Indeed, to a great degree the voluntarist and dispersed nature of this campaign reflects the relative weakness of Russia, which lacks the economic, political, and soft power strength directly to challenge a much stronger if less focused West. Nonetheless, observation suggests that there is clearly some effort to coordinate certain operations across platforms. Often this happens after an initiative is taken by individual agents and actors. There also appear to be certain national and regional priorities and approaches.
There is of course the deep cynicism which often sees Moscow cultivating rival extremes, all in the name of spreading chaos and division.
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In its broader narrative it is happy to encourage anti-capitalist and liberal protest movements such as Occupy, as well as to play to social conservatives. This has very significant implications not just for understanding Russian policy but also in shaping European responses.
This report seeks to identify the degree to which this is more than just a random medley of negative memes and self-interested falsehoods, and where the semi-structured political offensive against the West is planned and managed. However, in keeping with its general philosophical belief that it is at political war and faces an existential cultural and political threat from the West, it reserves to itself the right to co-opt any individual or organisation when it feels the need.
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Putin is both the final source of authority and control in these campaigns and also an active player. Sometimes, he and those who speak with his voice simply support particular players and ventures.
Chapter 1: An adversary returns
The primary official instrument of foreign affairs is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs MID and its global network of embassies, consulates, and other representations. From championing supposedly oppressed Russian minorities abroad to thundering against the alleged iniquities of Western policy, it continues to be a powerful presence. To this end, they undertake a broad range of political missions, from computer hacking to gather potentially compromising material, through spreading disruptive disinformation and funding outlets for them, all the way actively to fomenting unrest, and direct sabotage, as visible in Ukraine now, and Estonia and Georgia especially in and , respectively, but also continuing.
The SVR, the primary foreign intelligence service, is perhaps the least influential of the three at present, and mostly concentrates on intelligence gathering across the spectrum, from political and military secrets through to commercial information. It is especially interested in active measures. Like the GRU, it also has a substantial cyber capability. State-owned or state-dominated corporations such as Vnesheconombank, Rosneft 50 percent government share , and Gazprom However, a crucial aspect of the mobilisation state is that the government can and will from time to time issue requests or ask favours that are clearly offers that cannot be refused.
This is not always or necessarily a reactive response, as some wealthy Russians are also enthusiastic participants in active measures, out of conviction or ambition. Investment banker Konstantin Malofeev, for example, stands accused by the European Commission and the US of being a prime mover behind the seizure of Crimea and destabilisation of Donbas. For example, RISI, the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, has become infamous in the Balkans not only for lobbying for a more assertive Russian policy but also as a source of funds for certain local groups, and a front for agents and agitators.
It also reflects Soviet-era KGB penetration and generous contemporary financial privileges. Moscow is painfully deficient in soft power — the capacity to influence through affection and positive example. It is, moreover, driven by state action, not civil society. Elsewhere, Russia has a certain cachet, even if often for mythologised and misunderstood reasons, as an obstacle to supposed American hegemony or as a bastion of traditional values.
That said, its role is often misunderstood and over-stated, perhaps precisely because it is by definition public, and also because it is easy to assume causation where it might not exist. It is not, after all, as though every Eurosceptic or even NATO-sceptic individual was made that way by Russian propaganda. Nonetheless, disinformation — the spread of often false or distorted news — and a deluge of alternative opinions meant to drown out the realities are undoubtedly central elements of the current political war.
In part, this is the realm of foreign-language media such as RT which broadcasts in English, Arabic, and Spanish and the Sputnik online news agency which publishes in 30 languages. However, Russian-language television is widely available outside the country, and there is a plethora of newspapers and sites available online. Beyond using media outlets, Moscow also looks for others whom it can use to push its message or conduct political operations.
Sometimes, these are politically sympathetic, often not so much because of an informed enthusiasm for all things Russian, so much as out of a sense of shared animosity, whether to the US or liberal values. Others are essentially suborned agents, or acting out of personal self-interest, whether as paid lobbyists or for other direct gain. Finally, Moscow is especially willing to make use of malign non-state actors such as insurgents, terrorists, extremist paramilitaries and, increasingly, organised crime groups. These assets also include computer hackers.
There are common themes to Russian propaganda, largely relating to the alleged iniquity of the US, the need for cooperation with Russia against terrorism, and the moral equivalence of Moscow and the West. There is also an overarching hope of kicking up a sufficient dust cloud of rumour, speculation, half-truth, conspiracy, and outright lie, to obscure the realities of Russian activities in Ukraine, Syria, and at home, and leave people feeling that it is impossible to know the objective truth.
The next best thing to being able to convince people of your argument, after all, is to make them disbelieve all arguments. There is also considerable variation in the techniques and messages. In part, this reflects a desire to keep the messages fresh and foil routines intended to identify or block Russian gambits, and in part the considerable autonomy of the agents involved. However, the nature of active measures activities is also a product of geography and culture, of the way that different regions and countries of Europe offer different points of vulnerability and are susceptible to particular approaches.
There are clear differences between the approaches taken by Russian agents in various European countries. In Slovakia, for example, Moscow appears to be mounting a two-pronged campaign. On the one hand, it is seeking to build bridges with the prime minister, Robert Fico, who has connections with Russia he was even present in Moscow at a United Russia bloc rally in on the night Putin announced his plan to reassume the presidency.
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However, since the general election Fico has also allied again with the more overtly Russia-friendly right-wing Slovak National Party. That said, he continues to seek to toe the line with Brussels. This creates a political environment that, in the future, may constrain any government that seeks to take a tougher line on Moscow. This provides traction on the political process, suggesting a certain vicious circle is now spinning in Bulgaria, independent of Russian actions. However, most European countries have no more than moderate affiliation with and exposure to Russia, and this is often based on purely pragmatic issues such as energy supply or a negative connection deriving from anti-US or anti-EU sentiment, or simply a reluctance to consider Russia to be a threat.
Where institutions are strong, the best Moscow really can hope for is disruption , encouraging internal divisions and uncertainties in the hope of rendering the nation in question incapable of playing a strong role. A study of the messages being transmitted to the Swedish population via the Russian media, for example, found the overwhelming majority related to presenting the West as hypocritical, hostile, and in crisis. The goal was to cause alarm, to play to the nationalist right, and to turn national attention towards the Middle East.
Where institutions are of only moderate strength, Russia can hope to acquire a degree of influence , at least through specific individuals and minority parties. These connections can help Russia do things such as potentially exert leverage in the future. In countries where institutional safeguards are weak, then Moscow will target the state , not in the expectation of being able to capture it, but to seek to influence it on specific issues — such as sanctions — and to work on nudging it into a more favourable position.
As a country with low affinity or vulnerabilities, the United Kingdom, while institutionally strong, appears not to be especially concerned about the Russian challenge, precisely for that reason. As a result, Russia hopes simply to exploit it. The economic dislocations of Brexit may only deepen the temptation for the British authorities to turn a blind eye to questionable transactions.
However, those countries characterised by intractable hostility, notably Estonia and Poland, are clearly not likely to be won over. As a result, Moscow seeks to demonise them, to exploit them as a negative example to others, whether by presenting them as unthinkingly paranoid Russophobes or, where possible, by targeting them as convenient warnings.
Furthermore, Patrushev is himself a player, not a referee. Instead, insofar as there is a command-and-control centre, it appears to be the Presidential Administration. This is a much larger organisation than the Security Council, with almost 2, staffers, as well as the capacity to task various government and even outside bodies with analytic and other responsibilities. The Cabinet of Ministers administers presidential policy. But it is the Presidential Administration that helps the president formulate that policy, communicates it to the executive agencies, and monitors performance.
The Presidential Administration is a powerful and complex agency under the presidential chief of staff, whose influence extends far beyond that envisaged in the law which frame it, for the very reason that it dominates access to the president and is the main conduit for his decisions. As such, it speaks with the authority of the Kremlin.
Crucially, it also appears to be the institution through which requests for approval for major active measures operations appear to be routed, with a few exceptions largely relating to personal relationships with the president. As described earlier, the attempted coup in Montenegro in , for example, appears to have been enthusiastically overseen by Patrushev, who took it personally to Putin — crucially, not before informing the Presidential Administration, which still had a chance to weigh in on the decision.
Although Vaino has both the MID background and was born in Estonia, the consensus among both Western Kremlin-watchers and Russian insiders and near-insiders seems to be that he is focused on domestic policy and management issues, working with first deputy chief of staff Sergei Kirienko. Foreign affairs are instead part of the portfolio of the other first deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov. It is also indicative that Gromov a patron of Margarita Simonyan, head of RT  appears to be responsible for media affairs, even though Kirienko is the point man for domestic politics.
To this end, he and the other key players including Ushakov and Surkov draw on key elements of the Presidential Administration of relevance to the active measures campaign, notably:. He has been especially connected with attempts to undermine the sanctions regime, notably by engaging Western lobbyists and seeking to encourage foreign businesspeople to campaign against them in their own countries. One of the think-tanks from which it regularly commissions reports is the aforementioned RISI, once part of the SVR and now notionally independent, although still closely connected to the spooks.
RISI is not just an analytic centre of especially hawkish character and debatable impact , though. Notionally independent, these advisory bodies are housed within and serviced by the Presidential Administration, and a number play a significant role in active measures.
The Presidential Council for Coordination with Religious Organisations plays a crucial role in liaising with the Russian Orthodox Church and other state-affiliated faith bodies. The Presidential Administration is the single most central institution in modern Russia, cocooning the president, curating his information flows, and communicating his wishes.
But it also has a unique breadth of responsibilities and unusual level of coherence. A number of interlocutors have suggested that a combination of an organisational esprit de corps and a keen awareness of the privilege of their position and by extension the desire not to lose it tends to mean that these are far less cannibalistic than is often the case within Russian officialdom.
The Presidential Administration is a secretive structure, and even former staffers are often reluctant to discuss the detail of its work. A very tentative assessment is that — when active measures operations move beyond the level of local and agency initiative — it is the primary locus of coordination. Some actions are managed at the Security Council level when they fall squarely within its remit. Others are driven by direct instruction from Putin, or his personal entourage, or are managed through other institutions.
In some cases, the Presidential Administration is able essentially to dictate the official line, such as to the state-controlled media or, increasingly, to MID. In other cases, the relationship is more delicate.
Dealing with the intelligence services, for example, appears to be something done not by Presidential Administration departments, but by personal aides to key leadership figures such as Gromov. That was something negotiated high above our heads, in the banya [bathhouse] or over drinks. To this end, it adopts not just a whole-of-government, but whole-of-state, approach which sees every aspect of Russian society as having a duty to participate, and which is happy to exert managerial oversight through more than conventional government channels.
These range from quiet words to independent businesses and businesspeople who nonetheless may depend on state contracts or simply want to avoid adverse pressure through to engaging criminal organisations. This reflects the way Russia now has a hyper-presidential, largely de-institutionalised political system.
This personal, transactional relationship to the state — or rather Putin, and his court — is managed through a variety of organs, of which the Presidential Administration is undoubtedly the most important. There are, however, many others, from the Security Council to key institutions such as the ministries of defence and foreign affairs and the security agencies that retain a certain degree of autonomy, at least over their own apparatus.