Jakub Janda, Head of the Kremlin Watch Program at the European Values Think Tank. Photo: europeanvalues.net
Civil.ge spoke about the Russian disinformation campaign in Central and Eastern Europe, European and Czech counter-measures and other regional security issues to Jakub Janda, Head of the Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director at the Prague-based European Values Think Tank.
What is your assessment of the Russian propaganda campaign and political influence operations in the Czech Republic specifically – how intense are they, and do you think that they are to a certain degree achieving their purpose?
The Czech Republic is not on the physical frontline of the Alliance, such as our Baltic allies, but we are on the frontline of the Russian subversion efforts – meaning mainly influence and disinformation operations. To put it in numbers – we are a 10,5 million country, Russia has approximately 140 diplomats and staffers in the Czech Republic (while it is estimated that more than a third of them are performing intelligence tasks), plus there are estimated low hundreds of illegal individuals performing intelligence tasks on behalf of Russia. Plus, there is a degree of local proxies – some would say useful idiots – who are local Czechs working on behalf of the Kremlin interests – for example systematically creating pro-Kremlin disinformation. Core of this group is composed of about one hundred individuals, according to our research.
How are they successful? Well, what we can show is the level of support for pro-Kremlin narratives which were not present in the Czech discourse prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Pending on the particular narratives, there is an approximate one third of Czech adult population which is vulnerable to these pro-Putin disinformation operations. So far, I would argue that given only three years of massive disinformation operations, this is a success for the Kremlin and its proxies.
Moreover, Russian agencies managed to penetrate some of the Czech institutions – mainly the office of the Czech President. Mr. Zeman, the President elected in 2013, is one of Putin’s most reliable European allies, he acts as a Kremlin Trojan horse – copy-pasting Putin’s position domestically and internationally, or supporting domestic Russia-friendlies and allies whom he provides with legitimacy of the presidential office. The relationship is a two-way street – for example when the President’s de facto chief advisor Mr. Martin Nejedlý got indebted, Moscow headquarters of Lukoil has bought him off his debt in the fall of 2016, so this person – widely considered a Kremlin proxy and handler of the President – can stay in the presidential office – where he even does not have a working contract or a security clearance.
These threats – disinformation operations attacking Czech national interest and penetration of the Kremlin influence into some of the Czech institutions – have pushed the Czech government to act. So since 2016, the government has put together all of the relevant security institutions to look for vulnerabilities and create a national policy on countering hostile foreign influence. I am part of the process as an external consultant for the government institutions. Right now, after a comprehensive two-year review and policy development process, including setting up a new 20-man center focused on this issue, the Czech Republic is pushing back against this threat. It is just a beginning, but given how slow the response in other EU states is, the Czech Republic is now aiming to be one of the European leaders in responding to this non-kinetic threat – with obvious exceptions of the Baltic countries, which have had their defenses ready for more than two decades.
You have coordinated an open letter addressed to the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, criticizing the lack of adequate reaction to Russia’s massive disinformation campaign in Europe from the European External Action Service and Mrs. Mogherini herself. In your opinion, what are the particular reasons that cause this apparent disinterest in countering Russia’s activities against the EU?
Let’s start with the obvious – the main reason why the current European response to Russian subversion operations is so slow and relatively weak is a lack of political will in pushing back. My personal estimate based on consulting in 20 mainly Western countries over last two years is that now we are at only about 30 % of what we could be doing.
It is not about lack of information or knowledge. I would argue that most of the European intelligence agencies have similar understanding and knowledge of what the Russians are doing in trying to subvert European democracies.
There are several reasons for the lack of the political will among some of the European political establishment. It might be a combination of ideological belief – for example the non-confrontational pacifist spirits among German Social Democrats, plus some specific grievance (for example something what we call phantom-pain of the Ostpolitik) and direct financial engagement from Russia – that is what we call schroderization of part of the German political spectrum. For the Kremlin, which is basically a kleptocratic organized-crime structure with tsar-like figure at the top, it is easy to buy influence in some part of the West, when it is socially and politically acceptable in the local environment for the most senior public figures – such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder – to be acquired to work for the Kremlin’s strategic interests. Similar case might be the French National Front, which received direct Russian money (this time for its political activities) – and it did not fully discredit this political group and its leader Marine Le Pen in the eyes of the French voters. She lost the vote anyway, but it was not because of this collaboration.
The bottom line is – it is not only about individuals who work for the Kremlin’s political interests, despite all the atrocities done by the Kremlin and its proxies, but the main story is – for example – that this behavior is widely socially and politically accepted in France or Germany, outside of the very few public critics. Similar schemes can be found in most of the EU countries.
When we organized the public call to the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, we have just voiced the wide desperation by many European security policy experts who cannot understand why she keeps downplaying the threat from Russia. You almost never hear her address this threat, despite the fact there is at least 14 out of EU 28 states who are highly worried about it. If you look at the EEAS East STRATCOM team, which is the only EU official body focusing on this major threat – you can take it as an indicator on how Mrs. Mogherini takes this threat of Russian disinformation seriously. The team has not seen any relevant reinforcements since its launch in September 2015, basically working only due to the experts directly paid by the member states. A team of little more than a dozen experts could have been at least tripled in its capacities – which would not be a problem for the EEAS – but it did not. Because Mrs. Mogherini did not choose to, while she could have. The explanation is simple. She sees her political legacy in Syria, where she wants to work with the Russians on the reconstruction efforts. Reality shows how naive this is. She acts as an appeaser on Russia and the results of this policy are visible – increasing Russian aggression in the field of subversion against EU democracies.
One of my friends on the Western security establishment uses a simple story for this. If somebody keeps setting your house on fire, you can do several things. You can think about how to use better wood or bricks, or how to have more fire-fighters. But it will not help you, since the fire will always find some holes and you will always be in trouble. Or you can just catch the arsonist. Which means Russia and the traitors working for this dictatorship among our societies. That should be the move we do. But still many people in the West are afraid to even speak about this threat publicly as they do not want to offend Moscow. If you look to all objective indicators, Russia today is a fake imperial pseudo-power. Outside of nuclear weapons and size of its territory, it is a doping, drinking, abortion and corruption superpower. It has similar GDP to Italy and lower average wages than Romania. That is how it shall be treated.
What do you think are the reasons for this latest rise of the political forces in the Western world that are either affiliated with or convenient for Moscow?
For some of the Western political parties who are latently anti-American, they found a fake idol in Russia. So it would be ideological proximity as a springboard for their thinking. But the main reason are the comprehensive influence operations of Russia. They have studied our European societies for decades, they know the vulnerabilities and have the networks. So it is not hard for the Russian intelligence agencies to find what shall be offered to various European political parties, how shall they be cultivated and what can Moscow expect out of them. That is why it is paying off.
And again – the key enabler of this situation is the lack of resistance from European societies – which more or less allow the Kremlin to buy or lure specific politicians. And those Kremlin-submissive politicians do it also because they know they will not get ostracized back home. Reaction of the European civil society – with some good exceptions – is so far pretty weak as well.
The present U.S. administration still appears somewhat unsure as to how exactly it is going to engage Russia and Moscow’s foreign strategy. How optimistic are you in terms of the adequate American Russia policy in the nearest 3-4 years?
The most important thing for our Central and Eastern European region is that Yalta 2 is probably not going to happen. The autoimmune reaction of the American institutions from Congress to media has swamped this possibility, which was not unrealistic half a year ago. That is good news, the worst case scenario is unlikely right now.
Let me start with things which are probably not going to change. First, that is the clear understanding of the threat coming from Russia among the U.S. foreign policy, security and intelligence establishment. Outside of thousands of unknown patriots, these principled positions are represented by people like Defense Secretary Mattis, NSC Europe/Eurasia Director Hill, CIA Director Pompeo, Director of the National Intelligence Coats, or the probably incoming Assistant Undersecretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Mitchell.
Second, I think it is clear that President Trump is giving Syria to Putin. The open question is Eastern Europe and the pushback against Russian subversion in the West.
There are only two major options on how the Trump administration will go on in next 3-4 years. First, that President Trump will play tit for tat with Moscow and it will be a continuing age of uncertainty. Second, that President Trump will experience the same moments such as his last two predecessors and will understand that you cannot appease Vladimir Putin. That is when he would use all of the American might in pushing back against Russia – which Washington basically does not need for anything. That is what can happen if Russia overplays on Trump. I sincerely hope for this scenario.
Since the end of the Cold War the Czech Republic has been safe, with its security reinforced by membership in NATO and the European Union. Can you imagine any plausible future scenarios when security of the Czech Republic would be threatened again in geopolitical sense? Would the threats come from inside or outside, or both?
Well, the Russian Trojan horses – such as the current Czech President Zeman – are calling for Czech referendum on exiting the EU. It is not going to happen next year, but if you remember – Nigel Farage was seen as ridiculous couple years back as well. So Russia cannot do it on its own, but its proxies and collaborators will be pushing for this path and if circumstances appear in the particular set of events – for example another major migration wave which would push the Czech approval rate for EU membership from the current 40% below 25 % – which is possible – the calls for Czexit referendum would become mainstream.
If you see the Czech situation – where Russia has its actors which it uses well for its international and domestic purposes (President Zeman is widely used in Russian domestic propaganda creating a picture that Putin has a clear anti-American and anti-EU ally in Europe) and the Czech government institutions are seriously pushing back against the Kremlin subversion, the only viable strategic options is to push the ongoing grievances among some parts of the public – and aim for the potential Czexit referendum in matter of 3 – 5 years, if external major elements such as the migration crisis would enable the debate on this to become mainstream.
Do you think that Europe is doing all it can and should do in support of Ukraine against the ongoing Russian aggression? How about the eastern and central European nations in particular?
To be frank, I think Europe is doing very little to help Ukraine. The technical and let’s call it – soft – support from the EU is relevant and I am proud that we are trying to help in this field. But the other – harder – support we shall be providing would be in defense area. Since we all agree that Russian tanks have no business being on Ukrainian soil, so why don’t we provide legitimate army of Ukraine with anti-tank missiles to give them a chance to make Ukraine a Russian-tank-free zone? That would require a principled political positions which you cannot see outside of the Baltic region right now. I see very little appetite for it, as many in Europe would use the appeasement rhetoric that we shall not escalate. But what else would Putin have to do – outside of being responsible for deaths of more than 10 000 Ukrainians and occupying territories of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – to make us move against him? I come from a country which saw in 1938 what appeasement is. That is also why I keep saying – let’s push the arsonist out of our garden. Right here, right now.