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Russia Info Ops Home In on Perceived Weak Links

FILE - The Kremlin towers, seen from a hotel in Moscow, Russia, on March 6, 2012.
FILE - The Kremlin towers, seen from a hotel in Moscow, Russia, on March 6, 2012.

Russian influence peddlers appear to have narrowed their focus as they continue attempts to sow disunity and undermine Western efforts to support Ukraine, according to new research from the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.

While traces of Russian influence operations can be found targeting many of the countries that have been backing Ukraine with weapons, financial support or other aid, it appears the most intense efforts have centered on a handful of countries viewed by the Kremlin as perhaps the most vulnerable.

"We believe that France, Germany, Poland, and Turkey are the primary targets of this influence narrative based on observed influence activities," Recorded Future said in the report, released Thursday.

The report's authors said they made the determination based, in large part, on how various Russian-backed influence networks all seemed to coalesce around certain themes, as if to chip away at existing concerns and divisions in each of the four countries.

"They do have a pretty good pulse on what some of those issues are or what some of those concerns are 100 days into this (war)," Brian Liston, a senior cyberthreat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future, told VOA.

And while it is difficult to determine the extent to which these Russian influence operations are "chipping away" at the pro-Ukraine coalition, Liston said, it is likely the Kremlin is willing to be patient.

"I think they view this as an opportunity to try to drill into some of those disagreements and grievances and try to fracture out that coalition piece by piece and hopefully in the hope that it will crumble," he said.

The approach is one U.S. officials have seen before.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that "malign foreign powers," including Russia, were taking a page out of the Kremlin's election interference playbook and again seeking to amplify divisions in American society.

The department's most recent National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, issued last month, echoed the concerns about Russia, further warning that Moscow could soon bolster its disinformation campaigns with an eye toward the 2022 midterm elections.

Recorded Future said Russia might be laying similar groundwork in France, Germany, Poland and Turkey.

"Attempts to stir internal discontent toward a country's existing leadership will very likely precede future attempts to engage in malign influence during election cycles and other target-specific political milestones, in hope of projecting a candidate, party, or platform more in alignment with, or at least less abrasive to, Russia's strategic objectives in Ukraine," the report said.

In each case, the Russian-backed media outlets, influencers and troll farms have tailored their messages in the hopes of generating a following among key audiences.

"(In) France specifically, about not going too far or maybe President (Emmanuel) Macron wanting to bargain with Russia," Liston said.

Recorded Future found that in Germany, Russian influence campaigns have been twofold, drilling down on debates over whether the country is not doing enough or perhaps doing too much to support Ukraine, while also seeking to create alarm over Ukrainian refugees coming into the country.

In Turkey, Russian operatives found a host of so-called wedge issues to their liking.

Starting in late May, Recorded Future found multiple examples of pro-Russian media and pro-Russian influence networks harping on Turkey's concerns about Finland and Sweden moving to join NATO. Multiple articles focused on the Finnish and Swedish arms embargoes against Turkey, as well as on Turkish demands that both countries extradite individuals linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

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Additionally, Recorded Future said a Russian troll farm known as Cyber Front Z spread memes on Telegram designed to amplify Turkey's concerns while portraying Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as dead set against NATO expansion.

At the same time, Russian-backed outlets like Sputnik and the Red Spring Information Agency targeted Turkish tensions with Greece, playing up Ankara's concerns about Greek activity in contested sections of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

Russian influence operations aimed at Poland, in the meantime, have sought to stoke historical tensions.

One of the more prominent themes, the report said, are suggestions "Poland is planning to use Russia's war with Ukraine to its advantage to reintegrate historically Polish lands back under its control."

The report found that elements of the alleged conspiracy were disseminated by the Russian state-backed media outlet RT in late April, using quotes from the head of Russia's foreign intelligence service.

To further back up such assertions, Recorded Future said, pro-Russian Telegram accounts in May began circulating a document — likely forged — stating that Polish and Lithuanian troops were planning an invasion for later in the month.

Additional reports on the alleged invasion plans soon followed on other Russian media sites such as RIA Novosti and TV Zvezda, Recorded Future said.

The findings also seem to lend credence to a possible Ukrainian intelligence success.

Last month, Ukraine's security service published an alleged Russian intelligence analytical note detailing plans to support Russian's invasion of Ukraine with information warfare.

"We saw a lot of overlap," Liston, of Recorded Future, told VOA. "Stirring internal discontent, economic concerns, trying to tie Ukraine back to the origins of Nazism, fascism."

"Based on what we were seeing in those sources already versus what was in the note, we had a pretty good feeling that this was an authentic analytic propaganda manual," he said.