Russia is trying to regain influence in its former Eastern European empire through fake news and influence peddling, according to Financial Times journalist, John Lloyd. The former Moscow correspondent talked to Veridica about the way Moscow is using propaganda in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives.
VERIDICA: How significant is Russia's influence today in Eastern Europe?
John Lloyd: I think it is significant. For example, Russians have a very large base now in Prague, Czech Republic. They are very active everywhere else in the places they commanded entirely during the Soviet Union.
I think Russia had never quite given up the ambition to command again but through different means. Before they commanded it militarily and politically, now they command it partly through fake news, partly through influence peddling, and influence upon individuals. An example is the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, who is very keen on Russia.
He is not exactly alone in that in the Czech Republic, but he is a distinctive voice. Others too believe that Russia is a power that should be implicated, if not actually loved.
However, they meet a lot of resistance, especially from places like Poland. And, to a degree, at least, places like Romania. These countries` distrust for Russia comes from their memory of the role played [by Moscow] in WW2 and before this war as well, and above all, the role that the Soviet Union had in the Cold War.
The memories are quite bitter. And no matter how hard Russia tries, they will limit their effect.
VERIDICA: In your opinion, what are the biggest goals of Russia regarding this region and how much propaganda and fake news help Moscow achieve its political agenda?
John Lloyd: It is difficult to tell about fake news to start with that. Because fake news is inserted into the conversation of all states. It includes the Western European States, United Stated and others. And it is inserted in these narratives, which are false and sometimes very successful run on social media and indeed also on the conventional media - televisions, newspaper sometimes, magazines.
They have Russia Today, the channel that I don't think is terribly influential, but it is certainly a daily voice of news interpreted with a `Russian twist.`
It does mean it is all bad. Some of the coverage of RT is quite good, but always, at some point, they will twist it when they want to.
For example, when the Malaysian airliner was shot down some five years ago now over Ukraine, RT immediately took the narrative which the Kremlin was putting out. Well, it put a lot of narratives in this regard, that the CIA shot it down, or a bomb was planted by the seat, etc.
Everything except the reality, which was a unit of Russians launched the rocket at it. But the evidence shows that a Russian unit did it. In that credibility crisis for Russia, RT dropped its facade of being objective and just put up the straight Kremlin` lying.
So, there is no doubt about its boss and the facade of objectivity that it has.
VERIDICA: If we compare how much Russia spends on propaganda and how much the EU spends on debunking it, how do you asset this ratio?
John Lloyd: I don't know the exact figures or the scale, but I think Russia spends a bit more. It is clear that for Russia is much more important to do disinformation than to the EU to combat it.
Maybe because the EU thinks that it does not matter much, people won't believe it. Or at least they will believe it [just] a bit. [In fact, many do believe the narratives] not because they are necessarily pro- Russians, but because the narratives are quite convincing, as I said earlier. Some of their staff is pretty convincing.
So, I think they should put a little more effort to combat the fake news.
VERIDICA: There is a concern in Germany that the Russian propaganda is meddling in the parliamentary elections scheduled on September 26? How interested is Russia in a particular outcome in German upcoming parliamentary elections?
John Lloyd: Very interested indeed. Russia sees correctly that the major force in Europe is Germany. It has by far the largest economy, and Germany has the chancellor Angela Merkel being unmistakably in command of what the European Union did. President of France, Emmanuel Macron tried a joint leadership with Angela Merkel. Unfortunately, his position in France was too weak economically and as time passed by also politically.
His drive to rapidly integrate the European Union did not succeed. Other member states fought against it, including Angela Merkel. But Kremlin does see the importance of who leads Germany. I would imagine Russians want for the successor to be the man that Angela Merkel has tipped, not a more powerful leader.
He is seen as a rather mild man who will not have the intellectual heft that Angela Merkel had, nor [the determination] to face down the Russians. I would imagine that this man will be their candidate. And I would also bet that they would do what they can to help him.
VERIDICA: What should we expect from Russia shortly, considering that Moscow was very irritated about the launch of Platform Crimea by Ukraine?
John Lloyd: Well, there with Crimea, [the Russians] are touchy. For me, it was fairly naked grab of land, which belonged to another state. The problem there is that the Russian leadership does not believe that Ukraine is a separate state.
We think it was a great mistake by Khrushchev when he was the leader of the Soviet Union to give Crimea to Ukraine. It is true that Crimea has a majority of Russian speakers. Many of whom – the majority of whom, I would guess – wanted to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine, if for no better reason than that, that Ukraine is a poorer nation and is in more economic chaos than Russia.
Russia isn't doing so well. So they're irritated by that. They realise it's a weakness. They don't think that anybody is going to have a war about it, but they dislike being reminded that this was a land grab.