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Wider Europe Briefing: Ukraine's Big Plan To Fight Russian Disinformation And Why The EU Is Stalling On Belarus Sanctions


Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko says "Ukraine is up against Russia's vast and centralized information warfare and international influence machine."
Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko says "Ukraine is up against Russia's vast and centralized information warfare and international influence machine."

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: Ukraine's latest proposal on how to counter Russian disinformation and the reasons why EU sanctions against Belarus are on hold.

Brief #1: Ukraine Has Big Plans To Fight Russian Disinformation

What You Need To Know: The Ukraine Defense Contact Group met for the first time in April 2022 at the Ramstein U.S military base in Germany. The purpose of the group -- which has more than 40 countries as members, including all 30 NATO allies -- was to coordinate arms deliveries to Ukraine to stave off the Russian invasion.

The group, which has met on a regular basis since then and is now simply referred to as the "Ramstein Group" or the "Ramstein Format," has been a rather successful joint effort of like-minded countries sending Kyiv military supplies. This has also spawned other "Ramstein" initiatives -- for example the "Energy Ramstein," which has been crucial in securing and sending generators to Ukraine during the winter months; or the "Economic Ramstein," which came into being to sketch out plans for the reconstruction of the country after the fighting is over.

Not all the various "Ramsteins" have the same members, but it is perhaps the informality of the format -- not bound by the rules and regulations of an official EU or UN meeting -- that has contributed to its success. Regarding weapons, the Ramstein countries quickly went through their stocks and sent what was available and needed by Ukraine -- often in high quantities and including artillery and air-defense systems. Now, Kyiv wants to repeat the trick by starting an "Information Ramstein" to combat Russian disinformation on a larger scale.

Deep Background: In a letter written by Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko and addressed to the European commissioner responsible for transparency and values, Vera Jourova, he notes that "Ukraine is up against Russia's vast and centralized information warfare and international influence machine, which includes assets from troll farms to state media, energy companies to corruption networks. Though it cannot compete in terms of scale, Ukraine does have one huge advantage: It can ally with its international partners to create coordinated, targeted, joint-influence operations."

Dated February 18 and seen by RFE/RL, the document goes on to explain that Ukraine needs to work "concertedly with its key allies to map the most significant areas of vulnerability in Europe, identifying which combination of Ukraine and its allies is best placed to achieve the effect."

Tkachenko also adds that there is a need to "identify leverage points within its network to bring 'rogue' and potential 'rogue' actors in line and transform soft European partners into strong European allies, who can in turn become ambassadors of influence."

Drilling Down

  • Tkachenko's letter also contains a proposal to create a working group that will start preparing what he calls an "Information Ramstein." This meeting, he says, should have two main goals: "Discuss the lessons learned of Ukrainian resistance to Russian information warfare and develop a 'joint operations' road map for counteroffensive in Russia's information war."
  • The working group should consist of what he calls "European media experts," and he names several Ukrainian officials, including the influential adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mykhaylo Podolyak. Also mentioned are officials from the EU's East StratCom Task Force, a section of the European External Action Service that was set up a year after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 to challenge the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns, and personnel from the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, as well as from the U.K.'s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office.
  • Accompanying the letter is also a concept note titled the "International Conference on Creating a Coalition of Western States to Counter Russian Information Warfare," which outlines seven prospective panels, with names such as "From Information Defense to Information Offensive," "Russian and Pro-Russian Information War Channels Vs. the West," and "Russian Media: Mass Media or Information Weapon of the Kremlin?"
  • While plenty of meetings have taken place on the subject of Russian disinformation that have brought together experts and various EU, NATO, and national officials, nothing of this scale has ever been attempted. The big question, though, is how much enthusiasm there will be for this Kyiv-driven initiative. According to EU officials familiar with the concept note who are not authorized to speak on the record, European Commissioner Jourova has not yet answered the letter and has asked EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to come up with a response instead.
  • There is also a certain apprehension about whether Kyiv can and should be in the driving seat for such an initiative. While there is an understanding that Ukraine has a right to defend itself from Russia, including in the information space, by removing, for example, all Russian TV channels from its cable TV network or banning Russian social networks such as Odnoklassniki, there is a sense that this may not be replicated across the EU.
  • After initially being reluctant to target Russian media in any way, in recent sanctions packages against Russia the EU has suspended the broadcasting activities and licenses of several Kremlin-backed media outlets such as Sputnik, RT, and Rossia-1. The ban, which targets outlets that disseminate disinformation, includes all means of transmission and distribution in or directed at EU member states.
  • Brussels, however, has made clear that this still doesn't prevent those media outlets from carrying out activities in the EU other than broadcasting, such as interviews or research. And while there have been calls to be even tougher, including slapping more sanctions on individuals believed to be spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda, there is currently no consensus to go any further.

Brief #2: Why Have EU Sanctions On Belarus Stalled?

What You Need To Know: In late January, the European Commission proposed a new sanctions package on Belarus, the first one directed at the regime in Minsk since 2022, for its support of Russia's attack on Ukraine. The proposed measures on Belarus were largely set to copy -- and align with -- restrictive measures already imposed by the bloc on Moscow -- for example, an EU ban on providing IT and polling services, consulting, and luxury goods to the country, and a prohibition on the import of Belarusian gold and steel. It was initially believed that the 27 EU member states would quickly approve the package, as it wasn't seen as particularly far-reaching or controversial.

Yet, more than two months down the line, the proposal remains unadopted, with EU ambassadors representing the member states haggling over one item in the 23-page draft legislation seen by RFE/RL: a sanctions derogation regarding Belarusian fertilizers, with the text noting that this is "in order to further address food security concerns in third countries."

As with the EU sanctions against Russia -- where a similar derogation was introduced just before Christmas last year -- the proposal notes the possible exception concerns individuals who play "a significant role in international trade in agricultural and food products, including wheat and fertilizers" and thus potentially can have their assets unfrozen by Brussels.

Deep Background: The derogation has pitted two groups of countries against each other. On one side are the sanctions hawks -- consisting of the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, together with Poland -- who want the derogation dropped before they approve the sanctions. On the other side are a collection of Western European countries, including Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, that all insist the derogation should remain.

According to several EU officials, the spats about the derogation have been fairly "nasty," with Lithuania and Portugal in particular not seeing eye to eye. For Vilnius, the issue could have internal political consequences as the government has made it a central political pillar to be extra tough on the next-door regime of Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, especially after the 2021 forced landing in Minsk of a Ryanair flight heading to Vilnius, plus Minsk's attempt to force third-country migrants across the Belarusian-Lithuanian border later that same year.

If the derogation goes through, it could mean unfrozen assets for the Belarusian tycoon Ivan Halavaty and Russian billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, who have both been supportive of Lukashenka, and Belaruskali, one of the biggest fertilizer producers in the world and the single largest taxpayer in Belarus.

For Portugal, it is a question of the bloc's commitment to the so-called Global South, in this case meaning countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa that are playing an increasingly important role in world politics due to their steady economic growth. The EU has been adamant that these countries are supportive of Ukraine, notably in the United Nations, but is at the same time weary about Russian claims, without evidence, that EU sanctions on various Russian and Belarusian items are causing global food scarcity.

Drilling Down

  • It is worth noting here that the EU hasn't imposed any sanctions on food products from Belarus and Russia, even though the targeting of Belaruskali, for example, has deprived some countries of the potash needed in agricultural production. That is especially true for Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, which imported 20 percent of its fertilizers from Belarus before the EU's ban on Belarusian fertilizers that entered into force in June 2022.
  • That figure in Brazil is now down to 9 percent -- with imports going via Chinese and Russian ports instead of EU ones. (Brazil has made up some of that shortfall by buying more Canadian potash.) There is speculation in Brussels that the reason Lisbon is so keen on securing the sanctions derogation is that it would benefit Portuguese shipping companies, even though there is no concrete evidence of this.
  • It is also worth noting a key difference between the Russian sanction derogation, which has been in force now for three months, and the proposed Belarusian derogation. In the former, only individuals in the fertilizer business are sanctioned, whereas in the latter both individuals and companies involved with fertilizers are under restrictive measures -- and there is a specific EU import ban on Belarusian potash.
  • While a compromise doesn't seem likely in the near future, there is some hope that countries will find alternatives to Belarusian fertilizers. Canada, already the largest potash producer worldwide, has indicated that it is capable of producing 6 million additional tons a year. Thirty million tons of fertilizer is also being produced in Africa, notably in Nigeria and Algeria. That figure is twice as much as the whole of the African continent consumes annually.
  • Another issue that could potentially end the stalemate is the recent announcement by both Minsk and Moscow that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, as well as the building of a nuclear weapons storage facility there. There have been hints among EU officials I have spoken to that this will prompt fresh sanctions proposals by Brussels targeting the Lukashenka regime, even though nothing yet has been put on the table. Expect this to rumble on for a few more weeks.

Looking Ahead

NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels on April 4-5. During the first day, there will be a session of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) with Ukraine's foreign minister. NUC is the official body responsible for developing the relationship between the military alliance and Kyiv. No big decisions are expected for this meeting, but it is still a significant gathering as it is the first NUC since 2017.

The reason for the hiatus has been objections from Hungary, which says that Ukraine has been discriminating against the ethnic Hungarian minority in the country. Despite Hungary's protests, though, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has now decided to convene the commission. There should be a lot of talk about security guarantees for Ukraine and its prospects of one day joining the alliance -- plus some Hungarian grumbling that the unity of NATO has been challenged.

On April 4, the chief negotiators for Serbia and Kosovo are meeting in Brussels for the first time since their respective leaders agreed on a deal on March 18 to further normalize relations. The idea is that they will iron out details regarding the implementation of the agreement. EU officials, however, don't expect that much concrete will come out of these talks as neither Pristina nor Belgrade have indicated that they are willing to move yet.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Note: Due to the Easter holidays, the Wider Europe newsletter will next appear on April 17.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.

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