During the 9th Sakharov Conference in Vilnius From Cold War to Hybrid, Alexander Atroshchankau spoke with Kateryna Smagliy (McCain Institute), author of the acclaimed report Hybrid Analytics.

The report discusses for the first time the Kremlin’s system of influence through the “second track diplomacy” – with the help of “thought factories” connected with the Russian state and oligarchs, the introduction of Russian centres into Western academic institutions, and the engagement of individual experts. The report, for the first time, raised the question of where academic freedom and freedom of opinion ends and where the projection of influence and responsibility for it begins.

Your report on hybrid analytics made a lot of noise and many criticized its conclusions. Mark Galeotti called it a hybrid manifestation and propaganda. Why was the reaction so acute?

Marc Galeotti worked for some time in Prague and, perhaps, he had a biased attitude towards European Values ​​Think Tank, which is known for its sharp and vicious criticism of the Kremlin.

He may have learned that I wrote this report with the assistance of this think tank, and based on this association, he built his bias. And I think when he wrote his somewhat hasty tweet, he still had not read the report to the end and did not understand that it was based on facts, and many times re-checked, including by lawyers who read this document before publication.

Perhaps Mark Galeotti considers himself entitled to criticize the Kremlin, but does not want to spoil relations with his Kremlin friends in Europe, who are his colleagues, as is often the case in the analytical community. This is a fairly common phenomenon.

One day, my colleague in Washington said, “Katya, it’s not customary to criticize each other.”. This explains the fact that we seem to be bound by mutual responsibility.

We all know what is happening, we know that we all take money from the same donors, and we never criticize them, do not provide information about them, and do not criticize each other, in order not to fall under the criticism of colleagues who also understand the rules of the game.

Why did you decide to break this vicious circle, how did you get the courage?

Special courage is not required. Many people wrote about it before me. And I refer to several fairly strong reports published earlier, in particular by the Cleptocracy, Hudson Institute, a great deal about the so-called Trojan horses in Europe was written by the Atlantic Council. It also raised the issue of support for the pro-Russian forces by think tanks in Western Europe and the United States.

The Wilfred Martin Centre did a similar job in Brussels. My report was simply a continuation of the previous developments.

I can say that I was lucky, because working for three years in close conjunction with the Kennan Institute in the Woodrow Wilson Centre, I could watch how this happens at close range.

After all, very often we simply do not have time to draw a line between two points. When you can take a step back and see the whole picture entirely and as they say in English “to dot the i’s”, draw logical connections between various events, personalities, reports, the puzzle is added. 

Of course, the European Values ​​Think Tank helped me a lot with the groundwork, contacts and a large network of experts who work in the direction of countering Kremlin propaganda. Based on the interview with them, I was able to draw certain conclusions.

How did you distinguish between corrupt and useful idiots?

“Depending on the useful idiots in question.” As they say in my report, they exist in Russia, in Western Europe, and in the United States.

There are different categories of these people. It may be analysts, there may be former functionaries of the European Commission who no longer work there, but work in the field of analytics. They can be politicians who work on the edge between politics and analytics. It may even be the former heads of state, whom we see among the guests of the Valdai Club.

How to distinguish them? You need to be attentive and have a “good ear”. Because you need to listen, listen carefully to what these people say. Very often, Western experts have a specific – I call it bird language – they find it very difficult to express themselves on fairly simple topics, confusing the listener even more and putting very subtle messages in his head that are sometimes difficult to catch, but they create a very clear feeling that Russia needs to understand, you need to listen to Russia, the West is also to blame for the occurrence of problems that we are seeing.

You need to very clearly learn how to distinguish facts from lies and be the most powerful expert in the field under study. Because if a listener does not have an understanding of where truth and fact are, and where there is post-truth and fake news, then he will not be able to catch the one who imposes a certain point of view on him, based on lies.

Where do you draw the line between academic freedom, interpretation of facts and conclusions, and the moment when these people begin to bear responsibility for what they say?

If the same people go from year to year, say, to the Valdai Club, then it makes sense to ask yourself why they get into the pool of invitees and you should look at what they write as a result of their participation.

And sometimes these conclusions simply lie on the surface even at the level of using quotations or the formulation of thoughts. What are the main narratives promoted by the unfair expert community?

Edward Lucas calls twenty toxic messages of the neoconservative doctrine of the Kremlin.

Among the main ones is the glorification of Russia in all its manifestations, emphasising its moral superiority over the West, criticism of the West for its inability to cope with global challenges – terrorism, migration crisis, pedaling the victory of the Russian people in World War II … peoples, which then were part of the Soviet Union. Denial of the Holodomor and other crimes committed by Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

I happened to take part in conferences devoted to the Second World War in Washington, and some analytical centres invited only the Russian ambassador to such events, “forgetting” that not only Russians were killed in that war, but also many Ukrainians, Belarusians, representatives of other nationalities, but the ambassadors of these countries never attended such events, which in itself was evidence for me of unfair treatment.

A separate block is to provide toxic narratives aimed at Ukraine. There is a lack of recognition of Russia’s guilt for annexing Crimea, justifying this annexation, inventing all sorts of reasons why Crimea was suddenly part of the Russian Federation … Similar narratives exist in Georgia and in Moldova. 

All these narratives are listed in my report, and I will not kill the intrigue by listing them all, and invite your readers to familiarise themselves with them on our website.

In yesterday’s speech (May 21 – ed.) Edward Lucas talked a lot about Chinese influence. In particular, that China allows itself to influence the academic and expert communities of the West, cited an example when the Chinese tried to ban discussions on press freedom or pro-Tibetan events even in Australian universities. Is this threat relevant to the Western expert community?

Absolutely relevant. And I will tell you more: since 2004, this is the date when the Confucius Institute was established — the institute of soft power and cultural diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China; 90 university programs for the study of the Chinese language, Chinese culture and history were opened in the United States.

Many of them were closely watched by the FBI, the security service and the teachers themselves, who collaborated with these centres, and in the end they came to the conclusion that they are engaged not only in scientific activities, but also are sources of propaganda that they dictate to these centres….

In August last year, a special law was passed that made universities choose either to refuse to cooperate with these centres, or to lose government funding.

Many universities have refused to cooperate for other reasons, realising that they carry a threat to national security. I did not specifically study this issue, but I lived in America for the last year and followed this topic.

For the American academic community, this is a very sensitive, delicate and controversial question – where does this boundary lie between academic freedom and the use of academic activity as a weapon against a country in whose territory such an institution with a hidden propaganda mission is located.

You have touched on narratives concerning the Second World War. In a recent interview with Evgeny Kiselev, Mark Solonin touched upon the inertia of the Western expert community in the field of history, when, despite the opened archival documents, people ignore them and continue to insist on the Russian historical doctrine of the “Great Patriotic War”. 

Is it possible to break through this “wall of silence” in matters of much more urgent and hotter than the war of 80 years ago?

Narratives can change some very strong, authoritative publicly significant intellectuals. It is clear that the so-called Sovietologists in the same America are a certain clan.

America is a big country, and many Sovietological associations were created. These people met at conferences and built their relationships. Very often they are each other’s supervisors and migrate from one university to another.

For example, now I was at Arizona State University. The president of this university moved from Columbia to Arizona, and along with him moved a whole group of scientists. This is what we can talk about as a clan, and this happens in the case of Sovietologists. This is a clan or club of best friends, so to speak. There are rules, unwritten laws, that they are determined by a certain commonality, and they never go against each other. 

In general, I am very surprised by this tendency in the American academic system. It seems to me that it suffers from excessive political correctness. It is considered bad manners to sharply criticise a colleague for incorrect conclusions. You can write any nonsense, and no one will criticize you.

The citation index in scientific journals is very important in this system, and this again is a personal relationship, personal loyalty, friendship … Scandals are not welcome at all. Therefore, everything is very neutral and politically correct. That is why there is such inertia.

What organisations are engaged in indoctrination and corruption of Western experts? Many articles refer to funds like the “Russian World” and “Fund Gorchakova “, Institute of CIS countries, Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cultural House).

Yes, in my report there is a section about it, and there are those funds that you just mentioned. In just the EU countries over the last 4-5 years, there have about 50 centres of the “Russian World” have been opened. Of these, 40 are located in EU universities.

Some centres were closed as a result of the application of sanctions imposed for Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, but these are isolated cases.

At the political level, serious and complex measures can be taken in relation to Russia, but at the level of scientific, academic contacts, and relations between universities there are no special changes.

On the contrary, I came to the conclusion that the current difficult political situation opened up new opportunities for scientists because now they have become not only scientists, but also participants in second-level diplomacy. That is, in a situation of limited contacts between diplomats, government representatives, and presidents, its role is greatly increasing.

See what a storm of interest arouses between every contact between Putin and Trump. The smallest details are studied almost under a microscope: how Putin looked at Trump, gestures, body language, intonation …

Therefore, all diplomatic work falls on the shoulders of the so-called pigeons of the world, academics, journalists, experts, representatives of the so-called civil society for that to help statesmen find a common language, build a dialogue and so on.

Russia has been doing this for a long time. Even the Soviet Union very actively began to engage in this in the 80s. Even then, certain contacts, dialogue platforms, conferences were held, which are now unexpectedly reviving and again very actively used to build “bridges of friendship”.

One such example is the Dartmouth Conference, which was unexpectedly resumed by Lavrov just a few months after the start of the war in Donbas. Then it became clear that the reaction of the West to this war would be tough, so a new diplomatic channel was needed, according to which Russia would convince Western experts that this conflict was inevitable…

What could be the mechanisms of protection and counteraction?

“The main problem again is political correctness, when people say that they cannot fight Putin with his own methods, that they cannot shut themselves off from “alternative” opinions, they themselves resort to propaganda … In practice, this looks very absurd. I will give one example.

One of my colleagues told me how the Ambassador of the Russian Federation spoke at Columbia University. In the traditional style for him, he spoke about why there are no Russian troops on the territory of Donbass, who actually was there and whose missile shot down MN17 …

The man simply lied and replicated the narratives already mentioned above. Nothing new, but he did not speak anywhere else but at the university. The audience of listeners consisted of teachers, journalists, students of relevant specialties and level of training. So, these were people who understand the situation very well and have all the information.

I asked: “Why didn’t anyone leave? After all, it was clear to all of you that this person is lying, frankly hanging noodles on his ears. Why didn’t you all just go out?” She replied, “What’s difficult to understand? We didn’t because we have to show respect, because the ambassador himself has given us time, and we had to evaluate it and listen to him.”

The problem here is not that someone believes in all of this, but that one needs to find courage in oneself and say directly that the king is naked, the king is lying, and stop taking part in it.

Any discussion that begins with a hybrid narrative, hybrid analytics, and other recurring lies should end with people saying “Enough is enough” and leave the hall. Because they have already heard all this many times and are no longer going to debate with you on the topic, your soldiers are there, your soldiers are not there, you shot down the plane, you didn’t shoot it down, about the Russians who won the Second World War, about Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state … It is not interesting. 

Tell us better how you are going to build independent courts in your country, tell about social reforms and legislative initiatives aimed at improving life, overcoming social inequalities, equalizing the rights of women and men. This is interesting to us. 

And about how you are not there, we have long been clear. In the meantime, there will be no understanding that this is the way to conduct oneself, Russia will impose its agenda.

What you say really looks absurd. It reminds me of an episode from the film “Borat”, where Sasha Baron Cohen, in the guise of a journalist from a very different country from the USA, openly mocked respectable representatives of the local community. He said wild, non-politically correct things, insulted women, children, people with disabilities, brought his faeces in a bag from the toilet. 

Still, they tried to conduct a dialogue with him, explain to him the cultural and civilizational differences and convinced each other that despite all this, he was a good person. 

As a result, he was driven away – when he invited a prostitute to dinner. When will that moment come when people start leaving?

When fear disappears. After all, it is very difficult for Western leaders to give up a few things.

Firstly, they are very afraid of endangering Western investment in the Russian economy. I don’t know whether someone has already counted how many factories, banks, hotels were built with money from Americans and Europeans working in Russia. This is a huge investment. There are fears that Putin will one day want to adopt some more insane law on the nationalisation of all this under the pretext of retaliatory sanctions. Of course, the West is very afraid of it and is moving forward carefully.

The second is the fear of war. Everyone sees how aggressively Putin behaves in Georgia, in Ukraine, Moldova. No one wants this situation to repeat, for example, with the Baltic countries, but everyone understands that this is possible. 

Andrei Piontkovsky regularly asks the question: will NATO fight for Narva (eastern Estonia)? We still have not heard the answer to this question.

There is a third fear. It is not so obvious, but no less significant. Western politicians, businessmen travel to Russia regularly; there they may be compromised, their conversation in the restaurant may be recorded. You never know, that people who can relax in such a beautiful country like Russia with all the rich opportunities that such a beautiful city like Moscow offers can afford … No one can say 100% that the Kremlin has no compromise on this or that politics.

In addition, Russia exports corruption and corrupts both politicians and businessmen. The influence of this factor is difficult to estimate, but there is no doubt that it takes place, and at the highest level. For example, it is very difficult to explain Trump’s fear of Putin with something other than the presence of some compromising evidence.

In response to the articles and investigations about the hybrid influence, the invasion of the information space, its actors do not even try to justify themselves. They say “what’s the point?” And use the argument that the West is doing the same thing. They talk about CNN, BBC. In the case of Belarus – that we have Polish Belsat. What is the difference between the promotion of the Russian world and Western public diplomacy?

This is an old argument, and it is among the standard propaganda narratives since the Cold War. But give me an example of at least one public forum, a youth festival, a conference in Western Europe that citizens of the Soviet Union could freely attend.

The Soviet Union regularly hosted delegates to congresses of youth, students, held youth festivals, where people from all over the world came, where they were shown Potemkin villages and happy Soviet citizens. But for some reason, Soviet citizens were not allowed to attend the same festivals organised by the damned capitalists and imperialists. Even in Poland it was impossible to leave without having received 25 permits from the local party committee.

The same is true of today. Is it American, British, French channels that allow themselves such shameless propaganda, to twist and invent facts, to present white as black? They still work to the highest standards of professional journalism.

However, with this argument, the Russian propagandists, on the one hand, are trying to whitewash the Putin regime, and on the other hand, they create the impression that, for example, Russia Today is no worse than CNN and works in the same weight category. This is not true.

Recently, a new initiative, iSANS, published a report on the intensification of Russia’s hybrid aggression against Belarus, the intensification of neo-Nazi groups and the growing pressure to force “integration”. How do you share such concerns?

There are serious concerns about the fact that Russia is preparing a springboard for the next term of Vladimir Vladimirovich as the head of the new state. Here a lot depends not only on the Belarusian leadership but also on civil society.

It can explain to Belarusians what the loss of state sovereignty and integration with the Russian Federation will mean for them.

A good example is the comical answer that our new president Zelensky gave to Putin in response to his threats to start handing out Russian passports to residents of Ukraine.

Zelensky replied that only those who are not afraid to live in today’s Russia with a deplorable standard of living and personal freedoms can dream of such a passport. And this is what needs to be done – to show what Russia really is, and on the other hand, to demonstrate this threat both in our own country and in the West.

Because each country has its own problems, they do not notice the problems of others. For example, in Washington there is a serious competition between countries to be on the radar of the State Department, the White House, the Pentagon so that they can hear about their problems.

And if there are political and public leaders in Belarus who see this threat, they should do everything possible so that they can be heard about it, so that this problem is stably represented in the top 10 challenges that are important for the West.


This article was originally published in Russian on Reform.by and can be found here.

A journalist and pro-democratic, Belarusian activist.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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