Russia 'not so strong' inside EU as feared
Germany’s former spy chief has said Russian propaganda was failing to make an impact in Europe and that Russian intelligence services were weaker than imagined.
Augustus Henning, the former head of Germany’s BND intelligence service, said Russia was “trying to influence public opinion” in the EU, but was “doing it in a not very sophisticated way. If we look at German media, they are not very successful in the mainstream media and political parties”.
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"We see that Russian TV is sometimes far away from the truth and that’s a problem,” he told EUobserver in an interview at the Tatra summit, a conference organised in Bratislava last Saturday (29 October) by the Globsec think tank.
“The best way to respond is for our own media to give an objective picture of the situation”, he said.
“We live in open societies and the open society in Germany, in Europe, is our best weapon against all these attempts to influence public opinion”, he added.
Henning said the US and China also try to sway minds in Europe and that Russia had a “balancing” effect.
“The Chinese try to gain influence … the Americans heavily influence our public opinion, therefore, to a certain extent, it [Russian propaganda] is balancing”, he said.
Czech intelligence services, in a recent report, said that Russian spies had built up an “infrastructure” of sympathisers that posed a threat to the country’s stability.
Its BIS intelligence service said “these activities pose a threat to the Czech Republic, the EU, and Nato” because Russia could “destabilise or manipulate Czech society or its political environment at any time”.
Henning said: “I don’t see that Czechia is really challenged by Russia, nor is Poland’s internal structure. I don’t think Russia is so strong in the West”.
He said that no matter how much Russia spent on influence operations, it had an Achilles heel.
“The problem for Russia is that they don’t offer a very attractive model of society or the economy”, Henning said.
“If Russia was an attractive model for the Ukrainians, they wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. Why don’t the Ukrainians want to stick with Russia, why are they moving to the West? Because our model is far more attractive than the Russian model”, he said.
Ukrainian people, in 2014, revolted against a pro-Russian leader over gross corruption and human rights abuses.
Russian media said it was a US-manufactured coup.
Hanning’s assessment comes amid growing alarm that Russian intelligence poses a threat to EU stability.
Andrew Parker, the head of the UK’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, told The Guardian, a British newspaper, on Tuesday that Russia was becoming “increasingly aggressive” in Europe.
“It is using its whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways - involving propaganda, espionage, subversion, and cyber-attacks. Russia is at work across Europe and in the UK today. It is MI5’s job to get in the way of that”, he said.
EU leaders, at a summit in Brussels last month, also voiced worry.
“Leaders emphasised all sorts of concerns, from [Russia’s] airspace violations, to its disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks, its interference in the electoral processes of the EU and beyond”, EU Council chief Donald Tusk said after the meeting.
The EU will, in December, decide whether to extend the duration of economic sanctions on Russia.
The measures were imposed over Russia's invasion of Ukraine and after Russia-controlled forces appeared to have shot down the MH17 airliner in 2014.
With Russia also accused of slaughtering civilians in Syria, there was little mood at October's summit to relax the Ukraine-linked sanctions.
Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Wednesday said Greece, a Russia-friendly EU state, had come down on its side, however.
"We really appreciate Greece's stance to not agree with the policy of sanctions", he said in Athens.
The Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, said "countries such as Germany, Greece, and France ... [also] want an understanding with Russia".