Last week's events concerning the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign

Topics of the Week

More information revealed about the high-level informant extracted from Russia in 2017.

Vladimir Putin wants Interpol's help with tracking down an ex-Russian spy now residing in the Washington D.C. area.

A new report by the RAND Corporation focuses in detail on the new and growing role of information warfare deployed by Russia and China.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In Soviet Russia, they had a great problem with speeding on the roads before the reconstruction. That is why the government decided to take severe measures and ordered that everybody caught speeding will get a big fine.

One day, Gorbachev overslept and as he rushed from his residence to the Kremlin, he told his driver to sit back and he sat behind the wheel himself.

Along the way, he whirled around two policemen on motorcycles. One of them started to follow him.

A few minutes later he returned to his colleague, who immediately asked:

“So, did you give him a fine?”

“No.”

“How come? We are supposed to be fining everyone!”

“No, this was someone too high up.”

“Who was it?”

“I don't know, I did not recognize him. Bit Gorbachev was his driver!”

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Policy & Research News

High-level informant extracted from Russia in 2017

On September 10, CNN reported about the extraction of a high-profile informant with access to President Putin by the U.S. intelligence services in 2017. According to CNN, the informant provided information for more than a decade. A story by the New York Times clarifies that, although not a member of Putin’s inner circle, the informant used to see him regularly and had access to high-level decision-making. The source helped establish the Kremlin’s responsibility for the 2016 election interference prompting the media to speculate about the existence of such a source which ultimately led to the extraction decision.

Although the reports did not mention the name of the exfiltrated asset, they led Russian media to hypothesize that it was Oleg Smolenkov, a former aide to President Putin’s foreign policy advisor, who disappeared with his family in Montenegro in June 2017. Citing open records, Bellingcat established that Oleg and Antonina Smolenkov, people named exactly as the couple who disappeared in Montenegro, owned a house in Virginia. Bellingcat believes that it is the same house that NBC reporters visited looking for a former senior Russian official living under U.S. government protection and were met by people in an SUV, presumably government agents. Importantly, NBC did not disclose the former official’s name but cited former FBI officials who believed it was the same person reported by CNN and the New York Times.

Bellingcat assumes that Smolenkov’s quite senior position at Russia’s Presidential Administration (Presidential Executive Office) fits the NYT’s description of the source’s position and June 2017, when Smolenkov disappeared with his family, aligns with the time when the asset was reportedly extracted. Thus, they conclude that he can be the same informant that media reported about, but even he was not the source, he was clearly a source which explained the U.S. government protection.

The Kremlin’s activity in Libya

The Dossier Centre, The Project, and The Daily Beast have published an investigation into the Kremlin’s operation in Libya. The research is based on a set of internal communication documents from the operation conducted by employees of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected oligarch indicted for interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

According to the investigators, the internal communication provided the first documentary evidence of Russia’s military operation in Libya led by the deputy commander of Airborne Assault Forces Lieutenant General Andrei Kholzakov. Although the researchers did not find evidence of Russian military personnel currently involved in combat, there were mentions that Russians assisted general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army during the Battle of Derna in 2018. However, it is unknown whether those were military servicemen or members of the Wagner PMC, controlled by Prigozhin. The documents indicate that Prigozhin’s political consultants coordinated their activities with the Kremlin, some of the reports being addressed to the Ministry of Defense or Defense minister Shoygu personally.

Haftar, who visited Russia a few times, used to be the Kremlin’s favoured candidate for leadership in Libya until the end of 2018, as claimed by the report. Later, political consultants working for the Kremlin assessed that the general was unfit for the role, mainly due to his multiple loyalties, American citizenship, and family living in the United States. For that reason, the consultants started grooming Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late dictator’s son, for the presidency. To support him, they invested in Jamahiriya TV, an old Gaddafi propaganda outlet now broadcasting from Egypt. The Russian specialists also created 12 groups on Facebook, some supporting Haftar and some Gaddafi, with more than 2 million daily readers. The investigators believe that the consultants’ activities are most likely approved by the Kremlin since when they started working with Gaddafi at the end of 2018, his representative met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow.

US Developments

Putin Wants Interpol’s Help Tracking Down Ex-Spy in the States

A recent report from Business Insider’s Sonam Sheth states that Vladimir Putin has asked Interpol for assistance in tracking down an ex-Russian spy now residing in the Washington D.C. area. The former CIA asset has been identified as Oleg Smolenkov who disappeared from Russia approximately two years ago in what appears to have been an intentional withdrawal to protect his safety. According to the report, Smolenkov had moved up in Kremlin circles and attained a position of influence near Putin. The official Russian position refutes this claim, though their renewed interest in Smolenkov’s whereabouts and activities while in Moscow would imply that he has accrued some level of importance in the Kremlin’s eyes.

It is debatable as to why Smolenkov was officially removed from his CIA role in Moscow, though it is certain he did enjoy a protected identity in the States up until recent reporting from the New York Times and subsequently, NBC News who exposed his residence in the D.C. area. After previous hits on former Russian spies like Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, Smolenkov’s media outing could require him to relocate or go into hiding with his family whose details were also exposed in recent reporting.

Outlining Russian Risk and Reward in Venezuela

An in-depth post by the Atlantic Council outlines Russian strategic interference in Venezuelan affairs by detailing multiple risk/reward scenarios of Russian intervention and compiling a comprehensive list of Kremlin interests in the region. The report first assesses Moscow’s long-term objectives which largely centre around upsetting the current Western liberal order in favour of a multipolar system that sees Russia as an important player in all global affairs. By explaining the Kremlin’s big-picture objectives, the authors then explain Moscow’s multi-layered involvement in Venezuelan affairs to include economic linkages through substantial oil trade and minimalist military support. In brief, by propping up the authoritarian government and its spiralling economy, Putin has maintained a valuable hand of influence in the Western Hemisphere while at the same time flouting an exaggerated position of international strength and clout.

Furthermore, the post identifies four possible scenarios that could instigate or drawdown additional Russian involvement in the beleaguered South American country. Each scenario takes into account the roles of key global players and organizations and how Moscow might respond to each potential outcome. In summary, the Council suggests that the international community seek paths for a democratic transition in Venezuela while avoiding large-scale conflict with Russia. This ideal situation creates an advantageous result for all parties while protecting the best interests of benevolent world players and most importantly, an ailing Venezuelan people.

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Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Hostile Social Manipulation: Present Realities and Emerging Trends

The RAND Corporation published a long and detailed report on the new and growing role of information warfare deployed by Russia and China. The authors use the term ‘hostile social manipulation’ to describe a full scope of activities – including disinformation, conspiracy theories, forgeries, and coordinated social media campaigns. The report is divided into six chapters. The first two chapters outline the importance of information and democracy and define social manipulation. Chapters three and four detail the history, doctrine, strategy, action, and effectiveness of Russian and Chinese activities. The fifth chapter is a six-country case study of Russia’s successful and unsuccessful campaigns. The sixth and final chapter gives the authors conclusions and recommendations for the United States government.

The report found Russia’s social manipulation relies on a mix of official organizations, proxies, private citizens, and useful idiots. Further, most of these groups act without direct orders and select their targets based on the Kremlin’s publicly stated positions. The report also found that China’s use of social media is growing more extensive and more sophisticated. Based on the analysis of their case studies, it appears social manipulation is effective only to the degree that existing societal vulnerabilities allow them to be. And while there is little concrete evidence about the impact of social manipulation, both Russia and China are investing heavily in its use and are gaining experience in its use. Combined with the evolving information realm, these investments and experience can increase social manipulations effectiveness over time.

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Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

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