A recent report from the research unit indirectly helped the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts around Russia’s involvement in Ukraine
In its December 2019 report on Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine, the German government’s Bundestag Research Services showed us a good example of how not to handle Russian propaganda.
The Bundestag Research Services is a body of around 65 people tasked with providing Members of the Bundestag — Germany’s parliamentary body — with “impartial and factually objective” information, per the Bundestag’s website. In this role, MPs seek counsel from the research center when formulating policy, thus its research likely has some impact on the decision-making process of the German legislators.
In this case, according to the Bundestag Research Services, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has signs of “a non-international (internal) armed conflict,” and there is much speculation about Russian involvement but no unambiguous proof. It is impossible to determine, the report claims, whether the separatists in Ukraine are controlled from Moscow or whether there are Russian troops on the Ukrainian territory.
The report used highly hedged or precautionary language when clear evidence is available. Russian involvement and aggression in Ukraine has been well documented. Since 2015, the European Union’s counter-disinformation unit has debunked claims similar to those above but only after they appeared on Kremlin disinformation outlets such as Sputnik or RT, not when they came from a body within the Bundestag. “The war in eastern Ukraine is not a civil conflict but a well-documented act of aggression by Russian armed forces, ongoing since February 2014,” said EUvsDisinfo in one of its recent debunks and linked to a joint statement by the presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, and Ukraine, saying: “We reiterated our strong condemnation of the clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces since February 2014.”
There are unambiguous satellite images showing the movement of Russian forces and camp buildups, documented, for example, in the Atlantic Council’s 2015 report Hiding in plain sight: Putin’s war in Ukraine. Simon Ostrovsky used soldiers’ selfies to recreate the trip of the military men from Russia to Ukraine in a popular documentary, which itself forced the Russian Duma to pass an “Anti-selfie law.”
EU leaders, NATO representatives, and the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal court, in contrast, have issued less ambiguous statements. “There is no civil war in Ukraine, it is Russian aggression,” Katarína Mathernová, deputy director-general for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations of the European Commission, recently said during the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting in the European Parliament (at 11:10:00 in this video). These entities are regularly covered by the EUvsDisinfo.
We have more than the statements, testimonies, and investigations by authorities, researchers, and journalists in Europe and North America: we also have admissions from the Kremlin itself. In the case of the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin admitted he had lied about the presence of Russian troops: “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” he said in December 2015. In the statement, Putin went to extreme lengths in deploying a euphemism that, put more commonly, would be “soldier.” These comments echoed an earlier admission from Putin about the absence of Russian troops in Crimea.
Compared to the many multilateral and nonpartisan reports supported by evidence, only the Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-influenced disinformation ecosystem is spreading doubts about Russian involvement in Ukraine. In late December 2019, for example, RT Arabic claimed that “Russia has never participated in the Ukrainian crisis, nor have there ever been Russian soldiers there.” Sputnik Deutschland, as recently as fall 2019, stated that “Russia repeatedly stressed that it is not a party of the conflict in Ukraine and not a subject of the Minsk agreements on the Ukrainian regime.” Claims about the alleged civil war in Ukraine have been repeated in the Kremlin’s propaganda shows like “Vecher s Vladimirom Solovyovym” or “Vremya Pokazhet.” Examples of the Kremlin’s continued use of false narratives abound.
On the one hand, there is abundant evidence showing that there Russian troops have been in Ukraine since 2014, making the conflict in Ukraine to be the Kremlin’s war. On the other hand, the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem issues denials and doubts, especially in portraying the Ukrainian conflict as a civil war. The Bundestag Research Services, while not directly replicating the talking points of the Kremlin, have nevertheless assisted the latter. The research center, as an allegedly neutral entity, failed to interrogate the Kremlin media’s false arguments and, as such, gave indirect credence to the them.
One outcome of this overly cautious framing is that the German version of Sputnik spun the report. The Sputnik article featured a headline stating that the “Bundestag report” — ignoring that the Bundestag Research Services does not speak for the body itself — stated that there is no unambiguous evidence about Russian military involvement. The lead paragraph of the Sputnik article reiterated the idea, saying that, according to the services, “there is no knowledge about the ‘Russian military involvement in Ukraine.’”
Despite repeating without challenging some of the most well-known Kremlin disinformation narratives on Russian involvement in Ukraine, however, the report does not seem to have raised many eyebrows in Germany. The ideas that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine — or that their presence is unclear — and that the conflict is merely a civil war would not be polluting the information space without the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts. No matter from which precise source the Bundestag Research Services arrived at its ambiguous and overly hedged conclusions, the Kremlin will inevitably consider it a success, given that the research unit — as with other research arms for other governments — has the ability to influence policy based off of the information it provides legislators. Bundestag MPs need accurate information to make the most informed decisions; that the research center failed to provide it with a definitive conclusion of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine is troubling.
Jakub Kalenský is Senior Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.