A European Commission official told an audience in the European Parliament on Tuesday (31 January) that Russian propaganda efforts at destabilising the EU are currently focused on attacking German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Jakub Kalensky, a member of the European External Action Service task force assigned with studying Russian propaganda, described one important tactic as being to divide EU public opinion by denigrating a concrete person, a state, or a specific political party.
Lately, the target of these attacks was mostly Angela Merkel, he said. In terms of denigrating a particular state, the main target was Ukraine. The main target was previously the US, but the situation has changed since the election of Donald Trump, he explained.
A research paper was circulated at the event by America’s International Republican Institute, showing that in the Visegrad countries, even mainstream media portray Merkel as a loser.
Another Russian propaganda tactic was to spread as many contradictory versions of events as possible, he said. This concerned cases which might potentially have a negative impact on the Kremlin’s reputation, such as the downing of the Malaysia Airline MH17 flight, Boris Nemtsov’s assassination, or the recent bombing of a Syrian humanitarian convoy.
In such cases, a Russian “disinformation army” tries to spread as many conflicting versions of the events as possible, in order to confuse public opinion, he explained.
“I will never know where the truth is, there are simply too many versions of what happened” – this is how Kalensky said the Kremlin wanted people to think in such cases.
The Commission official said it was very hard to measure the influence of such disinformation campaigns, and that even media academics consulted by his services found it difficult to identify the influence of one particular media or another.
“The aim is not to persuade [people] that Russia today has a very nice media, it’s to make you buy the disinformation message,” he said. Kalensky further cited a study made in three of the Visegrad countries which shows that between 20% and 40% of people are buying obvious disinformation planted by propaganda media.
As an example, he cited the pro-Kremlin message that Kyiv is to blame for the war in Eastern Ukraine, despite the clear fact that there are Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory, not the other way around.
To wrap it up, Kalensky said that pro-Kremlin disinformation in Russian or “whatever European language” was “extremely successful”, and that the EU “should definitely do more about it”.
Polish Civic Platform MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski expressed outrage that the Commission was doing so little against Russian propaganda, at a time of decisive elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. He said he had asked Helga Schmid, the Secretary General of European External Action Service, how East StratCom is doing, and her reply was “perfect, excellent, growing”.
“I said no. She insisted everything was fine,” the MEP went on. In fact, according to Kalensky’s explanation, a total of 11 people worked for East StratCom, and that they were national experts on short contracts with the Commission, and that the task force didn’t have a budget.
Saryusz-Wolski said the propaganda spread not only to mainstream media, but in political life, and are expressed by many MEPs on a daily basis.
“Those lies win elections, those lies govern, and those lies I hear, from the mouth of my colleagues, members of this house. I would say that between 100- 140 members of this house out of 751 are using Kremlin narrative here,” he said.
The Polish lawmaker also recalled that the report by MEP Elżbieta Fotyga was “amazingly voted” on, and that he was not surprised by the way that it was rejected by the “friends of lies”, but by the abstention rate, which he found appalling.
On 23 November, the Parliament passed the polarising “EU strategic communication to counteract anti-EU propaganda by third parties”. The resolution, based on a draft by Anna Elżbieta Fotyga (PiS, Poland) doesn’t focus exclusively on Russia (it also speaks of the propaganda by Islamic State), but it generally mobilised MEPs in two camps – those who supported the view that Russia pursues hybrid warfare aimed at destroying the EU, and those who thought such language can only be counterproductive.
The vote was passed with 304 votes “For”, 179 “Against” and a very high number of abstentions – 208.
“It shows how great damage is made in the hands of the political elite of Europe, because of the Russian narrative,” he said.
Too little too late?
“Some might even say that it is too late, because certain political processes are already running and we’ll see the results in Dutch, German and French elections. Do I have any reasonable things to propose? We should shout, and not calmly explain,” Saryusz-Wolski said, posing a question to Kalensky about what kind of budget and what sort of team os needed to counter such grave threats.
Kalensky explained that the best solution is probably not to concentrate on the Brussels task force, but to have hybrid threat centres in national capitals. The Czech Republic is reported to be the only country to have established such a force, although it came under attack from its own president.
MEP Jaromír Štětina (EPP, Czech Republic), who hosted the event, said it was time to call things by their exact name.
“We are really in a state of war with Russia,” he said, adding that this was hybrid war, and disinformation was part of it.
“The main goal is to destroy the EU,” he said.
The event was organised by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF).