Putin’s propaganda machine hammers EU while Brussels sleeps – POLITICO

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Just as Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was about to land in Africa on Sunday, he published an op-ed blaming the West for the looming global food crisis that has put millions on the continent on the verge of starvation. Dozens of local media quickly picked it up. Thousands of people shared it on Facebook.

During the same period, Josep Borrell – the European Union’s chief diplomat tasked with fending off his Russian counterpart – was an online virtual ghost, based on data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Meta. He only garnered one mention on Facebook about Africa in relation to Lavrov’s tidal wave.

The latest lopsided showdown between Lavrov and Borrell for the hearts and minds of people across Africa highlights what many in EU policy circles have known for years, but few are prepared to publicly acknowledge.

In the rapidly evolving disinformation battle between Russia and the 27-nation bloc, Europe remains outmatched, outgunned and underfunded to fight the Kremlin’s sophisticated playbook, which has combined the media backed by the state of the country, dozens of diplomats spread across the world and, on occasion, secret tools to peddle untruths and outright lies to promote Moscow’s political ambitions in every corner of the globe.

These tactics have come into their own since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February — and especially since Moscow began misleadingly blaming Western sanctions for blocking the world’s grain supply to Ukraine. For Lavrov, the blame lay at Europe’s doorstep, and in his editorial aimed at an African audience, he reminded everyone of “the bloody crimes of colonialism”.

With Russia’s mouthpiece tactics, it’s a strategy that can move quickly as Russia’s cunning foreign minister travels through four African countries this week – tactics the EU cannot easily combat. Despite widespread sanctions against the country’s state media like RT and Sputnik within the EU, Russian media continues to reach tens of millions of people around the world with an openly pro-Russian message. In response, the 27-nation bloc has failed to counter this press of lies in open court, often relying on stilted press releases, bland photo ops and a handful of officials tasked with debunking misinformation. Russian.

“Russia’s ability to promote its disinformation has gone unchecked in many parts of the world,” said Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Information Manipulation Team. that tracks state-sponsored disinformation. “His public [in Europe] may have declined since the start of the war. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t find an audience elsewhere.”

While Russia’s message is everywhere in the four countries Lavrov is visiting this week, it is not clear that it is really breaking through. Unlike the Cold War, when many mainland governments looked to Moscow for help, many countries in the region are now looking to China, not Russia, for deep pockets and Development Assistance.

“The use of the evil colonialist narrative is not new as the Kremlin has used it for years as part of a broader strategy to increase its footprint in Africa,” said Amanda Paul, senior political analyst at the European Policy Centre. had limited success. At the end of the day, Russia has very little to offer African countries outside of weapons, security and energy – many deals remain on paper.”

Europe’s limited decline

Russia’s ability to push its disinformation globally as the EU mostly watches from the sidelines is not what Brussels had hoped for when it cracked down on Kremlin-backed media in the wake of the invasion from Ukraine.

For years before Moscow’s attack on its western neighbor, European countries were divided on the difficulty of fending off Russian disinformation, with several governments in places like Hungary and Italy sometimes openly sympathetic to Vladimir Putin’s regime, according to four EU officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal EU conversations. Yet after Kyiv came under attack, the West — including European governments that once pushed back on efforts to expose Moscow’s disinformation — united behind an anti-Moscow stance.

“We live in a whole new era,” said one of these officials, who pointed out that EU member countries now speak with one voice on their opposition to Russia, compared to previous infighting. between those who wanted to suppress Russian state media and those who did not see RT or Sputnik as peddlers of untruths. The EU has also recently worked with the US and UK to debunk Kremlin lies, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a neo-Nazi, before they can gain traction across the West.

Despite EU sanctions, Russian state media like RT continue to spread false information with new tactics | Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Yet Brussels has mostly brought a knife to a shootout in terms of its ability to combat Russia’s multimillion-dollar propaganda machine. This is especially true in countries neighboring the EU like those in the Balkans and countries of strategic importance like the African states that Lavrov is visiting this week.

So far, Brussels has spoken of a good game, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s repeated warnings about Russian disinformation. But it failed to keep pace with the evolving threat.

The official Kremlin demystification unit in Europe, known as East Stratcom, which is housed within the EU’s diplomatic service, has an annual budget of a few million euros, compared to the resources almost unlimited resources available to its main adversary: ​​the Russian state media. The main objective of the unit is to expose the falsehoods of the Kremlin via a website which garners a fraction of the opinions Russian state media gets monthly, according to SimilarWeb, a data analytics firm. Despite recent EU sanctions, RT is also continuing to evolve its tactics, including creating new sites in German, French, Spanish and English to circumvent the block ban.

“We are of course aware of the attempts to circumvent the sanctions,” Věra Jourová, vice-president of the Commission for Values ​​and Transparency, told POLITICO by email. “Especially in the online world, it’s to some extent a ‘whack-a-mole’ type game.”

When disinformation meets foreign policy

Russia’s propaganda playbook has evolved since its invasion of Ukraine five months ago – and has become increasingly geopolitical.

Lavrov’s latest trip to Africa follows a flurry of articles in state-backed media and posts from official Russian diplomatic social media accounts that blamed the West, not Russia, for the food crisis. emergency that is engulfing the continent. In his recent op-ed, for example, Russia’s foreign minister said Europe and the United States have worsened food shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Western sanctions against Moscow were also to blame.

In reality, there are no Western sanctions on grain stored in Ukraine, although some companies have expressed caution about working with Russia to get them out.

“They promote Russia’s anti-colonial stance as a way to sway public opinion in its favor and underscore ideological ties with African leaders,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s Africa program, a non-profit organization, in reference to the recent message from Moscow. “It’s more political than financial support.”

In response, EU officials touted the bloc’s so-called Global Gateway Strategy, a proposed €300 billion plan to provide public and private financial assistance to developing economies in the wake of the recent global pandemic. . The aim is to provide assistance to countries that might turn to more authoritarian regimes like China and Russia for help, though few of the strategy’s plans have yet to be unveiled.

In part, Europe’s tactic has suffered from a failure to match Russia’s ability to get its message across to people around the world, many of whom see Kremlin-backed media as a legitimate alternative to local media or Westerners. Several national media outlets across Africa carried Lavrov’s op-ed unchallenged this week, or tied themselves to Russian state media which widely promoted the propaganda via his massive social media presence.

In Latin America, for example, RT en Español, the Spanish-language outpost of Russian disinformation, has become a go-to news source for millions. In French-speaking countries in Africa, RT France has stepped up efforts to promote a favorable alternative to Moscow, given that its access to France has diminished following EU sanctions, based on analysis by POLITICO from the media organization’s social media. presence.

For Tijana Cvjetićanin, a fact-checker in the Balkans who has tracked the rise of Russian lies, pro-Russian local media also regularly pick up on what first appears on RT and Sputnik, breathing new life into those lies. paths that are difficult, if not impossible, to fight for the EU’s limited resources.

“The origin of most of these claims is unequivocally Russian, either from their official sources – Putin’s speeches, the Foreign Ministry, their army generals, local embassies – or from the media of propaganda like Sputnik in the Serbian language,” she said. “Local sources essentially translate and repost their claims, occasionally adding local ‘flavor’.”

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