Countering Kremlin Influence in European Democratic Processes

Caption

Visitors to a home appliance store watch the annual 2020 press conference of Russian President Vladimir Putin on TV in the store's showroom. © AP Photo/Viktor Korotaev

The government of the Russian Federation uses different approaches to destabilize democratic governments across Europe and encourage the rise of populist, anti-democratic regimes. During the 14th session of the Democratic Resilience in Europe during a Pandemic discussion series organized by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an esteemed panel of experts discussed Kremlin influence in the European democratic process and what approaches can be taken by the international community to effectively counter the threat it poses to both established and aspiring democracies in the region.

The event gathered 114 participants from 36 countries and featured simultaneous interpretation into Albanian, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian, South Slavic language, and Ukrainian. The webinar was facilitated by IFES senior political finance adviser and Regional Europe Office Director Magnus Öhman.

Daria Azariev North, IFES Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia, discussed the role of Kremlin influence in European countries and its impact on the democratic process. Azariev North noted that while the “Kremlin Playbook” is not a new phenomenon, its implementation is being accelerated through new tools and targets. Classic methods of interference like propaganda, economic pressures, support for nationalist and separatist movements and outright military interventions have been exacerbated by a multi-pronged approach, including hybrid warfare tactics such as complex disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. Azariev North emphasized that each European country has distinct vulnerabilities, which is why IFES is committed to holistically strengthening stakeholders’ resilience by building their capacities in cybersecurity, political finance, civic education and information integrity.

David Levine, elections integrity fellow from the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, discussed the Kremlin’s motivations for trying to influence other countries: weakening democratic institutions they see as a threat, sowing discord and attempting to gain popular support for the Russian regime. Levine examined this threat through the lens of France, Germany and the United Kingdom (UK) to understand why the Russian government specifically targets those countries. All three countries play a substantial role in European politics, making them prime targets for Russia. Historically, countries like the UK have been relatively easy for Russia to access and influence, while France and Germany have had more success in countering Russian electoral interference through forceful responses and broad public awareness about the Kremlin’s efforts.

Olga Lautman, researcher and analyst of Russian Foreign Influence, spoke about tactics that the Russian government uses to influence European countries, such as economic capture, which is currently weakening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European alliances. Lautman discussed other hybrid-warfare tactics such as cyberattacks, amplifying division, disinformation campaigns and dissemination of selected emails for the purposes of compromising key decision-makers in target countries. The propping up of far-right extreme candidates by the Russian government is not motivated by ideology, but the way it supports the Kremlin mission to weaken democracies and sow chaos. Lautman believes that Western actors should employ strategic sanctions, cut off the money flow, understand disinformation and hybrid warfare strategies and draft clear foreign policies to mitigate Russian influence.

Nika Aleksejeva, lead researcher for the Baltics at the Atlantic Council's DFRLab, shared the challenge of identifying whether an operation was Russian state-backed, requiring Aleksejeva and her colleagues to collect and assess as much evidence as possible. Social media platforms have made some steps to counter external interference and manipulation, but Aleksejeva believes that more is needed, and governments should not have a say in what platforms should do. She argues that civil society organizations should have more of a say, which means that platforms should be more transparent and share data with non-governmental organizations and research institutions. Regardless, social media is used to undermine election integrity through tools like "deepfakes." Real events may potentially be disregarded as fake, while deepfakes will spread quickly, and theories will spiral before people are able to decipher the truth due to the nature of social media.

Professor Eduard Melnikau, from the Department of Social Sciences at the European Humanities University in Lithuania, offered his take on Russia’s presence in Belarus. According to statements made by representatives of the Lukashenka administration, Russian content occupies at least 65 percent of the Belarus media space. According to GemiusAudience, a quarter of Belarusians do not visit Belarusian websites at all, while a third learn the latest news through the Russian media. Melnikau explained that this is largely because some Belarusians do not navigate to news sites directly but through aggregators of large Internet corporations: American Google and Microsoft and Russian Yandex and Mail.ru. Furthermore, Russian propaganda pushes the narrative that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are branches of the same people: there are no alternatives to the merger of Russia and Belarus, and the U.S. is a threat to peace. The Lukashenka regime realizes the danger of Russia’s information influence on Belarusians but is unlikely to admit this given their economic dependence and the fact that Russia is their closest ally.

Published on November 9, 2021.

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