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2019.06.16 09:00

How Russian oligarchs’ think tanks are winning hearts and minds in Europe and US – interview

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2019.06.16 09:00

Russia has successfully weaponized information and is using think tanks to push its narrative in Western societies, researcher Kateryna Smagliy says.

Having researched the Kremlin’s soft power strategies, the former director of the Kennan Institute’s office in Kyiv argues in her report ‘Hybrid Analytica: Pro-Kremlin Expert Propaganda in Moscow, Europe and the U.S.’ that President Vladimir Putin has recruited his closest oligarchs to fund and run think tanks in Western countries.

Each oligarch is responsible for a particular country or region and a very small circle of individuals are behind a sizeable network of think tanks pushing the ‘Putin doctrine’, according to Smagliy who participated in the ninth Andrei Sakharov conference in Vilnius.

How did you become aware of this issue?

As a former director of the Kennan Institute’s office in Kyiv, I had the benefit of being an insider to the system, watching some of the tendencies that later made me think that there might be a coherent strategy pursued by the Russian government with the support of institutions that are responsible for Russian academic and cultural soft policy, a kind of public cultural diplomacy.

Also by oligarchs around the Kremlin who, I am confident, on Putin’s orders implemented a coherent strategy of weaponizing culture, education and knowledge in Europe and the US.

I was invited by the European Values think tank in Prague to work on this deeper. I spent two months in Prague working on this paper and, frankly speaking, I was simply amazed how much you can find in the public domain simply by digging the Russian press, the Western press and interviewing people who have been part of the system in Russian and European think tanks. So by collecting these various pieces of information and connecting the dots I came up with a paper that shows how Russia weaponizes academic and think tank narratives globally.

What are Russia’s goals in this?

It all happened very recently. Of course, we remember that during the Cold War, Russians used “active measures” in Europe and the US, recruiting a lot of intellectuals, people working in universities, journalists, and directly supporting financially members of the communist parties.

And we also know a lot of American scholars who were talking positively about the Soviet Union, about its miraculous industrialization, about all the Soviet achievements. Maybe they were genuinely mesmerized and surprised by the Soviet Union, but the fact that they were paid directly from the Russian state makes me think that it was a combination of several factors.

Present-day Russia is simply using all this know-how and all this sphere of contacts that have been developed in the Soviet period. They just doubled and tripled their efforts to use soft power as a mechanism.

Putin, who is now serving his fourth term, clearly wants to develop a doctrine, a sort of Putin’s ideological doctrine, that will explain to the West all the things that Putin wants to achieve. And they need intellectuals, not only journalists who work on Russia Today, because it alone cannot produce all this volume of information. They need experts to be talking heads, explainers, transmitters of the Kremlin’s narratives.

There are several channels through which these programs are implemented institutionally. There are think tanks directly funded by the Kremlin who work directly under the Kremlin’s foreign policy advisors. The big role is played, surprisingly, by the Moscow State University's School of Foreign Relations led by Anatoly Torkunov.

In one of his articles, he directly stated that Russia should remind itself about the Soviet Union which actively used education to promote the image of Soviet glory all over the world.

Then we see, starting from 2009-2012, Russia created the key institutions which are now responsible for propagating its narratives in the West: Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir, The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, etc.

They are opening Russian centres in universities in EU member states. As of today, we have 41 Russian World centres of which almost 30 are at universities which accept Russian funding. And although these centres claim to be fully independent, I cannot believe that they are, because as soon as they start pursuing a fully independent agenda, they will immediately lose access to Russian funds.

Then we see the desire of the Russian state to set up think tanks in Europe which are used as the Kremlin’s microphone. These think tanks are funded directly by Putin's closest oligarchs, people who are all in his narrow circle of friends.

For example, Vladimir Yakunin’s think tank in berlin, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Berlin is critically important for Russians because of Nord Stream 2, because of Angela Merkel’s position on sanctions, her government’s strong hold and desire to keep the Kremlin accountable for all the crimes it has committed over the last 5 years.

They also have a think tank in Paris, also linked to Yakunin and managed by his long-time associate Natalya Narochnitskaya, a former Russian Duma deputy and member of the board of the Russkiy Mir foundation, a woman of the same mindset.

They also have a branch of this institute in New York, led by Andranik Migranyan, a Kremlin propagandist who has been publishing extensively with the think tank called Centre for the National Interest led by Dmitry K. Simes who is one of the key figures in Robert Mueller’s report, the one who had been critical for president Trump for policy agenda and his rapprochement with the Kremlin.

And finally the oligarch Alexei Mordashov who recently opened another think tank in Washington DC which is used as a platform to spread Russian propaganda narratives to the American society and American establishment.

Based on all these examples, we can demonstate that this is a coherent effort, not just sporadic initiatives of individuals who have nothing better to do. They are not going one day thinking: oh my god, maybe I should open a think tank in Paris. And then they come to Putin and ask: what do you think about my think tank? No, I think that in Russia they now have oligarchs who are assigned to particular countries.

There is a strategy and you can see that all these individuals who sit on boards of Russian think tanks responsible for producing this Russian propaganda are a very narrow circle. I was shocked when I realized that Mr Torkunov sits on six different Russian soft power organisations. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Public Affairs and director of Valdai discussion clubs, sits on four different organisations.

They are the masterminds of all this propaganda trash that they repeatedly reproduce at different conference, different dialogue venues and, surprisingly, on the Western side there are also the same kind of usual suspects who come to events, who are guests and speakers and who later go back to their countries and repeat the same ideological doctrine messages that they either heard in Russia or maybe even Washington DC, in one of the conference sponsored by Russian oligarchs.

Do Russians believe that they are doing exactly the same thing as Western countries, which also fund think tanks and academic research?

Yes, but this is a completely false narrative, it wasn’t true before and it isn’t now. In the times of the Cold War, the Soviets invested huge amounts of money into organizing all sorts of conferences, like Global Youth for Peace, Save the World from Nuclear Arms Race, and they were inviting many foreigners to come to Russia. Name a single conference organized in Britain, the US, West Germany where ordinary Soviet citizens could go and participate in a similar manner. It could simply not be possible. I think that Russia was doing several times more than the West is doing nowadays.

I do think that the Western civilization is facing a huge crisis in universities and think tanks. Edward Lucas has brought the example of China and the Confucius Institute, the Chinese government’s soft power organisation that invests millions of dollars into opening centres of Chinese culture at American universities.

Only now has the US government recognised that those centres pose a threat to US national security because they corrupt universities and they distort the narrative. They now dictate to university administrators how they should discuss China and how they shouldn’t. So what the US government is doing is telling this Chinese centre directly: either you take money directly from the Chinese, or you take money from us, but it can’t be both. So now I’ve just read an article about three universities in Florida that decided to close down these centres.

I think European governments should wake up to this threat and acknowledge that the threat not only comes from China, but also from Russia. And there should be legislation that would require all universities and think tanks to fully disclose their funders.

There’s nothing wrong if Russian oligarchs want to donate 50 million or 200 million to British or American universities, but all this has to be open and transparent, so that people whop participate in these events can differentiate between decent academic discourse and something that is pulled by very specific interests linked to the Kremlin.

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