On the 10th of August ECEAP held 2 panels in the Estonian Opinion Festival: ‘Eastern Partnership – Quo Vadis?’ and ‘Manipulation and Information Warfare’.
Eastern Partnership – Quo Vadis?
The panel was moderated by Kristiina Tõnisson (Head of the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu). The panellists were were Sven Mikser (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Estonia), Urmas Paet (Member of the European Parliament), Jaak Madison (Deputy Head of the Parliament’s European Affairs Committee), and Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits (Member of Parliament).
The purpose of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) from Estonia’s perspective is to support the development of countries similar to us in our neighbourhood in terms of democracy and rule of law. Dictatorships are a threat not just to their own citizens but also to their own neighbours. Within the context of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy, of which the EaP is a part, the Southern neighbourhood plays a more important role for many EU Member States due to migration concerns. The EaP is a way to keep the focus of EU’s decision-makers on the Eastern neighbours, especially when it comes to the allocation of resources. We are witnessing that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine wish to achieve a similar level of economic and political development as EU member states and become full members in the future, whereas Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus are still searching for their path. At the same time, EaP is not part of the EU enlargement policy. It is important to explain to the citizens of the EaP countries that EU supported reforms are primarily in their own interests and not just the EU’s. Our aim should be to avoid disillusionment as their membership in the EU in the near future is impossible due to lack of mutual agreement among the MS. The 20 Deliverables for 2020 agreed upon at the last Summit should support the EaP countries in coming closer to the EU by, for example, increasing their economic competitiveness.
Estonia cooperates with all six countries but with special focus on Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. From Estonia’s perspective supporting the EaP countries is a moral obligation due to our similar past as well as a pragmatic consideration due to security concerns. Russia views the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood as part of its sphere of influence while it is in Estonia’s interest to support the independence of these countries and encourage them to stay on track with EU supported reforms. It is also in Estonia’s interest for the EaP countries to have a stable and attractiveg business environment where our entrepreneurs can invest and do business.
Estonia is an example of successful development for the EaP countries, due to which they tend to consider our experts more trustworthy than representatives of older Western countries. We therefore provide support primarily by sharing our reform experiences with focus on building up strong institutions, fight against corruption, supporting the development of independent media, and various education projects.. Estonia has bilaterally supported EaP countries with development cooperation projects, especially Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Central and other Eastern European countries have also provided significant support, while Southern European countries have tended to focus more on the Southern neighbourhood. Estonia provides support to Estonian development assistance organisations such as Mondo to conduct projects but also to local development organisations. Since the assistance is mainly technical, it is difficult to measure experience sharing. It was also noted that sometimes we can also learn from the EaP countries themselves, for example from Armenians and Georgians in how to maintain traditions and family, and from Belarusians in how to successfully transform into a digitally developed country over a very short period of time.
Manipulation and Information Warfare
The Panel was moderated by Jarmo Mäkela (analyst of foreign media from Finland, columnist at Postimees). The panellists were Oleksii Makukhin (Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre expert), Anneli Ahonen (EU East StratCom Task Force expert), and Raul Rebane (strategic communication expert).
Discussion focused on Russian infowar operations and how they affect Russia’s own population as well as how they influence external audiences. Russia does not conduct infowar operations just during the war but instead employs this method constantly and continuously despite considering information warfare to be a part of counter actions in its war doctrine. To start off, the UCMC presented their study which shows that the majority of Russian population receives news via TV and mostly from the three most popular TV channels which are all controlled by the Kremlin. Their research focused on Russian TV shows during 2015-2017 in which Europe was portrayed to the Russian audience. Their study found that Europe is primarily portrayed in a negative manner (85% of news stories) of which only a part was disinformation, and majority of the stories were specially-picked true stories that adhered to a specific narrative, such as, life in Europe is dangerous, EU is degrading and is breaking apart, protests against the incumbent powers in Europe, terrorist acts in Europe, Europe is in danger of being swarmed by migrants, and the damaging effects of sanctions against Russia in EU countries. Dangerous life in Europe is contrasted with a portrayal of stability in Russia. European values are characterised as decadent and dangerous to Russia, the spread of which must be countered. Furthermore, Russia’s interfering in affairs of European countries as a protector of correct values is represented as justified. According to Russian propaganda, the US is Russia’s main enemy, Europe is weak and decadent, and Ukraine a failed state. Russian propaganda also targets European states with whom they have good relations, such as Finland, France and Germany. Additionally, support is expressed for extreme right-wing movements and parties. A 2016 Levada Centre study showed that propaganda regarding Europe had an effect on a section of the population due to which 70% of Russians were reluctant to travel abroad as that world was portrayed as dangerous and unstable. The effect of propaganda was also evident in the majority’s support for Putin’s reelection.
Propaganda narratives targeting audiences abroad are based on propaganda that is targeted at Russia’s internal audience. However, such narratives are specifically calibrated according to the conditions of the target country. Information operation involve not only the TV but also online troll-factories and in some cases, Embassies. As a result, the focus in Armenia was on topics tied to same-sex relationships whereas in Spain they focused on issues tied to Catalonia. The estimated cost of Russian info-operations is around up to a billion USD per year. Topics are chosen according to their significance to Russia so this year, for example, focus was on the Skripals’ poisoning, Dutch investigation into the downing of the airplane headed to Malaysia, and chemical attacks in Douma, Syria – all in which they tried to dispel Western media’s reporting and spread narratives showing Russia as not responsible. Such claims have not had much success in the West while for example in Bulgaria most of those who were interviewed believed due to Russian propaganda that Russia was not responsible for the poisoning of the Skripals.
EU East StratCom was created in 2015 to counter Russian propaganda. It is a small unit with 14 employees, most of who are specialists posted from and funded by the EU Member States. Their budget is limited, however, they have now received 1.1 million euros to better survey Russia’s activities. Agencies in EU MS countering Russian propaganda and civil society have also provided support to EU East StratCom. Their aim is to provide fact-based information to counter lies spread by Russian propaganda, especially in the EaP countries. East Stratcom has a public webpage where information is open to the public as they do not produce confidential information. Russian propaganda is followed also by the Member States, especially clear propaganda channels such as Sputnik or Russia Today. For example, in France RT has received a warning for spreading disinformation about the chemical attack in Syria and about the Skripals’ poisoning in the UK. UCMC recommendation is for the EU to take the need to counter Russian propaganda more seriously and allocate more funding towards this aim.
It was acknowledged that Russia’s doctrine of war includes information warfare as the primary counter-action targeting countries considered to be hostile. Currently Russia does not have a clear ideology to promote as the Soviet Union did, rather they try to find discord in Western societies and use it in their propaganda. The best defense against such strategy is to develop the transparency of civil society and society at large. War against Georgia in 2008 was a breaking point after which Russian journalists started being afraid to openly express their opinions and an official narrative started to prevail. Russian propaganda has been more successful than that of the Soviet Union which the West was able to counter. In Estonia during Soviet occupation period the possibility to follow Finnish TV helped to understand the lies of Soviet propaganda. Currently Russian propaganda is not always recognised – Estonian officials, for example, caused controversy by buying advertising on the infamous PBK channel.