In an interview with CNN Portugal, Peter Stano, the European Union’s chief foreign affairs spokesman, explains how Putin places a disproportionate number of officials “who pose as diplomats” in Russian embassies in the European Union to spy on host states, including Portugal. . . This representative of the Union’s diplomatic service also asserts that the national political parties have the “enormous task” of confronting those who refuse to describe the situation as a Russian invasion.
Russia sends civil servants to the various embassies of the European Union in order to carry out espionage actions against the host countries, warns Peter Stano, the EU’s main spokesman for foreign affairs, stressing that this is the reason that led several countries, including Portugal, to expel Russian officials from diplomatic missions.
In an exclusive interview, Peter Stano assures that one of Putin’s strategies for carrying out covert operations is to place “a disproportionate number” of officials “who pose as diplomats” in countries where the size of the population does not not justify it. To CNN Portugal, the EU spokesperson explains how the European External Action Service (EEAS), the Union’s diplomatic service under Josep Borell, fights disinformation and propaganda directly linked to the Kremlin, a battle similar to that waged between David and Goliath. . “We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people like the Russian propaganda machine has at its service.”
Peter Stano also guarantees that the European Union, from Brussels, has observed and monitored the “secret financing of political parties by the Russian Federation” and affirms that there is in Portugal the “great challenge” and “the enormous task to confront them if those who doubt that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is underway.
Last week, Russia decided to expel five Portuguese diplomats from the embassy in Moscow. Recently, Putin’s government also decided to withdraw 18 members of the European Union diplomatic mission to Russia. What do you think is behind this type of movement?
These are always retaliatory measures. In these cases, the European Union and Portugal expelled, and it should be emphasized, people who worked for the bilateral mission posing as diplomats, while they were involved in espionage activities. Therefore, this is happening after Portugal expelled ten Russian officials some time ago and Russia’s reaction would never be to apologize for these people being exposed and not acting in the diplomatic protocol. Instead, they say deportation is not acceptable and say they will take action. This is political retaliation, pure and simple.
What do you mean by spying activities?
Russian embassies, especially in EU countries, have a disproportionate number of diplomats. In countries with 10 million people, for example, they end up having dozens and dozens of diplomats. For example, the Portuguese Embassy in Moscow probably has a maximum of ten diplomats to actively deal with various issues, but in the case of Russia it is not like this: the Kremlin has 100 diplomats in its mission to the European Union, then another 100 in the bilateral mission with Belgium. Another obvious case is the Czech Republic, which has a population of about 11 million and more than 100 Russian diplomats. At the Russian Embassy in Slovakia there are also between 70 and 80 employees and one can only guess what all these people are doing. Therefore, we are only deporting them because some of them are wearing a coat to hide their involvement in espionage or other reprehensible activities that are not in accordance with diplomatic status or the Vienna Convention.
In an interview in 2020, he said that with the pandemic, it was possible to observe a greater concentration of attempts to misinform the population in member states to secure support for Vladimir Putin. Was this kind of spike in misinformation observed by officials of the European External Action Service in the months or days leading up to the invasion of Ukraine?
It’s not that all of a sudden there’s a lot more disinformation coming out of these Russian state actors, because these attempts have been more or less constant since we started, in 2015, to investigate such actions. Here, the challenge is to concentrate efforts on subjects that serve the interests of the Kremlin. Before the invasion, these disinformation and propaganda actors focused on different themes, different countries, but now we can see them leading a coordinated effort to try to convince the public that Ukraine was run by neo-Nazis, that the Russian populations were in danger in the Donbass region and that NATO, aggressive and expansionist, was approaching Russia.
So, does the strategy of these actors who try to influence public opinion in favor of the decisions taken by Putin change according to the objective of the Kremlin?
We can always assume that Russia will officially, politically or militarily announce something decisive based on disinformation activity. It is a way of preparing the ground because, depending on the political reaction of the world, the Kremlin backs down or diverts attention to another issue. Often also, the content created to advertise is also contradictory, as their purpose is also to confuse.
One of the problems we have observed in Portugal is the building of links between associations that have taken in refugees from the war and organizations such as the Rossotrudnichestvo propaganda agency and the Russkiy Mir foundation. In both cases, we have found that the work of these agents is also to organize conferences and events with the aim of spreading the Russian language and culture. Is this a way of “preparing the ground”, as you mentioned?
Of course, of course, all the propaganda and disinformation, it’s very concentrated. Preparing the ground means creating sympathy and opening people up to receive the messages that agents of disinformation inundate to change public opinion. And this is done in collaboration with Russkiy Mir, with Russian institutes, with Russky Dom, the Russian language house. They are all part of this machine to create sympathy for the Kremlin and to create fertile ground for disinformation and propaganda. Also in this area, Russian embassies are very aggressive and active in their own communication, whether through the media or via web profiles and profiles on Facebook and Twitter.
For example, in the case of Portugal, the Russian Embassy in Lisbon published the results of a public opinion barometer regarding the invasion of Ukraine based on alleged letters and e-mails sent by Portuguese. Is this strategy a trend in the European Union?
Yes, it is part of this type of concentrated effort. Exactly, this is one of the examples of how Russia acts to justify its actions and gain more public support for the harmful actions of the Kremlin leaders.
The Russian propaganda mechanism is fed by many agents, was this factor the main difficulty of the European Union in this fight?
That’s probably one of the questions. On the one hand, this work of disinformation and propaganda is really state-driven and what we see is that it is financed by the Russian state, for example through the conglomerate of channels Russia Today, which has several workers engaged in this mission. On the other hand, Russia benefits from the freedoms and technological advances of the Western world. In other words, if we decide to do something the same way as them, we will not be able to penetrate the market, because there is censorship, there is a limitation in the use of technologies and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. In this way, they abuse our freedoms, which we obviously do not want to limit to prevent them from advertising. This is the classic dilemma of the police and the criminal, in which the latter takes full advantage of the failure to respect the rule of law. We can’t really order the media across the European Union to report on how stupid Putin is or how bad the invasion of Ukraine is. But they can.
Is there a David versus Goliath concept?
Well, if we consider the department dealing with disinformation within the European External Action Service, which since 2015 has been responsible for documenting, analyzing and monitoring disinformation and propaganda activities in link with Russia and the Kremlin, we are talking about 40 to 50 people maximum. We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people like the Russian propaganda machine has at its service.
The European Parliament has warned, in reports and public broadcasts, against secret funding of political parties by the Russian Federation. Is this a central concern at the moment for the European Union?
Of course, we are worried because we see a lot of foreign interference, obviously also through the financing of political parties. Of course, it’s something we can report if we notice, as evidenced by misinformation and propaganda, but it’s not really something we could be obsessed with, given the nature of the mandate given to the European External Action Service. But we see and monitor the negative impact of that, of course. This is what we have seen.
The war in Ukraine has exposed the long-standing ties between certain European political parties and the Russian government. In Portugal, for example, the Communist Party refrained from calling what happened an invasion. And former MP João Oliveira even said that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were carrying out ethnic cleansing in the Donbass region. Does it make it harder for officials to fight misinformation?
This does not interfere with our work, because as long as there are governments responsible and aware of the risks that the manipulation of information and the Russian-constructed narrative pose to our societies, we will continue. Our work is the result of the mandate given by Member States, as long as we have the mandate, we will continue to unmask disinformation and expose these actors. When disinformation is used and disseminated in the Member States by institutional actors, as I said, deputies, political parties or elected municipal officials, this is an internal problem in the country. In the case of Portugal, it is a great challenge and an enormous task for the political parties to deal with those who wonder if it is a Russian invasion. Confront us with the facts, confront us with the realities! Schools, academics, think tanks, independent fact checkers, churches all have a role to play here, because it’s about protecting our societies, our values.