing social and political order and thereby gather a strong community of supporters willing to defend them.

“Building mutual confidence between the institutions and the public, basic measures to debunk disinformation, and self-examination on the part of the mainstream media would detoxify the debate on active measures that obsesses the entire media sphere,” Toucas adds in Exploring the Information-Laundering Ecosystem: The Russian Case. (see below).

Russia’s hybrid warfare encompasses action designed to weaken an opponent through, for instance, economic, cultural, or environmental policies, by fomenting “controlled chaos,” according to a new report, Russian Hybrid Warfare – A Study Of Disinformation by Flemming Hansen of the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).

Russian analysts refer to a “chaos button,” which may be used to adjust the level of chaos in a target state. The aim is to cause and feed instability, to weaken the social fabric of a society and to complicate and undermine decision-making. The target state should, ideally, be decisively weakened along the two overall dimensions of legitimacy which serve to define its position on a continuum of strong and weak states:

  • Horizontal legitimacy, defined here as the extent to which the population of a state accepts their inclusion in this.
  • Vertical legitimacy, defined here as the extent to which the population of a state accepts the right to rule of those who rule.

“Liberal democracies, especially vulnerable as a result of their free media culture, should prepare themselves for a long-term commitment to countering disinformation and to building up cognitive resilience to ensure that the former has minimal effect,” the report concludes.

Russia is also eyeing an opportunity to extend its influence in Latin America and establish a geopolitical foothold in Washington’s back yard, the FT reports:

Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, said last week he expected to travel to Russia soon. Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian foreign ministry would confirm an imminent visit, but Mr Maduro’s intended trip shows how his regime now sees Moscow as Venezuela’s lender of last resort. While other creditors have pulled back as Venezuela’s financial and political crisis worsens, Moscow has apparently piled in to secure oil assets with long-term value. State-owned oil company Rosneft extended $1bn in additional credit to Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) earlier this year in the form of prepayments for oil supplies, bringing total lending to its Venezuelan counterpart to $6.5bn. PDVSA has so far repaid about $750m of that in oil shipments, and $500m in interest payments.

“Maduro has long been talking about visiting Moscow, but now he really needs to: he needs more financial support, and Russia is about the only place remaining where he can get it,” says Viktor Semyonov, a researcher at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The U.S. State Department has taken steps toward spending tens of millions of dollars to counter propaganda by Islamist extremists and governments such as Russia, POLITICO adds:

A State Department official confirmed on Thursday that Tillerson last week approved the use of about $60 million by the Global Engagement Center toward the anti-propaganda efforts.

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