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Putin’s propaganda machine hits the EU while Brussels sleeps

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Just as Sergey Lavrov, the Russian 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 brink of starvation. Dozens of local media outlets quickly picked it up. Thousands of people shared it on Facebook.

During the same period, Josep Borrell, the top European Union diplomat in charge of pushing back his Russian counterpart, was a virtual ghost online, according to data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Meta. He got only one mention on Facebook about Africa compared to Lavrov’s coverage tidal wave.

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

In the rapidly evolving disinformation battle between Russia and the 27-nation bloc, Europe continues to be outmatched, outgunned and underresourced to combat the Kremlin’s sophisticated playbook, which has combined state-backed media of the country, dozens of diplomats scattered around the world, and sometimes undercover tools to sell falsehoods and outright lies to promote Moscow’s political ambitions in the four corners of the world.

Those tactics have come true since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, and especially since Moscow began deceitfully blaming Western sanctions for keeping the world’s grain supply locked up in Ukraine. For Lavrov, the blame lies at Europe’s door, and in his opinion piece addressed to an African audience, he reminded everyone of “the bloody crimes of colonialism.”

With Russia’s bullhorn tactics, it’s a strategy that can escalate quickly as Russia’s wily foreign minister tours 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-country bloc has failed to counter this full-court press of falsehoods, often relying on serious press releases, bland photographs and a small number of officials charged with debunking Russian disinformation.

“Russia’s ability to promote its disinformation has gone unchecked in many parts of the world,” said Bret Schafer, head of the Alliance to Secure Democracy’s intelligence manipulation team that tracks state-backed disinformation. “Your hearing [in Europe] it may have decreased since the war began. But that doesn’t mean it’s not finding an audience elsewhere.”

While Russia’s message is everywhere in the four countries Lavrov will visit this week, it’s unclear if it’s really breaking through. Unlike in the Cold War, when many of the continent’s governments looked to Moscow for help, many of the region’s countries now look to China, not Russia, for deep funding and development assistance.

“The use of the evil colonialist narrative is not new, as the Kremlin has been using it for years as part of a broader strategy to increase its presence in Africa,” said Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the Center for Politics. European. “However, it has had limited success. Ultimately, Russia has very little to offer African countries other than arms, security, and energy; many agreements remain only on paper”.

Europe’s limited retreat

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

For years before Moscow’s attack on its western neighbor, European countries had been divided over the difficulty of pushing back Russian disinformation, with various governments in places like Hungary and Italy at times openly favorable to the Vladimir Putin regime, according to four officials. of the EU who spoke. on condition of anonymity to discuss internal EU talks. However, after Kyiv came under attack, the West, including European governments that once shunned efforts to expose Moscow’s disinformation, rallied behind an anti-Moscow stance.

“We live in a completely new era,” said one such official, noting how EU member states now speak with one voice about their opposition to Russia, compared to previous infighting between those who wanted to clamp down on Russia. the Russian state media and those who did not see RT or Sputnik as peddlers of falsehoods. The EU has also recently worked with the US and UK to debunk Kremlin falsehoods, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a neo-Nazi, before they could gain ground in the West.

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

Still, Brussels has brought a knife to a shootout primarily in terms of its ability to combat Russia’s multibillion-dollar propaganda machine. That is particularly true of the EU’s neighbors like those in the Balkans and countries with strategic importance like the African states that Lavrov will visit this week.

So far, Brussels has spoken a lot, including repeated warnings from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about Russian disinformation. But she hasn’t been able to keep up with the evolving threat.

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

“Of course, we are aware of attempts to circumvent sanctions,” Věra Jourová, the Commission’s vice president for securities and transparency, told POLITICO via email. “Especially in the online world, this is a ‘whack-a-mole’ game to a degree.”

Where misinformation meets foreign policy

Russia’s propaganda playbook has evolved since its invasion of Ukraine five months ago, becoming increasingly geopolitical.

Lavrov’s latest trip to Africa follows a barrage of state-backed media articles and posts from official Russian diplomatic social media accounts that have blamed the West, not Russia, for the urgent food crisis sweeping the country. continent. In his recent op-ed, for example, the Russian foreign minister said that Europe and the US had worsened food shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Western sanctions against Moscow were equally guilty.

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

“They promote Russia’s anti-colonial stance as a way to sway public opinion in their favor and emphasize ideological ties with African leaders,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit. , referring to recent messages from Moscow. “It’s more political than financial support.”

In response, EU officials have touted the bloc’s so-called Global Gateway strategy, a proposed €300 billion plan to provide public and private financial aid to developing economies in the wake of the recent global pandemic. The goal is to provide assistance to countries that may turn to more authoritarian regimes like China and Russia for support, though few drafts of the strategy remain to be revealed.

In part, Europe’s tactics have been affected by Russia’s inability to get its message across to people around the world, many of whom see the Kremlin-backed media as a legitimate alternative to local or Western media. . Multiple national media outlets in Africa either published Lavrov’s op-ed unopposed this week, or linked themselves to Russian state media that promoted the propaganda widely through their massive social media presence.

In Latin America, for example, RT en Español, the Spanish-language outpost for Russian disinformation, has become a news source for millions of locals. In French-speaking Africa, RT France has redoubled its efforts to promote a Moscow-friendly alternative as its access to France has been curtailed in the wake of EU sanctions, according to POLITICO analysis of social media. of the media organization. presence.

For Tijana Cvjetićanin, a fact-checker in the Balkans who has tracked the rise of Russian falsehoods, pro-Russian local media also routinely picks up what first appears on RT and Sputnik, giving these falsehoods a new lease of life in forms which are difficult, if not impossible, to combat for the limited resources of the EU.

“The origin of most of these claims is unequivocally Russian, either from their official sources (Putin’s speeches, the Foreign Ministry, his army generals, local embassies) or from propaganda outlets such as Sputnik on Serbian language,” he said. “Local sources are basically translating and republishing their claims, occasionally adding some local ‘flavour’.”

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