Nicolas Tenzer: Russian Propagandists Try to Intimidate Their Critics in Europe

At the end of September, a hearing on the case of French political scientist and international relations expert Nicolas Tenzer took place in the Palace of Justice in Paris. One of the issues considered is whether the TV channel RT France could be called a propaganda agency.

The lawsuit against Tenzer was filed by the same TV channel RT France which accused him of libel in connection with two tweets he published back at the end of 2018, with one of them as follows:

Yes. An agency of #propaganda depending on the Kremlin is not a press agency. Those who agree to speak on #RussiaToday are either accomplices of the regime and thus of its crimes, or people who implicitly consent to being manipulated by the regime. #usefulidiots

RT France considered these tweets not only an act of libel, but also “encroachment on the dignity” of the outlet’s journalists.

We spoke with Mr. Tenzer about the lawsuit by Russia Today, the situation with disinformation and propaganda in France, and about how Europe could combat information threats overall.

How did the hearing go, and what are the prospects of the judicial process?

There are two different processes. Of course, I cannot say anything about that because the decision will be made public only on December 3. Russia Today France has filed lawsuits against about 15 people. That’s quite a lot, and there are also lawsuits not only in France, but also in Germany, in the UK, etc. These are so-called SLAPP suits, and that’s a very important concern.

That’s a kind of intimidation, obviously, not only against myself, but against other people who are speaking the truth about Russia’s criminal activities in general. And of course, the opponents expect to silence them.

For instance, that’s the case of Catherine Belton in the UK, a very famous journalist, former correspondent of the Financial Times, who wrote an amazing book exposing all the links between corruption, intelligence services, and Putin’s inner circle. (The book in question is Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Turned on the West, published in 2020 which was book of the year listed by The Economist, Financial Times, New Statesman and The Telegraph. The book gave rise to five lawsuits filed by Russian billionaires and the Rosneft corporation. — ed.)

I think it’s a global concern, that’s far beyond my case, and the cases of other people, or even beyond Russia Today itself. It’s a general attempt of all the dictatorships, all the criminals to intimidate people through their proxies, through their entities.

I know such stories myself. Some journalists told me privately, “We cannot dare to investigate, let’s say, Russia Today in France or in Germany because we have some lawsuits filed by Russia Today Germany against some journalists. We dare not to write about them because then we will go bankrupt.”

Since these people are sometimes freelance journalists, they are not protected by huge media with lots of financial resources, and of course, that’s a very deep concern for them. And that’s why I proposed to address this problem. And I know that there are people in the Council of Europe, in the European Parliament, the European Commission, who say it is time to put an end to all these legal problems.

Russian propagandists are disinforming and destabilizing the situation around the world, including in France. How popular and how influential are these channels now in France? Is there a chance that your government will take a closer look at their activities and limit their speech, as it was recently done in Germany?

Well, of course, I cannot predict what could happen in France, but there is a growing concern among high-ranking officials in this country. That’s quite obvious. And I think with the fact that they decided to close Russia Today Deutschland’s channel, it sets a precedent for what is more dangerous—it’s not the channel itself, but it’s all different kinds of ways to spread news on YouTube.

There were some investigations in France, especially by an NGO called Avas, showing that when it came to the yellow-vest protests that we had, the YouTube channel of Russia Today France was the most watched on the yellow-vest issues, even more watched than the main news channels in France brought together. It seems it was very influential. Russia Today France had 1,900 videos on only the yellow-vest movement. I think that’s a lot, and they are also influencing all the Facebook groups, all also Telegram channels. And that’s even more than TV.

In most cases, it is not evident disinformation; it’s more subtle. There are other means to manipulate information. It’s very interesting to see what Miss Margarita Simonyan, editor-chief of Russia Today in Moscow, said — that YouTube is the weapon of choice. I was just tweeting this yesterday, that’s the kind of admission of guilt in a way. You see, she recognizes that that’s the way they can influence.

Yes, they claim, that this is their power, their weapon, they are not even ashamed of claiming this all around the world. What kind of main narratives does Russian propaganda spread in France and Europe as a whole?

I think there are three kinds of narratives in fact.

The first one is spreading basically disinformation about what happened in Ukraine, for instance, or in Syria. Just saying, “We did nothing about the MH17 flight,” for instance, or “we never invaded Ukraine,” or about Syria. Russia Today transmitted numerous statements—for instance that the French and Belgian intelligence services are preparing a chemical attack in Syria, and we know perfectly that it was the Assad regime, and also spreading the smear campaign against the white helmets, the very courageous people who are helping the Syrian people targeted by Russian and Assad’s regime aeroplanes. The Russians just try to whitewash their own crimes in Syria, in Ukraine, in Georgia, and also support Belarusian dictator Lukashenko – all this is one kind of narrative.

Then there is a second kind of narrative, which is quite different, which is what I call soft propaganda. “We don’t like Mr Putin, but we have to be realists. You know the guilt is on both sides, it was probably a true provocation to enlarge the EU, to enlarge NATO. We have to consider the cultural specificities of the Russian people; of course, they are not mature for democracy” — it is a way to hide information on all the dissidents and protesters, oppressed and persecuted in Russia itself. You have this kind of soft propaganda, “we are building more links, economically, the situation in Russia will improve, there will be more awareness about freedom.” Basically, this is what the Germans are doing with Nord Stream 2, which is a major concern for us, they are just trying to appease Russia.

And then there is the third narrative, which is to sow discord, not only in France with the yellow-vest movement, but also with far-right movements against migrants in Germany, independentists in Catalonia, and also with Black Lives Matter in the US. The blame on that kind of protests is a very classic template by Russia propaganda, just to put oil in the fire. Of course, they are not creating these movements, but when they start, Russia is trying to magnify them.

What does, in your opinion, everyone in Europe and Ukraine need to do so as not to lose the information war?

I think we all, all the leaders of the free world, the governments, the presidents, prime ministers, members of the government, members of parliaments, have to speak louder and clearer about what happens in Ukraine, in Belarus, in Georgia, Syria, and Africa, where the Wagner mercenary groups are active, we have to speak out, to create and to raise awareness among the public of what happened.

People have to tell the truth about the war crimes perpetrated by Russia, as it was in Georgia, in Syria, where Russian troops killed more civilians than even ISIS. They have to call a spade a spade, and we have basically to name and shame, that’s the first thing, to generate awareness.

Then we have to be more conscious of what I call soft propaganda, we know it from the example of far-right groups, or radical-left groups in Europe, in the UK that we know perfectly. But you have also some mainstream leaders who are also endorsing this kind of appeasement stance, we have some people in France, including former ministers, or prime-ministers who are pasting, in a way, the Kremlin’s playbook.

Of course, you have some misleading news spread by the Russian propaganda, clearly by Russian state channels, but you also have numerous state channels that mainstream people do not perceive as Russian. When you have this foreign propaganda, we have to close the channels, as YouTube did with the very misleading narrative about vaccines. There is a war, and we have to fight this war very clearly.

There is a fourth narrative, the fight against corruption, which is linked to foreign influence. By corruption, you mean, of course, something that is illegal. But you also have what I call legal corruption. When you have some former politicians of European countries, such as Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Osborne from the UK, who are working for Russian companies. It’s not illegal, but I think it’s not acceptable. I think it must be prohibited by law. And you have numerous consultancies, numerous lobbyist groups, who receive money directly or indirectly from Russia or China, or Azerbaijan, or Turkey. And I think we have to make this illegal, to expose and to attribute it. This is the thing which is absolutely crucial, not only talking about the sanctions on oligarchs, like with Navalny’s list, 35 people. We also have to generate awareness of the influential movements or groups in Europe.

After 7.5 years of Russian aggression in Ukraine, does Europe understand the real threat from Russia, not only in military terms but also in the information terms?

In my experience, it largely depends on the country. Of course, I believe the level of awareness is insufficient in many countries—especially in France or Italy, Spain, perhaps also in Germany or in the Netherlands, Belgium etc. I think regular people in the street don’t even know how many years the Russian aggression against Ukraine has lasted, and that Crimea was illegally annexed, and about persecution of Crimean Tatars and the likely crimes against humanity.

I see that people are unaware of the 14,000 people killed by Russia in this war. We know that Russia is the aggressor, not Ukraine. But people don’t understand that on Maidan, Ukraine fought for European values, that it is a liberal country. I know this very well, since I visited your country 15 times. Of course, there are certain problems in Ukraine, like corruption. But it is a country entirely different from Russia.

You also wrote in your article back in 2019 that European enthusiasm for safeguarding Ukrainian security and territorial integrity has at least in some European countries waxed and waned under the pressure from Russia’s economic and ideological influence over the continent. Can we say that it hasn’t changed since then, since 2019, it is still the problem that Russia, besides the soft propaganda, has colossal economical influence, impact in Europe that makes the situation look like this?

I think we have two problems.

First, we have influence from Russia.

Second, we have the fact that many countries in Western Europe, including Germany, are really not ready to confront Russia on that. I mean not only militarily, buy they also always think that there is a way to have a meaningful talk with Russia, which is absolutely wrong.

Of course, you have those economic links, which are very damaging. We will see what the Biden administration will look like and do in the year to come but with the retreat of the American troops from Afghanistan, there is also what president Biden said one month ago about “that’s the end of endless war,” about the need to solve issues in diplomacy and negotiation. I think it’s very difficult for Europe when it doesn’t have this American support to be tough enough about what Russia is doing in Ukraine mostly but also in Belarus, Georgia.

I think that’s a true concern, always having the idea that there is only a political solution, Russia, or China, or Syria, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, they know perfectly that the solution for them is military. And we in Europe, in the US, we are not ready to act consistently with this very fact.

You also claimed that Europe’s treatment of Ukraine speaks volumes about the credibility of the EU’s geopolitical project, and I would really like to ask you to describe this geopolitical project today, and does Ukraine have its place in this project?

First, I think there must be a clear recognition of Ukraine’s intention to join the EU. It must be very clear. Of course, we know perfectly that it will take time, that there are huge issues to tackle in Ukraine. We know perfectly that Ukraine needs to upgrade institutions, to fight more corruption. But I think we must declare that there is a true European path for Ukraine.

In my view, if we, Europe, really want to have the geopolitical view of Europe, we must not stop the enlargement, even if we have to be cautious, to have some guarantees—let’s see what happened in Hungary, for instance, which is a true concern for Europe with corruption and links to Russia. But I think we have to define this obvious path, basically what could be geopolitical Europe.

The idea of geopolitical Europe is basically addressing the threats. If we are unable to address the threats, it’s completely meaningless. For me, it’s very important.

Then, there is, of course, the path to NATO. I am confident that either for the EU or for NATO, the decision is not to be made in Moscow, the decision has to be made in Brussels. And I think we have to say very clearly that Moscow must not have a say and I have to repeat that basically the EU is a peaceful project, NATO is a defence alliance, and if there are no threats to the countries in the alliance, NATO won’t aggress anyone. It’s not an aggressive alliance, I think we have to speak about it more often and in clearer terms.

Last question about Europe: what does it look like today, are European institutions strong enough to take this path, to stay sustainable and overcome threats?

The real problem in the EU is that you have many divisions between the people. You have some people in the EU, but also in France, in the government, who say that we have to be aware of the Russian threat, or Chinese threat obviously, and we have to address them, we have to be more proactive, we must not let Mr. Putin set the agenda. The second war in Chechnya, 1999-2000—Putin won the war because there was absolutely no reaction, after Georgia, after Ukraine, after Syria, of course there were some sanctions, but it’s not enough. We are unable to defend.

I think you have that in some parts of the government in France, or other countries, you have this right perception, but you still may be influenced unwillingly, I mean by some lobbyists and advocates of the Russian regime. Some, certainly, are not completely fully aware of what it means, how invasive and deeply present the threat is. They are not aware of the different dimensions of this hybrid war. I think you have strong institutions, but basically the issue is the division of the governments.

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