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At Forum, Experts Slam Russian 'Disinformation' Campaigns Aimed at West
Voice of America
Cindy Saine
Friday, September 15, 2017

WASHINGTON — The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks.

The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad.

“Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Republican Senator Corey Gardner.

“Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.”

US election meddling

Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign.

“I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said.

McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day.

In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies.

RT, Sputnik broadcasts

U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda.

When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement:

"We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false."

However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information.

“The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.”

Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world.

The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction."

"The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information."

Germany, France elections

Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media.

Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks.

But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: NOT-SO-GOOD NEIGHBORS Russian Influence in Belarus Wednesday, November 20, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations. Expert witnesses will examine how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. Speakers will decode Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explore how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Sofya Orlosky, Senior Program Manager for Eurasia, Freedom House Franak Viačorka, Research Media Analyst (Contractor), U.S. Agency for Global Media Brian Whitmore, Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia Program, CEPA Andrei Yeliseyeu, Head of Monitoring Unit, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS); Research Director, EAST Center  

  • Helsinki Commission and Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment to Hold Joint Hearing on Open Skies Treaty

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment have announced the following hearing: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OPEN SKIES TREATY Tuesday, November 19, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2172 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Trump administration reportedly is considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, a key arms control agreement that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. The treaty underpins security and stability in Europe by providing for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories. The treaty allows even small countries greater awareness of military activities around them—more crucial than ever given the Kremlin’s demonstrated willingness to violate established borders. The principles of military transparency embodied by the treaty flow from the same fundamental commitments that led to the creation of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Open Skies Consultative Commission, which oversees implementation of the treaty, meets monthly at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Witnesses at the hearing, organized jointly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, will explore the continued contributions of the Open Skies Treaty to the security of the United States, as well as its benefits to U.S. allies and partners. Witnesses also will assess Russia’s partial non-compliance with elements of the treaty and strategies to address this challenge, and evaluate the implications of a possible U.S. withdrawal on security and stability in Europe and Eurasia. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Jon Wolfsthal, Director, Nuclear Crisis Group; Senior Advisor, Global Zero; Former Special Assistant to the President for National Security; Former Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the National Security Council Damian Leader, Ph.D., Professor, New York University; former Chief Arms Control Delegate for the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Amy Woolf, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy, Congressional Research Services Witnesses may be added.  All members of the media wishing to attend the hearing must be accredited through the House Radio-Television Correspondents’ Gallery. For more information on accreditation, please contact the gallery at 202-225-5214.  

  • Putin's Shadow Warriors

    Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet, western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors — useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost — remains limited. Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts shone a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world, clarified the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies, and reviewed efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies (PMSCs). During the briefing, the audience heard from the RAND Corporation’s Dara Massicot, University of Denver Professor Dr. Deborah Avant, and recently retired U.S. Government technical expert on armed contractors Col. Christopher Mayer, U.S. Army retired. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky. Mr. Tiersky explained in his opening remarks that even though reports of Russian mercenaries have become more frequent and alarming, our understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private security contractors remains somewhat limited. He pointed to The New York Times’ headline from the day before, which confirmed suspicions of Russian mercenaries in Libya, as an example of the relevancy of the issue today. Ms. Massicot began the panel with a broad overview about Russian PMSCs. She explained that there are two types of contracting groups in Russia: private security companies, which are legal entities in Russia that are more selective in their recruitment and types of missions, and private military companies (PMCs), which are illegal yet have proliferated in recent years. The most well-known Russian private military company is the Wagner Group, best known for its involvement in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Massicot also noted that Russian PMCs support both Russian grand strategy and the commercial interests of their owners. Dr. Avant remarked on the double-edged sword of the flexibility of PMSCs. On the one hand, they provide services for unexpected or necessary demands. For example, if a government needed French-speaking troops but did not have many of them, they could hire a private security company who could provide those forces. On the other hand, they are managed outside of regular political and military channels, resulting in an increased risk of misbehavior by the contracting government and the PMSC personnel. Dr. Avant briefly delved into the work of the International Code of Conduct Association, which seeks to define appropriate behavior for PMSCs. Col. Mayer spoke about the international and national efforts the United States government participated in to regulate the conduct of PMSCs. He specifically spoke about the Montreux Document, which details international legal obligations and good practices for states involved in the PMSC process, United States national laws that regulate PMSC conduct, and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. Col. Mayer also remarked on the current decrease of State Department and Defense Department involvement in international activity regarding PMSCs. This is concerning as it coincided with increased activity among mercenary groups, thereby threatening the gains made in the past 15 years by international agreements. However, Col. Mayer noted that there is hope for future United States reengagement, citing one promising initiative as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s recent resolution on PMSC activity.

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Host Briefing on Kremlin Mercenaries Abroad

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PUTIN’S SHADOW WARRIORS Mercenaries, Security Contracting, and the Way Ahead Wednesday, November 6, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2359 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors—useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost—remains limited.  Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts will shine a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world; clarify the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies; and review efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies.  Panelists scheduled to participate include: Dr. Deborah Avant, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver; author of The Market for Force: the Consequences of Privatizing Security; director of the Private Security Monitor Dara Massicot, Policy Researcher, RAND Corporation; former senior analyst for Russian military capabilities at the U.S. Department of Defense Col. Christopher T. Mayer (U.S. Army, Ret.), former Director of Armed Contingency Contractor Policies and Programs for the U.S. Department of Defense, responsible for the department's utilization of private security companies

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