Soviet-era Russia almost invented modern political propaganda. Whatever the truth today about “fake news” or of claims that Russia “hacked the US election,” it’s clear that Russia's state-owned foreign language news services are still directed by the Kremlin, and are and have been attempting to sway elections around the world, broadcasting on Sputnik and RT for example what can best be described as carefully-crafted spin promoting selected candidates.
Security officials believe there are two basic elements to the Russian strategy: leaking hacked documents, such as the Democratic National Convention emails obtained by Wikileaks during the US presidential election, and creating – or seizing on and exaggerating - false or misleading news events.
It doesn’t take much to get crap passed around.
The most notorious example of the latter came in January 2016, when Russia’s state-owned Channel One reported that “Lisa,” a 13-year old girl from a Russian-immigrant family, had been abducted and raped by “southern looking” asylum seekers in Germany. The news was not exactly fake – Lisa had indeed vanished for a night, and had initially claimed to have been raped.
But before police established neither crime had occurred (she had stayed overnight at a friend’s house), protesters from Germany’s Russian speaking diaspora appeared outside Mrs Merkel’s office waving banners reading “our children are in danger!” and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused the German government of a cover-up. The Lisa case is widely viewed the most egregious example of Kremlin propaganda to date, and nothing on the same scale has been seen before or since.
One European official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed it was an experiment, a “test” to see how far such tactics could be used to inflame discontent with Angela Merkel’s policy on immigration.
London’s Telegraph newspaper cites the East StratCom Task Force (set up by the European Union set up to monitor and respond to Russian propaganda) as saying “Angela Merkel, who will seek a historic fourth term as chancellor of Germany at federal elections in September, has been singled out as a priority target in the coming year.”
And the Telegraph reports that at least two other European security arms expect Russia to meddle in their elections, promoting candidates keen to “drop sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine, and strongly sceptical of NATO – Europe’s remaining bulwark against any further Russian aggression.
The DGSE, France’s equivalent of MI6, said this week it expects Russia to intervene in the presidential election in April and May on the side of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front. The agency’s director general believes Russia will use internet bots to spread fake news favourable to Ms Le Pen on social media and may leak embarrassing emails stolen from her opponents by hackers, Le Canard Enchaîné , a French weekly, reported on Wednesday.
In just the past two weeks, Denmark has publically identified Russia as a key cyber espionage threat, Norway said its Labour Party and email accounts belonging to several civil servants had been targeted by Russian hacking group, and Italy said it suspected Russia was behind a four-month malware attack against its foreign ministry last year…
March’s vote in the Netherlands, the French presidential elections in April and May, and polls in Norway, the Czech Republic, and Serbia, may also be targeted…
“We have to realise this is not a media strategy run by public relations executives,” said Dr Stefan Meister, who studies Russian propaganda in Germany. “This is a security strategy, run by security agencies," he said, "it is part of the security doctrine of the Russian Federation”
This is not a reason to hyperventilate. But it is a reason to remember what Robert Bidinotto reminded us of last week – that “Putin is a killer. He rose to power via the Moscow apartment bombings atrocity… He has had his political rivals murdered by poison and other nasty means. He runs an brutal oligarchy with an iron fist, and permits no opposition” – and to subject the sniff test anything emanating from Russian news services.
As we always should have.
[Picture by NRO]
UPDATE 1: Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, The (UK) Observer reports the American intelligence community is “pushing back” against a White House “it considers leaky, untruthful and penetrated by the Kremlin”:
A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
None of this has happened in Washington before. A White House with unsettling links to Moscow wasn’t something anybody in the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community even considered a possibility until a few months ago. Until Team Trump clarifies its strange relationship with the Kremlin, and starts working on its professional honesty, the IC will approach the administration with caution and concern.
UPDATE 2: Note that these stories are both written in Britain.
Yet at this writing [in America itself], the Russia story still hasn’t caught fire.
As [David Corn of Mother Jones] explains [to Politico], the press corps already has its hands full with Trump stories…
And tweets. You have a media obsessed with tweets, with the short-term, with the easy hits, and ignoring anything further.
“This quietude is good news for Putin—and reason for him to think he could get away with such an operation again,” Corn concludes.