How (not) to wage information warfare: Russia ‘using democracy to undermine democracy’


Like many media experts in Europe, Tetiana Popova worries that Russia is turning free speech against the West and using democratic information tools such as Twitter as weapons in a hybrid war, VOA reports:

Now working with the Ukrainian media NGO Information Security, Popova recalled for VOA her part in Ukrainian campaigns to counter Russia propaganda in the 18 months she was a minister. It was partly thanks to her that the Ukrainian military set up an embed program for reporters to cover the conflict in east Ukraine. And she was one of the driving forces behind the replacement of TV masts and transmitters in Ukraine’s eastern region of the Donbas so that locals in the conflict zone occupied by pro-Russian separatists wouldn’t be receiving “news” only from Kremlin-controlled Russian channels, but would have access to a broader spectrum of information and opinion.

“One clear lesson is that you can’t fight propaganda with propaganda,” says Popova [right]. “If you do that you lose credibility yourself and bring all facts into doubt,” adds the former Ukrainian deputy minister for information policy. “And that is what the Russians want,” she said firmly.

With elections next Sunday, Germany is the latest target of Russia’s ‘active measures.’ But Russian efforts to undermine German democracy are unlikely to have the impact as elsewhere for a number of reasons, Cipher Brief reports:

[German chancellor Angela] Merkel maintains strong support among a German electorate that is now well versed in Russian disinformation and influence campaigns in fellow Western democracies. German intelligence has long warned the public of Russian cyber operations “mostly interested in delegitimizing the democratic process” and causing “political uncertainty.” The country has also passed legislation in June that would impose massive fines on social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, that fail to remove fake or defamatory content from their sites.

“While Russian action is unlikely to outright determine the selection of the German chancellor, it can explore Merkel’s weaknesses while strengthening opposition groups, such as the right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, who seek to undermine the political system,” says Stefan Meister, the head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “This will strengthen Putin’s relative position and ability to act in the future.”

A majority of Germans believe their democracy is strong enough to withstand Russian meddling, and take a pragmatic approach to contentious issues including migrants and relations with Russia, according to a poll by the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research (IRI is a core affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO).

What Russian operations concentrate on is strengthening right-wing populists, such as the Alternative for Germany party, through their media and stories on social media, the Bosch Center’s Meister tells the Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey:

Their narratives include that EU sanctions against Russia being counterproductive, or that in Ukraine, fascist groups influence the government. Furthermore, they support the existing resentments in German society, such as anti-Americanism or suggesting that Merkel’s move to bring migrants to Germany has also brought terrorism. However, this will not have a major impact on the result of the German election campaign – perhaps only swaying a single percent of the electorate. More important to the election outcomes are Russia’s attempts to poison and polarize public discussion and weaken the ability of German leadership to act in the future.

Neo-Nazis see Russia as the heart of white nationalism, with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke describing it as “the key to white survival,” according to Fraser-Rahim, the executive director of North America for Quilliam International, the anti-extremism think tank, and Haras Rafiq, Quilliam International’s chief executive. Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist figurehead, and spouse of pro-Russia blogger Nina Kouprianova, described the nation as “the most powerful white power in the world,” while many others in these circles now see Putin as the de facto “leader of the free world,” they write for The NY Daily News:

Though Putin has distanced himself from the ideology, Kremlin-funded outposts such as RT and Sputnik continue to espouse views typically taken by the extreme right-wing, repeatedly inviting Spencer and Kouprianova to appear as geopolitical analysts.

According to Ukrainian political scientist Oleksy Garan, a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy [a NED grantee], the Russians are using democracy to undermine democracy,” he tells VOA. “They are using the democratic rules of the game in Europe and the United States to try to destabilize democracy.”

Information war

The Kremlin has three main targets in its information war, Garan says:

  • “The first is a domestic one, because it is necessary for Putin to justify what he is doing and increase his popularity ratings in Russia. And I would say the propaganda is effective, thanks to the Kremlin’s domination of television in Russia,” he says.
  • “In Ukraine, the Russians are trying to shape a narrative through pro-Russian proxies on television and in social media. They pick up some marginal news or they create fake news and then they try to spread it so it becomes the news for the mainstream,” he adds.
  • “And finally, the West is another target, where the Russians want to split the West and undermine the transatlantic relationship. They are continuing the old Soviet strategy with digital means.”

The Kremlin is also targeting Germany because it has emerged as a bulwark against Russian-backed populism, writes Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Germany is less vulnerable to the populist temptation than some of its Western counterparts due to two structural causes, notes Michael Bröning, head of the International Policy Department of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany:

  • The first is Germany’s singular, historic track record of right- and left-wing totalitarianism. And, indeed, the legacy of Third Reich hyper-chauvinism and “actually existing socialism” in the eastern part of the country has inculcated in most Germans a cautious centrism, rendering extremist parties unsupportable for the majority of voters….
  • The second commonly cited cause of Germany’s resilience to populism is its economic strength. The country’s unemployment rate is at a record low, and GDP has grown by 10% since 2013. Add to that a functioning welfare system, and it is clear why the inequality-focused outrage that has fuelled voter revolts elsewhere is gaining little traction in Germany.

“But this does not mean that all is quiet on the populist front,” he cautions. “ In fact, the weak support for populist parties in German elections obscures a dissatisfaction in German society that is strikingly similar to the anger that has fueled the rise of anti-establishment parties in Europe and beyond.”

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