Dangerous games

The Kremlin’s use of active measures to destabilise its enemies ignores their potentially disastrous consequences

Dangerous games

Iranians protest in Tehran following the burning of a Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on 27 January 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE / ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH

Riots, protests, and anti-Semitic attacks have roiled urban centres in the US and Western Europe in the wake of the Hamas massacre in Israel on October 7. Hundreds of thousands of pro-Palestinian marchers took to the streets in London; Islamists have waved ISIS and Taliban flags at demonstrations in the Netherlands, and anti-Semitic incidents have risen by 300% in the United States.

Joseph Epstein

D.C.-based analyst covering the Middle East and Post-Soviet Space

For Russia, the tumult provides an opportunity — one it’s increasingly eager to exploit.

The French Foreign Ministry accused Russia of “amplifying” the scandal that followed the recent spray-painting of Stars of David on homes and businesses purportedly owned by Jews in Paris in an attempt to sow unrest. Two Russian-speaking Moldovans turned out to be behind the vandalism and Russian bots were the first to spread the story.

In a separate incident, the Kremlin reaped propaganda points in the wake of false allegations that Israel bombed the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza that sparked mass protests around the world. Russian mouthpieces continued blaming the bombing on Israel even after Western and independent investigators proved it was caused by a Palestinian rocket. Russian state media Sputnik India even claimed without evidence that the United States provided Israel with the bomb it used to blow up the hospital. The narrative was clear — Israel is committing war crimes and the United States is complicit. Following the bombing, more than one in three posts about it on X (formerly Twitter) were created by bots.

Before the outbreak of the Mideast war, Russia had been bogged down in Ukraine, largely due to the support of a relatively determined and united West. Yet over the past two months, the West has been distracted by turmoil within its own societies. The division has provided Moscow with a welcome chance to chip away at Western unity through “active measures,” a KGB term for subversive operations aimed at furthering Moscow’s influence. While the Kremlin has sided with Hamas in the war, the goal of Russia’s current s campaign is less to help Palestinians than to weaken Ukraine and Western societies.

Russian goals can be separated into four categories: anti-Ukraine operations, extremist baiting, raising Russia’s standing with the Global Left and in the Muslim world, and sowing general confusion, panic and mistrust in the West.

Kremlin outlets and pundits including former President Dmitry Medvedev have accused Ukraine of giving Hamas the weapons used in the 7 October massacre. Russian bots disseminated fake news reports, purportedly by the BBC and Bellingcat, supposedly confirming this claim. US Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Green echoed the misinformation campaign to support her opposition to arming Ukraine.

Russia often seeks to play off existing divides in societies in a way that bears little allegiance to ideology.

Moscow has long cultivated relations with both Europe’s far left and far right, which can be easily incited to rile up societies. By supporting both the far-right National Rally and the far-left La France Insoumise in France, for instance, it redirects government resources to deal with domestic extremism, in the hopes that the West will destabilise itself from within.

Earlier this year, a far-right journalist with Kremlin ties burnt a Quran outside of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, harming Turkish-Swedish relations and threatening to derail Sweden’s NATO bid. In August, an Iraqi-Christian refugee with ties to Iran burnt another Quran in front of Sweden’s embassy in Iraq, sparking violent riots in Sweden and mass protests in the Muslim world. The Swedish authorities accused Russia of spreading misinformation in Arabic that blamed Sweden for the two incidents. While Swedish authorities focused on Russian meddling, Turkish-Swedish relations suffered and Sweden’s image was tarnished in the Muslim world.

Despite Russia’s previously warm relations with Israel, Russian propagandists have recently stepped up their anti-Zionist rhetoric, apparently hoping to capitalise on Muslim anger. Last month, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vasiliy Nebenzya said that “as an occupying power,” Israel had no right to defend itself. At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Israel’s bombardment of Gaza was against international law, while Russian state media blamed Israel’s “years of humiliating the Palestinian people” for the 7 October Massacre.

A subset of active measures operations, misinformation campaigns have since the Soviet times been designed to destroy the image and credibility of an enemy, shape public opinion, muddy the waters and spread mass disarray. International events causing emotional and visceral reactions such as the war in Gaza are the perfect conduit.

The radicalising and mobilising power of the Palestinian cause, especially among Muslim immigrant populations and leftist groups in Europe, creates an ideal environment for such operations.

Yet even as Russia courts Muslims and leftists, it is profiting politically from the far-right backlash against the recent mass demonstrations in Europe. Anti-Islamist sentiment has massively boosted the popularity of far-right leaders with Kremlin ties such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marie Le Pen in France, and Russian bots have been exposed for promoting far-right messages.

Bots are a key tool in Russia’s disinformation campaign. The Israeli bot monitoring firm Cyabra documented over 40,000 bots promoting pro-Hamas narratives since 7 October. According to a report by France 24, Russian bots on X can upload 2.5 tweets per minute, while Russian bot operators brag that their accounts are only banned 1% of the time.

There’s still a chance that Russian stoking of extremist sentiments could backfire. 

The Israel and Hamas conflict and rise of anti-Semitism have already caused major security challenges for Moscow in Dagestan, where an anti-Semitic mob stormed Makhachkala Airport hunting for Jews to lynch. Russia has also had its problems with far right violence. Between 2000 and 2017, some 459 deaths at the hands of extremist groups were documented in Russia.

Russian policy is almost always reactive and never proactive. “Active measures” today seek to exploit existing crises for the Kremlin’s profit just as they did during the Soviet period. Russian policy stems from this short-sighted approach: when the only interest is to cause havoc, the potential cascading of repercussions is not considered.

Vladimir Putin may yet have to learn that playing with extremism is like playing with fire. It can be lit but not controlled.

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