Today, the chance of a “calamity” occurring between the East and the West is higher than during the Cold War, states ex-Pentagon chief William Perry. Russian historian Alexey Fenenko is of the same opinion. Fenenki believes that “over the past years a limited armed conflict between Russia and NATO has become more probable than during the Cold War.”
On 12 October 2016, at a seminar hosted by The Netherlands Atlantic Association, a group of presenters outlined the clear evolution in Russia’s methods for extending its sphere of influence, when compared to earlier decades. A key element of this new method, as elaborated on by Jakub Kalensky, of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Aivar Jaeski, of NATO and Mark Laity of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) is that Russia uses disinformation as an important element in its foreign policy. This type of disinformation campaign is also known as hybrid warfare. A good example of this is the developments around the investigation into the shooting down of flight MH-17 in Ukraine airspace. Almost three hundred people died, of which nearly two hundred were Dutch citizens. Investigations have shown that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile, used by Ukrainian rebels. However, the Kremlin has denied any involvement and has made numerous statements claiming that the investigations are speculative and false. Additionally, the Kremlin has stated that it has proof that there was no Russian involvement in the tragedy, but this “proof” had not been released to the investigative authorities until last week- despite two years of demands from the Dutch government to see it. There is still much doubt regarding this “proof”. In the upcoming weeks the investigation team of MH-17 will look into this.
This is not the only example of Russia using disinformation as a real policy method. Last year, a new department in the EEAS was set up, the East Stratcom Task Force, in response to Russia’s disinformation campaign. The Task Force is responsible for finding Russian propaganda and debunking it. On their twitter account, the Task Force publishes all the results of their investigations. A funny example are the claims coming from the Russian Ministry of Defense that the Crimea was already Russian about 160 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Whereas this is an rather entertaining example, Russia is very serious in its disinformation policy. A year before the invasion of Crimea, Putin officially stated that Russia had no plans to invade Crimea. European (and other international) leaders believed him. A year later, Russia invaded Crimea, and pointed out that it never said it would not.
What Russia does with its disinformation policy is create uncertainty, allowing for a situation where the average citizen does not know what to believe. Where the Bolsheviks were clear that everybody besides themselves were not trustworthy or good, Russia now is spreading the idea that you cannot believe anybody, full stop. Not even the Russian leaders themselves, since Russian people disappear when they ask questions and speak critically about the Kremlin. Pro-Russian journalists who write that Russia did nothing wrong in the Crimea and with the MH-17 crisis get rewarded for their efforts.
Worse yet is that the current situation in Europe shows that this disinformation policy is working. Nobody knows what is true and what is not. The consequence of this is that there is no straightforward policy towards Russia, as is shown with the MH-17 investigations. Because of all this uncertainty, European leaders do not stand up against Russian interference in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood. Their disinformation campaign has been very effective at wedging a policy divide between European states. Bilateral relations with Russia, varied across the continent, get in the way of a unified response. For example Latvia and Estonia have a difficult relationship with Russia, and for Estonia the Russian threat is “very real.” However, for other European Member States, such as Italy, who blocked further sanctions on Russia this week, the Russian threat is a bit further away, and they prefer a stable relationship with Russia because of economic interests. These elements contribute to a lack of a common European voice towards the Kremlin and its foreign policy.
However there are ways we can combat Russia’s hybrid war. What we can do, according to Kalensky, is contribute to the investigations of the East Stratcom Task Force, and give them information about Russia’s disinformation policy whenever we come across it on the web or in print. This way, it can be shown to the general population that the disinformation policy is a real and tangible threat, breeding disorder and mistrust, happening on media across Europe, and that there is a need to do something about it.
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