On June 28, 2019, Free Russia Foundation hosted a conference Finding Practical and Principal Approaches to Countering the Kremlin’s Influence Campaigns While Upholding Sanctity of Free Speech at the Hague, Netherlands. Continue reading Is Propaganda Protected Free Speech?
The Free Russia Foundation has assembled a team of experienced writers, researchers, and journalists affiliated with different organizations, to document some of the most compelling cases of Russian meddling. However, these events are only a sample; the Putin regime is busy throughout the world, undermining the integrity of Western judicial and policymaking institutions.
This report, a tour d’horizon of Russian active measures and subversion campaigns throughout North America and Europe, demonstrates that Vladimir Putin’s attempts to infiltrate Western institutions are relentless and that there is one constant to his two decade-long engagement: he triumphs where we invite him to, and most of all where we happily act as his complacent enablers.
This is a story of how the West consistently fails to get its own house in order. The very institutions created after World War II to keep transparent markets and liberal democracies from corrosion and collapse are now playgrounds for Kremlin agents seeking to enrich themselves and further that corrosion and collapse along. More than anything, the pathologies of our own societies are on ample display in these pages as the principal reason why so many oligarchs, intelligence operatives and bribe-offering banks and energy companies have been able to thrive outside of Russia.
The Putin regime’s persistence has paid off quite well in its geo-political battle of wills with the West, whereby Russia’s military actions since 2014 have been met with lukewarm international sanctions that have failed to shift their course.
What we hope this report demonstrates is the need for Western governments to take a stronger stand and vigorously defend their values and institutions. While this may not have the same impact as ending a bloody war, refusal to give in to the Kremlin’s advances for new laws to protect its business and financial interests; putting up barriers in response to Russia’s abuse of international law enforcement entities or enforcing existing laws so that oligarchs can’t hide behind newly-created NGOs can begin to push back against Russia’s current lawless actions.
If an individual nation defends its criminal and civil court system or combats corrupt practices within its own government, this will provide much-needed resistance against the Kremlin’s aims and objectives.If, collectively, several nations decide to join forces in this effort, ample pressure will be placed on Russia’s leadership to make it play by the rules more often and respect our institutions rather than try to manipulate them.
In the pages of this report, you’ll read about these, and many more:
– a U.S. federal money-laundering case was sabotaged by a Moscow attorney turned Congressional lobbyist, who obstructed justice, set up a dubious charity in Delaware to dismantle a landmark American human rights act— all before trying to influence a U.S. presidential race;
– Russian mobsters in Spain, despite a mountain of incriminating evidence compiled over the course of a decade, all went free by, among other things, enlisting Spanish jurists to spread a malevolent defamation campaign against one of his country’s most committed counterterrorism and organized crime magistrates;
– the Kremlin directed effort to pass laws in the Belgian and French parliaments that would effectively nullify the Yukos shareholder court decisions and render them unenforceable against the Russian Federation;
– the eccentric president of a NATO and EU member-state sided against his own government in favor of a hostile foreign one, to which he’s been financially and politically connected for years.
The chart below visually summarizes some of the cases, countries, branches of power, institutions and entities in the West impacted by Russian interference:
The report’s contributing authors:
Ms. Arno is the founder and president of Free Russia Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit think tank headquartered in Washington, DC with affiliate offices in Kyiv Ukraine and Tbilisi Georgia. Prior to creating Free Russia Foundation, Ms. Arno worked for the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute where she was the Russia country director from 2008 until 2014.
Mr. Barnett is founder and CEO of Istok Associates, a London-based intelligence and investigation consultancy focused on Central & Eastern Europe and the Middle East & North Africa. Previously, he was a journalist in the same regions for 13 years and wrote for the Telegraph, the Spectator and Janes publications. He covered the war in Iraq, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, the eastern expansion of NATO and the EU in the 2000s and Balkan organized crime.
Ms. Filipova’s primary research at the Center for the Study of Democracy is related to Russian domestic and foreign policy as well the Kremlin’s media, political and economic influence in Central and Eastern Europe. She holds an MPhil and DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. She has been a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Polish Institute of International Affairs, and Chatham House, among others.
Mr. Gatov is a media researcher, journalist, analyst and media investment expert.He is the former head of RIA Novosti MediaLab (2011 – 2013).
Mr. Janda is the Executive Director and member of the executive board of the European Values Think Tank headquartered in Prague, Czech Republic.
Mr. Lough is Managing Director of JBKL Advisory Ltd, a strategy consulting company, and an Associate Fellow with the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. In a private capacity, he has been providing pro bono advice to the Bitkov family as part of the campaign for their freedom since 2015. He is the co-author of the Chatham House research paper ‘Are Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Reforms Working?’ (November 2018) https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/are-ukraines-anti-corruption-reforms-working
Mr. Shekhovtsov is an external Lecturer at the University of Vienna, Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, an expert at the European Platform for Democratic Elections, and General Editor of the “Explorations of the Far Right” book series at ibidem-Verlag. His main area of expertise is the European far right, relations between Russia and radical right-wing parties in the West, and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe.
Ms. Snegovaya is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. Expert on the sources of support for the populist parties in the Eastern Europe. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The New Republic, and columnist at Russia’s “Vedomosti” business daily.
Dr. Denis Sokolov
Dr. Sokolov is a research expert on the North Caucasus for Free Russia Foundation focusing on the informal economy of the region, land disputes, and institutional foundations of military conflicts. He is a senior research fellow at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) and research director at the Center for Social and Economic Research of Regions (RAMCOM).
Mr. Vladimirov is an energy security expert specializing in natural gas and renewables markets at the European policy think tank, Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD). His work at CSD focuses on analysis of the energy security and governance risks in Europe, political risk and international security. Before joining CSD, Mr. Vladimirov worked as an oil and gas consultant at the The Oil and Gas Year, where he worked in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. He holds a Master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He has written several academic publications, multiple policy reports and is the co-author of four recent books on Russian influence including the Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe, Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers,The Russian Economic Grip on Central and Eastern Europe and A Closer Look at Russia and its Influence on the World.
Mr. Weiss is an American journalist and author of the New York TimesBestseller Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. He is a senior editor for The Daily Beast, a consulting executive editor at Coda Story, a columnist for Foreign Policyand a frequent national security analyst and contributor for CNN.
Mr. Zaslavskiyis Head of Research for the Free Russia Foundation (FRF) and Head of Underminers.info, a research project exposing kleptocrats from Eurasia in the West. Until December 2018 he was a member of the Advisory Council at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative for which he wrote a report on “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West”. Prior to joining FRF, he was Senior Visiting Fellow, Legatum Institute, and Bosch Fellow, Chatham House. He has written reports on Eurasian energy and kleptocracy for the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, Martens Centre and other think tanks.
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Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation sat down with Roman Badanin, editor in chief of Dozhd (TV Rain), one of the few independent news outlets in Russia to talk about the media situation in the country and the role of Western support.
How do you assess the media situation in Russia today, and what are your predictions for the future?
The situation is both deplorable and promising. There is no need to explain why it is deplorable – many good media outlets have been ruined, a lot of journalists have lost the opportunity for professional fulfillment, the vast majority of existing media is under state control to one degree or another, and so on. What is much more important is why I, nevertheless, see the situation as being promising. The thing is that while the Russian authorities were preoccupied with their attack on the media, the world did not stand still but moved forward both with new technologies and new approaches to media. And this gives us a lot of opportunities. Here is what I mean: there was something called Samizdat in the USSR where many thousands of people across the country reproduced censored materials at their own peril. Today, there is again something like Samizdat and no one, except the Russian state itself, is to blame for this. About 10 years ago, there were a lot of large media players in Russia – oligarch media, large state media, and subsidiaries of large foreign media. Today, some of these large media have disappeared, some of them have been banned, some have been kicked out of the country. But they have one thing in common: they have lost a monopoly on the Russian audience, especially the young.
Instead, a considerable number continue to appear as a whole cohort of young media and quasi-media that resembles Samizdat. Many of these media are not registered or are registered abroad. Moreover, many of them are generally anonymous, such as Telegram channels, which have taken on the role of media. Or bloggers – they are not registered either, yet they are also engaged in media delivery, sometimes delivering news or even more complex content. One can make a million criticisms about them, yes, but this is the reality of today. And all these projects are small, so they do not need a large management.
Another distinguishing feature of these media, in addition to being small and not following all the previous conventions, is that they are often specialized in the subject matter. They are also experimenting with new business models, such as using native advertising, crowdfunding or non-profits. That’s why I am very hopeful about all of this. Instead of the big unwieldy giants with whom the Russian authorities have been waging war in recent years, suddenly and unnoticeably, perhaps for the authorities themselves, a great number of new promising teams have appeared. Of course, for such a large country as Russia, this is not enough and there should be more of these media. And there is a need to spread regionally, which is the most difficult part, yet all of these developments make me look to the future with hope.
The audience to which independent media reaches out to is quite small in Russia. Is it possible that independent media could play a role in changing the status quo, or will it remain a niche for a certain group of people?
I do not like to ask myself such big global questions. Let’s look at the facts and I will give the following example. Last September, there was a story that at the Mayak plant in Chelyabinsk Oblast, allegedly, there was a leak of radioactive ruthenium and the radioactive cloud traveled over the whole of Russia, and no one knew about this. You ask me, as a journalist, if writing about this cloud could become a driver for some sort of changes? I just write about it because it’s important. If it provokes some public response, some mass movement, then it is good – this is one measure of the success of journalistic work. But I’m not a politician or an activist, I am a journalist and the main thing for me is simply to tell people that this is happening.
What are your thoughts on the new generation of journalists and journalism education in Russia? There are new journalists who want to work for Rain TV and others who want to work for national channels.
It’s hard for me to speak about the quality of education since I myself did not study with a faculty of journalists. But then again, there are mixed feelings of pessimism and optimism. Regarding the pessimistic views, there are more than 1,000 new journalists graduating each year in Russia – more precise numbers can be found in my column on this topic in Republic – and they all must go somewhere to work. The majority, of course, go to VGTRK [the National State Television and Radio Company] – the largest employer in the media market in the country. They are hardly guilty because of this and are going there just with the thought of earning money and knowing that they will not be fired.
The other thing is that the Russian media market didn’t develop during those ten years in the 1990s before the crackdown happened. People just do not really understand what journalism or a journalist’s ethical code is. Many of them just land on this conveyor belt and do not have time to think about what they are really doing. This is a big problem because many of these people think that they do real journalism. Even worse – their friends, counterparts, PR professionals and the audience start thinking in a similar manner. I am more pessimistic here, but the optimistic side is that there are still a lot of people, especially young ones, who are eager to do something real, especially in the big cities. They have the enthusiasm and the courage, to be honest journalists – it is a brave thing to be an honest journalist in Russia today – but since the media market hasn’t properly developed, they have no experience, no basic skills, and no ethical journalistic standards.
What do you think the West, in the context of the current relations between the West and Russia, could do to help independent media in Russia?
There is a growing trend all over the world to support independent media projects with non-profit funding. These media projects specialize in socially important topics; however, they can’t get by just on readership traffic – it is another type of journalism. Every society needs an independent and investigative media. America came to fully understand this after Donald Trump became president. For example, three years ago there were fewer than 100 of these types of media outlets in America, and now there are around 300. I wrote about this in more detail on Medium [an online publishing platform] at Stanford University. And where is the Russian reality in all of this? In Russia, the trend is quite the opposite.
I understand that with Putin in Russia and the legislation not allowing certain things, that everyone is afraid to invest money in Russian media. This is understandable, but here is what is not acceptable: Russia is the world’s largest country with a nuclear bomb, a population of 140 million, a bunch of tanks, two open conflicts, and a million unresolved internal problems that, if they play out, could fundamentally affect stability in the world. Despite all this, I see a declining trend towards Russia, as supporting freedom of speech here in the US has become more important. Yet I think that what the West can do is to continue to support independent media in the most transparent and clear way, and to stop being afraid of the million tricks that the Russian authorities come up with to force the West to abandon these investments.
But can this Western support be detrimental to the people and organizations in the current situation?
Yes, it can, but it’s a matter of choice. There is always a choice – either you do it, or you do not. Therefore, this support should be as transparent as possible. Supporting these 300 successfully working media organizations is based on transparent and clear mechanisms. Every reasonable person understands that these media projects receive donor support due to the importance of their work and no one complains about this. If everything is done in a transparent way, reasonable people will not question Russian journalists who could receive donor funding in the same way. The Russian authorities, if they want to do something with them, well, they can do it anyway.
Do you expect that Russia will continue to spread disinformation? How is it possible to fight disinformation both in the West and within Russia? Do you think the Western approach to countering disinformation is the right one?
I won’t go into the political aspect of this. But yes, I expect that Russia will continue its disinformation tactics. If a manager tries some method which seems to work well and doesn’t cost much, then you, like a smart manager, should probably continue with this technique and develop it further. In order to combat disinformation, we must, first of all, invest in and support independent, high-quality journalism and related projects.
Roman Badanin, editor in chief of Dozhd (TV Rain). He is currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, focusing on the development of independent media in Russia.
In recent years, the war of ideas in Russian society is on the rise as intensively as the class warfare should have been in Soviet society while approaching the mature phase of communism. It’s no wonder then that President Putin has reignited the use of the almost forgotten phrase, “the Fifth Column.”
In a previous article, I tried to describe how Russian propaganda works, specifically, the weakening of critical thinking, playing emotions (such as pity, fear, and anger), the creation against this background of an image of an enemy to which internal problems are attributed, consolidation and justification of sacrifice in the face of hardships created by “an external threat”, and the artful creation of extreme situations and fear of impending disaster.
“Putinism is perhaps the first regime in history where the official ideology is deviant behaviour,” writes Russian independent journalist Arkady Babchenko, publisher of the Iskusstvo Voiny (“Art of War”) magazine.
Russian authorities held another forum devoted to the so-called “Russian World.” Official media reported that the fifth “World Congress of Compatriots” was held in Moscow. The congress was heralded as “an important milestone in the consolidation of the Russian World.”
Free Russia Foundation has asked Ksenia Kirillova, a Russian journalist, and contributor of the “New region” newspaper to analyze the main characteristics of Russian general mentality and the ways Kremlin is playing with it.
Vladimir Putin is coming to the General Assembly (GA) of the United Nations this month. This visit has sparked a discussion about his motives and intentions among Russian-speaking opposition figures and experts in international affairs.
For nearly a week now, food products that fall under sanctions have been destroyed in Russia. Obviously, such a decision has provoked massive dissatisfaction among Russians and for the first time in the last year and a half, has shaken the government’s authority.
The prolific spread of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) propaganda effort has become an obsession among national security experts, but there is another urgent threat much closer to home.
Freedom of Speech is undoubtedly a universal value. There is the First Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights adopted back in 1789. In Russia, Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees this freedom, though this and many other rights are not respected in today’s Russian reality.