Spain recently declared it would take emergency measures to rein in Catalonia’s rogue effort to extricate itself from Madrid and take steps toward independence.
When Spain’s wealthy northeastern province announced it would hold an illegal independence referendum in early October, Russia’s state-of-the-art propaganda apparatus was already hard at work preparing to exacerbate deep-seated, preexisting political tensions.
While Russia didn’t articulate an official position on the vote, deeming it “an internal matter,” it is clear its intelligence services were using (and continue to use) sophisticated “active measures” in support of breakaway Catalonia to sow chaos and further undermine European unity.
With just hours to spare before the vote, pro-Russian media outlets such as RT and Sputnik increased their coverage of political developments relating to Catalonia by 2,000 percent, according to El País, Spain’s most prominent newspaper.
As police clashed with protesters, scores of articles were published and disseminated thousands of times over by state-sponsored “bots” on Facebook and Twitter that attempted to publicize human rights abuses by the central government in Madrid. The media outlets and bots depicted the situation as nothing short of “a state of siege” to unwitting consumers, sparking outrage and spreading confusion about unfolding events.
The Catalonia campaign, of course, is part of a much broader Russian strategy to destabilize the West by promoting nationalistic tendencies as much as possible, which forces states to look inward so that Russia can effectively “divide and conquer” the trans-Atlantic alliance.
If Freedom House’s 2017 report on democracy and accountability in Europe is any indication, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is having a banner year in achieving these objectives. For the first time in nearly 25 years, for example, there are more consolidated authoritarian regimes in Europe than consolidated democracies. Within the past few years, right-wing parties in Hungary and Poland have pushed through worrisome constitutional reforms that have eroded democratic norms and governmental accountability—cherished bedrocks of the European project.
Though not completely attributable to Russia, this decline in political stability has doubtless been aided by Putin’s outsized, centralized, and incredibly well funded intelligence community. The surprising election of Donald Trump in the United States, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (i.e. “Brexit”), and increased migration from war-torn regions such as North Africa and the Middle East have all created fertile ground from which Soviet-era active measures have been able to flourish and impart substantial and enduring damage to Western interests.
Russia frequently resorts to “shadow influence” abroad because its conventional capabilities do not quite match those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the nuclear threat is inappropriate for pursuing Russia’s political objectives. It therefore takes full advantage of its integrated and efficient “whole-of-Kremlin approach” to target exploitable European elements: right-wing political parties, secessionist movements, and liberal societies with robust free speech laws, which allow for white, gray, and black propaganda opportunities.
Rather than create a new playbook from scratch to meet the needs of the increasingly globalized operational environment, Russia has simply updated its tried and true methods of espionage and covert action to account for new opportunities presented by improved technology, especially popular social media outlets. In 2005, for example, RT’s annual budget was estimated to be around $30 million. Twelve years later, the budget has increased tenfold to over $300 million annually, owing at least in part to the success attained from such state-sponsored tools.
There is no indication that Russia will slow down anytime soon. Evidence suggests Russia supported a host of far right-wing European parties before elections in 2017, including the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands (March), the National Front in France (May), the Independence Party in the United Kingdom (June), Alternative für Deutschland in Germany (September), and the Freedom Party in Austria just this month. All of this on top of what has appeared to be clear Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
As political tensions in Catalonia continue to flare, Russia sits behind the scenes feeding the flames of discord. The situation has been described as Spain’s worst political crisis in 40 years, and as such, presents a particularly fruitful opportunity for Russia and its illiberal puppets to continue to assault European democracy, accountability, and dignity.
If the situation in Catalonia is left unaddressed, the utopian vision of a free, prosperous, and unified West—which has prevented the outbreak of war in continental Europe for over 70 years—will likely unravel.
Luke Drabyn is a Communications Officer at the Government Accountability Project and a former Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine.