Author: Dionis Cenușă
Non-democratic regimes demonstrate an advanced ability to influence, with an invisible hand, not only internal public opinion, but also the external one. In order to achieve political objectives outside national borders, without necessarily resorting to military intervention, states with authoritarian political regimes actively resort to disinformation. In other words, false information is deliberately spread to mislead public opinion and implant manipulative political discourses. The practice of disinformation takes different forms depending on the broadcasting power of the source country.
For Eastern Europe and for the European Union as well, Russia is the robust center that constantly executes disinformation. There are two models by which Russia is accustomed to spreading falsehoods and juggling with people’s emotions and political decisions.
In the first case, only (pro-) Russian state entities intervene in activities of producing and publicizing false information. If they fail to neutralize the truth, then they create alternative visions that diminish the authentic version of the events. Such interventions became visible in the disinformation launched by Russia to avoid the responsibility for the downing of MH17 flight, in eastern Ukraine, by one of the Russian BUK missiles, offered to paramilitaries in the separatist areas in Luhansk and Donbas (Ukrinform, November 10, 2019). Although, an independent investigation has identified clear evidence of Russia’s involvement (Guardian, 14 November 2019), there is still an attempt to split the responsibility for MH17 with Ukraine (Democratic-Europe, October 16, 2019).
The second observed model of Russian disinformation acts is realized with the contribution of the (non-) state actors from the neighboring countries, included without any approval in the Russian space of informational influence. The Socialist Party and its informal leader, the President of Moldova, Igor Dodon, are the key protagonists in spreading and fortifying the disinformation topics promoted by the Russian side. Efforts to support Russian misinformation are observed mainly in regularly supporting the positive role of the Russian peacekeeping mission in the separatist region of Moldova (Mediafax, April 26, 2018).
MH17 – Russia’s whitewashing or sharing responsibilities with Ukraine?
In a report about “foreign influence operations“, the European Parliament points out that the independent investigation of the MH17 flight shot down by a Russian missile has become the target of misinformation by Russian (non-) state actors. In addition to denying any responsibility, the Russian side has promoted, for the last 5 years, the idea that Ukraine is guilty of not closing the airspace. In May 2018, the Dutch and Australian authorities found the Russian authorities involved in launching the missile aimed at the MH17 civil aircraft (Ukrinform, 10 November 2019).
The multiple actions taken by Moscow, in relation with Dutch officials, but also in terms of European and Dutch public opinion, demonstrated the intention to amplify the confusion by perpetuating a variety of conspiracy theories.
The maximum objective of the disinformation acts was to annihilate the evidence that facilitates the blame of the Russian state. That’s why Russia has insisted on including the main suspect in the execution of the order to shot down MH17 coming from the Russian military, Volodymyr Tsemakh (RadioFreeEurope, September 4, 2019), in the list of persons wanted by the Russian side in exchange for the Ukrainian prisoners (Euroactive, September 9, 2019), detained illegally on the Russian territory.
The minimum objective seems to be to deny responsibility by blaming Ukraine. The first signal about the extension of the accused subjects became the 2018 request of the Christian Democrats and Dutch Socialists to investigate if Ukraine played any role in the collapse of MH17. Over one year, in October 2019, all parliamentary parties, including the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD), unanimously supported the same approach. So, in less than a year, through disinformation tools, but also active Russian diplomacy, Dutch politics partially overlook the arguments of the International Investigation Team that argues for Russia’s guilt by balancing it with suspicions concerning Ukraine (Democratic-Europe, October 16, 2019).
Even if the outcome of the inquiry into Ukraine is uncertain, it allows for a dilution of the discourse at European level about Russia’s responsibility and a possible revision of the sanctions policy, especially if the “Steinmeier formula” is ultimately implemented.
Russian peacekeeprs and pro-Russian media control
Pollution of public discourse can be successfully achieved by using political actors from neighboring countries. The Moldovan realities, which contain a structural socio-geopolitical dichotomy, are permissive for a pro-Russian rhetoric full of momentum, such as that expressed by the Moldovan President Igor Dodon towards the Russian peacemakers.
Therefore, Dodon acknowledged the benefic contribution of Russian peacekeepers for security and peace, reinforcing similar arguments made by the leader of the separatist region, Vadim Krasnoselkii, in April 2018 (President.md, April 25, 2018).
Subsequently, in Moscow, the Moldovan leader, on the one hand, returns to appreciate the positive role of the 26 years of activity of the peacekeeping mission, led by Russia. On the other hand, the same argument was used to strike the critics of the Russian peacemakers (President.md, November 21, 2018), who demand the replacement of the mission with a civil one under international mandates. In this way, Igor Dodon and the Socialists qualify any discussion about the withdrawal of Russian military forces from the Transnistrian region as premature and destabilizing.
A similar position, though with an indirect backing of the Russian peacekeepers, was observed in Igor Dodon’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2019. As expected, the pro-Russian politician did not in any way condemn the Russian military presence in the separatist region. This was a new episode of the deflection of Igor Dodon, from the official approach of Chisinau, formulated in 2018 (UN, June 2018), which calls for the withdrawal of Russian military forces in the Moldovan territory, contrary to the constitutional provisions on neutrality. Such discourse is meant to strengthen Russia’s geo-strategic status quo, according to which it holds in check both Moldova and Southwestern Ukraine, where the security is already undermined by the militarization of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.
In addition to the government’s critical stance on Igor Dodon’s statement in New York (President.md, September 26, 2019), the civil society representatives recalled the negative consequences of the Russian military presence in the Transnistrian region as well. Specifically, the increase of about 7.5 times of activities with the participation of the Russian military in the Transnistrian region – from 34 in 2016 to 256 in 2019. Moreover, on the humanitarian line, due to the authoritarian regime existing in the separatist region, Russia was targeted in about 60 human rights violations, documented and confirmed with final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (Promolex, September 25, 2019).
Disinformation actions regarding the positive role of Russian peacekeeping forces could get intensified, with the concentration of media resources in the hands of the Socialists. Specifically, the transfer of the most popular Russian channel “Pervîi” under the indirect control of Igor Dodon will simplify the propagation of pro-Russian messages, including those related to the importance of Russian peacemakers (Newsmaker, October 28, 2019).
According to data from January 2019, about 60% of the country’s population, which is informed through television, are watching “Pervîi”, broadcast on the territory of Moldova. Thus, granting the license to transfer the most popular Russian TV station to the television (“Accent TV”) close to the Socialist Party and Igor Dodon empowers their voices (Moldstreet, October 22, 2019). By now, the Socialists have managed to get into possession a range of popular Russian TV channels massively involved in Russian propaganda – “Pervîi”, NTV and less TNT (Newsmaker, October 28, 2019). As a result, a new media concentration is taking place in the hands of a single party, following the model of the previous monopoly held by Democrats.
Moreover, the Socialists have tried to repeal the 2017 anti-propaganda law adopted by the Democrats against the Russian propaganda content in the Moldovan information space (IPN, December 11, 2017). But this effort remained unfulfilled (Deschide.md, April 17, 2019), and leaders from the ACUM bloc intended to combat the emergence of new monopolies on the media market (TV8, November 4, 2019).
The dismissal of the government led by Maia Sandu, organized by the Socialists at the beginning of November 2019 (Reuters, November 12, 2019), however, allows the media opportunities for the Socialists to be maintained. As a result, Igor Dodon can easily multiply his platforms for promoting pro-Russian rhetoric, which is also convenient for free and easy delivery of Russian misinformation to the Moldovan public. With such conditions, Russian peacekeepers will receive more informational immunity, while the requests for their withdrawal from the Transnistrian region become much easier to neutralize.
Russian disinformation is sophisticated and involves various tools. At the same time, it has certain effects in the EU (Dutch case), but also in countries such as Moldova, where there are all preconditions for effectively promoting Russian geopolitical interests.