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For several months, a group of investigative journalists from the VSquare project was researching the problem of Russian propaganda in V4 countries. Our findings prove that Russians are exceptionally effective when it comes to informational warfare. They use propaganda to gain certain advantages and frame the situation in the most favorable way. The way that suits Kremlin’s authorities.

Russian propaganda offensive has intensified in 2014, along with eruption of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the „little green men” invasion on Crimea and Donbass. The internet was flooded with anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian comments based on sentiments, emotions and international tensions. The authors – usually anonymous users – called for pan-Slavic solidarity while encouraging anti-EU and anti-NATO sentiments. The offensive is still on. It doesn’t cease during the times of peace, and it keeps attacking oblivious citizens through the media, politicians, influence agents or businesses.

The experts point out that Russian propaganda usually doesn’t focus on promoting favorable image of Russia, but on denigrating the West and the European Union, with the objective of weakening its integrity and its alliance with the United States. Russian propaganda is supported mostly by groups whose actions are beneficial for Russia (not necessarily the ones that are openly pro-Russian, though). That’s why Kremlin’s propaganda reaches out to both far-right and far-left groups and political parties. According to experts, openly pro-Russian organizations are of marginal importance.

‘Propaganda war is not simply PR strategy based on promoting the „good Russia” idea. It’s role is to let certain messages seep through: that the West is bad, or at least equally bad,’ says Witold Jurasz,  former employee of NATO Security Investment Programme Management Office, a diplomat in Moscow and chargé d’affaires of Poland in Belarus, who specializes in Eastern politics.

Marcin Rey agrees with Witold Jurasz. Rey is a blogger and creator of a Facebook Pate „Russian 5th Column in Poland”, which was the first page to publish examples of Russian propaganda in Poland. This phenomenon is quite elusive, warns Rey. Only when we put various pieces together, we might see a coherent picture.

The report by VSquare journalists tackles the problem of Russian influence in V4 countries – it will be published on our website in a series of articles written by investigative journalists from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Czech Republic.

The most obvious carriers of Russian propaganda are Russia’s influence agents, that is: people working for Russian intelligence. Today, in the age of the internet, their role and method of procedure have changed.

‘There are several, perhaps several dozen regular Russian agents operating in Poland right now, while pro-Russian trolls or mindless followers can be counted in hundreds,’ admits Witold Jurasz.

We cannot ignore the role played by the people on Kremlin’s payroll. Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative journalist from Hungary who works with VSquare, tells a story of hungarian politician and MEP Bela Kovacs.

Wojciech Cieśla, an investigative journalist from Newsweek Polska, decided to take a closer look on Mateusz Piskorski, the founder of pro-Russian Polish political party „Zmiana”. on 18 May 2016 Piskorski was arrested by the Internal Security Agency under accusations of Russian espionage.

Piskorski is not only a pro-Russia politician; he is also a founder of ECAG (the European Center for Geopolitical Analysis). The organization’s official scope of activities is focused on political and expert analysis, as well as book publishing. ECAG is known for its interest in Western Europe, but also for its favorable attitude toward Vladimir Putin and the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. ECAG regularly invites journalists for trips to Belarus and other Eastern European countries. It also cooperates with CIS-EMO (Commonwealth of Independent States – Election Monitoring Organization). CIS-EMO claims to be independent; its official goal is to maintain and develop the institution of free elections in post-Soviet countries. The activities of organizations with connections to CIS-EMO in V4 countries will be described in detail in one of our stories.

So-called „Usovsky’s archive” sheds a new light on Russia’s modus operandi in V4 countries. Alexander Usovsky is a Belarussian citizen who tried to create and manage a network of organizations and connections working for Russia in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – all paid for with the money he would receive from Russian oligarchs. The scandal was revealed thanks to Ukrainian hackers from CyberHunta and CyberAlliance groups, who have spent several months monitoring Usovsky’s mailbox. All materials stolen from Usovsky’s mailbox were published on the Inform Napalm website. The Institute of Konstantin Zatulin, who has been working with Usovsky, supports and provides funding for various Russian organizations, including Russkiy Mir, which are supposed to promote Russian culture abroad. The report on Usovsky’s activities was written by Paweł Reszka, Newsweek Polska journalist.

We still don’t know much about the ways in which Russians are using cyberspace to orchestrate their own projects. Their strategy is partially based on the new information security doctrine for Russia, signed by Vladimir Putin in 2016.

‘Information presented in certain way has been used as a weapon for ages. The difference between the past and modern times is the space and tools used to disseminate the information. Thanks to the internet, nowadays a mass attack on whole societies or nations can be carried out very easily,’ says Kamil Basaj from Safe Cyberspace Foundation. Basaj explains the mechanism of information warfare in an in-depth interview. Another expert, Marcin Rey, explains how Russians inject their venom into online bloodstream. Both interviews will be soon published on our website.

No report on Russia’s influence would be complete without the analysis of the „fake news” phenomenon. Pavla Holcowa, Czech investigative journalist, has analyzed this problem in-depth, explaining how fake news are created and spread online. The results soon.

‘We tend to mistakenly believe that Russia is similar to the West, because unlike the people from, say, Arab countries, the people in Moscow look very much like the people in Brussels. We could not be more wrong: Russia is a whole different civilization, and Russians take pride in other nations fearing their country. Another, parallel problem is Russian elites, who – apart from their love for Ferraris, Rolls-Royces and mansions in French Rivera – have a mindset similar to Bill Clinton who, when asked why he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky simply said, „Because I could”. Russia is treating the West this particular way, because it can,’ says Witold Jurasz.