West ‘ignoring Putin’s actions’ – must engage Russia’s democracy movements


The U.S. should remain engaged with Russia’s pro-democracy movement, says a leading opposition activist. It is important to maintain pressure on the Russian authorities and President Vladimir Putin and take reports of his interference in foreign affairs seriously, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee (above).

“For too many years, for too long, leaders of Western democracies have been just ignoring and moving on from what Mr. Putin has been doing,” Kara-Murza (right) told the hearing on Civil Society Perspectives on Russia.

A West that continued to signal “weakness” would be an invitation to Putin’s administration to carry on, when instead it was “vital” that the United States support the work of Russian pro-democracy movements, he said.

“This is not only about money. Much more importantly, it’s about the message the US sends to Russia’s civil society,” said the vice chairman of Open Russia, a foundation run by exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The subcommittee’s hearing on Russia’s role in the region is “particularly fitting,” said Laura Jewett (above, center), the National Democratic Institute’s Regional Director for Eurasia Programs, “in that one of the messages emanating from Moscow for many years has been the distortion and discrediting of international democracy assistance in Eurasia.”

Hybrid Warfare

Credit: War On The Rocks

“It is critical that we distinguish clearly between our own democratic values and another country’s hostile efforts to have us abandon those principles. To give credence to Russian government narratives about democracy assistance, in particular, would be to abet authoritarian aggression,” she said, noting that:

Russian electoral interference has included, among other tactics, the hacking, theft and broadcasting of private data; deliberate distribution of false news and misinformation; malicious trolling; blackmail and discrediting of targets; and manipulation of voter registries or results tabulation. By design, it pollutes political discourse, undermines public confidence in the process, and tips the scales through subterfuge. It corrodes the electoral environment regardless of whether it impacts the ultimate vote count. It is a violation of citizens’ sovereign right to freely choose their own representatives. These forms of electoral interference are a weapon that is potentially more powerful than warships or missiles. The aggressor can deprive the opposing side of its sovereignty without seizing territory.

“Russian disinformation and support for divisive parties and political movements has been increasing for at least the last decade, and now poses a major challenge to the political well-being of the Continent,” the International Republican Institute (IRI)’s Regional Director for Europe Jan Surotchak (above, left) told the committee.

Citing research by the Beacon Project, an IRI initiative highlighting Russian interference in Europe, Surotchak’s testimony outlined the methods and affiliates of the Kremlin’s “fake news” operations. The project identified several categories of engagement the Kremlin employs, including funding political parties friendly to Moscow; organized disinformation campaigns; the exploitation of domestic debates to spread propaganda; the use of fake “democracy support” organizations to legitimize fraudulent elections; and support for pro-Kremlin think tanks.

Organized Disinformation

A key pillar of Moscow’s effort to undermine Europe is its execution of sophisticated disinformation campaigns against governments, parties and individuals who do not toe the Kremlin’s line, Surotchak added:

In some countries, the objective is to simply muddy the public debate, but in other countries, Russian ambitions reach higher. The launch of a French language version of its Russia Today in advance of the French elections is no coincidence, as Russian-funded outlets have coalesced around pro-Moscow candidates and have vilified pro-transatlantic candidate Emmanuel Macron.

“The United States is uniquely positioned to take the lead on what may be one of the defining geopolitical challenges of our time,” Surotchak added, citing “encouraging signs on a number of fronts”:

Last month, the United Kingdom announced a ₤700 million “Empowerment Fund” to support allied governments in their battle against Russian soft-power aggression. In January, the Czech government launched the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats to manage their push-back against Russian disinformation. And governments across Europe are scrambling to fortify the Russian intelligence capacities that had withered in the wake of the Cold War. These initiatives make an important contribution to our common transatlantic effort to shore up democratic institutions and undercut Russian interference and should continue to be supported.

“There is no one-stop solution to the problem of authoritarian aggression,” said NDI’s Jewett, offering proposals “in terms of four large baskets of responses”:

  • First, we need to reaffirm our transatlantic alliances and our own commitment to democratic principles while supporting the efforts of a new generation of democracy champions. Unless democracy’s defenders are putting forward a compelling and positive narrative of their own, no amount of technical fixes will make a difference.
  • Second, we need to strengthen democratic institutions in the affected countries. This is the first line of defense. When governments are not responsive to citizens and not delivering improvements to their lives, populist and extremist appeals gain traction. …
  • Third, governments in affected countries need to treat hybrid warfare like the urgent national security threat that it is. Anything less is to do the aggressor’s work for him. Political leaders need to develop proactive and whole-of-government counter-strategies. They need to communicate about these strategies in a straightforward way with the public and enlist public-private collaboration.
  • And fourth, citizens, civil society organizations, political parties, journalists and editors need information, tools and strategies so they can protect themselves and each other from these threats.

NDI and IRI are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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