An interview with Adéla Klečková, a specialist in strategic communications and hybrid warfare. Currently, she is researching new forms of civic activism in the virtual space as a non-resident fellow of the German Marshall Fund and pursuing her MA degree at the War Studies Department at the King’s College London. She works as the Critical Thinking Program Director at the “Together for Czechia” think tank
What is hybrid warfare and why this concept is relevant for countries from Central and Eastern Europe?
Hybrid warfare has emerged as the preeminent security threat of the 21st century. Contrary to conventional warfare, hybrid forms do not refer to instances of active, declaratory, or open conflict. Instead, they denote the ongoing, evolving and complex aspects of modern warfare, in which both state and non-state actors leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life, in order to sow seeds of discord and erode shared realities.
Conflict is no longer thought of in geographical or infrastructural terms – and populations are no longer the obvious combatants in such conflicts. They are, instead, the territory.
Talking specifically about the CEE region, Russia and China count among the most active actors conducting frequent hybrid operations with an intent on meddling in the internal affairs of the CEE countries. Such influence operations include, but are not limited to, strategic corruption, espionage, blackmail, performed through hacking, as well as other forms of cyber attacks, including the spread of hostile propaganda and disinformation in both the public and virtual space – with a recent spike since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We can recall attempts of espionage in Poland from Chinese-owned Huawei in 2019, the attempted state coup in Montenegro in 2017, and the attempted assassination of Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria, to name but a few. Or the very recent “Koněv affair” where the decision of the local government of Prague 6 to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Koněv from a square in Prague led to a chain of disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and the activation of Czech far-left and far-right civil actors.
From this perspective, which are the main threats for our region and from where they are coming?
It is probably not a surprise that Russia and China are the main actors of interest in this regard. The primary reasons why Russia is still trying to influence the state of affairs in the Post Soviet Space are of a historical and geopolitical nature. The incumbent Russian regime, as the legitimate successor to the Soviet Union, does not respect the sovereignty of neighboring countries and, in many cases, still perceives them as satellite states. This historical obsession transforms into a ridiculous, illegitimate claim of former Soviet-state obedience, and Russia’s constant meddling in their domestic affairs.
For example, Russia has proven itself to be an especially keen actor when it comes to electoral influence through intense disinformation campaigns and the Czech Republic has been no exception. During the presidential elections in 2018, Russia conducted a widespread disinformation campaign which according to Czech experts, was in support of the reelection of the current President, Miloš Zeman, who has since been nicknamed the ‘Russian Trojan Horse’.
On the other hand, the Chinese obsession with the CEE region is future oriented. Given its geopolitical location between “the West” and “the East” together with weaker connection to the European Integration Project the CEE countries epitomizes, in the eyes of Chinese communist officials, an ideal entry point in the European continent. The establishment of the 17+1 forum confirms the intention to divide the european unity and create several separate negotiation platforms instead of facing a united front of the EU.
To give you again a concrete example of Beijing meddling with the state of public affairs in my country, I will tell you about the Home Credit Affair. The richest Czech businessman Petr Kellner whose business in Asia is to a great extent dependent on good relations with Chinese Communist party, has paid a PR company to manipulate the public opinion in favour of China. Among the services provided by the PR agency were a number of unethical deeds, including the ‘internal monitoring’ of the activities of high political representatives who had openly criticised China, and the pressuring of the media to withdraw critical articles about China and publish neutral or positive ones.
How is Czechia tackling this issue and why should it be regarded as a model among the EU? Please give few examples
Located in the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic is often a popular target of influence operations from primarily Russia and China. However, the country has turned a disadvantage into an opportunity, becoming one of European leaders and innovators in national resilience building. How did we do it?
In 2016, the Czech republic conducted a thorough audit of the state of its resilience-capabilities, resulting in the National security audit. The document, conducted by 120 independent experts, identified 10 types of threats that would endanger the Czech state the most, and subsequently proposed a roadmap towards a more resilient Czech state.
Since then, Czech governmental, academic and NGO actors have joined forces and, shoulder-to-shoulder are undertaking steps to reach this goal. As a result, the Centre for Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, located within the Ministry of Interior, has been created, and so too the National Cyber and Information Security Agency. The latter institution is already well-regarded, its experts annually winning international cyber security competitions, such as the Estonian ‘Locked Shield’, and its members invited to the US Congress to help create a cyber security exercise for US stakeholders.
The Czech Republic became the first country to openly speak out against the Huawei-sourced 5G technology, becoming one of the leading countries on the discussion of the future of 5G networks in Europe. Consequently, a summit of 5G experts took place last year in Prague, and that led to the establishment of the Prague Manual, overlapping in many areas with the EU’s own official toolbox on 5G cybersecurity.
Just this September, At the decision of the Czech Parliament, a new, permanent, parliamentary Committee for hybrid threats was established. This expert platform will be dedicated to monitoring influence operations and issuing recommendations to Parliament on how to increase the overall resilience of the Czech Republic.
Measures described above are the ones conducted by the government, parliament and other state institutions. However there are other pieces crucial for constructing a functioning resilience of a national state. The role of a strong civil society is priceless together with innovative forward-thinking research on hybrid threats, and the high quality and impartiality of its independent public media.
Probably you know, but Romania took so far almost no initiative to address hybrid warfare threats. Which are the main initiatives to be taken by a state as Romania in order to become (more) resilient in the context of such threats
I would look into the best practices implemented in the other post-sovies states. Most of them are already tested, well functioning and universal enough for them to be transferable into other states. There is no need to be reinventing the wheel. The rather exhausting list of measures from the Czech state, which I have described above, could serve as an interesting source of inspiration.
However it is equally important not to rest on laurels but to continue the hard daily work on maintaining and strengthening those resilience mechanisms. Just as the enemy never sleeps and continues to develop smarter, more vicious and targeted schemes of attacks, so must our defence be flexible, adaptable and always improving. Ongoing European cooperation, sharing best practices and learning from each other is an integral part of it.
As an addition to what has been said already, it might be interesting for Romania to re-open the discussion on the implementation of the Magnitsky Act, which has been initiated primarily by the Save Romania Union in 2018. But after an unsuccessful first attempt the whole initiative has been put on hold with no further development ever since.
It is a shame because The Magnitsky Act is a piece of legislation allowing individual countries to impose personalised sanctions on individuals violating human rights anywhere in the world. The measures which can be implemented include the power to freeze bank accounts and other assets, and ban individuals from entering a given country.
As a result, the Magnitsky Act can be perceived as a tool to strengthen the foreign policy toolkit of individual countries. Creatively used, it can be leveraged for deterrence purposes, but also for lawfare especially against those foreign adversaries who use strategic corruption as a part of their hybrid warfare toolkit to manipulate public affairs within the CEE region. From this perspective the comprehensive Magnitsky legislation could be seen as an important step in enhancing regional resilience to hybrid operations.
What is the role of cyber activism in countering hybrid warfare in virtual spaces? Please mention a few concrete actions / projects you know about
Cyber activism is a not very well known yet quickly growing phenomenon which might play a crucial role in the combat against hybrid threats. In my research, I am primarily focusing on so-called elves. If you are now imagining guerillas of brave elves taking-down dark hordes of repulsive trolls in an ideological conflict over the future of mankind, you are not that far away from the rather accurate description of everyday realities in the international virtual space.
The ‘elves’, a voluntary group of individuals established in 2015 to counter Kremlin-sponsored online propaganda and disinformation. The movement started in Lithuania in 2015, reached Czechia in 2018 and expanded to Slovakia in 2019.
The elves are groups of ‘cyber-partisans’ for whom anonymity is, given the nature of their work, absolutely paramount. As a result, very little has been written about their operations, nevertheless, given some of their recently successful missions, it is clear that this movement cannot be underestimated. For instance, the elves have played a key role in the international virtual campaign against Apple, for labeling Crimea as part of Russia in its applications, forcing the technological giant to backtrack.
However the cyber activists do not need to necessarily focus only on tackling the Kremlin propaganda. They have played an important role during the anti-governmental mass demonstrations in Belarus.
Similar role has played the movement Geeks4Democracy here in Romania. Another Romanian movement the Code4Romania, which is the second biggest movement of its kind in the world, is on the other hand helping to come up with technical solutions to the issues which the government is not paying enough attention to. This only proves that the cyber activism is a variable and unmapped phenomenon which definitely deserves further attention.