The STRATCOM Summit has been taking place in Prague this week, with over three-hundred participants representing 29 countries over the five days.
Over one hundred specialists representing 27 countries are coming to the restricted part of the SUMMIT.
The meeting is being facilitated by Czech think tank European Values.
“The 2016 StratCom Summit in Prague was organised at a crucial time when Russian disinformation [was] increasingly targeting Western audiences, trying to sow confusion, distrust and division. I came away from the Summit encouraged by the level of awareness and expertise across Europe, its governments and organisations, who are all actively engaged in countering Russia’s disinformation operations,” said General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, about last year’s gathering.
“The 2016 StratCom Summit in Prague was organised at a crucial time when Russian disinformation [was] increasingly targeting Western audiences, trying to sow confusion, distrust and division.”
Kremlin Watch is a strategic program run by European Values, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and linked disinformation operations focused on working to destabilise the Western democratic system.
The introduction to their annual report, the premise for this year’s summit, makes clear the threats uncovered by this investigation are very real.
“Demand is growing for a coordinated international response to Russian aggression, with many EU heads of state, other European politicians, and security experts voicing alarm about the threat. As of May 2017, several Western countries have experienced Russian interference in their elections, while the number of cyber attacks across Europe continues to rise,” the report says.
The comprehensive strategic assessment for 2017 makes for a sobering read, covering the EU28 including, for now, the United Kingdom.
“Demand is growing for a coordinated international response to Russian aggression, with many EU heads of state, other European politicians, and security experts voicing alarm about the threat. As of May 2017, several Western countries have experienced Russian interference in their elections, while the number of cyber attacks across Europe continues to rise,”
The report immediately identifies two countries as being ‘collaborators’ with Russia: Greece and Cyprus, who have shown – across a number of assessed factors – no resistance to Russian influence.
The authors identify a group of eight EU states who largely continue to ignore or deny the existence of Russian disinformation and hostile influence operations – Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia – and three states who half-acknowledge existence of the threat. They deduce the latter hesitation is attributable either to geographic distance and historical neutrality (Ireland) or to the presence of pro-Kremlin forces in the political domain which suppress any efforts to place the threat on the agenda (Italy and Bulgaria).
Hungary was yesterday put on notice of proceedings by the European Commission.
Belgium “recognises the threat of Russian disinformation abroad, particularly in the Eastern neighbourhood, but does not consider this to be a problem for its internal security, and therefore does not consider it a national priority. Its security institutions predominantly focus on the threat of Islamist terrorism,” while Spain and France consider “Islamist propaganda to be the more serious issue and mostly attribute disinformation campaigns to terrorist recruitment. In France, incoming President Macron seems poised to make a shift in this position, but it remains an open question given France’s historically sympathetic attitude to Russia.”
Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland are recognised as cognizant of the risks but the counter-measure strategies are identified as being in infancy and having “weak spots”, rendering them vulnerable.
The report also states: “For many of the EU28, a wide gap remains between mere acknowledgement of the threat and the development of concrete and viable counter-measures. The implementation of an effective strategy at the state level requires at least partial political consensus, civic support, and strong democratic institutions. Strong rhetoric and condemnation of Russian interference comes at virtually no political cost, but developing a pan-government approach necessitates the dedication of all major political parties and government bodies, as well as their active resistance against local obstacles and Kremlin-linked counter-pressures.”
This assessment is accurate by this investigation’s own findings.
The four states showing the highest levels of activity, resilience, and readiness to respond to the Russia threat, given their historical experiences, are Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.
This assessment in the case of Sweden is accurate by the findings of the previous “Skada” investigation.
The Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), the report says “stand at the forefront of the fight against hostile Russian influence, in large part due to their geographic proximity to Russia, historical experience, and sizeable Russian minorities. These countries have adopted strong countermeasures against Russian influence, often restricting Russian pseudo-media. They also actively engage their Russian-speaking minorities, to greater or lesser success. The Baltic experience with Kremlin-linked subversion tactics is the most developed within the EU28 and serves for major lessons learnt.”
“For many of the EU28, a wide gap remains between mere acknowledgement of the threat and the development of concrete and viable counter-measures.”
The report is clear on the need for a free and independent press to form part of a counter-measure, saying “there is a strong negative correlation between the degree of Russian subversive influence on the one hand and the state of media literacy and press freedom on the other. In countries with deteriorating press freedom, for instance, due to measures that limit serious investigative journalism, submission to Russian influence has increased in recent months (e.g., Hungary and Croatia).”
But the assessment of the Western EU nations serves as a stark warning that press freedom alone is not enough.
According to the report, the “traditionally powerful European states only begin to display interest in countering Russian disinformation during, immediately before, or even after major domestic elections, when they have experienced or anticipate Russian interference”
They correctly identify that France widely ignored the threat until the recent presidential elections even though newly elected President Emmanuel Macron experienced Russian meddling during his campaign. His official foreign policy adviser recently stated, “we will have a doctrine of retaliation when it comes to Russian cyber-attacks or any other kind of attacks.”
The government of the Netherlands barely reacted when Russian disinformation circulated during the 2016 referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine but during the 2017 parliamentary elections, it decided not to use electronic voting in order to avoid possible Russian meddling.
The Dutch intelligence agency AIVD has since concluded that Russia tried to influence the 2017 elections by spreading fake news.
In Italy, initial concerns about disinformation and hostile influence operations emerged during the constitutional referendum in December 2016, when the rising anti-establishment Five Star Movement proliferated disinformation and pro-Kremlin propaganda. Nonetheless, the report starkly highlights that “the government is still not taking any action to counter these efforts. Italy is also a Kremlin ally when it comes to halting new EU sanctions related to Kremlin-sponsored atrocities in Ukraine and Syria.”
The report is clear that the United Kingdom had been “supporting many strategic communications projects in the Eastern Partnership region, but the debate on Kremlin subversion in the UK was very limited before the Brexit referendum in 2016.”
“The UK’s close ties to Kremlin-linked money has also not featured on the agenda until recently” the report adds.
“traditionally powerful European states only begin to display interest in countering Russian disinformation during, immediately before, or even after major domestic elections, when they have experienced or anticipate Russian interference”
Recognition of these threats “results in certain efforts to manage the crisis,” but in the fight against fake news, “governments often seek the help of corporations like Google and Facebook in order to protect their elections, but these companies have very limited assistance options,” the authors point out.
The conclusion rings true of this investigation’s own findings, in that “most measures undertaken at the last minute turn out to be “too little, too late” and lack necessary coordination. Importantly, policies against hostile foreign influence must be designed and implemented long in advance.”
Yesterday, the Information Commissioner’s Office launched an investigation into British election interference and voter manipulation following the submission of detailed evidence by this investigation.
Rightly, the report’s authors highlight that Germany’s position could be the game-changer: “with federal elections in September 2017, Germany is currently preoccupied with developing resistance against Russian meddling.”
Over the last few months, Germany has begun taking the threat posed by Russia much more seriously than ever before, “actively boosting its cyber defence and also promoting cyber security internationally, even creating a new Bundeswehr command.”
“If the next German government tackles this threat with true German precision and intensity,” the authors write, “it will spill over to EU policy and prompt substantive democratic counter-pressure. Until now, the concerns of mostly smaller EU members on the Eastern flank have been insufficient to instigate a shift in EU policy.”
The UK is one of the most concerned countries sending a delegate to the summit, only behind Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
“The conclusion rings true of this investigation’s own finding in that “most measures undertaken at the last minute turn out to be “too little, too late” and lack necessary coordination. Importantly, policies against hostile foreign influence must be designed and implemented long in advance.””
The report correctly states that MI5 chief Andrew Parker has warned Russia’s threat to the UK is growing and has stated that Russia’s spy activity in the UK is extensive, as is its subversion campaign in Europe in general.
The authors also correctly identify that MI6 chief Alex Younger has also highlighted the issue of subversion and the disinformation campaign waged by Russia and that it was the British intelligence services who alerted the US about the Democratic National Committee hacks and the alleged Trump-Russia connection in 2015.
The report correctly identifies that the LSE has published a report raising alarms about weak British electoral laws which can allow foreign interference to undermine British democracy by allowing an influx of funds from unknown or suspicious sources to fund political campaigns.
The report also states “the UK government appears to be more concerned with the diplomatic and international aspects of Russian influence rather than malign domestic effects,” while “Facebook has warned that the June 2017 British General Election may become a subject of attack by fake news and other disinformation online.”
As this investigation has clearly identified there is a serious weakness in the UK system of regulation and countermeasures, a critical threat which is ongoing at this time.