The very close contacts between Russian and Hungarian leadership are unprecedented, in particular since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. This is an absolutely unusual phenomenon. . . . From the Russian side it makes perfect sense to maintain close contacts and demonstrate a friendly relationship with a country that is a member of both the EU and NATO. In this way, [Russia demonstrates] that neither organization is that united, and also it demonstrates that there are cracks inside these systems. So, from the Russian side it makes perfect sense to invest a lot of effort and resources into fostering such a relationship.
However, if one goes into the details of the Russia-Hungary relationship, one sees that despite some people and experts in this country, Hungary is not a privileged partner of Russia. Had Budapest been a privileged partner, then there would not have been such strong Russian information operations going on in Hungary. And I’m speaking not only about the fake news and the tanks from a few years ago, I’m speaking about Russian military intelligence allegedly supporting and supplying the Hungarian far right with weapons, about Russian state media reporting on the anniversary of the 1956 uprising in an extremely biased way. You don’t do such things to your trusted partners. The symptoms show that this is not a real, let’s say, value-based and deep friendship.
András Rácz, an expert on Russian security and defense policy, has just moved back to Hungary from Finland where he served as a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Currently, Rácz is an associate professor at Péter Pázmány Catholic University in Budapest. He joined the Budapest Beacon for an interview.
Strategic deception as a tool in modern warfare
In a book published in 2016 by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, “Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine”, Rácz and co-author Katri Pynnöniemi found that strategic deception plays an elemental role in the Russian information warfare toolbox. The book assesses how Russia used strategic deception in the conflict in Ukraine and aimed to influence public awareness of the situation there.
“Strategic deception is much more than sheer disinformation: misinformation, positive propaganda, and official declarations are integral parts of this toolbox,” Rácz said. “It is important to remember that according to the military doctrine of the Russian Federation adopted in December 2014, information warfare is of equal importance to land, sea, and air warfare. So, [the Russian military] speaks of four branches of warfare, in which information warfare is of equal importance and requires equal resources.”
Looking at conflict in Ukraine and the US presidential elections in this context, it should surprise no one that Russia is conducting these kinds of operations, Rácz said. While the Russian military used strategic deception, specifically in order to distract and disorient public perception of what is really happening in Ukraine, the very same toolbox can be used to promulgate one particular message.
“The CIA, NSA, and FBI report published in early January shows the same toolbox can be used to promote one very concrete agenda. If you go to the details of that report, you will see the very same forms, tools and means of disinformation, spreading all types of false news, all types of lies, and all types of made-up stories. So, the tools are all the same. The purpose, [in the case of the US presidential elections], according to the report, was different, the purpose was to promote one certain candidate, but with the same toolbox, the same tools and means. That means you can also generate chaos and disorientation,” Rácz said.
Fake news in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe
“When the war in Ukraine started to escalate during the summer of 2014, one pro-Russian website, a Hungarian website publishing in the Hungarian language, published a news piece illustrated with a few pictures of tanks being transported on railway cars. And the story was that Hungary was secretly delivering tanks to Ukraine to support the fight against the separatists. This story was published in Hungary and created a scandal because the Russian foreign ministry officially reacted to this – and let’s put this in quotation marks – ‘news story’ and immediately put Hungarian diplomacy into a defensive position. The Russian foreign ministry accused Hungary of basically becoming involved in an armed conflict. All this when the tanks photographed, in fact, were just transported from one storage facility [within Hungary] to another one. The picture was real, but the news content put under the picture was completely fake. And this story made it to the front pages of Hungarian news,” Rácz said.
The website Rácz referred to has reportedly also been linked to the GRU, Russia’s counter-military intelligence service.
Another story of strategic deception involved a young German girl of Russian origin who failed to return home on time one night. Upon returning home, the girl lied, telling her parents she had been attacked by migrants. The story turned out to be fake when the girl later admitted that she had made it up to cover for her being out with friends.
“A pretty marginal Facebook site run by Russians living in Germany picked up the story. Then, Russian state media also picked up the story and made a huge scandal out of it. Russian state media then accused German law enforcement of not properly investigating the case of the Russian girl who was raped by migrants, and also accused the German police of being Russophobic because the victim is a Russian person. The whole German administration was put into a defensive position,” Rácz said.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov himself became involved, making very harsh accusations against Germany over the matter.
“Later, it turned out that the entire story was a complete lie from A to Z,” Rácz said. “Of course, German law enforcement could have handled the situation better. But the fact is that Russian state media picked a very small, unimportant, and marginal story, blew it up into a huge bubble, the Russian foreign ministry jumps into the story with reactions from the highest possible levels, and then creates an international diplomatic issue — all because of a completely fake story.”
According to Rácz, the significance of this story is that many ethnic Russians living in Germany, of which there are hundreds of thousands, began to demonstrate against Germany.
“They demonstrated against the alleged Russophobia of German police, and they demonstrated for the proper handling of the case. And this was the first case in which Russia managed to organize public demonstrations outside the former Soviet Union. In the former Soviet Union, and in many post-Soviet countries, being a paid demonstrator is a normal job. In Ukraine, for example, depending on the expected violence of a demonstration, one can earn several hundred Hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency, while working as a paid demonstrator,” Rácz said.
Russian state media fueling such protests outside the former Soviet Union, in the very heart of Germany, was something completely new, he said. Furthermore, given the timing of the story (at the height of Germany’s welcoming of asylum seekers during the refugee crisis), the fake news story was something that was carried and promoted by the German far right.
But Russian propaganda can also make its way into the state-run media of other countries. One particular case involves the reporting of Russia’s annexation of Crimea by Hungary’s state news service MTI.
“They surveyed one Ukrainian news piece about the so-called ‘referendum’ in the Crimea,” Rácz said. “In the [original] Ukrainian text, the referendum was labeled as ‘illegal referendum’. In the Hungarian translation, though the translation itself was perfectly fine, really a literature quality translation, the very wording here was changed. Instead of ‘illegal referendum’, MTI chose to write ‘the referendum on independence.’ That is actually the exact opposite [of the original text]. This was a case of open falsification of news reporting. Theoretically, it is possible that someone made a mistake, but the really high quality of the translation makes it highly improbable that such a mistake would happen with such highly political content.
Hungary’s relationship with Russia
“The very close contacts between Russian and Hungarian leadership are unprecedented, in particular since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. This is an absolutely unusual phenomenon,” Rácz said. “I’m not an expert on Hungarian politics, but I can say that from the Russian side it makes perfect sense to maintain close contacts and demonstrate a friendly relationship with a country that is a member of both the EU and NATO. In this way, [Russia demonstrates] that neither organization is that united, and also it demonstrates that there are cracks inside these systems. So, from the Russian side it makes perfect sense to invest a lot of effort and resources into fostering such a relationship.
“However, if one goes into the details of the Russia-Hungary relationship, one sees that despite some people and experts in this country, Hungary is not a privileged partner of Russia. Had Budapest been a privileged partner, then there would not have been such strong Russian information operations going on in Hungary. And I’m speaking not only about the fake news and the tanks from a few years ago, I’m speaking about Russian military intelligence allegedly supporting and supplying the Hungarian far right with weapons, about Russian state media reporting on the anniversary of the 1956 uprising in an extremely biased way. You don’t do such things to your trusted partners. The symptoms show that this is not a real, let’s say, value-based and deep friendship. This is much less than that.”
If the relationship isn’t value-based, what kind of relationship is it?
According to Rácz, Hungary’s desire to maintain strong bilateral relations with Russia did not start with the Orbán government. However, Hungary’s recent deal with Russia over the expansion of the Paks II nuclear reactors certainly “adds a big additional factor to the motivations [driving the relationship between Russia and Hungary].”
This relationship is not only about energy, it is also about other commercial interests, Rácz said.
“If one looks at the structure of Hungarian exports to Russia, significant elements include pharmaceuticals, machinery, truck and bus parts, and agricultural exports. Before the Russian counter-sanctions were introduced, agricultural exports were actually less than 10 percent of the total exports. But still, one sees on the Hungarian side consistent efforts to increase agricultural exports to Russia.”
The Hungarian government “really perceives Russia as a possible trading alternative vis-à-vis the West. So, to decrease trade dependence on the West and increase trade with the so-called east. So far, the available data does not support that this plan has been successful. But still, the intention is there on the Hungarian side.”
Defending against strategic deception and information warfare
Rácz outlined a number of strategies for defending against the influence of strategic deception.
The advent of fake news and active strategic deception has taught those living in Western liberal democracies that their very own values, such as a free press, can be used to undermine the systems they live in. However, countering these threats seems to be one of the largest problems faced by the West, Rácz said.
“This is not gossip. It’s not an unconfirmed rumor. It’s a fact. It’s in the Russian strategic documents. And not only information warfare in general, but we also know a lot of about other particular details. We know for a fact about the existence of the troll factories. We know how they operate, in what languages they operate, we know how many of them exist at least.
“Money must be invested into analyzing the threat, analyzing our own vulnerabilities, and also designing our own defense. These are tasks that should be undertaken by the government or at least by big and well-funded organizations — civil society, foundations, universities, think-tanks, and so on.
Don’t believe everything you read
“When one logs on to any kind of ‘news’ site, scroll down and read the impressum of the site. If it has no impressum at all, just close the site. Try to have an open mind to recognize when the text is loaded or biased. If the wording is very loaded with emotions, when it really tries to persuade the reader, that’s a good time to start being suspicious.
Read multiple sources
“Don’t just trust the Facebook algorithm or search engines, because the algorithms themselves are constructed in such a way to keep you in your own personal echo chamber. Research has shown that 70 percent of readers who share articles on social media don’t actually read the articles, they only read the headline. Try to recognize when the headline and the body of the text are actually different because that can already be a sign of a manipulation effort.
“Readers should demonstrate a readiness to learn, accept diverse views, and to be able to decide for themselves. A well-educated population capable of critical thinking and firm in its own values is much less vulnerable to disinformation operations. Not just formal education for everyone, but also specialized training for journalists.”