Hybrid Threats, Russia, And An Attack On The West
The term ‘hybrid warfare’ was first mentioned sometime around 2005, so the story goes, and the year after it was used to try and describe the tactics deployed by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since then, the term “hybrid” went on to occupy most of the discussions around modern and future warfare, while also being broadly adopted by senior officials and military groups.
"the NATO Capstone Concept, defining hybrid threats as “those posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives.”
The concept of a “hybrid threat” was first introduced in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Strategic Concept of 2010 and then incorporated in the NATO Capstone Concept, defining hybrid threats as “those posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives.” Their 2010 Strategic Concept, entitled Active Engagement, Modern Defence (AEMD) was, according to the organisation: “A very clear and resolute statement on NATO's values and strategic objectives for the next decade.” They set their stall out decisively, I suppose as an aid to the uninitiated, saying: “Collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security are the Alliance's essential core tasks in today's transformed security environment, an environment the Alliance is equipping itself for both politically and militarily.”
According to the organisation itself, recapping essential history in the concept’s preamble: “The political and military bonds between Europe and North America have been forged in NATO since the Alliance was founded in 1949; the transatlantic link remains as strong, and as important to the preservation of Euro-Atlantic peace and security, as ever. The security of NATO members on both sides of the Atlantic is indivisible. We will continue to defend it together, on the basis of solidarity, shared purpose and fair burden-sharing.”
Straight away it became obvious why NATO is perceived as a threat to its enemies, and why – very squarely – Russia is placed in the category of a potential threat, with particular focus on its ballistic and nuclear weapons being placed on or located within reach of the European borders. NATO makes clear an active and effective European Union contributes to the overall security of the Euro-Atlantic area, defining the union as a unique and essential partner.
“The two organisations share a majority of members, and all members of both organisations share common values. NATO recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence,” the AEMD states, adding: “We welcome the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides a framework for strengthening the EU’s capacities to address common security challenges.” They also clearly refer to the value of the United States, saying non-EU Allies make a “significant contribution” to these efforts. From the beginning, it is easy to see why a country such as Russia may have wished to involve themselves in the affairs of both EU member states and the United States. A response to a response, to a response. Yet, the hand of reciprocal co-operation was firmly on offer.
“Notwithstanding differences on particular issues, we remain convinced that the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined and that a strong and constructive partnership based on mutual confidence, transparency and predictability can best serve our security,” the AEMD adds.
Though the idea of a hybrid threat has come a long way since the concept was first introduced, it was drafted to include cyber-threats, political disruption, state-engaged criminality, and extremism, in addition to traditional warfare threats. Reading it in 2017, it feels like they had a good idea something was cranking up but not precisely what. Perhaps it was the deus ex machina moment, a device introduced to solve the unsolvable. The draft Capstone Concept, while it sounds like something straight out of Jason Bourne was a document completed in August 2010. It articulated the “unique challenges posed by current and future hybrid threats” and explained why these developing challenges required an adaptation of strategy by NATO, so it could adjust both its structure and capabilities accordingly. Capstone discussed both a general approach to dealing with the (then) new hybrid threats, as well as laying down a framework for the organisation to deliver an effective response should such threats manifest in reality. The draft was central in informing the development of the new AEMD Strategic Concept and, even in those early days, NATO was sure “analysis and maturation” would support Capstone’s implementation. The paper also suggested broader implications for NATO’s core military components.
“Hybrid threats will apply pressure across the entire spectrum of conflict, with action that may originate between the boundaries artificially separating its constituents. They may consist of a combination of every aspect of warfare and compound the activities of multiple actors.”
Capstone’s Integrated Project Team (IPT) was established in early 2009, indicating how long the threat we face now had been on the horizon. The IPT subsequently developed a detailed campaign to “assess both hybrid threats and the broader challenges facing NATO within the emerging security environment,” according to Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hills, the IPT’s Lead Concept Developer. “Between 2009 –2010 a number of ACT led international workshops were held to both focus the key analysis and better inform the development of the concept. The workshops included a broad range of participants from NATO and non-NATO organisations,” he said.
Capstone, led by the IPT, asserted that hybrid threats involve any adversaries, including “states, rogue states, non-state actors or terrorist organisations,” who may employ a combination of actions in an increasingly unconstrained operating environment in order to achieve their aims. Almost ten years later, they were proven right.
While not a new problem, at the time NATO said “the interconnectedness of the globalised environment now makes hybrid threats a far more significant challenge for the Alliance and its interests, whether encountered within national territory, in operational theatres or across non-physical domains.” I found the description used chill-inducing: “Hybrid threats will apply pressure across the entire spectrum of conflict, with action that may originate between the boundaries artificially separating its constituents. They may consist of a combination of every aspect of warfare and compound the activities of multiple actors.”
On behalf of the IPT, Hills set out NATO’s role at an early stage, saying Capstone “also asserts that NATO’s role in managing the emerging security environment will invariably be a supporting one. The Alliance needs to develop its understanding of how it can cooperate with other organisations and stakeholders to both deter potential threats and mitigate their impact.”
With principal support from Joint Irregular Warfare Centre (JIWC), NATO set out to conduct its first Counter Hybrid Threats Experiment in Tallinn, Estonia. The primary purpose defined at the time was “to explore and discuss the key implications of the new draft concept and develop with other international stakeholders an understanding of potential approaches in addressing the likely challenge areas.” Academic centres, businesses and international bodies attended. Explaining the experiment, Hills said “one of the key outcomes of the event will be clear recommendations to NATOs Political and Military leadership of what the organisation must do to support the international community in tackling the array of potential hybrid challenges. The results will feed directly into the further development and refinement of the CHT Concept Paper with the aim to potentially produce a more informed draft, by late 2011.”
The experiment, according to the official report, was conducted to examine the utility and feasibility of the Military Contribution to the Countering Hybrid Threats Concept. The Tallinn activity also centred on NATO’s potential support role in the wider context – what they called a “comprehensive approach” in addressing hybrid threats in a “steady state, security environment.” The complex environment of hybrid threats was “examined through three different lenses.” The first dealt with cyber, technology and economic threats – followed by the second on stabilisation, conflict prevention and partnership. The final aspect of the experiment examined the “Global Commons and Resource security.” The global potential for resource-based conflict has been well established in the defence community for many years, but this is the first time it appeared to have been fully considered in the context of a multifaceted conflict.
During the Tallinn test, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, French Air Force General Stephane Abrial, stated: “Unforeseen NATO Operations in Libya remind us of a historical string of ‘strategic surprises’- central in assessing Hybrid Threats.” He went on to say that hybrid conflict situations are linked to “the versatility of threats and a lack of strategic predictability.”
Hybrid threats gained renewed traction in response to Russian actions in Ukraine and the Da’esh campaign in Iraq. In 2014, Russian military forces made several aggressive incursions into Ukrainian territory. After subsequent protests and the fall of the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian soldiers without insignias (often referred to as the Green Men) took control of strategic positions and infrastructure within the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Russia went on to annexe Crimea after a disputed referendum concluded the electorate wanted to join the Russian Federation. In August 2016 the SBU, the Security Service of Ukraine, published telephone intercepts – dated 2014 – showing details of Sergey Glazyev, a Russian presidential adviser, Konstantin Zatulin, a Russian politician, and others discussing the covert funding of pro-Russian activists in Eastern Ukraine and arranging the occupation of administration buildings, along with other activities, which led to the eventual armed conflict. Glazyev did not deny the authenticity of the intercepted records and Zatulin confirmed they were real but claimed they were “taken out of context.”
The intercepts showed that, as early as February 2014, Glazyev was giving direct orders to pro-Russian parties in Ukraine, asking them to instigate civil unrest in the key locations of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odessa.
"A hybrid conflict has been given the globally accepted definition of “a situation in which parties refrain from the overt use of armed forces against each other, relying instead on a combination of military intimidation falling short of an attack, exploitation of economic and political vulnerabilities, and the deployment of diplomatic or technological means to pursue their objectives.”
Meanwhile, Barack Obama declared Da’esh a hybrid threat in 2014, with world security services at the time reporting the sophisticated use of social media for worldwide propaganda in a campaign which attracted thousands of foreign fighters from Europe, the Maghreb and Asia. The combination of conventional and non-conventional warfare, with disinformation and terrorist operations, saw Da’esh placed in the centre ground of the hybrid conflict arena from that point on. The ripples spread rapidly and, by February 2015, EU Defence Ministers meeting in Riga called for more unity and decisive action across the union.
By May, the European External Action Service had created a circular entitled Countering Hybrid Threats, which encouraged member states to recognise the risks and build individual responses. The report was particularly bleak in its outlook, setting the full potential of hybrid threats against a more developed context than Capstone initially outlined. It stated: “Elements of hybridity can be traced in many other dimensions of the current security environment” with “various governments in the EU’s southern neighbourhood (i.e. the Gaddafi regime in Libya or the current government of Turkey)” having “used the complexity of migratory movements as a pretext to demand various concessions from the European Union.” It also concluded that ISIL/Da’esh simultaneously sought to instil fear in EU citizens and governments which, in turn, had the effect of “pushing them to take more hostile attitudes towards refugees, ultimately strengthening the image of the EU as an anti-Muslim society, to its discredit.” There is no doubt such a response, in fact, fed (and feeds) the continued propaganda necessary to drive the cycle, escalating the conflict steadily.
In addition to intentional actions, the EU report cited increasing concerns about the potential consequences of complex crises resulting directly from, or even combining the different elements, which would require an equally complicated response. The concerns they documented included ideas rarely thought of in connection with war or conflict, including observations that: “Abnormal weather conditions and climate-induced resource scarcity, for instance, increasingly influence relations between states, and might provoke confrontation over access to water or crops production.” At the time, researchers on the impact of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa had estimated, by 2050, summer temperatures across the region would reach around 46 degrees Celsius and hot days would occur five times more often than at the beginning of the 2000s. “Such extreme temperatures,” the report stated, “in combination with increasing air pollution by windblown desert dust, will render living conditions in parts of the region intolerable, leading to a ‘climate exodus’ and social unrest, that might be exploited to destabilise the region by state and non-state actors alike.”
An unchecked hybrid threat, such as any of these individual examples, ultimately results in the situation we now face: a full-scale, world hybrid conflict. The Alternative War.
Most references to hybrid war are commonly based around the idea of the existence of an “adversary who controls and employs a mix of tools to achieve their objectives,” and this brings with it a layering effect, a structure obfuscating the direct responses available in a traditionally declared military conflict. A hybrid conflict has been given the globally accepted definition of “a situation in which parties refrain from the overt use of armed forces against each other, relying instead on a combination of military intimidation falling short of an attack, exploitation of economic and political vulnerabilities, and the deployment of diplomatic or technological means to pursue their objectives.” There is no doubt whatsoever we find ourselves in the middle of an Alternative War by this very description.
Despite the relatively early horizon identification, the world’s response has not been sufficiently effective – or unified – in updating the international framework to reflect this developing landscape.
“Cyberattacks can reach a threshold which threatens national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security, and stability,”
As with all conflicts, attributing responsibility and intent is absolutely necessary, not only to ensure state and allied policy responses are proportionate, but they are legitimate and appropriately targeted. However, a cluster of problems is generated in hybrid conflict situations, arising from international law limitations, technological constraints, and the diffusion of actions to non-state actors working together to give an adversary in such a conflict substantial deniability. For instance, the involvement of a third party not immediately identifiable as being state-sponsored (such as Wikileaks) becomes incredibly difficult to set against the legal concept of beyond reasonable doubt when a response is being tabled. Nonetheless, the US have done this with North Korea after the Sony Pictures hack. Additionally, at a NATO Summit in 2014 the organisation set out that the application of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty in the event of a cyber-attack would apply.
The heads of state of NATO's member countries met in Wales at what the organisation called a pivotal moment in Euro-Atlantic security. They released a joint statement which said: “Russia's aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Growing instability in our southern neighbourhood, from the Middle East to North Africa, as well as transnational and multi-dimensional threats, are also challenging our security. These can all have long-term consequences for peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic region and stability across the globe.” Looking to the future of conflict, NATO correctly anticipated cyber threats and attacks would continue to become more common, sophisticated, and potentially damaging, and, in response to the developing challenges, the alliance endorsed an enhanced cyber defence policy. The commitment, they said, reaffirmed the “principles of the indivisibility of Allied security and of prevention, detection, resilience, recovery, and defence,” making clear the fundamental cyber defence responsibility of NATO was to protect its own networks. The policy emphasised assistance would always be addressed in accordance with the spirit of solidarity and went to lengths to press the understanding it remained the individual responsibility of allies to develop “relevant capabilities for the protection of national networks.”
NATO’s cyber defence policy, a key concept developed through Capstone, recognised something crucial: that international law, including international humanitarian law and the UN Charter, applies equally in cyberspace. According to the policy, a decision as to when a cyberattack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis. “Cyberattacks can reach a threshold which threatens national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security, and stability,” the NATO leaders agreed, adding their impact could be as harmful to modern societies as a conventional attack, before confirming the provision of cyber defences as part of NATO's core task. This marked an extraordinary development in respect of the recognition of hybrid conflicts as the future battleground, making the internet inseparable from a traditional, hot war zone. The phrase “without a bullet fired” suddenly looks grim when you realise a legitimate military response could be launched in response to a technology-based campaign. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty sets out the principle of collective defence – the very heart of NATO’s founding treaty signed in the ashes of World War 2. It remains, NATO says: “A unique and enduring principle,” which “binds its members together, committing them to protect each other.” Collective defence as a term means an attack against one NATO member is considered to be an attack against all and the response is subsequently a joint one. They invoked Article 5 for the first time since the treaty was formed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
In Wales, NATO made a clear commitment to developing national cyber defence capabilities, saying they would “enhance the cyber security of national networks upon which NATO depends for its core tasks, in order to help make the Alliance resilient and fully protected.” They identified bilateral and multinational cooperation played – and would continue to play – a central role in building the cyber defence capabilities of the organisation and its members. All the members also agreed to integrate cyber defence into NATO active operations and operational contingency planning, with enhanced information sharing and situational awareness as a focus. Other international organisations, including the EU, agreed and NATO also set out to intensify cooperation with private industry through the NATO Industry Cyber Partnership – having identified technological innovations and expertise from the private sector were crucial to achieving their objectives. Currently, however, no specific international legal framework is in place to regulate hybrid warfare, despite the efforts of NATO and others, which creates a conflict between the ability to invoke Article 5 and compliance with the regulations and legalities established and monitored by the UN.
“All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Article 2(4) does not use the term “war", sticking to “the threat or use of force,” which creates an ambiguity as to whether the provision refers to pure military force or extends to incorporate “economic, political, ideological or psychological force.”
Use of force in international relations is still catered for under the United Nations Charter, which states: “In the absence of an armed attack against a country or its allies, a member state can use force legally only if authorised by a United Nations Security Council resolution.”
The grey area, of sorts, arises in the definition of using force at Article 2 of the Charter, which reads: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Article 2(4) does not use the term “war", sticking to “the threat or use of force,” which creates an ambiguity as to whether the provision refers to pure military force or extends to incorporate “economic, political, ideological or psychological force.” The Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations, signed in 1970, states: “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. Consequently, armed intervention and all against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.” The absence of a specific provision for hybrid use of force clearly arises from the dated nature of the charter itself and, to muddy the waters further, while a number of developing nations continue to argue force includes non-military force, it is the well-established states within the UN who resist adaptation.
The charter also permits self-defence and first strike, but both fall foul of the elderly definition of force, which has doubtlessly caused some hand-wringing among the states wishing to openly respond to live hybrid threats. Of course, the secondary issue with the dated law, is the UN are subsequently hamstrung by the charter in identifying and dealing with those actively engaged in hybrid conflicts. In addition, while the rules regarding traditional armed conflict are firmly laid down in international humanitarian and human rights law, hybrid conflict and threats are only covered by a patchwork of legal instruments covering specific policy areas. These are the seas, counter-terrorism, money laundering, terrorist financing, and human rights.
The impact of this coalition of defects allowed the growth of complex hybrid conflict operations to run almost unchecked, despite the best efforts of parties such as NATO and the EU, leading the world almost inevitably to the precipice it now stands upon. Trump, Brexit, the attacks on the French and Dutch elections, the world cyber-attack on infrastructure and health organisations, even fake news – these are the multiple fronts in a very real conflict from which there may be no return unless a response begins. Yet, any such response is hampered at the outset by the very structure which has permitted the threat to grow – made it necessary, even, by leaving room for tactics to be developed which exploit the inherent weaknesses.
“In the Czech space, Miloš Zeman plays the role of a Russian Trojan horse, systematically embracing and repeating Kremlin’s position on various issues,”
Europe itself, along with much of the West is, in spite of the complex problems, very much aware of the ongoing war. A fact made even clearer by the attendance of a substantial number of delegates at a Summit held in Prague, in May 2017. The specific focus of the partly open, partly restricted meeting was to discuss a coordinated international response to Russian aggression and to collaborate on addressing the fact “a wide gap remains between mere acknowledgement of the threat and the development of concrete and viable counter-measures.” Senior NATO figures and high-ranking representatives from a large number of countries were in attendance, including a senior specialist delegate from the United Kingdom. Over one hundred people representing twenty-seven countries attended the restricted part of the summit, apparently a Chatham House Rules type of affair. The obviously controversial and diplomatically delicate meeting was facilitated by the Czech Think-tank European Values, no stranger to pushing boundaries themselves.
In 2016, the Prague-based organisation compared Czech President Miloš Zeman to a “Russian Trojan horse” actively engaged in an information war. A spokesperson at European Values, Jakub Janda, made the statement as part of a presentation setting out the results of a study which identified Czech websites serving disinformation purposes. “In the Czech space, Miloš Zeman plays the role of a Russian Trojan horse, systematically embracing and repeating Kremlin’s position on various issues,” Janda said. And, while the president’s spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, dismissed the allegations as “nonsensical” saying they were “part of an ongoing campaign against the head of state,” there is some fire behind the smoke. In May 2017, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in China, Zeman took aim at the media and was caught on a recording. Shortly before a joint press briefing with Putin, he said there were too many journalists present, adding they should be “liquidated.” The reaction was, understandably, furious. The Czech Foreign Minister, Lubomír Zaorálek, condemned the President’s comment as having been “in extremely bad taste,” while Marián Jurečka, deputy chair of the Christian Democrats, declared that such a statement in the presence of the Russian leader, “in whose country journalists die mysterious deaths,” was unforgivable. Pavel Telička, a Czech MEP also weighed in, suggesting Zeman was “no longer fit for office and should not be running for a second term.”
Zeman’s call for the “liquidation” of journalists came in the wake of a Czech scandal surrounding his Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, exposed in secret recordings attempting to influence media coverage. The outcry centred around the daily newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes, which Babiš formerly owned and involved requests to print coverage against political rivals. Journalists went on to raise significant concerns about press freedoms and interference in the media, leading to a situation in which the European Parliament was set to intervene, such was the gravity of the situation. “This tendency has been present here for quite some time, as it is in Poland and Hungary, not to speak about Russia. So it is high time the European Parliament started paying attention to it,” said Jan Urban, a prominent Czech journalist.
“The 2016 StratCom Summit in Prague was organised at a crucial time when Russian disinformation [was] increasingly targeting Western audiences, trying to sow confusion, distrust and division."
The last European Values summit drew a great deal of attention and significant responses from attendees, including General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, who said afterwards: “The 2016 StratCom Summit in Prague was organised at a crucial time when Russian disinformation [was] increasingly targeting Western audiences, trying to sow confusion, distrust and division. I came away from the Summit encouraged by the level of awareness and expertise across Europe, its governments and organisations, who are all actively engaged in countering Russia’s disinformation operations.”
A primary activity which builds towards the annual convention comes under the title Kremlin Watch, a strategic program run by European Values which aims, it says: “To expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and linked disinformation operations focused on working to destabilise the Western democratic system.” The introduction to their annual report, the premise for the 2017 gathering, made clear the threats faced across the West, in particular in Europe, are only too real. “Demand is growing for a coordinated international response to Russian aggression, with many EU heads of state, other European politicians, and security experts voicing alarm about the threat. As of May 2017, several Western countries have experienced Russian interference in their elections, while the number of cyberattacks across Europe continues to rise,” the publication said.
"Cypriot officials are some of the most steadfast supporters of the idea that Russia is Cyprus’ true and honest ally and would not partake in any international activities targeted against it, unless absolutely unavoidable.”
The organisation’s comprehensive strategic assessment for 2017 made for a sobering read, covering the twenty-eight EU countries in detail including, for now, the United Kingdom. The report immediately identifies two countries as being collaborators with Russia: Greece and Cyprus, who have shown – across a number of assessed factors – “no resistance to Russian influence.” According to the analysis, the Cypriot government considers Russia an ally in supporting the integrity of the country, although there are doubts about Russia’s actual interests amongst some journalists. It also states the Cypriot media have been speculating about Russia’s hypothetical ulterior motives for “meddling in Cyprus’ internal affairs with an agenda different than publicly claimed,” though the country’s political representation has not acknowledged these speculations in any way, explain the authors.
Cyprus, the assessment concludes, belongs to the group of countries within the EU which do not perceive or recognise any threat coming from Russia, instead maintaining a close relationship with the Federation. Historically, Russia supported the “integrity of the island,” a legacy of the Soviet era, which makes “Moscow a key foreign partner of Nicosia.” Cyprus is also Russia’s primary offshore banking haven – a well-established matter of fact – and provides a home away from home for around forty thousand Russians. It is also a popular destination for tourists from Russia. The Cypriot government additionally stands opposed to sanctions or other similar measures against Russia, apparently on the basis of the two countries’ economic ties, even despite the physical evidence of economic impact of the sanctions remaining limited. At the same time, the analysts state there is “considerable Russian intelligence activity in the country and Cyprus fears Moscow is using social and mass media, as well as its ties to fringe nationalist parties and the Greek Orthodox Church, to undermine the settlement talks.” Bilateral relations with Russia remain consistent, even despite events in Ukraine, and the report concludes, on the topic of policy to combat Russian influence, that “either no official activities exist or they are not publicly admitted for domestic political reasons.”
It is worth observing that Cyprus is not a NATO member and the cooperation between NATO and the EU is not seen as a particularly high political priority. “On the contrary,” the report adds, “Cyprus often tries to decrease it. No shift has been noticeable even in the recent years. Cypriot officials are some of the most steadfast supporters of the idea that Russia is Cyprus’ true and honest ally and would not partake in any international activities targeted against it, unless absolutely unavoidable.”
Several media outlets in Cyprus have begun speculating about their concerns Russia might actually want to block the settlement agreement on the island, a view opposed to official claims of the Federation. These concerns arose following “suspicious activities” of the Ambassador of Moscow in Cyprus, Stanislav Osadchiy, who engaged in talks in a manner considered to have interfered in Turkish and Cypriot negotiations. Makarios Drousiotis, a Greek-Cypriot researcher told the New York Times that events in the United States and Europe were “shaking his compatriots’ view Moscow had only their best interests at heart.”
“What they have been doing in America and Europe they have been doing for 50 years in Cyprus,” Drousiotis added.
In 2014, he published a book entitled The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, which “demolished the myth” the West was responsible for Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island and the decades of division which ensued. In the book, Drousiotis denounced Russia’s diplomatic efforts in Nicosia as politically unacceptable and painted Russia as a “duplicitous partner that had for decades used disinformation, front organisations and other tools of subterfuge to woo support among Greek-Cypriots while working behind the scenes to stoke tensions.” He alleged the activity was designed to ensure Cyprus never aligned with the West and chose to steer clear of NATO membership. However, the concerns raised have not been reflected in the actions of Cypriot authorities, with no measures to counter subversive influence having been taken and no known intelligence activities in Cyprus attempting to counter Russian influence operations. The assessment by European Values specifically cites the absence of an identified threat in any strategy documents and highlights the lack of initiatives concerning cybersecurity.
“There is no political acknowledgement whatsoever of any hostile Russian activity. On the contrary, the government is very sympathetic to Russian interests and worldview, according to which the West is the aggressor and Russia is merely on the defensive.”
Greece appears slightly more insidious.
According to the Kremlin Watch assessment, Greece has historically been one of Russia’s Trojan Horses within the EU, advocating in Brussels on behalf of Kremlin interests. The current Greek government, the report says, maintains “exceptionally close ties” with Putin’s Kremlin and other prominent Russian figures and, at the same time, does not acknowledge any threat pertaining to disinformation or subversive influence stemming from Russia.
Greece, surprisingly, is one of the oldest NATO member states and was the first Balkan state to join the EU, though its difficult history with Turkey has “urged it to look to Russia for support.” As a consequence, it is believed Greece has purposefully avoided any expressed opposition to EU measures which could act to alienate the Federation. The Greek government, caught in a severe economic and financial crisis, has sought to woo Russia, reportedly in hopes of receiving aid which Brussels is perceived to have failed to provide, thereby also gaining negotiation leverage on the union. In 2016, Greece also signed a military partnership with Russia on the basis it was “necessary to maintain the Greek defence industry during the economic crisis.” Subsequently, the report describes Greece as one of the EU’s “three Kremlin friendlies, together with Italy and Cyprus.” Despite this, Greece remains committed to the EU and NATO, despite apparently extensive efforts to simultaneously maintain warm, bilateral relations with Russia. (According to the latest Eurobarometer, 66% of Greeks had a positive view of the former USSR.)
In Greece, the report says: “There is no political acknowledgement whatsoever of any hostile Russian activity. On the contrary, the government is very sympathetic to Russian interests and worldview, according to which the West is the aggressor and Russia is merely on the defensive.” Greek officials do, instead, take the approach of blaming Western propaganda for fuelling the Ukrainian conflict. In 2014, the report highlights, Defence Minister Panos Kammenos stated, “Western NGOs sponsored by Germany or foundations like the Clinton Institute provoked the crisis in Ukraine where a coup d’état overthrew the legal government.” This rhetoric has over-spilled and become commonplace in the alt-right narratives deployed in the US, UK, and elsewhere in the EU.
Greece’s radical left-wing Syriza party has never supported EU sanctions on Russia and has very close contacts with Vladimir Putin, Russian nationalist Aleksander Dugin, and Russian oligarchs. In May 2016, Putin travelled to Greece hoping to secure agreements on trade, investment, energy and transportation. The Russian President was joined by foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and a number of oil and gas executives, giving some indication of the importance of the visit. Russia went on to express interest in the purchase of Greek railway company Trainose, as well as Greece’s second-largest port, Thessaloniki. Further ties are evident in cooperation on weapons projects with Greece and Moscow negotiating purchase and maintenance deals for S-300 air defence systems.
The authors of the Kremlin Watch report continued in their assessment, identifying a group of eight additional EU states who largely continue to ignore or deny the existence of Russian disinformation and hostile influence operations – Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia – and three states who only half-acknowledge existence of the threat. They deduce the latter hesitation is attributable either to geographic distance and historical neutrality (in the case of Ireland) or to the presence of pro-Kremlin forces in the political domain which suppress any efforts to place the threat on the agenda (in Italy and Bulgaria). One of the eight, Hungary, has recently been put on notice of proceedings by the European Commission in relation to its asylum laws and is viewed as a major concern to the EU. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power in the country since 2010, has vocally attacked the EU on a number of occasions and stands accused in Brussels of willingly accepting EU funds while “rejecting EU values or a share of refugees.”
A common theme begins to emerge among the other states assessed by European Values.
“for many of the EU28, a wide gap remains between mere acknowledgement of the threat and the development of concrete and viable counter-measures."
Belgium “recognises the threat of Russian disinformation abroad, particularly in the Eastern neighbourhood, but does not consider this to be a problem for its internal security, and therefore does not consider it a national priority,” the report says, adding: “Its security institutions predominantly focus on the threat of Islamist terrorism.” Spain and France, the assessment continues, consider “Islamist propaganda to be the more serious issue and mostly attribute disinformation campaigns to terrorist recruitment. In France, incoming President Macron seems poised to make a shift in this position, but it remains an open question given France’s historically sympathetic attitude to Russia.” Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland are recognised as cognizant of the risks but their counter-measure strategies are identified as being in infancy and having “weak spots”, rendering all of them vulnerable.
The report states, more generally, “for many of the EU28, a wide gap remains between mere acknowledgement of the threat and the development of concrete and viable counter-measures. The implementation of an effective strategy at the state level requires at least partial political consensus, civic support, and strong democratic institutions.”
“Strong rhetoric and condemnation of Russian interference comes at virtually no political cost, but developing a pan-government approach necessitates the dedication of all major political parties and government bodies, as well as their active resistance against local obstacles and Kremlin-linked counter-pressures,” it adds.
Having investigated the same issues from an independent standpoint, reading the Kremlin Watch report did little more than support the discoveries I’d made and, while it is a deeply disturbing document, there was very little I could do but sigh and agree with it.
The four states showing the highest levels of “activity, resilience, and readiness to respond” to the Russia threat, given their historical experiences, are Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, according to the report. This assessment in the case of Sweden I know to be accurate following my own investigations in the country – which, in fact, led me to discover the depth of operations deployed by Russia in this Alternative War.
The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the report says: “Stand at the forefront of the fight against hostile Russian influence, in large part due to their geographic proximity to Russia, historical experience, and sizeable Russian minorities.” The report rightly points out these countries have “adopted strong countermeasures against Russian influence, often restricting Russian pseudo-media,” adding “they also actively engage their Russian-speaking minorities, to greater or lesser success. The Baltic experience with Kremlin-linked subversion tactics is the most developed within the EU28 and serves for major lessons learnt.” Estonia has been at the forefront of hybrid threat countermeasures since the Capstone experiment in Tallinn.
“In countries with deteriorating press freedom, for instance, due to measures that limit serious investigative journalism, submission to Russian influence has increased in recent months"
While there is a clear, natural link to journalism and its position in countering disinformation, it's often more of an implied notion, even though there are clear examples of journalists taking a leading role in challenging Russian subversion operations. The Kremlin Watch report, however, was the first time I had seen the importance of the role of the media is set out expressly. The report is explicit on the need for a free and independent press to form part of any successful counter-measures, saying: “There is a strong negative correlation between the degree of Russian subversive influence on the one hand and the state of media literacy and press freedom on the other.”
“In countries with deteriorating press freedom, for instance, due to measures that limit serious investigative journalism, submission to Russian influence has increased in recent months (e.g., Hungary and Croatia),” the report adds. But the assessment of the EU nations serves as a stark warning that press freedom alone, while vital in stemming the success of the current hybrid conflict, is not enough. According to the report, the “traditionally powerful European states only begin to display interest in countering Russian disinformation during, immediately before, or even after major domestic elections, when they have experienced or anticipate Russian interference.” Sadly, this is true. In particular, in the United Kingdom.
The Kremlin Watch assessment also correctly identifies that France widely ignored the scale of the threat until the recent presidential elections, even though newly elected President Emmanuel Macron experienced flagrant Russian meddling during his campaign against Russian supported, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National. Macron’s official foreign policy adviser stated: “We will have a doctrine of retaliation when it comes to Russian cyber-attacks or any other kind of attacks.” But in France, as yet, no such action has materialised – at least not visibly and this may well be, in part, due to the complicated and outdated rules of warfare.
“In its efforts to position itself as a superpower, Russia is not afraid of using Cold War methods to obtain political influence. Russia is using the freedom of open and democratic societies of the West [to do this],”
In another example of unpreparedness, the government of the Netherlands barely reacted when Russian disinformation was circulated during the 2016 referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine. It must have, however, learned from the jolt because, during the 2017 parliamentary elections, the country decided not to use electronic voting in order to avoid possible Russian interference. Though no hacks of voting machines have yet been confirmed anywhere in the world, interior minister Ronald Plasterk wrote to his Parliament, saying: “I cannot rule out that state actors may try to benefit from influencing political decisions and public opinion in the Netherlands,” and confirmed all ballots would be counted by hand. The Dutch intelligence agency AIVD has since concluded that Russia tried to influence the 2017 elections by spreading fake news.
On the publication of their annual report, Rob Bertholee, the head of AIVD, told reporters Russian had no succeeded in “substantially influencing” the election, saying: “I think they have tried to push voters in the wrong direction by spreading news items that are not true, or partially true.” According to the report, the agency assessed the threat posed – by Russia to the Netherlands and Europe – as having escalated over the preceding twelve months, adding that Russia had become “extremely active in espionage,” not limiting itself just to elections. “In its efforts to position itself as a superpower, Russia is not afraid of using Cold War methods to obtain political influence. Russia is using the freedom of open and democratic societies of the West [to do this],” the agency added.
In Italy, initial concerns about disinformation and hostile influence operations emerged during the constitutional referendum in December 2016, when the rising anti-establishment Five Star Movement proliferated disinformation and pro-Kremlin propaganda. Nonetheless, the report starkly highlighted: “The government is still not taking any action to counter these efforts. Italy is also a Kremlin ally when it comes to halting new EU sanctions related to Kremlin-sponsored atrocities in Ukraine and Syria.” From April 2016, then Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, complained privately to his counterparts about Russia meddling in his country’s politics by supporting anti-establishment parties. He was referring in the main to the Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo (who I’ve watched on TV and can say, with my hand on my heart, is simply not funny). In November 2016, a month from the vote, Renzi privately discussed the spread of fake news with other European leaders and President Obama at a meeting in Berlin. The Kremlin had previously enjoyed close relations with Italy for a very long period, in particular under the leadership of billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. The former prime minister and media tycoon was a personal friend of Putin.
Converse to Berlusconi’s rise with the Mafia-linked Forza Italia, Grillo’s party was initially founded as an online movement. Grillo’s co-founder was Gianroberto Casaleggio, an entrepreneur who passed away in 2016. Casaleggio’s internet and publishing company, Casaleggio Associati, still controls several widely viewed websites which follow the Breitbart mould and the more sensational, alternative reports found on Sputnik Italia, one of the Kremlin-created websites which disseminate Putin’s worldview. One of Casaleggio’s sites, Tze, ran nonsense articles with titles such as “Is the US trafficking migrants into Italy?” Though Tze makes no mention of its connection to the Five Star Movement, again following the alt-right model and claiming independence from the mainstream media, large portions of content around the referendum were dedicated to damaging Renzi and his reform campaign. Many of the posts appeared to show thousands of people allegedly protesting against the referendum. A newspaper investigation, however, revealed the people had, in fact, gathered to support Renzi and his proposed reform. Grillo himself, producer of the most widely read blog in Italy, went on to post a picture of a Naples piazza, suggesting the crowds had come to protest against Renzi, describing “a sea of humanity in the square, the people can’t take it anymore.” In fact, the crowd had gathered to hear a speech from Pope Francis.
"Germany has begun taking the threat posed by Russia much more seriously than ever before, “actively boosting its cyber defence and also promoting cyber security internationally, even creating a new Bundeswehr command.”
Recognition of Russian threats, the Kremlin Watch report concludes: “Results in certain efforts to manage the crisis” but, in the fight against fake news, “governments often seek the help of corporations like Google and Facebook in order to protect their elections.”
“These companies have very limited assistance options,” the authors point out and the conclusion rings true, startlingly so, when set against everything I discovered independently. Particularly in that “most measures undertaken at the last minute turn out to be “too little, too late” and lack necessary coordination. Importantly, policies against hostile foreign influence must be designed and implemented long in advance.”
Rightly, the report's authors highlight that Germany’s position could be the “game-changer” in the current hybrid conflict. As they surmise: “With federal elections in September 2017, Germany is currently preoccupied with developing resistance against Russian meddling.” Over the last few months, Germany has begun taking the threat posed by Russia much more seriously than ever before, “actively boosting its cyber defence and also promoting cyber security internationally, even creating a new Bundeswehr command.”
“If the next German government tackles this threat with true German precision and intensity,” the Kremlin Watch authors wrote, “it will spill over to EU policy and prompt substantive democratic counter-pressure. Until now, the concerns of mostly smaller EU members on the Eastern flank have been insufficient to instigate a shift in EU policy.”
“The UK’s close ties to Kremlin-linked money has also not featured on the agenda until recently”
Northern Europe, very often thought of as the exemplar in terms of military, political, and economic standards, is far from exempt from criticism. Disturbingly, the report is clear the United Kingdom had been “supporting many strategic communications projects in the Eastern Partnership region, but the debate on Kremlin subversion in the UK was very limited before the Brexit referendum in 2016.”
“The UK’s close ties to Kremlin-linked money has also not featured on the agenda until recently” the report added.
It would be easy to assume this obliquely referred to the 2008 story of then Shadow Chancellor George Osbourne, who became involved in a conversation with banking heir Nathaniel Rothschild over the possibility Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, could donate to the Conservative Party. Osbourne, of course, insisted he did not seek any money from Mr Deripaska and claimed the Conservative party had simply rejected a donation from a British company owned by the controversial billionaire. “At no point did Mr Osborne solicit or ask for a donation, suggest ways of channelling a donation or express any wish to meet with Mr Deripaska to discuss donations,” said a statement released by the party, which detailed five meetings between the men – four of which took place in Corfu. However, as my own investigation went on to find, this wasn’t even the tip of a very large iceberg – the ties between British politics and Russia are insidious, often overt, and the money is, somewhat unexpectedly, the wrong trail to follow. The old journalist’s adage is as defunct as traditional warfare.
“The UK government appears to be more concerned with the diplomatic and international aspects of Russian influence rather than malign domestic effects,”
The report correctly states MI5 chief Andrew Parker had warned Russia’s threat to the UK was growing and had stated that Russia’s spy activity in the UK is extensive, as was its subversion campaign in Europe in general. It also correctly identified that MI6 chief Alex Younger had also highlighted the issue of subversion and the disinformation campaign waged by Russia and that it was the British intelligence services who first alerted the US about the Democratic National Committee hacks and the alleged Trump-Russia connection in 2015. The authors also picked up on the London School of Economics publication of a report raising alarms about “weak British electoral laws” which can “allow foreign interference to undermine British democracy by allowing an influx of funds from unknown or suspicious sources to fund political campaigns.”
The conclusion, under the United Kingdom’s heading made for grim, but accurate, reading, saying: “The UK government appears to be more concerned with the diplomatic and international aspects of Russian influence rather than malign domestic effects,” while “Facebook has warned that the June 2017 British General Election may become a subject of attack by fake news and other disinformation online.”
We really have gotten into a very grave mess and only the benefits of time and distance will, I fear, provide the ultimate resolution.