Russia Wages Winter Information War Against the West

The Kremlin is headhunting useful idiots to undermine European unity before Kyiv can prevail.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flies on a helicopter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flies on a helicopter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flies on a helicopter to visit a military outpost in Nalchik, Russia, on Feb. 4, 2008. Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/AFP via Getty Images

Russia is waging renewed influence operations in Europe designed to undermine Western support for Ukraine in an attempt to turn the tide in a war that has shifted decisively in Kyiv’s favor over the past month, top Estonian defense officials told reporters during a visit to Washington this week.

The effort includes a concerted campaign through Russian-language or Russian-backed channels in Europe as well as influencing sympathetic politicians, the officials said. It’s part of a multipronged strategy by the Kremlin to use the crunch of rising energy prices before winter to try and break the unity that has so far enabled a flood of Western military and economic aid to Ukraine.

“[They will] continue these Russian influence operations in Western societies,” Tuuli Duneton, Estonia’s undersecretary for defense policy, told reporters on Tuesday after her boss, Hanno Pevkur, met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the U.S. Defense Department. “They will always try to have different people influencing policymakers, people from society, from the media, from parliament.”

Russia is waging renewed influence operations in Europe designed to undermine Western support for Ukraine in an attempt to turn the tide in a war that has shifted decisively in Kyiv’s favor over the past month, top Estonian defense officials told reporters during a visit to Washington this week.

The effort includes a concerted campaign through Russian-language or Russian-backed channels in Europe as well as influencing sympathetic politicians, the officials said. It’s part of a multipronged strategy by the Kremlin to use the crunch of rising energy prices before winter to try and break the unity that has so far enabled a flood of Western military and economic aid to Ukraine.

“[They will] continue these Russian influence operations in Western societies,” Tuuli Duneton, Estonia’s undersecretary for defense policy, told reporters on Tuesday after her boss, Hanno Pevkur, met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the U.S. Defense Department. “They will always try to have different people influencing policymakers, people from society, from the media, from parliament.”

Duneton urged Western intelligence officials to remain alert for Russian operations to include political meddling by the Kremlin’s agents to support candidates in European elections who could be seen as sympathetic to Moscow. Far-right candidates have made gains throughout Europe, with France’s National Rally jumping 8.5 percentage points in the presidential polls from five years ago; right-wing populist Giorgia Meloni, who has praised fascist leaders in the past, sweeping to power in Italy in September; and political tumult in post-Brexit Britain continuing to leave an opening for the far right in the westernmost reaches of Europe.

“Given the difficult winter that Western societies will face, we also believe that they will redouble their efforts in order to try to manipulate different societies and try to seek different personalities to influence even more and to divide those societies and to break down this Western unity,” she said.

The European Union has long been aware of Russia’s information warfare playbook at use in the West to provide cover for the invasion of Ukraine, dating back to the illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014. It tracks nearly 6,000 cases of disinformation targeting Ukraine over that eight-year span.

The tone of Russian disinformation toward Ukraine was always “fairly genocidal,” said Jakub Kalensky, who previously led the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force team on disinformation. He currently is a senior analyst with the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. “If we’d been paying attention, we wouldn’t be so surprised at what is happening.”

Since the full-scale invasion of the country in February, officials said Russia has taken more steps to use diplomats on the Kremlin payroll to magnify propaganda and drum up support for far-right parties. “Then it was really gloves off, and the same was multiplied by their embassies,” said Peter Stano, the European Commission’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy. “They were trying not only to gain sympathizers among the political parties; they were actively headhunting informants for the intelligence services.”

European states have aimed at cracking down on the Kremlin’s outsized embassies that have used intelligence officers to cause political trouble, Stano said. The European Union has been working with social media platforms to block Russian sympathizers and even sanctioned state mouthpieces RT and Sputnik, forbidding them from broadcasting within the bloc. But the problem of weeding Russian messaging out of far-right movements has proven more sticky. Billionaire octogenarian and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who will join Meloni’s far-right coalition government, was one such politician recently caught on tape praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and blaming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for forcing Russia to invade. And plenty of others are willing to parrot the Kremlin line around Europe.

“These useful idiots are helping the narrative to gain ground in some of the member states,” Stano added.

Although RT and Sputnik were openly affiliated with the Russian government, murky news sites and social media accounts that repeat Kremlin talking points have long posed an attribution challenge for European policy seeking to balance freedom of speech on the one hand while seeking to cauterize Russian disinformation operations.

In the early days of the Russian invasion, fact-checkers across Europe noted a sea change among social media accounts known to promote disinformation as they quickly pivoted from spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 to circulating lies about the war in Ukraine. The shift was documented in a report by the European Digital Media Observatory, a hub for fact-checkers and disinformation experts on the continent.

“Even though we don’t know who is responsible for creating and spreading false news about Ukraine in the first place, it is a fact that the majority of them favor Russia’s interests and follow the main elements of its propaganda,” the report concluded.

The European Union was swift to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, imposing three rounds of sanctions in the first days of the war while there was an outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees among the public. But experts have cautioned that Putin likely believes time is on his side as he seeks to wear down Western resolve. Even in the early days of the war, fissures were already evident. An opinion poll of Central and Eastern European countries conducted by Globsec—a think tank based in Bratislava, Slovakia—found that a quarter of Romanians and Bulgarians believe the West was responsible for starting the war by provoking Russia, whereas around 30 percent of Slovaks agreed with the sentiment.

Attributing cause and effect when it comes to public opinion is challenging. But Kalensky, now a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, attributes it to Russian disinformation. “The fact that we have 30 percent of Slovaks believing that the West is responsible for the war in Ukraine—this is not the result of six months of propaganda. This is the result of the past at least eight years,” he said.

As the Kremlin meddles, the West shivers. Europe and, to a certain extent, the United States are facing energy woes this winter. Many European countries are already wavering in their support for Ukraine, and Republicans poised to take over the U.S. House of Representatives have already signaled that they will dial back support for the embattled nation.

As Russia has sought to weaponize energy deliveries to Europe by twisting the knife in governments that back Ukraine, it has also used near-constant videos on RT and conservative social media sites to drive home the message that Europeans won’t be able to heat their homes due to a lack of Russian gas, thereby driving a wedge in public opinion. “They were pushing us. They were extorting us. They were blackmailing us,” Stano said.

And that message is increasingly gathering steam across the Atlantic, even as Congress is reportedly considering a scaled-up aid package for Ukraine that could total $50 billion or more. Concerns about a possible recession and the specter of the Republican Party taking over one or both houses of Congress in upcoming U.S. midterm elections could embolden skeptics of U.S. aid to Ukraine who are allied with former U.S. President Donald Trump. Although many top Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have publicly stated that they’re keen to keep up American military support for Ukraine, others like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have promised just the opposite.

“I don’t see war fatigue at the moment, but once again, we have to understand that the war in Ukraine, definitely for some people, is just one conflict among others,” said Pevkur, the Estonian defense minister. “We have a conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan, we have the conflict [in] China [and] Taiwan, and we have many, many conflicts in the Middle East or Africa, [and Russia’s war is] just one of the conflicts. But its up to us not to allow this to happen. We have to be clear here that this is actually different and it is happening in Europe in the 21st century.”

Both houses of Congress approved the White House’s landmark $40 billion aid package to Ukraine in May, with nearly 60 Republican ‘no’ votes in the House but little public criticism. But as Pevkur and top Estonian officials descended on Washington, those questions were renewed on Tuesday as McCarthy, who would become the presiding officer in the lower chamber, hinted in an interview that continuing to write checks to Ukraine wouldn’t be such an easy sell in a Republican-controlled House.

“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told the online outlet Punchbowl News. “They just won’t do it. … It’s not a free blank check.” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Politico he believed it was just an effort for House Republicans to give themselves political cover ahead of the U.S. midterms.

To the extent Ukraine plays for Republicans ahead of the midterms, it’s there to be abandoned. “If you look at candidates who mention Ukraine the most often in the U.S. political ecosystem, its almost universally pro-Russian, anti-support for Ukraine,” said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow and head of the Alliance for Securing Democracys information manipulation team at the German Marshall Fund think tank.

“They’ve always proven to be pretty skilled at finding some fellow travelers on the left and right,” he added.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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