Task force will start trying to win hearts and minds in eastern partnership countries next month.
The European Union’s foreign affairs department said Thursday it was launching a rapid-response team to counter what it considers biased Russian media reports.
The unit, which will include up to 10 Russian-speaking officials and media professionals from EU member states, will be fully operational by the end of September and will be part of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Officials say it is a first step in the EEAS’s response to growing concern in eastern Europe and EU Baltic states about the destabilizing influence of Russian-language news reports.
The EEAS was tasked by the European Council in March with coming up with a response to what EU leaders described as “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaign,” with a specific request that the EEAS establish a “communication team” as a “first step” in fighting back.
The team, which will be based in the EEAS’s Brussels headquarters, falls short of requests from Latvia that the EU establish a full-blown, EU-funded Russian-language television channel, to provide an alternative source of news to Russian-speakers in both EU and “eastern partnership” countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus).
Officials Thursday stressed the limited scope of the team and were adamant its role would be to improve EU communications with Russian-speaking communities and not to be producing Brussels-funded propaganda.
“This is mostly about reinforcing our existing actions,” said an EU official. “It’s more about reallocating resources and doing more to reinforce that and communicate better.”
The unit, which includes Russian-language experts from the U.K., Latvia and Sweden, will be attached to the EEAS’s existing communications team. The EU member states will pay the salaries of the personnel, but the unit has not been allocated a budget.
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“The team will carry out media monitoring and will work on the development of communication products and media campaigns focused on explaining EU policies in the region,” the official said.
However, the EEAS said it has neither the resources nor the mandate to go beyond the capabilities of the new unit and the funding of TV channels in Russian was not on the cards.
“This is not about engaging in counter-propaganda,” the EU official said. “However, where necessary the EU will respond to disinformation that directly targets the EU and will work … to raise awareness of these activities.”
The unit’s daily routine will consist of monitoring Russian media and suggesting ways for EU institutions to tailor their media strategy to counter Russian broadcasts, in a bid to win the hearts and minds of eastern partnership audiences.
In June, a study funded by the Dutch government recommended the creation of a Russian-language “content factory” that would produce entertainment and documentary programs, alongside news and current affairs broadcast from a “news hub.”
An EU official said the department had not been approached by Euronews, a multilingual broadcaster which last year received €25.5 million from the EU, to expand its Russian- and Ukrainian-language programming as part of the EU’s response.