This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 2 January 2017

In recent weeks, Russian-language media outlets in the Baltic states have continued to focus on the foreign policy implications of the U.S. presidential transition, usually arguing that Washington’s relations with Russia will likely improve soon. In a 5 December interview posted this week by Estonia’s independent Russian-language news website rus.postimees.ee, a Russian-speaking member of the pro-Kremlin Estonian Centre Party (ECP) compared the EU with the defunct Soviet Union and predicted a warming of the West’s relations with Russia. This narrative falsely portrays the West as an active cause of the tension and Russia as an aggrieved party. The ECP has formal ties with Russia’s ruling United Russia party. By contrast, a pro-Kremlin TV channel strongly criticized the U.S. Senate delegation led by Republican lawmakers. John McCain and Lindsay Graham. Intended to demonstrate continued U.S. support for the security of the Baltics and Ukraine, Россия 1 spun it into a tale involving U.S. energy interests. 

Elsewhere, the question of how much Russia actually spends on information warfare remains a matter of considerable uncertainty. As we have mentioned previously, the Russian government has allocated $19 million to launch RT programs in French this year; RT already broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic. In 2014, the ruble’s devaluation forced the government to temporarily freeze the project. But in a recent article, Petras Austrevicius—a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament—claimed that the Kremlin doubled media spending in 2016 from €630 million the previous year. Konstantin Borovoy, a former Russian member of the Russian Duma, has suggested the real figure is much higher. Austrevicius praised the work of the East Stratcom Task Force, the counterpropaganda arm of the EU Foreign Service, but criticized the EU’s unwillingness to make even modest attempts to counter Kremlin budget increases. Austrevicius also faulted politicians, especially in France and Italy, for underestimating the effects of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

In the Kremlin, meanwhile, the two first deputy heads of Putin’s presidential administration, Sergey Kiriyenko and Aleksey Gromov, reportedly have redivided responsibilities for media supervision. Kiriyenko will handle Internet content, while Gromov will oversee the consolidated media (state TV channels, news agencies, radio and print media). The move apparently complements the other responsibilities of the two officials in the presidential administration. No matter how large the Kremlin expenditures on Russian information activities abroad, however, Gromov’s responsibilities will likely prove a challenge.  Russia’s media industry at home has been hit hard by the country’s downturn and the ban on advertising tobacco and dietary supplements, with publishers’ advertising revenues down by 20 to 25 percent.