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Russian hacking operations to support Catalonian independence are continuing and could intensify, according to a report published this week by the Center for Strategic and Defense Studies, CESEDEN, a Spanish Defense Ministry think tank.

The report claims Russia is destabilizing Spain as tensions escalate in the rebellious northeastern region.

 

“The Kremlin is taking advantage of the Catalan crisis to destabilize, employing a policy intended to generate confusion in the social media,” the report said.

 

While Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hoped the elections he called in the region last month would defuse tensions, they instead returned the pro-independence majority to the regional parliament. This week, the pro-independence majority continued to defy Madrid by nominating exiled leader Carles Puigdemont as president.

Suspicions of Russian meddling in Catalonia have been voiced by Spanish defense minister Maria Dolores Cospedal, as well as EU and NATO analysts.

Although Cospedal has been reluctant to blame Russia directly, she said last November that her government was analyzing how thousands of robot accounts supporting Catalonia’s independence operated from Russia.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Spain of trying to “blame Russia for its internal weaknesses.”

But a 2,000 percent increase in social media traffic has been detected since a referendum and subsequent declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament late last year. The moves triggered the imposition of direct rule by the Spanish government, which issued an order of arrest for Puigdemont.

Indirect target: NATO

Spain’s Defense Ministry has said it agrees with the CESEDEN report’s conclusions in a section titled “Impact of Geopolitical Dynamics on Spain.” The report’s author, University of Barcelona political scientist Josep Basques, said Russia was using Spain’s unrest to weaken NATO.

“Moscow does not have specific interests in Spain, as it’s too far from its area of influence. But Moscow aspires to foment problems in Catalonia as a way of debilitating a member of NATO,” he said. Basques warned that the strategy could be repeated in other European countries with secessionist minorities.

A NATO specialist in cyber warfare who testified before Spanish congressional hearings says the Kremlin’s investment in cyber operations targeting Spain represent a tiny fraction of the estimated $1 billion Moscow spends in official and unofficial media outlets.

‘Troll farm’ at work

Much of the pro-secessionist social media traffic has been traced to a Russian “ troll farm” operating from a building on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. A company called Internet Research is housed in the building, which is owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, a close business associate of Russian president Vlaldimir Putin.

IR employs dozens of hackers, bloggers and writers to disseminate fake news and articles favorable to the Kremlin, according to former employees who have talked to the western press and describe an operation resembling a boiler-room scheme.

“They are capable of putting out any type of news, commentary and opinion extremely quickly,” said Spanish cybersecurity expert Manuel Huerta. “They try to create a trend by following each other and attracting real profiles, whose following they enhance for further impact.”

Ukranian cyberanalyst Katrin Palanska has said that IR also targets Ukraine and Baltic states where Moscow is supporting pro-Russian separatists. Russian cyberattacks have reached highly intense levels and have even involved attempts to commandeer Ukraine’s electrical grid and government records, according to Palanska.

Anti-independence journalists in Catalonia say their websites and email accounts have been systematically hacked from electronic dominions in Russia.

Eric Encinas, publisher of a digital magazine, showed VOA a Post Office Protocol (POP3) Google notification received last week of “unusual detected activity” in his hotmail account that was traced to a location in Russia. There was a similar attempt to hack his gmail account last month from Ekaterimburg, where the IR troll farm is located.

Venezuela involved

Over 30 percent of robot accounts supporting Catalonian independence also originated in Venezuela, according to Spanish defense spokesmen. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, a close Russian ally, has attacked Rajoy for supporting opposition to his government.

Accounts such as #VenezuelaSalutesCatalunya have boosted messages calling Rajoy a “brutal dictator” and urging Catalans to “resist.”

Social media narratives may yet have influence in Catalonia, where the exiled Puigdemont plans to govern “telematically.” His supporters in the Catalan parliament plan to inaugurate him by Skype.

Oriol Soler, a close media adviser to Puigdemont, has met with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose Russian connections were highlighted by his role in the social media campaign against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Assange has generated 40,000 tweets in support of Catalan independence since meeting with Soler last November.

Soler said he met Assange at Ecuador’s embassy in London to discuss a digital publishing project.

 

 

 

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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday issued a strong rebuke of Turkey’s offensive against a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in northern Syria, saying it is distracting from the fight against Islamic State militants.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. It distracts from international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and this could be exploited by ISIS and al-Qaida,” Mattis told reporters in Indonesia.

Turkey last week began bombing and has sent troops into northern Syria’s Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin along the Turkish border, in an attempt to drive out the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

“We urge Turkey to exercise restraint in their military actions and rhetoric and ensure its operations are limited in scope and duration,” said Mattis, who is meeting with his Indonesian counterparts in Jakarta.

On Sunday, Mattis said Turkey, a member of NATO, had alerted the United States ahead of the attack. But at that point, Mattis did not criticize the Turkish operation. His tone changed Tuesday.

“In the Afrin area, we had actually gotten to the point where humanitarian aid was flowing and refugees were coming back in. The Turkish incursion disrupts that effort,” Mattis said.

The YPG is a key U.S. partner in the war against the Islamic State group, and makes up a large portion of the Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition that has forced Islamic State militants from virtually their entire so-called caliphate. But Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group and accuses it of having links to Kurdish separatists.

The U.S. decision to back the YPG has been a source of rising tension between Washington and Ankara, and Turkey this week repeated its calls on the United States to end its support of the militia.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his European counterpart Federica Mogherini have called on Turkey to ensure the safety of civilians in its offensive on a Kurdish enclave in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that his forces will not withdraw until Turkey’s goals are achieved. But he said that Ankara has no intention of claiming any of Syria’s territory. The United States has supported Kurds in their fight against Islamic State. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker says he is scheduled to hold a new round of talks with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov in Dubai on Jan. 26.

Volker told VOA’s Ukrainian Service that he will arrive in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday and stop in Kyiv on Thursday, before heading to Dubai to discuss the war in eastern Ukraine and prospects for the introduction and possible format of the peacekeeping mission.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who confirmed the meeting at a Monday press conference, said he’s eager to see how talks go after Washington’s recent unveiling of new sanctions against Russia.

Kyiv, he said, is curious to see “how we can use new U.S. sanctions” to forge some kind of sustainable peace plan.

Volker called his last meeting with Surkov in Belgrade last November “a step back.”

“It was a welcoming meeting and a positive discussion, but it was a step back,” he said, calling Russia unready to entertain the idea of introducing a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Donbass.

“We will see what will happen at our next meeting,” he said.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service.

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Poland’s right-wing government faced pressure on Monday to act forcefully against far-right extremists following an expose of Polish neo-Nazis who celebrated Adolf Hitler, burning a swastika and dressing in Nazi German uniforms.

Private news channel TVN24 broadcast hidden-camera footage Saturday of neo-Nazis celebrating what would have been Hitler’s 128th birthday in a wooded area in southwestern Poland last spring. The participants chanted “Sieg Heil” and praised Hitler as they burned a large swastika.

 

The report revealed that the same neo-Nazi group, “Pride and Modernity,” was behind a November protest where pictures of centrist European Parliament lawmakers from Poland were hung on mock gallows in the city of Katowice. The far-right participants at that protest called the lawmakers traitors to Poland for having voted against the Polish government in a resolution in the European Parliament over alleged rule of law violations and the government’s response to an Independence Day march organized by far-right nationalists.

 

The weekend TVN24 report has provoked widespread revulsion in Poland, which was occupied by Germany during World War II and subjected to widespread destruction and mass killings. Poles and other Slavs were considered subhuman in Hitler’s ideology, and scenes of young Poles praising the man who unleashed such atrocities on the country are hard for many in Poland to fathom.

 

On Sunday, Poland’s chief prosecutor launched an investigation into whether the crime of propagating fascism had been committed, which can carry a prison sentence of up to two years. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also said propagating fascism tramples “the memory of our ancestors and their heroic fight for a Poland that is just and free from hatred.”

 

Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party in parliament, called Monday for the neo-Nazi group to be criminalized. He also accused the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party of having allowed extremism to grow during its more than two years in power. In one example, he faulted the government for abolishing a special government office aimed at fighting discrimination and racism soon after it took power in late 2015.

 

The Law and Justice party has been often accused of turning a blind eye to far-right excesses hoping to win votes on the far right. Its adoption of anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric has also been seen as one factor leading to a rising number of reported attacks against people with dark skin in Poland.

 

The strong government denunciations come amid a broader attempt by Morawiecki to moderate the ruling party’s radical image and improve strained ties with European partners. As part of this change, some of the government’s most controversial ministers were fired earlier this month.

 

Rafal Pankowski, the head of Never Again, an organization that monitors and fights extremism, told The Associated Press that he believes “the far right has felt emboldened in the last two years, which has been expressed in many street marches and racist attacks.”

 

“It’s time for Polish leaders to condemn xenophobia and take concrete steps against it,” Pankowski said. “I hope the recent statements by Prime Minister Morawiecki are just the beginning of a new attitude to the problem on the part of the ruling elite.”

 

 

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The head of Russian television channel RT says the Kremlin-funded outlet is already suffering the consequences of having to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. amid allegations that it participated in attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

A Capitol Hill committee decided Nov. 29 to revoke RT’s accreditation to cover Congress, and RT has been shut out of news events and suffered damage to its reputation, said Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the operation once called Russia Today.

“In the U.S., the country that has always been lecturing the world about the value of freedoms – of freedom of speech, of everyone’s right to speak up – the U.S. has now become a beacon, a leader, in this movement to shut everyone up,” Simonyan said in an Associated Press interview at RT’s Moscow headquarters Friday. “That’s so disappointing.”

RT insists it is a legitimate news and information network, and compares itself to the U.S.-funded Voice of America or Britain’s government-supported BBC.

But U.S. intelligence agencies say RT and state-funded Russian news agency Sputnik, for which Simonyan also serves as editor-in-chief, produced biased reports to undermine faith in the election process, damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and promote Donald Trump.

Governments in Britain, Germany and France also have complained about RT and its intentions, especially its reporting around European elections.

In the U.S., RT’s slickly produced programs can be accessed on some cable services, the internet, on social media and YouTube, and Simonyan says they’re no less balanced or impartial than reports of other news organizations.

“Listen, your own president thinks that your media is, almost all of it, is fake,” she said.

“In Russia, all of the American media are seen as carrying out the U.S. government’s policy or American policy,” she noted at another point.

RT’s programs follow a familiar cable news format, but often with guests who espouse views critical of Western systems. CNN veteran talk show host Larry King has a regular program on RT, as does former MSNBC personality Ed Schultz, known for pointing out problems of income inequality in the United States.

The U.S. government argues that the foreign agent designation was meant only to make clear to RT’s audience that it is a Russian station advancing Russia’s interests and says the broadcaster is not being blocked or censored in America. The designation was ordered by the Justice Department under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law passed before World War II to label German and Nazi publications as propaganda.

Simonyan said she can’t believe RT’s audience needed to know more than it already did about its source of funding.

“We’ve never made a secret of the fact that we came from Russia,” she said. “At any interview I ever gave, at any press conference … all the time, almost daily, we state that we come from Russia.”

Steven Barnett, communications professor at the University of Westminster in London, said he sees some merit in RT’s argument that requiring it to register as a foreign agent is infringing on its journalistic rights.

He said its journalists are not likely to challenge Russian President Putin but seem to have “a measure of discretion and freedom” when reporting on Russia and the world.

“It’s conducted along professional journalistic standards, they try to be as accurate as possible and check sources, and they’ll try to cover stories from a perspective that is not Western-dominated,” Barnett said.

He does believe, however, that viewers should be told they are watching a channel funded by the Russian government so they can make their own judgments about the material.

Since the U.S. decision, Russia in retaliation has adopted its own law to deem some media companies as foreign agents and it has named U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It is so far unclear what it means in practice for those organizations in Russia.

Simonyan, known as a pugnacious defender of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, was tapped to run RT when it was created in 2005. At the time, she was only 25.

She denies that RT is under the control of Putin or the Kremlin and says she has never even spoken to Putin on the telephone. But documents for the Russian leader’s re-election campaign name her as one of the “trusted persons” around him supporting his candidacy.

She says RT has editorial independence and brushed off a question on whether she has ever received editorial instructions from Putin or those around him.

“Our budget is controlled by so many people, including the whole of the Russia State Duma, that if I listened to everyone who was complaining … about our broadcasts, I would have hung myself by now,” she said.

This year, she said, RT will get about $300 million, less than the $700 million U.S. allocation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S.-government-funded stations.

“I’m so tired of this argument that all we ever do is under Kremlin orders and so and so forth. Tell me, how is it possible? I am not on the air. If you watch RT, you will see that all of our shows are hosted by people to whom it would be impossible to tell them anything.”

In the interview, Simonyan said she was weary of conflict, especially between Russia and the United States.

“When the world normalizes, everything is going to be fine with RT,” she said. “When the U.S. and Russia get along again – and I don’t see any deep reasons why we shouldn’t get along – … we are going to work normally like a normal news organization.”

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Tens of thousands of flag-waving Greeks rallied in Thessaloniki Sunday, demanding Greece never compromise on the name Macedonia for its northern province.

Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic that shares the same name have been feuding over who gets to use it since Macedonia became independent Yugoslavia in 1991.

Police put the turnout for Sunday’s march at 90,000 while organizers say it is much higher.

Some of the protesters wore costumes from the period when Macedonia was ruled by the ancient Greek King Alexander the Great.

They say allowing the neighboring country to use the name Macedonia insults Greek history and implies a claim on Greek territory.

Sunday’s march was largely peaceful. But police quickly intervened when scuffles broke out between far-right extremists and anarchists who held up banners denouncing nationalism.

Greece has blocked Macedonian efforts to join the European Union and NATO because of the name dispute.

But United Nations negotiator Matthew Nimetz said last week he is “very hopeful” a settlement is near.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tells the Ethnos newspaper “If there is an opportunity for a solution, it would be a national stupidity not to make good use of it.”

The country of Macedonia is officially known at the U.N. as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

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The office of Spain’s state prosecutor said Sunday it will move to reissue a European arrest warrant for the fugitive former leader of Catalonia if he leaves Belgium and enters Denmark as planned.

The region’s ex-president, Carles Puigdemont, is scheduled to attend a debate Monday at the University of Copenhagen titled “Catalonia and Europe at a Crossroads for Democracy.”

The trip would be Puigdemont’s first outside Belgium since he fled there to avoid a court summons in Spain for his role in an illegal- and unsuccessful- secession bid led by his government in October.

If Puigdemont makes it to Denmark, the prosecutor’s office said it would immediately ask the Spain Supreme Court to approve a European warrant for his arrest by Danish authorities.

Spain issued a European warrant for Puigdemont’s arrest in November, but withdrew it after a month based on concerns that Brussels would send the Catalan politician back while restricting the crimes with which he could be charged.

Spain is investigating Puigdemont for possible rebellion, sedition and embezzlement linked to a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia’s parliament on Oct. 27.

His proposed appearance at the debate in the Danish capital comes while Puigdemont is trying to be reinstated as the regional president of Catalonia.

Spain’s prime minister removed Puigdemont and his Cabinet from office and dissolved Catalonia’s parliament as part of a crackdown on the separatist push. But pro-secession political parties won the most seats in the December election for a new parliament, which must form a government by the end of the month.

It remains unclear how Puigdemont could be sworn in again as regional president without returning to Spain and therefore putting himself open to likely arrest.

The Spanish government has vowed to impede Puigdemont’s reinstatement with court challenges, if necessary, and to keep direct control over the region until a new government takes over.

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