In 21st century’ wars, the media, internet and virtual environments are as important as the traditional weapons. In a world addicted to information, the ability to create alternative truths, the so-called ‘post-truth’, and the reality denial, are becoming a very powerful weapon. Unlike other countries, Russia already entered full-time on it. Since the overthrow of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, Russia has begun its strategy of ‘asymmetric response’ which is a strategy of erosion, through all means at its disposal, spies, irregular military means, false news, ‘trolls’, ‘hackers’, financing of radical political parties or independence movements. These actions are taking place in countries that Russia considers hostile, mainly those belonging to the EU and NATO.
From the Russian perspective, what is happening today is a counterattack. “The Russians see the act of war in a complex way. They do not understand it only as armed combat: they also use political, economic and any other means to achieve their objectives,” explained Janis Berzins, director of the Riga’s Centre for Security and Strategic Research, attached to the Ministry of Defence of Latvia. “Russia has political objectives which wants to achieve in Europe, and it does everything possible, within certain strategic limitations. I cannot imagine Russia attacking France or Germany, it does not make sense. But we might see Russia trying to influence political outcomes, elections, people, the goal is to use our democracies against us,” Berzins said.
“Russia has many means and uses them all simultaneously. There is a narrative which they want to spread out and they do it through media such as RT and Sputnik,“, pointed Dace Kundrate, an expert from the NATO’ Department of Doctrine, Concepts and Experimentation of the Strategic Communications Centre in Riga. These media develop the message and the social networks and trolls amplify it.
Now, the investigation of the Russian plot in the United States is being carried out, which seeks to clarify if there was connivance between the Donald Trump’ campaign team and Moscow. Many questions about the possible interference of the Kremlin in the United Kingdom, where the triumph of Brexit in last year’s historic referendum shaken the pillars of the European Union (EU), are also being produced right now. The controversy over how Russia seems to have influenced the past US elections is increasing, and some of the Facebook representatives recently admitted to US congressional investigators that from Russia have been generating and organizing thousands of fake Facebook profiles to influence the users. The infrastructure of fake accounts is not limited to Facebook, but a whole network of Twitter bots has been used as well.
Weakening both the EU and NATO has always been part of Moscow’ strategic plan. In this sense, the problem also affects Spain, where Russian seems to have been part of the communications regarding the secessionist movement in Catalonia. “There are indications to think that the pattern of digital disruption detected in digital debates about the elections in the United States or the Brexit, has also occurred in Catalonia and the actors of this disruption seems to be identical,” says Javier Lesaca, researcher visitor at the School of Media and Public Affairs of the George Washington University. Once again, the Kremlin, RT and Sputnik media used a very high number of social media accounts coming from the Chavismo and Venezuela spheres, to propagate a negative image of Spain in the days before and after the illegal referendum on October 1st, according to a detailed analysis of more than five million messages made by the George Washington University. The report warns of serious damage to the reputation, political and economic of Spain and the EU.
Following on the same line, the different European elections held in 2017 in France, The Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, have been a perfect testing ground for these purposes. Although the Russian interference, according to some observers and analysts, is more a symptom than a cause: “Even without Russian interference, Donald Trump probably would have won anyway, because of the dissatisfaction and the satiety of the people. And that is exactly what Russia can exploit. As it is happening in Europe with the radical parties of the extreme right or extreme left’ growth.” Another account which defends the Kremlin’s interests very aggressively is ‘Voice of Europe’ (@V_of_Europe): Voice of Europe looks like a newspaper, but it has only one channel on Twitter and another on Facebook where shares content from other media, clearly false information: “British public schools force four-year-old girls to wear a veil” or “The Dutch police lacks powers before criminal immigrants.” The anonymity offered by the networks would therefore fit perfectly with the new strategy of the Kremlin.
The Russian perception of the threat derived from the EU and NATO has remained unchanged since the Cold War. Lately Russia has tried to combat it in a different way, more subtly, where its participation is not clearly shown, but pushing and interfering in any conflict or internal EU matter. The objective is to weaken the EU cohesion and to question its own foundations. Internally, the Russian government also uses this strategy to show an image of strength and stability as opposed to the “chaos” that Western democracies show.
These are new times. When the media started to speak not long ago of hybrid wars, nobody even imagined about battlefields far from the scenarios where things happen, and cross border attacks without leaving a trace. Or they not leaving clear traces but allowing to track their origin. So, the idea of a Russian interference in Western democracies was something like the conspiracy theory, i.e., a boutade.
It would be necessary to analyse more thoroughly the figure of Nigel Farage, Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning, the transsexual soldier who was the source of the Cablegate leaks. Nigel Farage, once the leader and soul of the Eurosceptic Ukip party, which played a vital role in the Brexit campaign, has been involved with Assange, whom he has even visiting in his self-imprisonment. Farage assures that it was a journalistic meeting for his radio program on LBC, but to date no material referring to this meeting has come out on the air. Assange, an Australian hacker with an anarchist ideology, persecuted by the FBI, has been taking refuge at the embassy of Ecuador since June 2012. Ecuador is a member country of ALBA, the Bolivarian alliance founded by Hugo Chávez. Julian Assange is responsible for WikiLeaks, whose website published thousands of emails harmful to Clinton which, according to the US intelligence services, were part of the plan to achieve Trump’s victory. The director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, said that “WikiLeaks was a hostile intelligence service often instigated by state actors like Russia.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, exchanged messages with WikiLeaks during his father’s White House campaign, as he himself would have acknowledged. The communications made through internal messages on Twitter occurred at the same time when WikiLeaks leaked hacked documents from the Democratic Party. In these messages, WikiLeaks urges the president’s son to disseminate the hacked documents and proposes some ideas such as not recognizing the results of the elections, if the Clinton Democrat would have win.
Every day seems more plausible that Assange does dirty work for Russia, as a part of geopolitical strategy to destabilize the European democracies and the US. With regards to Spain, Assange has been very much in favour of the seditious movement of Catalonia, insulting in the media to the PM and the King of Spain. The concern has reached such a level that companies like Google are putting into operation a series of cybersecurity tools to protect democratic electoral processes against foreign interference. The combination of intelligence operations, disinformation, post-truth, unconventional media and computer attacks which some experts define as ‘hybrid warfare’ has not stopped gaining prominence until today. And we are the enemy. It is worrying.