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This Week in Info War

Editor's Note - 9 October 2016

Attitudes in Washington about the security threat posed by Russian disinformation efforts have significantly shifted in the past six months. Until the U.S. presidential campaign gained momentum this spring and summer, much of the Washington foreign policy elite dismissed Russian information policy as an ineffective “soft power” weapon. What mattered was “hard” military force. Skeptics often assessed current Kremlin activity, moreover, with reference to Soviet influence operations during the Cold War. The USSR met its demise despite lavish spending on propaganda, the reasoning seemed to go. Why should U.S. policy be concerned about the messages disseminated by its successor state? 

Russian interference in the 2016 elections, however, has sharply changed popular attitudes—not only toward Kremlin information warfare but, more broadly, its influence operations. The run-up to the 8 November vote has seen a series of high-stakes cyber skirmishes between Washington and Moscow. Over the summer—apparently intent on derailing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—Russia released damning emails from the Democratic National Committee that led to the resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. On 7 October, hoping to create yet another stir, Russia then handed over a batch of Clinton’s emails to WikiLeaks.

Agreeing on how to combat the threat has been more difficult. CEPA’s recent study, Winning the Information War, proposes a comprehensive response to the issue. Several U.S. government entities, including the Obama administration and Congress, also are considering possible answers.  U.S. international broadcasting—especially the independent but taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty—have launched social media and other innovative programs. But a lack of consensus about the nature of the threat, inefficient bureaucratic machinery in the executive branch, and habitual slowness on Capitol Hill all hinder a coordinated official U.S. pushback.

Meanwhile, the simpler response of several European countries has been more effective. On 17 October, the British bank Natwest announced it would shut down the UK-based bank accounts of RT, a pro-Kremlin media channel (RT also complained that Natwest’s parent, Royal Bank of Scotland, refuses to provide it services). Although Natwest’s measure won’t take RT off the air in Europe, it will likely make it extremely difficult for the Russian state propaganda network to operate in the United Kingdom. Estonian authorities also have found it quick and effective to follow the money. In September 2015, the Estonian Financial Intelligence Unit was able to seize the RT account at Tallinn Business Bank since Dmitry Kiselov—director general of Rossiya Segodnya—is subject to European Union sanctions for destabilizing activities against Ukraine. 

Strangling RT’s financial flows is an important, but inadequate, first step. Not all Russian media figures are on Western sanctions lists, and legislation varies among various Western countries. For example, Konstantin Rykov, producer of the Vzglyad online newspaper noted in CEPA’s Estonia brief this week, is not on Western sanctions lists and is therefore harder for Western authorities to touch. But as we wait for the “measured” counter-response to Russia’s interference in the U.S. election process that was recently promised by Washington, we would do well to remember that even an inadequate response is better than inaction.