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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2254

Strategic maneuvers in Africa... and Afghanistan;
Russian disinformation and the vaccination debate

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
September 26, 2018

August 21:

Microsoft has exposed a new campaign by Russian hackers that appears to target the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the tech giant discovered a series of fake Internet domains impersonating websites belonging to the U.S. Senate and assorted think tanks with histories of criticizing Russia. The fake domains comprise a multi-pronged "spear-phishing" attack designed to trick visitors into clicking links that then grant hackers access to their networks, emails, and data.

RFE/RL reports that Microsoft has attributed the spear-phishing campaign to Strontium, a Russian intelligence-linked hacking group also known as Fancy Bear that allegedly carried out the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign. The company declared that it will now offer free cybersecurity protection to all U.S. political candidates, organizations, and campaigns that use its software to strengthen defenses against future attacks. The Kremlin responded to Microsoft's statement derisively, denying any links to the hackers and characterizing it as part of "a witch hunt that has engulfed Washington."

Russia's strategic footprint in Africa is getting a bit bigger.
Current Time reports that Russia and the Central African Republic (CAR) have just inked a new agreement on military cooperation. The pact, which was signed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his CAR counterpart, Mary Noel Koyyara, on the sidelines of a military conference in Moscow, paves the way for the two countries to "strengthen cooperation in the defense sphere," Shoigu said. According to Koyyara, the document could also lay the foundation for Russia to commence military training of the CAR's armed forces in the future.

August 22:

Moscow is trying to step up its influence in Afghanistan, first by hosting peace talks with the Taliban and then by criticizing the United States for refusing to join the Russian-led initiative. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement “regretting” that the U.S. declined its invitation to attend an upcoming Moscow meeting with the Taliban, and alleging that such refusal indicates that “Washington has no interest in launching a peace process in Afghanistan.” Invitations to the talks have been extended to ten other countries as well, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran, India, and the Central Asian republics. A Taliban representative confirmed the militant group’s attendance in Moscow, adding that its delegation will also visit Pakistan and China to “address their concerns.” The Afghan government has accused Russia of attempting to leverage the Taliban in its fight the Islamic State – a charge that the Kremlin has staunchly dismissed.

Georgia has filed suit against Russian in the European Court of Human Rights,
Radio Svoboda reports. The lawsuit, filed by the Georgian Ministry of Justice, charges that Russia's continuing control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia makes Moscow responsible "for the abductions and killings of Georgian citizens in those territories." Specifically, the suit charges Russia with violating eight articles of the UN Human Rights Convention - and stresses in particular the Kremlin's culpability in the death of one Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian citizen who died earlier this year after being tortured in a prison in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

August 24:

New research by the American Journal of Public Health has pinpointed another vector in Russia’s social media disinformation campaign.
According to the BBC, the Kremlin's infamous Internet Research Agency played a crucial role in stoking public debate over the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, amplifying both sides of the online argument to create an illusion of major debate when in fact most Americans remain "pro-vaccine." Between 2014 and 2017, the state-run troll farm sent thousands of tweets on the topic in what Johns Hopkins researcher Mark Drezde called a deliberate attempt to "erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases," while fueling political polarization and often embedding malware in linked content. The World Health Organization blames the vaccination debate for the current increase in the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children – and an alarming rise in the number of reported cases of measles and other previously controlled diseases.

Related Categories: Africa; Democracy & Governance; Afghanistan; Caucasus; North Korea; Russia and Eurasia Program

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