Russia: expanding superpower or victim in retreat?

While the EU tries to debunk Russian disinformation and Denmark sends troops to support NATO campaigns near the Russian border, MP Marie Krarup and journalist Iben Thranholm argue that the current approach to Russia is just making things worse

There’s good reason to be wary of Russia. Its annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine have former Soviet states in the Baltic concerned that they may be next. And after its alleged intervention in the US election on behalf of Donald Trump, there are fears Russia might try to weaken the EU by throwing its support behind populist and anti-EU candidates in the upcoming elections in France and Germany.

These are some of the reasons why Russia poses one of the most serious military and political threats to the West, according a 2016 risk assessment from the Danish military intelligence agency, FE.

But Marie Krarup, defence spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party (DF), argues that it’s not Russia we should be most afraid of, but Islamic terrorism. In fact, she maintains, the EU’s sanctions on Russia and support of Ukraine are jeopardising the West’s ability to cooperate with Russia to address the threat these terrorists pose.

Marie Krarup

“NATO and the EU are leading a confrontational policy on Russia, which I think is wrong,” says Krarup (right), adding that the EU must either stop supporting Ukraine, or impose sanctions on both sides until the conflict is resolved peacefully.

“The West needs to put pressure on Ukraine as well, so the two countries can end the conflict. At the moment we are helping incite civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Instead, we should be putting pressure on both parties to end the conflict through peaceful negotiations, and when the conflict is over, we should seek to cooperate with Russia to help fight the shared threat posed by Islamic terrorism.”

The Russian Bear
Krarup’s calls for reconciliation with Russia make her an isolated voice in the Danish Parliament – both the opposition and government do not agree. In an op-ed for Berlingske in February, Defence Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen argued that additional funding was needed to curb the military and political advances of Putin’s Russia, in particular the threats posed by Russia’s “rogue” tactics of hacking and disinformation.

Last July, the government committed to sending 200 troops as part of a 1000-troop NATO battalion in Estonia. These troops, along with another 2000 NATO troops stationed in neighbouring Baltic countries and Poland, have been deployed to deter Russian aggression, according to military analyst Jens Ringsmose from the Institute of Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College.

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“They are there to demonstrate that if Russia against all odds should violate the sovereignty of a NATO country, they will take part in the defence of said NATO country. And that means American, British, German and Danish flags on the caskets,” he says.

“It is a tactic that I believe will work well because the Russians know that if they do invade – which would be very stupid – they are not just fighting one country, they would be fighting the whole alliance,” he says.

While Ringsmose believes in maintaining sanctions against Russia, he believes the West needs to reinstate a “Cold War formula” when dealing with Russia. The formula consists of two elements: deterrence and dialogue. The two elements pull in opposite directions, which makes the formula tricky to implement, he explains.

“Basically, we need to keep the sanctions and our show of strength in Eastern Europe while also telling Russia that if they pull out of Eastern Ukraine and stop attempting to expand, then the West is ready to talk about improving the relationship,” says Ringsmose.

A systemic solution
While the odds of a military conflict between Europe and Russia are low, Russia’s disinformation campaigns present a more immediate threat. The Russian government sponsors two English-language news channels, RT and Sputnik, which attempt to undermine and downplay negative stories about Russia. For example, despite the overwhelming evidence that Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine were responsible for downing Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, these news channels instead report that the findings were fabricated, biased and deliberately misleading.

In March 2015, the EU established the East StratCom Task Force to monitor and debunk not only false claims on these channels, but also false stories in Western media that are seeded by Russian disinformation.

It’s a step in the right direction, argues Flemming Splidsboel Hansen from the Danish Institute of International Studies, an expert on Russian media and the communication strategies of the Putin administration. He isn’t worried about a conventional war breaking out between the West and Russia, but does believe that more needs to be done to combat the disinformation campaigns and hacking attacks conducted by Russia.

“East StratCom is doing very well with limited resources. However, I have two objections to the work done by the task force: one, that I simply don’t think it is anywhere near enough, and two, that at times they can get too caught up in their own mission by occasionally branding things disinformation, which are in fact just the product of a misinformed author,” he says.

Ultimately, Europeans shouldn’t have to rely on organisations such as East StratCom to help them tell fact from fiction – we should be better at figuring it ourselves. ‘Fake news’ is a product of an outdated media world in which the public could place more trust in what they were being told. Splidsboel argues that this is no longer the case, and that we all need to develop a higher level of media literacy in the new digital era.

“Our understanding of the media is stuck in the pre-digital world, and it feels to me like we still have not realised the extent of the anarchy we are facing. We have seen a paradigm shift where now everyone can publish content all of the time,” he says.

“We almost need a new subject in school to educate our citizens on today’s media chaos – it is that serious. One option is to invest heavily in new media outlets that broadcast in Russian, Urdu or English. Another option, and this is much more controversial, is to do things like bankroll productions of films or TV series, which help show voters in countries that do not have the same free ideals as the West, that the world is not such a dangerous place,” he says, while emphasising that he is merely presenting options, not recommending a specific course.

Persecuted for Christian views
While Splidsboel sees East StratCom’s mission to separate fact from fiction as noble, Krarup is less sure. She is worried that the task force may even be violating journalists’ freedom of expression as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights when it identifies specific articles as disinformation.

In a parliamentary debate in January, she asked Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen whether he thought it reasonable that “a known Danish critic of Islam had been placed on East StratCom’s list of disinformation.”

“There is no list of individuals,” Samuelsen replied. “I note that [Krarup] does not mention which well-known critic of Islam she is referring to. If it is the case of a debate article by Iben Thranholm that was published in The Russian Insider in October 2015, I agree with the task force’s assessment that it represents a typical example of the Kremlin’s narrative about the moral collapse of the West.”

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Thranholm is a conservative journalist and theologian, and a regular contributor to Russian media. Thranholm is critical of Islam and of immigration from Muslim countries, and views Russia as a potential Christian superpower and moral alternative to a secular Europe that she believes is pushing Christians out.

Krarup argues that even if East StratCom does not keep a list of authors that pen anti-Western disinformation, singling out Thranholm’s article still violates her rights.

“The people whose work ends up on that list are finished – they can never get a job again. That is simply autocratic. It is a government agency intervening in the public debate, and that should not happen in a democracy,” Krarup says.

Thranholm agrees, and argues that she is being punished for being a conservative Christian whose views are more warmly received in Russian media than in the West. She adds that East StratCom demonstrates that the European political establishment is so afraid of losing power that it needs to “strictly control the narrative.”

“This is a way of manipulating the public to help create a situation where only one world view is acceptable in the West – and that has nothing to do with democracy,” she says.

“Who should decide what is suitable for the public debate? I am expressing genuine Christian criticism that belongs in our culture and I am classified as someone who is spreading lies. If a governmental organ is put in place to decide what the ‘truth’ is, then we really do have a totalitarian system.”

Different types of threat
Krarup and Thranholm share the view that the mainstream media and political establishment are unfair in their treatment of Russia.

“The problem is that people understand this conflict in ideologically different ways,” says Krarup. “The EU, NATO, the US and people like Splidsboel Hansen view the West as this moral saviour spreading the objective truth in the world. They don’t see that the EU and NATO are in fact power-hungry institutions seeking to expand their spheres of influence, and they cannot understand that Russia has a different viewpoint.”

In the Ukraine, for example, Krarup sees Russian hostility as an understandable defensive strategy given the EU’s support of pro-European political movements that could weaken Russia. She argues that instead of imposing sanctions, the EU should reconcile with Russia in order to focus on their shared primary security risk, Islamic terrorism.

Mette Skak, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, disagrees.

“What is strange about Krarup’s argument is that it seems like she cannot comprehend that there are different types of threats to Western society. No one is denying the threat of Islamic terrorism, but while that threat is palpable and serious, there is no doubt that it is also appropriate to call Russia’s illiberal agenda and constant attempts to destabilise Western countries a threat,” she says.

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Krarup’s response is that while Russia is an illiberal democracy, that doesn’t make it a threat.

“Their system is not exportable. It is the Russian system and it is staying inside Russia,” she says, adding that the West needs to look inward instead of demonising Russia.

“The story of the objective goodness of the West needs to end. We need to start thinking in much more old school terms geopolitically and start viewing countries as sovereign states in which we do not interfere. The political systems of other countries, as unpleasant as they might be, are no business of ours,” she says.

Government: Russia a risk
Krarup and Thranholm are in the minority when it comes to opinions about Russia, however. A broad majority in parliament supports NATO operations in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, sanctions against Russia, and anti-disinformation campaigns.

Defence Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen also believes the threat from Russia is very real.

“We are facing a number of security and political challenges – from conventional warfare with powder and bullets to threats in cyberspace,” Frederiksen wrote in an email.

“When it comes to the latter, one of the battlegrounds is the media, and here Russia is a state that deliberately and systematically spreads disinformation and propaganda. It is a threat we must pay very close attention to, and we must have a system in place to counter fake stories, as these can have a meaningful influence in undermining the values of our society. Therefore it is important that we take this element into account when dealing with the threats against our society in the year 2017.” M

Features, News

By Joshua Hollingdale

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