Kicking the Wasps’ Nest

EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

A man with a symbolic sealed mouth attend a rally in support of freedom of speech in Moscow, Russia, 22 November 2014.

Moscow Activates Propaganda Against Study on Russia-funded NGOs in Europe


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We have written, with two other authors, the first major review of the activities of organisations operating in Europe that are funded by the Russian government, entitled The Bear in Sheep’s Clothing: Russia’s Government-Funded Organisations in the EU. The study was produced for the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.

The study analyses the activities and financing of the Russian ‘GONGOs’ (government organised non-governmental organisations) and other organisations. It sheds light on the often obscure financing methods of organisations which serve the overall aim to shift the European public opinion. The paper argues that the GONGOs in question and certain Russian think tanks play a role in the promotion of the Russian narrative that offers ‘traditional values’ and ‘a strong leader’ and pits the US against Europe. The paper recommends, among other measures, increasing transparency requirements for NGOs and lobbyists by setting up a mandatory lobbying register at the EU level.

In contrast to the responses of online and print media in Europe, which were mostly neutral in tone, responses from Russia were altogether different. A number of hostile or threatening tweets appeared, one of them ‘shaming’ the female authors of the study, a favourite method deployed by Russian ‘troll factories’.

The way these and other Russian servers referred to the Martens Centre paper well fit a description of the ‘4D approach’, developed by information defence expert Ben Nimmo. From the dozens of Russian media articles, we select the most illustrative ones: 

Tactic  number one: Dismiss the critic

The Secretary of the Union of Journalists Timur Shafir stated in a 26 July interview for Ria Novosti that the conclusions of our report ‘must not and would not have the support of the wider public’ or specialist media institutes. He also incorrectly claimed that the report suggests blocking those media that ‘do not respect the so-called rules.’ He went on to say that the report was written by ‘little known personalities’.

The Pro-Kremlin politrussia.com described (12 August 2016) several recent American and European studies on the subject of Russia’s influence. The author noted that ‘experts are working in an emergency mode’ and added that Western authors apparently have nothing better to than publish studies about the Russian threat during their summer holidays. The article went to falsely claim that our report advocates limits on the freedom of speech. Predictably, the Sputnik propaganda website published an English-language story in a similar vein.

Tactic  number two: Distort the facts

Mikhail Fedotov from the Russian Human Rights Union stated in an interview on the website of RIA Novosti on 25 July that the Martens Centre report, and namely the recommendation to set up a mandatory lobbying register for EU institutions, was a ‘symmetric response’ to the Russian NGO legislation. This is a ridiculous claim: Our report advocates greater transparency for all lobbyists at the EU level. It highlights obscure financing methods that serve Russian foreign policy goals under Putin. It does not advocate imposing criminal charges on NGOs, as the Russian legislation has done (leading to many US-based NGOs being forced out of Russia and many Russian and European NGOs routinely harassed).

Tactic  number three: Distract from the main issue

Rossiyskaya Gazeta also dedicated a blog for our report (26 July). The text wrongly claimed that our study is asking for an imposition of censorship. Elena Stetsko, in her text for the Gorchakov Fund (a GONGO mentioned in the study), focused on the notion of soft power. Although our paper consistently shows differences between the understanding of the soft power in the West and Russia, Stetsko’s text denied that there is a difference, and accused us of producing conspiracy theories.

Tactic  number four: Dismay the audience

A Member of Parliament from the Russian Communist Party, Alexandr Yushchenko, spoke to Ria Novosti on 25 July. Taking aim our report, he said that Western media, supported by elite structures based mainly in the US, themselves wage information terror. He claimed that Russian domestic media always work ‘effectively and fairly’ (!), forgetting to mention concerted disinformation campaigns waged by Moscow against the EU.

What is the lesson from official Russian response to our study? Within a few days of its publication, Putin’s propaganda machine was capable or mounting an information ‘counter-offensive’ by following a well-recognised pattern that includes attacking the authors and distracting from the main argument. Perhaps we in Europe need even more discussion about the predictable steps that Moscow follows in following its disinformation strategy. This should help us to expose the pseudo-facts that the official Russia uses to divide Europe.    

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