What does the Kremlin fear? How Russia’s disinformation model works


Russia’s attack on the West stems from its growing internal weakness, and the more the West treats Vladimir Putin as a 10-foot ogre, the better it is for him at home, according to two prominent young analysts. In that sense, America’s new obsession with Russia isn’t hurting the Kremlin strongman—it’s helping him, POLITICO’s Jeff Greenfield reports:

Anton Barbashin and Olga Irisova, both 27 years old, are co-founders and editors of “Intersection,” an online journal devoted to exploring the links between Russia’s foreign policy and propaganda efforts at home and abroad. ….“If you watch Russian TV on any given day, “ says Anton, 70 percent of it is global affairs, much from the U.S. “You’d think you live in the U.S., there’s so much coverage,” he says. And, since relatively few Russians travel abroad, “the coverage has credibility—which is not true about domestic affairs. And that coverage is devoted to a single theme: The model of Western liberal democracy is broken.”

Unlike in the Stalinist days, Russian TV does not offer endless celebrations of a workers paradise. The message now is more subtle. “The propaganda,” Anton says, is that “we’re not perfect, we’re flawed, but the West is no better.”

Western political leaders failed to understand the corrosive effect of Russian money, whether on New York real estate or Western democracy… [or] the subtle ways in which a large, kleptocratic, semi-criminal state on Europe’s borders could threaten Western political stability, notes analyst Anne Applebaum (left), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, “nobody paid much attention as Russia, which many had hoped would become a Western-oriented, liberalizing state, turned into something quite different,” she writes for The Washington Post:

Or perhaps I should put it more strongly: Nobody in Western politics paid much attention, but many others in the West were eager to aid that transformation. In particular, many were eager to help a cabal of revanchist former KGB officers, in league with Russian organized crime, to steal money that belonged to the Russian state, launder it abroad, bring it back and use it to take power. While Western presidents and prime ministers were distracted by other things, Western lawyers, accountants, unscrupulous offshore bankers and even mainstream bankers were happily taking cuts.

Ukraine was one of the first places where Russia was using information warfare alongside traditional, kinetic warfare, according to Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism (above). Organizations such as StopFake.org are trying to combat fake news by debunking fabricated stories in order to “prove that this does exist, this phenomenon is around and it’s very influential and very vast, and it’s very systematic,” he added.

Russia’s neighbors have long had to deal with “hybrid war”—the toxic cocktail of propaganda, influence-peddling, cyber-attacks, subversion, economic pressure, military sabre-rattling and other tactics which Russia has honed over the past 25 years, The Economist’s Edward Lucas writes:

This comes as a surprise to many in the West, who believed that after 1991 the ghosts of empire and totalitarianism had been laid permanently to rest following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it is no surprise to countries which know Russia better. In particular the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have always had an almost supernaturally sharp sense of the threat from the east. Years before Vladimir Putin came to power, they were worried about Russia, which was bullying them with energy sanctions and cut-off, pumping money into their politics, conducting subversive activity and mounting a venomous propaganda campaign.

How has Russia continually succeeded in creating discord and division inside Western democracies—even as its subversive tactics are increasingly exposed to scrutiny? the Center for European Policy Analysis asks. To date, Russia has employed a variety of means (including propaganda, financial influence, and digital warfare) to exploit the openness of Western institutions. In response, countries have begun to formulate ways to push back against these threats, yet so far without a clear consensus on strategy.

In order to shed light on the way forward, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore from “The Power Vertical” will join CEPA for an experts’ discussion on “What does the Kremlin fear? New insights and techniques from the digital frontline.” Is Russia prepared for a coordinated Western response to its techniques? Moderated by CEPA’s Donald N. Jensen, the event will consider:

(1) what are the factors driving Russia to challenge the West;

(2) what is being done to expose and track Russian efforts; and

(3) what can Russia’s neighbors – both physical and virtual – do to defend and push back against Russia’s multi-layered assault on shared values and institutions?


Brian Whitmore, Senior Russia Analyst, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Moderated by:

Donald N. Jensen, Senior Adjunct Fellow, CEPA

First Respondent:

Corina Rebegea, StratCom Program Contributor, CEPA

Wednesday, July  19, 2017 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. CEPA Offices, 1225 19th Street NW, Suite 450, Washington, DC 20036

To RSVP for this event, reply to Christina Brown at christina.brown@cepa.org or (202) 601-4148 by July 17, 2017.


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