Spies, hackers and gas pipelines. Moscow’s asymmetrical offensive against the European Union

Spies, hackers and gas pipelines. Moscow's asymmetrical offensive against the European Union

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister (left) talks to Federica Mogherini (right) vice-president of the European Commission and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, during a meeting in Manila in August 2017.

(Audiovisual Services European Commission/Joseph Agcaoili)

Relations between Russia and the European Union are facing one of their most critical moments in history, strained by Moscow’s interference in EU policy through its intelligence activity and disinformation, and by the economic pressure exerted by the Kremlin to assert its energy strategy over the old continent.

The media offensive launched by Russia, reviving the old ghost of secessionist nationalism, is further evidence of this confrontation between Moscow and the European Union, which has also led to the worsening of the EU’s relations with the United States. From Brussels, Washington looks like untrustworthy partner, at a time when President Donald Trump is suspected of collusion with the Kremlin in areas that affect Euro-Atlantic security.

The verdict seems to be unanimous: Russia’s objective is not so much to promote the independence and territorial segregation processes within Europe, but to deepen the existing divisions within the EU and NATO to weaken these organisations.

To this end, Moscow has unearthed the old KGB practices that were so successful at the height of the Cold War, in particular in the eighties, as the journalist Luke Harding points out in his recently published book Collusion. Buying political and economic will, and misinformation across the networks are the current features of the Russian intelligence services renewed campaign in their struggle with the West, explains Harding.

According to the former Moscow correspondent of The Guardian, for the first time in more than 70 years, many European governments are asking themselves whether the Trump administration is really an ally. The American president’s greater affinity with autocrats like the Saudis or the Russian head of state, Vladimir Putin, suggest the answer may be no.

This view was reinforced by Trump’s disastrous European tour last May and the subsequent July summit of the G-20 in Hamburg, where, ignoring his EU allies, the US president did not hide his unbridled admiration for Putin, despite the fact that it is assumed that he is behind their biggest problems, inside and outside the US.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel summarised the situation in the speech she made setting out her pitch for the September elections, which she then won. She stated that distrust in the United States and in Brexit Britain left the EU on its own at a very difficult time. "Europeans will undoubtedly have to take our destiny into our own hands," Merkel said.

As Harding points out in his book, this analysis includes the Chancellor’s certainty about the existence of an anomalous relationship between the US President’s inner circle and the Russians. The German intelligence agency, the BND, had already warned Barack Obama’s administration in 2016, when Trump was speeding towards the US Presidency like a runaway train.

New scenarios, old strategies

But while Trump continues to look the other way when it comes to Russia’s action, European governments see Moscow’s fingerprints on many of the recent problems facing the EU; especially after what happened with the illegal separatist referendum in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia on 1 October, in the presidential elections in May in France or in the general elections in the Netherlands in March. In all three countries, the respective national authorities denounced the attempts to influence these processes through support for radical parties, hacking and massive disinformation.

As a result French President Emmanuel Macron announced at the beginning of this month that a law was being drafted to fight against false information and the propaganda of foreign States during the election periods.

The Catalan secessionist process demonstrated the ability to spread false or distorted information from two press media linked to the Kremlin, the Sputnik agency and the RT channel (Russia Today), which was distributed by myriad "zombie accounts" on the Internet.

A department at George Washington University analysed five million messages on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks related to the Catalan problem. The conclusion was that Sputnik and RT content "inspired" tens of thousands of accounts, spreading a negative image of Spain before and after 1 October.

As the creator of the software used in this research, Javier Lesaca, explains, there are indications that the same "pattern of digital disruption" used in the elections that took Trump to power and in the Brexit process in Britain, to name just two examples, was repeated in Catalonia. "The actors behind the disruption are the same," says Lesaca.

This renewed activity by Russian intelligence is also aimed at the silencing the EU’s criticism of the human rights violations in Russia, including the freedom of expression, and, in the geopolitical order, the legitimisation - by comparison with Catalonia - of pro-Russian secessionist movements supported by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine, as well as the annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

According to Harding in his book, based on the meticulous report of the former British spy Christopher Steele on the recruitment by Russian agents of members Trump’s entourage, the Kremlin has deployed a strategy developed decades ago by Vladimir Kryuchkov.

The former KGB president and one of the promoters of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (besides being the architect of the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991) was already aiming back in the eighties to deepen the existing disagreements in NATO.

"I believe that (this strategy) consists increasingly of creating chaos," says Janis Sart, director of the Center for Excellence in Strategic Communications at NATO, one of the institutions that raised the alarm about the Russian offensive concerning Catalan separatism.

As Harding argues, Moscow is reprising its best Cold War instruments for today’s geopolitical theatres, its "asymmetric tactics". "I would not talk about new threats, but about them in a new environment," adds Alberto Fernández, general director of the National Cybersecurity Institute of Spain (UNCIBE), in a recent television interview. Fernandez supports the view that the EU’s lack of means to confront the "cyber threat" should be compensated by "vulnerability management" by each State, while common action continues.

The differences within the EU are being used with particular efficiency by Russia in the energy field, given the dependence that some of its members, such as Germany, have on the supply of Russian gas. Energy giant Gazprom’s macro-project Nord Stream 2, to lay a submarine gas pipeline through the Baltic that brings Russian gas directly to Germany has been opposed by those Eastern European countries, especially Poland, which consider such dependence a threat, and also fear losing the substantial sums they receive for allowing Russian fuel to pass through their territories.

Those who denounce energy vulnerability vis-à-vis Russia recall that a third of the gas that comes into Europe is from there and that the gas pipeline would greatly increase that dependency. In addition, the project violates some of the EU’s basic energy guidelines of the EU, especially the commitment to diversification, and raises several doubts about its compliance with the Union’s environmental standards. However, the European business regulations, based on commercial ultra-liberalism, protect the project.

And it is important not to forget what could happen in Ukraine if it stops receiving the hundreds of millions of euros in toll payments for the Russian gas that now prop up its deteriorating economy. Russian, economic and military pressure on the Ukrainian government is no longer limited to the separatist region of Donbas or the annexed Crimea. Even in Kiev itself the number of opponents of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is growing. That very active opposition is beginning to look for other alternatives to the economic failure of Poroshenko and to all the hot air that plagues the pro-European project, especially when money could arrive earlier from Russia.

Again, Moscow is shuffling the deck at will in the Great Game of influence and intelligence in Europe, while Brussels, caught up in its internal contradictions, can only affirm that the cards in this game are marked.

This article has been translated from Spanish.