Securing Democracy Dispatch

March 20, 2018

News and Commentary

The Allies Take a Stand: Following the chemical attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skirpal and his daughter in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May ordered the immediate expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats identified as undeclared intelligence officers. Addressing the House of Commons, May said “it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act,” and that “this will be the single biggest expulsion for over thirty years and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian state has acted against our country.” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson added, “Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision—and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision — to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe for the first time since the Second World War.” The United States, France, and Germany expressed solidarity with the U.K. by issuing a joint statement condemning Russia for an “assault on U.K. sovereignty” and “a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law.” President Trump told reporters that “it certainly looks like the Russians are behind it. Something that should never, ever, happen and we are taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.” Russia expelled 23 British diplomats in retaliation and is also planning to shut down activities of the British Council and Britain’s consulate-general in St. Petersburg, but the strong and unified response to this attack suggests that Putin may have finally gone too far. Meanwhile, U.K. police are investigating the death of Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian exile who was close friends with the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky after he was found dead in his London home last week. The postmortem exam revealed “compression to the neck,” raising the specter of foul play, but at present it is not clear if Russian entities may have been involved in his death. (Gov.UK, Reuters, The Guardian, CNN, BBC)

Russian disinformation on Skirpal poisoning: Over the past week, in a coordinated disinformation operation, Russian new outlets and covert networks have promoted several narratives about who could be responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skirpal and his daughter. Dmitry Kiselyov, one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, said during his news program, “The only ones for whom the poisoning of the ex-GRU colonel is advantageous are the British.” He also suggested that the poisoning could be a “special operation” aimed at justifying a boycott of the upcoming World Cup tournament or, more generally, to “feed their Russophobia.” Speaking with Sputnik, former FSB Agent Sergei Stepashin called the poisoning “a primitive provocation by British intelligence services.” The EU vs Disinformation campaign explained that the pro-Kremlin media outlets’ response followed a familiar tactic used after the downing of MH17, where “Russian state outlets were quick to pollute the information space with ‘alternative’ explanations for the tragedy.” According to the DFR Lab, “Those who followed the accusations and counter-accusations which followed the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 will be aware of the range of ways in which the Kremlin sought to blame Ukraine.” Another DFR Lab analysis tracked the Russian Foreign Ministry’s efforts to create a viral hashtag on Twitter, which engaged in “mocking the British government with tweets accusing the British of blaming Russia for everything, even the weather.” The Twitter posts were “shed [light] on the close cooperation between embassies, RT commentators and independent trolls.” Both RT and Sputnik also broadcast the claim that the United States had access to the Novichok family of nerve agents  — basing their news coverage on a 1999 New York Times article about a U.S.—Uzbek agreement to clean up a chemical arms plant in Nukuz, Uzbekistan. (DFR Lab, RT, The Washington Post, Sputnik, The New York Times, EU vs Disinformation)

U.K. broadcasting regulator Ofcom may revoke RT’s license in U.K.: Following the Skripal poisoning, several U.K. parliament members called for restrictive measures on RT, including revocation of its license in the U.K. According to The Guardian, “The broadcasting regulator Ofcom, which has the power to close a TV channel if it decides it is not a ‘fit and proper’ holder of a license in the UK, warned RT that a Russian act against the U.K. would trigger a fast-track investigation to potentially revoke its license.” RT rebuked Ofcom’s message, claiming that the British government was using RT as a “sacrificial political pawn,” and “that revoking its broadcasting license would make a mockery of the concept of press freedom in the U.K.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said of the situation, “I can tell you right now that not a single British media outlet will be working in our country if they shut RT down.” (The Guardian, The Hill)

U.S. sanctions Russia for interference in 2016 elections: The Trump administration imposed sanctions on five entities and 19 individuals “for meddling in the 2016 election and for cyber-attacks that targeted U.S. infrastructure.” Treasury Secretary Mnuchin explained, “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.” While these sanctions represent the most significant steps taken against Moscow since Trump assumed office, The Wall Street Journal notes that the sanctions “are unlikely to have much of a practical impact, in large part because the latest list hits many entities and individuals already blacklisted and the newly added people aren’t important to Russia’s economy or politics.” Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the administration’s action a “grievous disappointment” that “fall[s] far short of what is needed to respond to that attack on our democracy let alone deter Russia’s escalating aggression.” Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce affirmed that while the sanctions are an important step by the administration, “more must be done.” Evelyn Farkas writes in the New Atlanticist, “It is not sufficient in response to the Kremlin’s attack on our elections, various assaults on NATO nations and other democracies, use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom, and targeted bombing of civilians in Syria (and attempts to paper over Assad’s use of chemical warfare).” In response to these sanctions, Russia is planning to add more Americans to its “blacklist.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by news agency RIA Novosti as saying that Russia is preparing sanctions against “a new group of American actors” and possible “additional steps.” (U.S. Department of Treasury, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, New Atlanticist, Politico)

European Commission reports on countering disinformation online, drafts proposed regulation: The EC’s High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation (HLEG) released a report that offers a multi-dimensional strategic approach to fighting disinformation. The approach consists of actions designed to enhance transparency of online news, promote media and information literacy, develop tools to empower users and journalists to tackle disinformation, safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media, and promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe. While many applaud the report’s recommendations, others criticize the group for failing to address social media platforms’ role in the spread of disinformation. Meanwhile, the Silicon Republic reported on a draft EC regulation “to address potentially harmful business practices by online platforms, as well as the dearth of effective redress schemes for smaller businesses that depend on said platforms to reach customers.” Under the new regulation “companies will need to provide small businesses with more information about the machinations of their ranking algorithms. As well as this, tech firms will need to offer businesses, app developers and other traders a formal complaint process if they are delisted or demoted without an explanation.” Additionally, the draft states that search engines would need to provide firms with assurances that their search ranking “is conducted in good faith” and inform companies if they can pay to be ranked more prominently in search results. A spokesperson  for the commission said it was “fully committed to promoting fairness and transparency in so-called ‘platform-to-business relations.’” Once the draft is published, it would need to be agreed upon by national governments and the European Parliament. (European Commission, Silicon Republic, The Financial Times)

U.S. Justice Department fines uranium transport company for bribing Russian official: The U.S. Justice Department fined Maryland-based Transport Logistics International (TLI) $2 million for bribing Russian officials to win uranium shipment contracts. TLI admitted to bribing Vadim Mikerin, an executive at the Russian-state owned nuclear power giant Rosatom, with more than $1.7 million from 2004 to 2014 via an assortment of shell companies and accounts in Latvia, Cyprus, and Switzerland. In 2015, a Maryland federal court sentenced Mikerin to four years in prison for laundering money connected to the TLI bribes. Daren Condrey, former co-president of TLI, is awaiting sentencing for charges of wire fraud and bribery. The fine is the latest development in a federal probe into corruption in the Russia-U.S. uranium trade. Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Cronan explains that “Bribery of foreign officials not only distorts markets and undermines democratic institutions, it can also pervert the incentives of those who are in a position to safeguard the public, as it did in this case involving the transportation of nuclear material.” (Reuters, RFERL)

Bipartisan call for social media CEOs to testify ahead of 2018 elections: Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have said that executives from companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google should testify and explain what they are doing to counter the exploitation of their platforms ahead of 2018’s congressional midterms. Last year, representatives from the big three testified before the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary panels; however, no CEOs appeared. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, recommended that the chief executives testify as to how they are can tackle ongoing abuse of their platforms, while noting that the companies have not done enough to counter “fake news” and disinformation. The Senators also suggest that “companies should do more forensic work to understand how their networks were manipulated” during the 2016 elections. At the same time, Facebook’s leadership is being called upon to explain their use of data to lawmakers regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the company “harvested millions of Facebook profiles of U.S. voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.” This raises questions about Facebook’s role in the 2016 U.S. elections since the lecturer who developed the algorithms for the data company had ties to St. Petersburg State University and the company gave a briefing to Moscow’s Energy firm, Lukoil. In response to the outrage, Facebook’s vice president, Paul Grewal, said in a statement, “We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.” Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar have called for senior figures from Facebook to appear personally in front of the Senate. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee dissolved its investigation of Russia’s interference in 2016 amid partisan bickering that dominated its work. (Bloomberg, The Guardian, CNN, The Washington Post)

Russia continues efforts to undermine democracy in the Balkans: On his regional tour which included stops in EU-candidate countries Macedonia and Serbia on March 13–14, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell, warned that “Russia [is] playing an increasingly destructive role in much of the Balkans in spreading disinformation, undermining democratic institutions.” He cautions that “the Balkans are facing increased covert and overt pressure from Russia, and that Washington and NATO need to do more to keep the region from destabilizing.” NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Curtis Scaparrotti stated that “the area I am concerned about today is the Balkans” since, “Russia is at work in the Balkans and we have kind of taken our eye off the area.” Reuf Bajrovic, Richard Kraemer, and Emir Suljagic highlight these issues in a report for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. According to the report, “Russia is actively supporting indigenous political and paramilitary actors seeking to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina,” and “by supporting secessionist actors in Bosnia, Russia hopes to establish a client state in Europe, where it can damage NATO credibility and weaken the transatlantic Alliance.” ASD’s Stephanie De Leon and former GMF Fellow Sophie Eisentraut write in Facts and Findings, a publication of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, that in order to counter Russian information operations “EU institutions and member states need to also address the growing disillusionment with the West that Moscow feeds and exploits.” (RFERL, FPRI, Fact and Findings)

Concerns intensify over China’s increasing global economic presence: The Trump administration last week blocked a Singapore-based company with Chinese connections from acquiring major U.S. chip manufacture Qualcomm, amid concerns about the national security implications of such an investment. Concern about Chinese investments has also increased in Germany, where Geely, a Chinese multinational automotive manufacturing company, recently announced that it had acquired a significant share in Daimler, a German company and owner of Mercedes-Benz. The Financial Times reports that this is “the latest in a series of controversial forays into German industry and financial services, the deal crystallized longstanding fears about Chinese intentions.” According to a senior German official, “the fear is that the state is somehow behind this deal, that geopolitical as well as economic interests are tied up in it.” (The New York Times, The Financial Times)

Putin victory a foregone conclusion: Russia’s “managed democracy” was on full display on Sunday as Vladimir Putin easily secured another six years in office after winning an election void of any real suspense. The results were “pre-ordained,” according to Alina Polyakova of Brookings, who wrote in The Atlantic that Putin’s landslide victory is the “culmination of his nearly two-decades-long project to control information in Russia and manipulate Russian society.” She writes that social media trolls amplified “disinformation narratives aimed at legitimizing the brazenly illegitimate election,” while “Russian television — the real powerhouse of the state’s propaganda machine — pushed hard to get voters to the polls” by spreading anti-Western disinformation. It is another reminder that the tactics used by the Kremlin to meddle in foreign elections are often first deployed at home. (The Atlantic)

Our Take

Brussels Forum 2018: Dubbed “a call to action” by Washington Post Columnist Josh Rogin, the GMF’s Brussels Forum unfolded March 8–10 with a mission to revise, reboot, and rebuild the liberal international order, including our democracies. As author Robert Kagan noted in his opening remarks, “It’s very hard for China, no matter how rich it is, or Russia, which is not so rich, to undo this system unless we basically allow them to do it. We have the capacity to push back. We just need to understand that the pushing back has to start occurring.” A less encouraging moment came when the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini was asked during a session why her staff had not defended East StratCom from attacks in the Netherlands. Mogherini, who has taken heat in the past for her rather tepid response to Moscow’s foreign meddling and for being less than supportive of EU initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, responded simply that, “my staff is sitting there, so I turn to them on the question … we are, not only publicly, but also legally as far as I know.” Not exactly the kind of pushback Kagan called for. (The Washington Post)

A full recap of the event and videos of the individual sessions can be found at:

Former Chairman Mike Rogers on Securing Democracy: ASD Co-Directors Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly and former Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and ASD Advisory Council member Mike Rogers hosted a panel on the need for a transatlantic response to the threats that Russia and other state actors pose to Western democracies. Chairman Rogers stressed that responses to both cyber-threats and information warfare are hampered by the difficulty of attribution, which has become increasingly complicated due to the fact that we are seeing “nation state caliber tradecraft in cyber-attacks being shifted to non-nation states.” This problem also exists in the information space, as Russia has employed carve-outs and proxies to pollute social media with toxic, divisive, and, at times, outright false content. But, as Rogers noted, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that “we are living in the age of affirmation news … where if I believe X, I am drawn to the news that says X. And if I believe Y, I’m drawn to the news that says Y.” Rogers concluded that the Russians “have managed to get Americans at each other’s throat,” and that their efforts have been “wildly successful.” The conversation continued over a working dinner on “Developing a New Toolkit to Defend Our Democracies” that brought together a dynamic group of policymakers and diplomats, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Ambassador Kurt Volker, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Congressman Mike Turner (R-OH), and Chairman Rogers.

See the full video of the event:

Lessons Learned on Fighting Back: In Brussels, ASD hosted an in-depth discussion that brought together key foreign policy and civil society officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov, MEP David McAllister, Margo Gontar of, and Lorant Gyuri from Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute. Participants held off-the-record discussions of the role civil society can play in working with and complementing government-led responses, and of the role of national governments, the EU, and NATO. Following the discussions, Daniel Mitov responded to a question on the difference between Western and Russian foreign interference, stating, “The challenge is that a lot of people see it as moral equivalency, this mutual interference. And it’s not: they are two completely different things. One thing is promoting good governing practices, which proved themselves as good governance practices. The other thing is destructive practices, which basically destroy the fundamentals of good governance.”

Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly discussed ongoing Russian interference with CSPAN’s John McArdle: “This was not just 2016 issue, it’s not tied to specific mid-term elections, these are going on every day with Russian accounts trying to promote certain messages, amplify certain content, raise fringe views, and pit Americans against each other. We need to deal with this ongoing problem and find ways through government, tech companies, and through broader society to tackle this issue.” (CSPAN)

Rosenberger and Fly also joined The Open Mind’s Alexander Heffner: “What we’re trying to highlight is the fact that this is an ongoing problem. The Russians continue to do this even after the election, they’re doing it as well in Europe, and we want to make sure that more Americans are aware that this is a major challenge to our Democracy.” (Open Mind, Thirteen)

Hamilton 68 dashboard

Hamilton 68 dashboard: Since the start of the Syrian government/Russian offensive in Eastern Ghouta, accounts monitored on Hamilton 68 that typically focus on issues of interest to U.S. audiences have predominantly focused on amplifying pro-Kremlin talking points or discrediting content that is critical of the attacks. This shows that when needed, Russian-linked accounts can mobilize to push specific messages that seek to confuse, discredit, and distract from issues of greater concern to Moscow. It is a pattern that has been repeated after the poisoning of Segei Skirpal in Salisbury, U.K. The content promoted also shows a level of sophistication and research. One of the top 10 URLs being linked-to between March 12–14 was a 1999 New York Times story that highlighted a U.S.–Uzbek agreement to cleanup a chemical plant in the former Soviet Republic that was linked to the nerve agent used in the attack. Interestingly, promotion of the NYT story on Twitter proceeded an article that appeared in Sputnik on March 14 on the same report titled “U.S. Had Access to Substance Allegedly Used to Poison Skirpal Since 1999—Report.” The obvious implication being that the U.S. could have been responsible for a false flag operation on U.K. soil.

Quote of the Week

“This latest action by Russia fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit western democratic institutions and processes. The United States is working together with our allies and partners to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again.”

– Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary, March 14, 2018

Worst of the Week

Jewish groups express outrage after Putin says they may be responsible for 2016 election meddling: In an interview with Megyn Kelly on NBC, Russian President Vladimir Putin again denied that he ordered meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He said that he “couldn’t care less” if Russian citizens tried to interfere in the election because they were not connected to the Kremlin and “do not represent the interests of the Russian state.” He went on to suggest that Jews or other ethnic groups had been involved in the meddling, saying, “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship … Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work.” He also proposed that “France, Germany, or ‘Asia’ might have interfered in the election — or even Russians paid by the U.S. government.” Jewish groups have expressed outrage after the interview. Anti-Defamation League chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement, “President Putin bizarrely has resorted to the blame game by pointing the finger at Jews and other minorities in his country,” and added that “it is deeply disturbing to see the Russian president giving new life to classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that have plagued his country for hundreds of years.”

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.