David Alandete: The Kremlin Connection

There’s one thing in common in all the Kremlin foreign campaigns— except Ukraine, which is very singular in and of itself. They do not create problems for others, they only use the problems already present in the countries and societies they are planning to target. And make them bigger—says David Alandete in an interview with Jakub Dymek.

JAKUB DYMEK: Earlier this year you wrote a book about fake news and disinformation strategies, so it’s an obvious question to ask: do you think the problem has grown worse and demands even more attention now than before?

DAVID ALANDETE: Yes, I believe the year 2016, when the Brexit vote took place and Donald Trump won the presidency in the US, was just the beginning, to be honest. But the Russian disinformation campaign began, as you well know, in 2014 in Ukraine and since then the propaganda machine has become more powerful and even better oiled. Now the information warfare works on two fronts simultaneously: one being the ‘classical’ means of propaganda—with outlets like RT, formerly Russia Today,
and Sputnik as the main avenues—and algorithmic manipulation including bots, troll farms, etc…

The first part is done almost entirely by the hands of the Russian state: RT and Sputnik being paid by the Kremlin. The other part, the hackers, the bots, the infamous Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg—not always. There are people, oligarchs and Putin confidantes who are keen on supporting such ventures themselves. The problem has grown bigger: it’s expanding into the Spanish-speaking world and beyond Venezuela and Cuba, where disinformation was rampant earlier. A prime example of how it is seen as a problem now is the fact of new governments in Ecuador or Bolivia trying to shut down RT and Sputnik…

Are you saying that the Spanish-speaking world was somehow oblivious to the problem of this kind of propaganda and information warfare?

I thought about this, I thought about it for a long time. Spain was the first country attacked by this, during the Catalan independence crisis of 2017. Naturally, Spain usually leads the way for Latin American countries, acting as the early adopter—but in this case Spain was inefficient and slow when it came to fighting disinformation. The lack of initiative had made Latin American countries more vulnerable and now they’re learning the hard way. During one of the anniversary meetings for NATO recently, here in Washington, there was this conference—and the US takes this problem very seriously, as you know, they’ve made RT and Sputnik register as foreign agents…

Basically what Kremlin demanded of many Western organizations previously…

…and Mike Pompeo in a closed meeting wanted to talk specifically about Latin America and Russian meddling there. And Josep Borrell, Spanish Minister of
Foreign Affairs, refused to do so, claiming that this was supposed to be some chat about the problems of the world, but a NATO meeting, and not engaging in that conversation… And let me remind you, that Borrell is the man who is going to head foreign relations—as the High Representative—for the entire EU. And this is somebody who signed an agreement with Russia, with Sergey Lavrov, to fight disinformation! Incredible, when you think about it, because Russia itself is the biggest producer of disinformation.

Borrell is the man who is going to head foreign relations—as the High Representative—for the entire EU. And who signed an agreement with Russia, with Sergey Lavrov, to fight disinformation.

Traditionally however, at least from our Central European perspective, it is regarded as common sense that there’s a great deal of anti-Americanism in Latin America… So one would think that the bigger receptiveness towards the Russian agenda is not all that surprising. Or is that an oversimplified view?

It is an oversimplification… Radical governments from the left often aren’t that radical when in power. The real problem is not that the left is cozying up to Russia, but the authoritarian and dictatorial nature of the regimes in Venezuela and Cuba. Yes, anti-Americanism is a thing of the left in Latin America and Spain, on the left, but the transatlantic link and ties to the United States prevail over the sentiment in some segments of the population of Spanish-speaking countries.

Europe faces two primary threats today: radicalism and separatism. The latter is stronger than you would think. Kremlin remembers how big of danger separatism in Europe was in the past.

That being said, of course anti-americanism and hostility towards the West is one of the basic tenets of Russia’s propaganda. It is not that they do not like America, it is that America is presented as the root of all evil that is occurring in the world today. And myself, as somebody who has written a lot about RT and Sputnik, I was also smeared and attacked by them. And what was their chief insult? That somebody who disagrees with the Russian narrative and their propagandistic goals must be paid by the Americans and is sure, if not a CIA asset, somebody on the American payroll.

Coming back to your native Spain, you’ve written a lot about what is perceived to be Russian involvement in the Catalan referendum…

You know what’s really interesting about this is that in Russia, separatism is
punishable by prison and is regarded as a very serious crime, but where Russia welcomes separatism warmly is in other countries…

So you’re saying that what Russia doesn’t want at home it tries to foster outside its own borders?

Europe faces two primary threats today: radicalism (in the form of both far-right and far-left parties) and separatism. The latter is stronger than you would think. Kremlin remembers how big of danger separatism in Europe was in the past: look not only at the Catalan question but the Basque country or Corsica in the not so distant past…

How did you first come up with the idea that foreign bodies might support Catalan independence in Spain?

When I worked for my previous paper, “El Pais” in Spain, we used data tools to monitor what stories were getting the most traction on-line. Surprisingly for us, it oftentimes turned out it wasn’t even Spanish papers or Spanish sources that were mostly shared and commented on when it came to the Catalan referendum—RT and Sputnik were more successful in terms of readership, likes and shares on social platforms than we were. And I’m talking about the largest newspaper in Spain and in the Spanish-speaking world in general! Our researchers helped us discover that and we quickly noticed the outrageous, false, anti-journalistic headlines that were making these pieces of content go viral. Like “why is NATO bombing Madrid” or “How many countries will recognize Catalan independence?”

Many of the supposed links were revealed just recently, in late 2019, when two
judges in courts in Spain, in Madrid and in Barcelona, independently revealed that two Russian spies connected to the Skripal poisoning in the UK were present in Spain during the time of the referendum and in turn Catalan separatists visited Moscow to offer recognition that Crimea was Russian. And you know what the first fake-news story about Catalan independence was? That—it was pushed by Sputnik in 2016— “the independent Catalan government will recognize that Crimea is Russia”.

What was the reaction to your stories initially? Both in Spain and internationally.

From the Catalan independence movement, furious, from Russia furious, furious all over. And for me it was proof that I was right. From threats, intimidation, mentioning my family, it seems all the obvious stuff, but the intensity of this was awful. It is said, when you don’t have any arguments to defend yourself against a claim, you don’t attack the claim, but the source. It happened here—not attacking my paper or my employers, but me personally. It is only in authoritarian regimes that the politicians attack the journalist personally when they don’t like what they write about them—with Trump that has changed, but this is how it was, always—and this is how Russia does it.

However, many democratic pundits and politicians in the US, where you live now, are compounding all the mistakes and failures of the party since 2016 and Hillary Clinton’s ultimately doomed campaign into one big ‘Russia intrigue’—is it really that simple? Do you consider this a problem, when genuine concerns about disinformation and information warfare are important only insofar as they help explain why the democratic, centrist parties and politicians lost so many important races in recent years?

I disagree. It’s true that the Robert Mueller investigation didn’t find enough evidence to prove Donald Trump had colluded, but at the same time, Robert Mueller’s investigation produced arguably the most damning evidence against Russia that was ever published! Also, it has indicted about thirty Russian nationals in connection to not one, but two, disinformation campaigns. So there’s a consensus in Washington that there were Russians meddling in American elections.

As to the politicization of the concept… I also disagree. I think when Trump leaves office, everybody in Washington, even his own party, will agree that Russia had a lot to do with Trump’s election. It’s a fact. They don’t do it now, but they will. Because, come on, who traditionally was the most critical of Russia and it’s meddling? It was the Republicans! Previously it was the Democrats, under Obama and Clinton, who wanted a ‘reset’ with Russia. I don’t think—I repeat, I do not think Republicans are lenient towards Putin, it is Trump who is not towing the party line. Trump’s good relationship with Putin is the problem here.

But, even not disputing any of the facts conveyed in the Mueller report, one can argue that the Democrats overplayed their card, saying Trump himself is a Russian asset? This certainly backfired.

There’s one thing in common in all the Kremlin foreign campaigns—except Ukraine, which is very singular in itself. They do not create problems for others, they only use the problems already present in the countries and societies they are planning to target. And make them bigger. Hillary wasn’t a great candidate, she had her problems, and the Russians decided to give Trump a hand, help him a little, and so they did. I agree with you in that Democrats had many problems and they didn’t deal with them as they should have. And it is convenient for them to put the blame on Russia. But it doesn’t mean Russian meddling didn’t happen.

I need to ask you about the co-conspirators on this issue, big tech companies, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube who are the biggest disseminators of this propaganda and arguably the culprits in the destruction of our common public discourse in the West?

They walk a thin line. I think they are aware of these accusations and they take the problem seriously. I love what Twitter is doing with removing the political ads and not allowing them on the platform. Facebook is a different story, Facebook is slower when it comes to this issue… But look at the big picture: the issue is huge, it’s basically the same old free speech versus regulation debate. And even the EU has not taken a clear stance on the issue yet, there are different approaches to regulation of information and media.

But you do see the irony in the fact that Russia Today or Sputnik, who you mention as hostile actors here, wouldn’t have a single-digit-percent of their reach if it wasn’t for American companies like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube?

It is not only about the irony of that… this is their core strategy. They take the western, democratic, free institutions of the West and turn them against democracy and liberalism! And it’s not only the media we’re talking about: it’s the parties as well that are being used to that end, social movements and protests.

But let’s be honest about it, too. Social media platforms are very slow when it comes to combating disinformation, but they are taking measures. RT and Sputnik are not as prominent as they once were. Steps are being taken.

But is it some form of an arms race then? Like when democracies catch-up, and the platforms catch-up, the new means of propaganda are being introduced and the whole cat and mouse game is replayed from the start?

Look, this is true to some extent, but let’s look beyond Russia for now, ok? Because it is not only Russia who is doing it.

Of course it isn’t.

And in America there’s these alt-right figures like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec…

…he’s half-Polish actually!

…who are extremely pro-Trump bloggers and Internet personas, who lobby the public and the Congress not to put in place any regulations that would harm them as citizens and journalists, and by these means not harm any foreign hostile bodies as well. And they act in their own self-interest, as is their right, but by this they’re helping to stave off this reform process which could eventually curb the spread of disinformation.

Let’s be honest: Social media platforms are very slow when it comes to combating disinformation, but they are taking measures. RT and Sputnik are not as prominent as they once were.

In light of that, are you optimistic about the future of the legacy of (traditional) media?

It’s more complicated than that: media is more than tradition, work, integrity and a business model combined. But in the most simplistic of terms: media are not going to disappear, they’re going to be more important than ever. But they’re going through a difficult, destructive process of transformation, which is going to take time.

Jakub Dymek

is a columnist and author. His book about the rise of the revolutionary political right in USA, Poland and Russia entitled “Nowi Barbarzyncy” (“The New Barbarians”) was published in 2018 by Arbitror Publishing.

David Alandete

is a United States Correspondent of the Spanish newspaper ABC. Previously he was the Managing Editor at Spain’s leading daily El País and a correspondent for the newspaper in the Middle East and the United States. In 2017, Alandete assembled and led an investigative team that covered the Russian meddling campaign in the Catalan independence crisis and the Italian elections, among other governance crises. He currently researches and monitors the spread of disinformation targeted at Latin America and the Hispanic population in the United States. His most recent book is “Fake news: la Nueva arma de destrucción masiva: Cómo se utilizan las Noticias falsas y Los hechos alternativos para desestabilizar la Democracia (Spanish Edition)”, 2019.

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