Russian president Vladimir Putin on television sets in a Moscow electronic goods store (Getty)
Russian president Vladimir Putin on television sets in a Moscow electronic goods store

In recent years Russia has been accused of engaging in a new type of warfare against the West, using information, cyber attacks, and propaganda to exploit weaknesses in western societies and undermine faith in their leaders and institutions.

This culminated with unprecedented claims this summer that Russia attempted to sway the course of the United States presidential election, the greatest political show on earth, regarded by many as the model democratic contest for free societies worldwide.

As the campaign entered its final month, a steady drip of information allegedly stolen from Democrat party email servers by Kremlin linked hackers was leaked to whistleblowing site WikiLeaks in an apparent attempt to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin's Russia and backer of the economic sanctions that have devastated the Russian economy.

Experts have told the Washington Post that Russian propaganda outlets played an active role in creating and disseminating "fake news" during the election campaign to boost the campaign of Donald Trump, who has backed closer cooperation with Russia.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama has warned that fake news risks undermining the US political process.

In Europe, the tactics are familiar.

From the Baltic states through to Germany and France, a network of Russian news sites, pseudo think tanks and blogs have spread a relentless narrative of western incompetence, corruption and decadence, undermining support for Nato and the EU and providing a platform for the far right parties whose support is surging across the continent.

Top officials have spoken to IBTimes UK about how the complacency of leaders and officials have allowed Russian information to flow into the West virtually unchallenged

A US State Department official, who was not authorised to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that department chiefs refused to acknowledge the danger of Russian disinformation in the run up to the presidential campaign, scrapping a unit specially set up to combat disinformation in September 2015.

"Last year [2015] they were going to gear up a project to counter Russian and other disinformation and had a small team to do that then decided not to go ahead with the project after eight months of effort," said the official.

"I got a lot of heartburn with it, but I work in a bureaucracy, you have to go with the decisions that are made above you in the organisational chart."

Peter Kreko, who monitors Russian disinformation campaigns in Hungary at the Political Capital Institute, said that failure to act has left the West exposed to Russia's aggressive information warfare campaign.

"I do think that the American [Obama] administration was caught not taking the issue seriously enough and there were a lot more words than action," he said.

Kreko said that US officials who had spoken to him had expressed their frustration at the "lack of strategy, efficiency land lack of taking it seriously" in response to Russia's information warfare campaign.

A State Department spokesman told IBTimes UK: "The United States, like many other countries throughout Europe and the world, has been concerned about Russia's intense propaganda and disinformation campaigns. We believe the free flow of reliable, credible information is the best defense against the Kremlin's attack on the truth."

EU leaders 'did not take problem seriously

In the European Union too, leaders have been accused of inaction. In August 2015 the European Union set up the EU External Action Service specialist task force, a small unit to counter the spread of Russian disinformation across the 28 member states in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, when Kremlin-funded media accused the EU of fomenting the conflict, and backing fascist militias.

The official said the unit was under-resourced and overwhelmed by the scale of its task, with seven officials assigned to the task of positively communicating the purpose of the EU in eastern Europe, and just one to exposing Russian disinformation.

"The biggest problem is they [EU leaders] do not take it seriously, they do not. I mean you will have states who are aware, these are mostly the Baltic States because they are on the front line," said the official, who spoke to IBTimes UK on condition of anonymity.

The official said that Russia's disinformation strategy in Europe is well resourced and sophisticated, with tailored campaigns designed to play to national anxieties and grievances.

"They have different tools for different audiences. And they really know our audiences much better than we know them and they work with his actively," said the official.

Pegida
Russian propaganda outlets have been accused of fostering support for European far right groups, including the German Pegida movement Getty Images

The notorious "Lisa'" case served to shake many European leaders from their apathy, said the official. In January, as Germany was reeling from the mass sex attack committed by immigrants on New Year's Eve, a story began circulating in Russian state media that a 13-year-old girl had been abducted and raped by refugees. The story led to protests outside the offices of German chancellor Angela Merkel, heightening the febrile atmosphere in the wake of the attacks.

The story was exposed to be a fabrication, and experts accused the Kremlin of cynically attempting to whip up opposition to Merkel, a key backer of Russian sanctions, and her open door refugee policies.

On the eve of the US election Merkel warned that Russia could deploy the same destabilising tactics as were used in the US to alter the course of the 2017 German elections, with support for the pro-Russia, anti-immigrant AfD party growing in key regions.

The official said that there were signs EU leaders were beginning to realise the danger of Russian disinformation and its role in the growth of the far right, and had increased the unit's resources.

"When we started last year we saw many member states asking whether the Russian propaganda problem is really such a problem, whether our team is really necessary," said the source.

"I believe that in the year, partly thanks to our work, we have managed to persuade them that it is really such a serious issue that we should do much more in countering it and also some of the information operations that the Kremlin conducted did the job for us."

EU members including the Baltic states and the Czech Republic operate their own anti-disinformation strategies, and the official urged other EU states to follow their lead.

"So I think it is better if we in Brussels are sort of coordinative role or advisory role, but I really think it is better if the disinformation in Czech is countered by the Czechs, the disinformation in England is countered by the English. Think this action of the first level would be more effective, quicker, better messaging."

On 24 November, the European Council called on the EU and member states to increase measures to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation. The vote sparked a furious response from the Kremlin, with Putin accusing the EU of fear mongering and stifling free speech.

Trump's victory has resulted in a tentative détente between the US and Russia, though should disputes open up between the Kremlin and Trump's White House it seems likely Russia could again turn unleash its information warfare against the US.

Kreko warned that the West must not lose sight of its fundamental values in its battle against disinformation, and must counter lies with truth and innuendo with rational argument.

"The West should believe in its core ideas: free speech, rational thinking the core ideas of the enlightenment. I know it sounds old school but I do think it can work."

For the EU official, the potential consequences of failing to tackle Russian disinformation in Europe are stark: the empowerment of far right parties determined to dismantle Europe's liberal consensus. "I am quite surprised more mainstream politicians do not get this message because the Kremlin disinformation aims at destroying mainstream politicians and having extremists replacing them – Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer."