Can EU cut foreign funding for propaganda to combat Russian disinformation?

Can the European Union stop the spread of Russian propaganda and disinformation? This issue becomes particularly relevant in light of Russia’s hybrid war against the EU, given that the EU’s limiting policies included a “ban on political parties, foundations, alliances, and non-governmental organizations, including think tanks and media service providers in the Union, accepting funding, donations, or any other economic benefits or support from Russia, directly or indirectly,” as part of the adopted 14th sanctions package.

In response to “Russia’s constant attempts to interfere in democratic processes and undermine the democratic foundations” of the EU, the European Union enforced these limitations, which include, among other things, influence campaigns and the dissemination of disinformation.

Countering Russian propaganda within a democratic framework

The activities of Russian agents of influence in other countries are nothing new. Western nations have known about it since the Cold War, but fighting the Kremlin’s propaganda in the era of digital media within a democratic framework is challenging.

As they enable criticism of government policies, which is essential to keeping European democracy in touch with reality, as well as a free exchange of ideas to find solutions acceptable to society, freedom of speech and respect for human rights remain the pillars on which European democracy is based.

This approach prohibits the ban on any point of view or expression, except in rare circumstances. Likewise, unless someone is engaging in criminal activity, it is unacceptable to probe sources of revenue or intercept private correspondence.

Agents of influence, including local pro-Kremlin and anti-Western outlets, employ this flexibility to massively spread Russian narratives or provide platforms for Russian propagandists.

Prohibition on funding from Russian sources

Introduced by the EU in June, a complete prohibition on funding from Russian sources seems to be an efficient measure than sanctions on propaganda outlets that will deny the agents of influence of resources.

After all, we are talking about people living in European countries, so they are under the jurisdiction of European law enforcement organizations. On the other hand, the legislation allows exceptions if it proves that Russian money would not be used to support disinformation or negative impact.

Choosing limited policies is merely the first step. Their execution will primarily determine whether or not they achieve their goal. In this situation, the European Union may encounter obstacles.

While the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy centrally decides whether to impose limitations, member states are responsible for monitoring country-level compliance with the sanctions regime.

Among them, there are now notable variations in legislation and the authority of government agencies in charge of such oversight.

EU Directive 2024/1226

In April 2024, the EU adopted Directive 2024/1226, which defines what constitutes a criminal violation and the penalty for breaching the EU’s sanctions in an attempt to unite the enforcement of sanctions and lower market distortions produced by their unequal application.

It is appropriate to prohibit the acceptance, by political parties, foundations, alliances, non-governmental organisations, including think tanks, and media service providers in the Union, of financing, donations or any other economic benefits or support from Russia, whether directly or indirectly. In view of the continued concerted efforts by Russia to interfere with democratic processes in the Union and to undermine its democratic foundations, including through influence campaigns and the promotion of disinformation aimed at undermining the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine and through promoting pro-Russian propaganda aimed at justifying and supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, it is appropriate that funding from Russia and its proxies to actors in the Union which form part of the public-opinion forming processes be prohibited.

EU Directive 2024/1226

The Directive became effective on May 14, 2024, and Member States must incorporate it into their laws by May 20, 2025. Until then, the approaches of different countries will remain variable. Still, the result will depend on the efficiency of the legal and administrative institutions.

Under this EU Directive, each Member State is obliged to provide for the criminal prosecution of conduct constituting a criminal offence (e.g. trade in goods or services the import or export of which is prohibited or restricted; making funds or economic resources available to sanctioned persons; circumvention of EU restrictive measures), subject to the possibility of applying a threshold for transactions or activities with a value of less than EUR 10,000. 

The solution, however, has a disadvantage. Brussels omits the fact that Russian and Chinese accounts of the war in Ukraine are essentially the same because they emphasize Russian influence. However, in the EU, there is no ban on Chinese sources. It does not include any stance towards local media, financed by local actors loyal to the Kremlin, which spread or repost Russian state propaganda media.

European Parliament’s call for response to Russian interference

In May, the European Parliament called on the political leadership in the European Union and EU member states to respond urgently and vigorously to Russian interference attempts.

Following several revelations of Kremlin-backed attempts to interfere with and undermine European democratic processes, MEPs adopted a resolution firmly denouncing such efforts.

The European Parliament stated it was appalled by credible allegations that some MEPs were paid to disseminate Russian propaganda and that several participated in the activities of the pro-Russian media outlet “Voice of Europe” at the same time as Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine.

EU sanctions on Russian propaganda media

Previously, the EU sought to restrict Russian influence through sanctions. The EU banned two main Kremlin international multilingual propaganda platforms, RT and Sputnik, after Putin troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the number of Russian propaganda websites on the blacklist has grown.

The most recent Russian media sanctioned by the EU are Ria-Novosti, Izvestiya, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta (all three publishing in Russian and having significant Russian-speaking users in the EU), as well as the Voice of Europe platform, linked to the tycoon Medvedchuk and the scandal over alleged Moscow’s attempts to influence the June 2024 European elections.

The Voice of Europe media platform, at the center of the scandal surrounding Russian influence in Europe on the eve of the European Parliament elections, was newly created, had a very small audience, and seemed to be unremarkable.

However, it had successfully invited European politicians to appear on its TV programmes and garnered quotes from numerous pro-Russian media outlets in Europe.

Personal sanctions against managers and owners of propaganda networks

Brussels also applied personal sanctions and added two Russian nationals to its lists in July 2023: Nikolai Tupikin, CEO and current owner of Group Structura LLC, and Ilya Gambashidze, founder of the Moscow-based Social Design Agency.

The European Union accused them of participating in a “foreign malicious influence campaign,” known as Doppelgänger in Europe. In March 2024, these two individuals and their companies were included on US sanctions lists.

Still, this Russian campaign is ongoing, and recently it targeted the French elections; hence, personal penalties against Russian citizens and companies have proved ineffective. Budgetary limitations do not impede the campaign’s unfettered access to the Internet, as these individuals reside on Russian Federation territory.

Russian disinformation network and propaganda websites in Europe

In addition, in April, Ministers from France, Germany, and Poland revealed that the Russian disinformation network “Portal Kombat” has continued growing, with new websites targeting 19 member states and the Western Balkans, and called for more resources to tackle online disinformation.

France’s foreign interference watchdog VIGINUM discovered an EU-wide pro-Russia propaganda network, dubbed “Portal Kombat,” with close to 200 websites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine, and peddling the Kremlin narrative.

Russian state propaganda media are backed by dozens of local websites in EU countries. In our research on which websites are spreading pro-Russian narratives, we identified over one hundred outlets spreading biased reports and manipulation. In a follow-up analysis, we discovered the top 40 websites disseminating Russian narratives in France.

The Kremlin is coming up with more and more sophisticated and creative propaganda campaigns, investing a lot of money in them. This is exemplified by the series of anti-Ukrainian cartoons that Russian propaganda has been distributing in Europe.

Investigations into Russian funding of far-right groups in Europe

It is well known that Russia finances far-right groups in Europe that support anti-democratic ideologies. Most certainly, it is one of the elements that enables these forces to gain weight and influence in European politics.

Furthermore, a journalistic investigation based on intercepted emails of the creators of the influence campaign revealed that these forces were subsequently utilized to further Russian goals in forming European policy towards the captured areas of Ukraine.

In an attempt to legitimize the Crimea annexation, the Russians not only set up a network of experts and reporters, but they also encouraged resolutions in local councils and paid for the visits of members of various political forces to the seized areas of Ukraine.

Combating Russian influence operations without compromising human rights

These malign campaigns indicate that Russia is waging a hybrid war against Europe through propaganda, disinformation, and its agents of influence. As investigations in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Belgium showed, European governments have begun to counter Russian attempts to influence political processes in the EU. However, the scale of pro-Russian information attacks and the number of seemingly cloned websites require more measures to fight them back.

In latest legal initiatives, the EU has discovered an approach that will restrict Russian influence agents’ operations without compromising fundamental human rights and freedom of speech. But the success of this solution depends on the effectiveness of its implementation. Moscow may exploit loopholes to circumvent the restrictions, as it did with Western economic sanctions and the ban on weapons-making materials.

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