Dear President of the European Commission,
Dear High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy,
On Sunday, March 4, a chemical weapons attack was conducted on European soil for the first time in over 70 years. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in Salisbury with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. The attack was accompanied by a massive disinformation campaign by Russia. The EU was quick and determined in its response. It condemned the attack strongly and many of its member states expelled Russian diplomats.
We need similar determination showing the EU is ready to defend itself against Russia’s disruptive disinformation operations seeking to abuse our vulnerabilities. In the aftermath of the Salisbury attack, the European Council invited the High Representative and the Commission to present an action plan on disinformation.
This is your chance to finally send a strong signal to Russia: that the EU does not tolerate Russia exploiting its fundamental values and principles, such as freedom of expression, for malign information operations aimed at weakening the EU and its member states. Already in 2015, the European Council tasked the Commission and the EEAS to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaign, and a communications team, the East Strategic Communications Task Force at the EEAS was set up as a first step.
As European specialists focusing on foreign and security policy, we are closely following the activities of the Commission on countering the threat of disinformation campaigns. Many of us have cooperated with the East Stratcom Task Force since it was established. We have seen first hand how the capacity of the only counter-disinformation team mandated by the EU heads of states and governments has been not been supported as it should have.
Last year, 65 security experts across Europe called for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini to triple the capacity of the EEAS East STRATCOM Team and give it a budget in millions of Euros, so it could start fulfilling its mandate as stipulated by the Member States and the European Parliament.
This has not happened. The only budget given to the understaffed team is 1,1 million euros through the European Parliament and as a result, the team still has no permanent budget enabling strategic long-term planning. The EU response to Russia’s disinformation is based on just a couple of experts mainly paid by the member states, while the official investment by Russia alone in its propaganda channels is over one billion euros. The Commission is still clearly failing in delivering a practical response to pro-Kremlin disinformation, despite repeated calls from the Member States, the European Parliament, and numerous European security experts.
We are aware of other initiatives by the Commission. The trouble is that these initiatives either fail to see that Russia is by far the most aggressive foreign actor in the disinformation space, or they fail to design any meaningful response against this actor. This means that East StratCom is so far the EU’s only response against the Kremlin’s hostile information aggression.
The European Parliamentary elections are approaching. We have seen Russia’s orchestrated attempts to influence the French elections and Brexit. It has hacked the parliament ahead of German elections and manipulated information around the Catalonia independence vote to influence public opinion, just to mention a few. The very EU’s East StratCom provides publicly available evidence of Russian hostile activities. There is an ongoing disinformation campaign by Russia around the downing of MH17 and chemical attacks in Syria.
In April 2018, in Britain, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany and France, the majority of people suspected Russia was behind the Salisbury poisoning. But in Bulgaria, for example, 81% did not see sufficient proof of Russian involvement. 54% considered that the Skripal case was a provocation against Russia. And in October, 28 percent of Russians believed the Skripals were in fact poisoned by British intelligence services. 3 percent said the attack was carried out by Russian intelligence services. Another 56 percent of respondents said, “it could have been anyone”.
The EU’s weak response to Russia’s disinformation is damaging to the European Union’s credibility internationally, and as a security provider to its citizens. It gives way to malign actors to freely interfere.
Therefore, we call upon you, as the President of the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, to show that this Commission will actually do something in this important field. As European security experts, we propose the three following steps:
1. As the Commission is about to present the Action Plan on disinformation, Russia must be explicitly identified as the main foreign source of hostile disinformation against the EU and its values. We have seen efforts inside the Commission to avoid pointing the finger at Russia, but as we have already seen in numerous cases, such an approach only encourages the Kremlin to be more aggressive. Russia must be officially named and shamed for its permanent hostilities against Europe.
2. The only European Council mandated body, the East Strategic Communications Task Force at the EEAS, should be provided with additional 30 experts with various language and specialist skills in order to be able to analyse pro-Kremlin disinformation with appropriate human resources, including during the upcoming European Parliament election campaign. It is a strategic political failure of President Juncker and High Representative Mogherini that since 2015, the Commission with thousands of employees was so far unable and unwilling to provide these resources to the only EU specialist team on this issue, despite numerous calls by various Heads of States and Governments in the EU Member States, by Member States’ Foreign Ministers, by the European Parliament, or by the European expert community.
3. The East Strategic Communications Task Force at the EEAS should be provided with an annual budget of at least 5 million EUR for special research, monitoring and campaigns. Without any real budget for its work, this team cannot have a relevant impact on the issue which the Member States and the European Parliament have repeatedly called for to be addressed. The adequate budget is needed for proper monitoring of disinformation oriented sources, both in the traditional media and in the social media, as well asother non-traditional sources. The Commission should also use its existing tools to enhance long-term financial and other support to independent local media working in/on Russia and the states of the Eastern Partnership.