Interview with Ivan Gabal Czech MP on Russian info-war and cohesion of the West
Russian information war is not just a propaganda war. It is matched by real war machinery and aggressive military preparations. Democratic societies of the West have a capacity to absorb demagogy and lies but it must be matched with real preparations in order to sustain impact from wars in Europe’s vicinity.
What do we know, specifically in Czech Republic, about current info war?
There is definitely a strong tendency to influence behaviour of some politicians and some voters. And it is not new here. Basically first round happened in the period 2009-2010 when we were negotiating with Americans our participation in anti-missile defence and truly the pressure on public opinion to refuse that project was clearly backed by Russians.
Then obviously in relation to the Ukraine and annexation of Crimea and partly to the activity of the latest President Milos Zeman who was denying Russian involvement in Ukraine and basically trumpeting this position at the occasion of Wales NATO summit. He later continued on several occasions.
It was a very high-level representation of Russian interests here and significantly the issue became very clear in the area of introducing and maintaining EU sanction against Russia. All that was a Russian effort to interpret aggression against Ukraine as a Ukrainian civil war which is basically carried by pro-Western and pro-Russia groups of Ukrainians without intervention of Russia. And the pressure was to use Prague as a vehicle of Russian interest into the EU policies mainly in the field of sanctions.
Last but not least we still have very strong influence of Russia on migration agenda, on increasing public fear by relating migration to islamism and terrorism.
Can you give some example?
I experienced this personally when in coordination with Prime Minister Sobotka’s adviser we composed a group of independent experts on public opinion and social media. About that time Prime Minister’s private mailbox was hacked and his adviser’s as well and it was immediately used on nazi-websites and on several pro-Russian servers as a proof that PM and his sympathisers are preparing islamic invasion and try to manipulate public opinion.
This series of very strong against EU sanctions, migrants, and the governing coalition was welcomed by President Zeman. There is a strong suspicion that it was basically a Russian effort aimed to bring down current government and to introduce a non-political clerk government that would easily enable to break EU unity on sanction. I think it was the strongest effort so far. We obviously see lot of activity coming from Russian embassy, Russian consulate, and Russian-based NGOs.
How worse can it get?
I think that we have already the peak of Russian pressure behind us. Czech political elites and significant majority of public have realised that and have been strongly opposing since not to become a sphere of influence of Russia again.
How you can measure info-war activities – for instance in terms of spendings? Can we make account of these spendings?
How would you measure their impact in Dutch referendum on Ukraine-EU treaty? Simply, by changing electoral behaviour and strengthening anti-European position.
There are currently some forty or more websites just repeating Russian propaganda, and promoting Russian interests. They succeeded to empower frustrations of certain social groups that pre-existed before and they channeled this frustration toward migration, toward islam, and toward Europe.
We saw in Slovak elections and Austrian presidency elections as well how this brings former non-voters with a very negative approach into election process. This is the real change. When you look on the performance of these voters for populists, and anti-European voices, you see that basically the success of Russia is that they really released and strengthened those forces around Europe. From Brexit leaders to Le Pen.
Last but not least military operation in Syria where Russians bomb cities and make thousands of people move to Turkey and later to Europe you see a game between real behaviour and disinformation.
What makes me really frightened is that Russians are just empowering themselves in direction of war operation. If they talk in the public television how many days it would take them to get to Warsaw or to the Prague with their tanks, they once again restructure their military from rather expedition brigades system to the heavy divisions ground forces. So there is real risk that Russia is pushing itself into the certain war mode and then it could make a small mistake and we may see a real explosion.
What is the intention of Russia?
We see a weakening cohesion of Europe. Russia is coming out of isolation after Crimea annexation – they were completely isolated and now they define the agenda for instance by leading peace conferences and they expand their geopolitical influence including electronic welfare. They attempt at destabilising Balkans, mainly Serbia.
Under the Communism the driving force was the ideology. This is not the ideology. This is tendency to destroy Europe, to atomise or fragmentise it, to weaken commonalities, the tendency to show Europe as weak disabled entity.
It is no more a propaganda but it’s a real performance of influence, to influence behaviour of enemies in order to destroy them.
It seems to be working so far.
Is partly working due to the fact that Europe underestimated Russia policy for long time, mainly in Syria, and that has consequences. We didn’t tackle the causes of migration. We did not tackle them basically because Russia was blocking the Security Council of United Nations and further peace-keeping efforts. And this is interesting because they are trying to introduce more animosities in the Middle-East, to bring Turkey into the war, to consolidate Shia coalition in Iraq, Syria and Iran with Hezbollah. A lot of very dangerous, practical steps, really increasing the threat of the real military conflict.
What can the West do to stop this?
I think that obviously West outweighs Russia in terms of absorption capacity that a democratic society has to tackle with this sort of demagogy and lies. On the other side the question is how far Europe is able to deter such risky Russian operation without America. When you see the close to hit aircraft attacks on ships of NATO countries and another places, you see that there is really certain tendency to provoke a collision course. Yet we observe thousands of Russians leaving Russia to live peacefully in Europe that tells something about their trust in future of Russian politics.
But we have to make ourselves ready. We cannot counterbalance Russian effort with the less than 1% of GDP on the defence – which is the case of Czech Republic. Not to speak about Hungary or Slovakia with a notable exception of Poland.
If there is a clear determination among us to maintain a commonality of the West and determination to act, then I think, we are on a safe side. It be hard to stop the ongoing war in the Middle East so we will suffer by indirect impact but we have to sustain this. The period of absolute security is over.
This interview has been enabled by the Beacon Project that is run by the International Republican Institute and sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy. It aims to support a stronger and broader transatlantic dialogue on how to jointly defend the core values the democratic world was built upon, against threats from both outside and within. It particularly looks at propaganda and disinformation as one of the major threats to democracy and freedom.