Russia’s foray into Italy to undermine democracy

Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is suspected of striking backroom deals with Russian financiers to enrich his far right party’s European Parliament campaign. Investigative reporters at L’Espresso found that Salvini held 12 hours of off-the-grid talks in Moscow during an official state visit.

Meanwhile, a close ally and former spokesman for Salvini is head of the Russia-Lombardy Association and has himself been found negotiating with Russian oil executives.

The upshot is another apparent effort to secretly fund favorable political candidates in Western democracies to undermine the political process and advance Kremlin interests.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

U.S. military disrupted Russia’s IRA on Election Day

In an encouraging development that the U.S. is toughening its response to Russian provocation, the U.S. Cyber Command blocked the operations of Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency during the 2018 midterm elections.

“They basically took the IRA offline,” one official told the Washington Post.

The Internet blockage extended took place on Election Day 2018 and for a day or so afterward, to guard against any disinformation campaign that would call into question the integrity of the results.

Russia’s recent interference and sabotage operations have targeted not just elections but a host of U.S. commercial interests — from agriculture to cargo shipping — and taking particular aim at the fast-growing U.S. energy sector which directly threatens the backbone of Russia’s economy.

U.S. response to Russia’s provocations has been relatively tame, with private social media firms being slow to suspend accounts or step up disinformation detection efforts, and President Trump downplaying the Kremlin’s role in any election meddling. Last fall, one sign of a more aggressive posture emerged when the New York Times revealed that Cyber Command had been “direct messaging” IRA trolls and hackers to send a warning that they were known and being watched. Other not-yet-public responses by U.S. intelligence and military agencies may be underway.

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman and restaurateur known as “Putin’s chef” and the alleged financier behind IRA, was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last year along with other IRA-connected individuals and entities.

Amid the wider Mueller probe, however, public attention on the scope and severity of Russia’s interference in the U.S. has been intermittent at best. It’s time Congress and the Trump Administration step up actions to punish Russia for its past disinformation operations and deter future ones.

Is Russia behind the youth climate protests in Europe?

As we regularly document here, Russia is not shy about interfering in political and policy debates to sow confusion and wage “hybrid warfare” to weaken its adversaries from within. In fact, this is the Kremlin’s longstanding modus operandi.

Since its well-documented activities in the 2016 U.S. elections, Russia has continued to agitate on behalf of political protests and separatist movements, such as in Catalonia (and yes, even California) and the Yellow Vests in France.

So the seemingly spontaneous explosion of youth-led climate marches in Europe recently, some drawing as many as 35,000 participants, raised eyebrows among knowing Kremlin-watchers—chief among them, the Ukrainians, who witness Russian provocations on a daily basis.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told a group of journalists in Belgium last week that Russia is actively supporting the recent protests across the European Union calling for more urgency in combating climate change.

“It’s a point of exchange with all our partners. Russia has been supporting stirring up trouble around Europe because Russia’s goal is to weaken up the democratic institutions and to weaken the EU as such. Climate change protests: definitely yes.

—Pavlo Klimkin

He was not alone. Similar accusations have recently been issued by both German chancellor Angela Merkel and a Belgian climate minister, Joke Schauvliege, a longtime fixture on the EU and U.N. climate circuit.

Merkel and Schauvliege both walked back their comments to varying degrees in the days after. But that they were made at all created a curious convergence of allegations, most plausible given the history of Russian intelligence operations and current motives.

Details of how Russia specifically was fomenting or leading or supporting the youth protests were hard to come by, but are essential to our understanding and ability to counter Russia’s unwelcome outside influence.

Klimkin had this to say:

“It’s about fake NGOs, it’s about trying to buy journalists, it’s about trying to buy media, it’s about meddling in the political class. Not the same scope as in Ukraine, but it’s so visible”

The full story here needs to be uncovered and told.

Read more.

Russia is undermining confidence in GPS

Russia appears to be behind a spate of disruptions to GPS — the Global Positioning System that enables satellite-driven pinpoint navigation across the globe.

From electronic warfare efforts in Syria to signal jamming in Ukraine to the spoofing of signals in the Baltic, Black Sea, and elsewhere, Russia has been busy trying to undermine the GPS system and intimidate U.S. allies to question their reliance on the Western technology.

Analysts at the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation summarized some of the likely reasons behind the GPS attacks, such as the Kremlin’s desire to frustrate Western military operations, defend against drone incursions, adopt homegrown alternatives to GPS, and intimidate neighbors.

Read the full story

Reiderstvo: The dirty truth of foreign economic interference

Cyber and information attacks against commercial enterprises in the U.S. and allied countries are an enticing means of waging economic warfare by countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, a new report from the Chertoff Group and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies details.

Russia expert and former Army War College professor Stephen Blank cited the new report in an op-ed for The Hill that discusses how information warfare threatens Western corporations.

According to Blank, “Cyber and informational attacks can take the form of disinformation campaigns orchestrated…to besmirch the good name of a corporation, undermine its reputation and thus make it difficult if not impossible for it to secure contracts or funding. If the attack is sufficiently successful, the company either loses its market share or has to go out of business. In that case, the field is open for a pro-Moscow or actual Russian entity to replace it.”

For smaller firms, especially, the effects can be devastating.

“Economically such attacks on large or smaller corporations aim to cripple them unless they accede to the wishes of states like Russia or North Korea as in Pyongyang’s hacking of Sony in 2014.

This is a commonplace enough practice by Russia that there’s a word for it: Reiderstvo. Think of it as disinformation-meets-corporate raiding. “It is a hallmark of the Putin system,” writes Blank.

At CAFI we’ve provided many examples of how electric companies, energy producers, telecom firms, even agriculture producers have been subject to disinformation and sabotage to harm commercial prospects. Add to this list international cargo companies.

Blank cites an example of how some Western-owned cargo shippers have come into the crosshairs of Kremlin disinformation slingers, who seek to paint the companies as weapons traffickers and undermine their ability to carry out humanitarian operations for the U.N. and other clients.

Read the full piece at The Hill.