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Fighting Disinformation in the Baltic States

Image courtesy of Justien Val Zele/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on 6 July 2017.

Russian media played a key role in stoking the conflict in Ukraine, sparking fear in the Baltic states that they could become the next target. In the wake of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Russian state-owned media shaped a nationalistic narrative regarding the annexation of Crimea that spread fear of the new Ukrainian regime and promoted reunification with Russia. Russian media also encouraged the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and spread multiple false news stories intended to portray Ukraine in the most negative light possible.

In the current media environment, it is not possible to eliminate questionable or false sources of information. In the Baltic states, attempts to do so could backfire by reinforcing allegations that the Russian minorities lack full civil rights. However, encouraging independent media and thoughtful integration of Russian-language programming into mainstream sources will provide more credible alternatives for Baltic Russian speakers. In the longer term, an important tool for all countries facing propaganda and “fake news” is to increase education in media literacy, critical reading, and technical training to thwart hacks and other attempts to hijack information. A population trained to identify bias is the best defense against harmful propaganda.

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Why Stalin’s Popularity Doesn’t Have to be as Terrifying as it Seems

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This article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on 29 June 2017.

Stalin’s increasing popularity in Russia is worrying, but its importance should not be exaggerated.

This week, yet another poll confirmed Joseph Stalin’s unwavering hold on the popular imagination of Russians. Surveys have documented steadily rising admiration for the Soviet leader in the last several years, but Monday’s open-ended study published by the Levada Center established him as “the most outstanding person” in history, for 38 percent of respondents. Vladimir Putin came in joint second position at 34 percent, alongside the poet Alexander Pushkin.

The poll sounds particularly alarming because instead of answering multiple choice questions, respondents were asked to name the first person to pop into their head – not just Russian, but anyone, anywhere. The fact that for 38 percent of people that was Stalin – without the respondent first being prompted – seems to confirm what many have been fearing for some time: that Russians are steadily forgiving and embracing a tyrant who oversaw a system that slaughtered tens of millions of its own people.

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Airbrushing Stalin and Mao’s Horrific Crimes

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This article was originally published by World Affairs in June 2017.

“It’s easy predicting the future,” an old Soviet joke went. “What’s difficult is predicting the past.”

There is a war going on over the interpretation of history. A search for a “correct” version of the past has been launched in a number of countries, often by embittered nationalist forces, as in Poland. But the most aggressive assault is being orchestrated by dictators like Vladimir Putin, and China’s Communist Party leadership.

There is much at stake in this revisionist enterprise. The most alarming goal is to reappraise leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, to whitewash their atrocities and ensure that, at least for a domestic audience, they are presented as heroic figures whose crimes were miniscule in comparison with their achievements. Another objective is to depict the country in question as both the ultimate victim and the ultimate winner.

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Why Russian Hybrid Warfare is a Threat to … Russia

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This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 6 June 2017.

There has been much consternation in America and Europe for the past decade since Russia began practicing hybrid warfare.  Ostensibly initiated by Russian General Valery Gerasimov with PM Putin’s support, hybrid warfare has resulted in Russian taking Crimea without a shot being fired, occupying Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, keeping Syrian President Assad in power, and potentially influencing the outcome of an American election.  The aggressive and successfully moves in Ukraine have so alarmed some European nations that they are considering withdrawing from the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty which attempts to outlaw the production and use of landmines.  Both Ukraine and Finland have threatened to pull out of the Ottawa Landmine Ban treaty because of perceived Russian aggression. Russia, helped spur on such a perception with a very public military exercise that contained a practice invasion of Norway and other northern European states.  With so much success and so much cowering in western states, it is no wonder that much of the scholarship on Russian hybrid warfare has asserted the near infallibility of the Russian approach.  While most western nations see Russian hybrid warfare as threat to the western democratic way of life, it is, ironically, more threatening to the continued existence of Russia as viable nation-state.

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Crossing the Red Line: How Russian Interference in Western Democracy is Backfiring

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This article was originally published by the Elcano Royal Institute on 29 May 2017.

Since the Ukraine conflict has started in 2014, tensions between Russia and the West have massively increased. The US and the EU have jointly supported Ukrainian territorial integrity by introducing massive sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its military aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas; plus, Russia has been expelled from the G8. Russian aggression has also led to NATO’s re-orientation towards territorial defence. Today German officials, who have long pursued the strategy of modernising Russia and integrating it into Western structures, talk about ‘managing an antagonistic relationship’ as the new normal.

Besides the Ukraine conflict, tensions between the West and Russia have also arisen because the latter began to interfere in the domestic political spheres of leading Western democracies. There are three major cases so far: in Germany, the Lisa case in Berlin in January 2016, a Russian disinformation campaign (and before that the hacking of computer systems of the German parliament, in 2015); in the US, the hacking and publishing of documents from the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign in July 2016; and in France, financial and other support for Marine Le Pen as well as hacking during the presidential campaign in May 2017.

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