Monday

1st Jun 2020

Opinion

No joke: Russian propaganda poses EU threat

  • Kremlin said it doubled media spending from €630 million last year to €1.2 billion this year (Photo: kremlin.ru)

In a recent TV show with high-school pupils, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said that his country’s borders “do not end anywhere”.

He said it as a joke, but in the context of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine, its bloodbath in Syria, and its military build-up in the Baltic region, it wasn’t funny.

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  • Russian media is trying to sow ethnic hatred in Germany ahead of elections (Photo: Caruso Pinguin)

A lot of Europeans think that Russian propaganda does not concern them.

They think that its provocations are just games and that people like me, who come from former Soviet domains, are victims of old phobias.

These people are in denial on Russia, whose propaganda has infected European debate like a virus.

We are already late in trying to react. Some are still not ready to start.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament proposed a modest €800,000 budget for the East Stratcom Task Force, a counter-propaganda unit in the EU foreign service, but member states struck down the idea in November.

The task force was also due to grow from 11 people, who are currently seconded by member states, to 16 permanent EU officials, and to expand its mandate from the east to the south, but the EU foreign service hierarchy showed no interest.

Strategic error

Politicians, especially in France and Italy, tend to underestimate the effect of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

They are making a strategic mistake if they think that threats to Central and Eastern Europe do not also threaten them.

The Kremlin, along with jihadist groups, especially the so-called Islamic State (IS), are today the two principal sources of hate speech in Europe.

On 23 November, the European Parliament adopted a report calling on the EU to react.

We do not want to fight propaganda with propaganda, but to have an effective communications strategy to expose lies.

Russia reacted furiously to the fact the report mentioned the Kremlin alongside IS.

It goes without saying that their objectives, tactics and target audiences are different.

The Kremlin is trying to sway the general public against the West by using TV broadcasters such as RT, online mass media such as Sputnik, and by deploying troll and bot armies on social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Jihadist groups are trying to radicalise individuals mostly via social networks.

Their strategies are the same, however. They both want to turn Europeans against their own governments and against liberal values. They are both trying to gain influence in the West by brainwashing people and turning them against each other.

Long reach

The numbers show the frightening extent of their reach.

The Kremlin itself has said it doubled media spending from €630 million last year to €1.2 billion this year. Some, like Konstantin Borovoy, a former Russian MP who joined the opposition, believe the real figure is much higher.

RT broadcasts in more than 100 countries and can be switched on in almost every hotel room around the world. The troll factory in St Petersburg, where over 300 paid bloggers work around the clock, is also expanding.

At the same time, the EU estimates that IS has managed to recruit 5,000 Europeans to join its cult.

EU authorities do not tolerate media that incite violence in the name of Islam, but they turn a blind eye to Russian media that incite hatred against refugees.

Are we happy to swallow Russia’s fake stories, such as the lie about Lisa, the German girl who was said to have been raped by asylum seekers, or the lie about the Austrian court that was said to have acquitted a refugee who raped a boy at a swimming pool?

In this light, Putin’s joke on Russia’s borders is even less funny.

It underlined the fact that Russia’s viral ideology has penetrated into the heart of Europe and it was meant to mock our legitimate concerns.

German chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned that Russian “internet attacks” and “false information” were feeding radicalism in Europe.

US authorities have also said that Russian information warfare helped the Putin-friendly Donald Trump come to power.

Election risk

The elections in France and Germany next year could be decisive for the EU’s future.

The Kremlin-financed National Front party in France can count on massive support from Russian propaganda. The far-right AfD party in Germany, which also stands accused of taking Russian money, can count on the same.

It is right and proper to defend free speech and media pluralism in Europe.

These are some of our core values and part of the reason why the Western model continues to be more attractive to the vast majority of people.

It is also right and proper to draw a line between free speech and premeditated lies, however.

In these difficult times, the East Stratcom Task Force is an asset.

The EU foreign service unit, of just 11 people, has, over the past year or so since it began its work, made a genuine impact.

Its staff, of EU officials, diplomats, and former journalists, all of whom are fluent in Russian, is highly professional in its debunking of Kremlin fakery.

It identified more than 2,000 fake reports in the past 12 months alone. Its Disinformation Review, a weekly newsletter, and its daily tweets and infographics, should be in the laptops and phones of all MEPs and senior EU officials.

Creepy borders

It’s time to take action.

It’s time for the EU to fortify projects like East Stratcom, for the EU, for Nato structures, and for individual member states to strike back and to coordinate their activities.

It’s also time to give more support for independent media that report the truth.

If we don’t, we risk leaving Putin as the only one laughing, as his borders, both real and ideological, creep further west.

Petras Austrevicius is a Lithuanian MEP and the vice-chairman of the liberal Alde group in the European Parliament

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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