While the weaponization of disinformation and propaganda is as old as warfare itself, new technologies and an increasingly more globalized world have rendered information operations a more prominent feature of some states’ battle for global influence. When it comes to Russia, information operations targeting Europe are part of a larger set of tactics employed by the Kremlin with the ultimate goal of preserving its superpower prestige, restoring influence across the eastern region formerly part of the Soviet Union, and dominating in its political and economic relations with Western European countries. The checks on these influence efforts include the United States’ longstanding role as a balancing force, NATO, deep-rooted transatlantic economic and political ties, and the entrenched resentment among the people of the Baltic states and other central and eastern European Union (EU) countries toward Russia.
The Kremlin’s disinformation operations targeting foreign audiences reflect its geopolitical agenda, often featuring anti-Western narratives and seeking to exploit vulnerabilities within Western political, military, and economic alliances. These tactics are particularly effective in enflaming anti-establishment forces and populist discontent already present in the targeted countries. For instance, anti-EU news and content, often outright false or presented in a misleading fashion, are disseminated by pro-Russian online and offline sources and feed into the preexisting discourse of Euroskeptic parties and their supporters.
Over the past few years, Russian information warfare evolved from the traditional 4D’s narrative strategy – Dismiss, Distort, Distract, Dismay – to sophisticated tactics that constantly adapt not only to take advantage of emerging technologies and new communications means, but also to circumvent defensive strategies and user protection policies implemented by targeted governments and digital platforms. In 2019, the Digital Forensic Research Lab’s report, Secondary Infektion, unveiled a set of new techniques employed by a network of fake accounts originated in Russia that, since early 2014, attempted to penetrate the public debate in over fifteen countries, both in Europe and worldwide. Going beyond the basic use of bots and trolls on social media, the operation involved the dissemination of divisive and manipulated content, forged documents, and counterfeit posts by fake and burner accounts across several platforms. To achieve more impact, the deceptive content was often translated in local languages, including English, German, Spanish, and French, and, according to a recent analysis released by Graphika, it was posted on over 300 social networks, blogs, discussion forums like Quora and Reddit, and local online platforms.
Regardless of the channel or format used, pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives revolve around controversial topics – like immigration, the economy, and health issues – at the center of the political debate, which they seek to polarize, often by injecting contradictory content into the information environment. Pro-Russian narratives and conspiracy theories are designed to encourage suspicions among the target audience that foreign powers and political institutions are plotting secret plans or implementing intentionally disadvantageous policies. The desired result, in fact, is to agitate audiences, disrupt social stability in the targeted countries, and exploit internal discord to sway the public opinion in the Kremlin’s favor and against Russia’s opponents, most notably the United States, the EU, or NATO. A similar vision also undergirds the Kremlin’s support to European populist parties, which are often advocates of controversial and potentially disruptive policies.
Social, political, or economic crises, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, represent a fertile opportunity for state actors, like Russia, and domestic political parties, to gain influence and pursue their political agendas, among other tactics, through the spread of disinformation and hostile propaganda. In a special report released last May, the European External Action Service announced that its EUvsDisinfo team catalogued over 500 instances of pro-Kremlin disinformation related to COVID-19 in their database within only a few months.
In the context of the pandemic, pro-Kremlin disinformation sources simply redirected the topical focus on the virus, but continued to use the described covert tactics. Through accounts, pages, and groups on social media, state-owned news outlets, and other means, Russia exploited citizens’ fear for COVID-19 and the subsequent economic and political repercussions to, once again, fuel public opinion against the Kremlin’s targets. Throughout the pandemic, pro-Russian disinformation narratives, in fact, accused the United States of stealing test swabs from its allies; seeded fear of NATO troops for allegedly spreading the virus across Europe during military exercises; exacerbated tensions among EU member States by initiating the spread of distorted news regarding the lack of support or obstruction of foreign aid to the most affected countries; and corroborated unfounded theories that blamed the US and other foreign states for creating the virus.
While topics, means of communication, and tactics might vary and adapt based on the opportunities that arise, the objectives behind Russian information operations in Europe remain unchanged: undermine the existing geopolitical order in the West, enable the advancement of political forces that pursue agendas favorable to the Kremlin, and, ultimately, expand Russia’s political, military, cultural, and economic influence in Europe.