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Why Some Politicians Think Russia Is Behind Today's Student Strikes

Category: Energy & Environment,Finance

Students take part in a protest against climate change in Hong Kong on March 15, 2019, as part of a global movement called #FridaysForFuture. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)Getty

This morning, thousands of schoolchildren in Australia and New Zealand began a national day of climate demonstrations that will see students ditching class in the largest #FridaysForFuture demonstration yet.

For three months, students have been ditching class every Friday to protest. It's part of a movement started by the 16-year old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this week. Demonstrations are expected today in at least 1,500 cities in 100 countries.

The protests, which started in December, have thus far been relegated mostly to Europe. And while some European politicians have welcomed the students’ enthusiasm, others have been suspicious about what forces are causing this sudden mass mobilisation.

Last month at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of European and American leaders to discuss defence and geopolitics, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the protests in the context of Russia's hybrid warfare – efforts to manipulate public opinion using cyberwarfare and disinformation in order to destabilize enemy governments.

“In Germany now, children are protesting for climate protection - that is a really important issue,” she said. “But you can't imagine that all German children, after years, and without any outside influence, suddenly hit on the idea that they have to take part in this process.”

“Hybrid warfare from Russia can be felt every day in every European country,” she added. “This hybrid warfare in the internet is hard to detect, because you suddenly have movements that you wouldn't have thought would appear.”

Merkel faced an immediate backlash against her comments, and her spokesperson quickly backtracked on her behalf, saying on Twitter that she had used the climate protests merely as an example of how campaigns can be mobilized on the internet.

"The pupils' commitment to climate policy is something she expressly approves of," he said.

But Merkel’s comment hit a nerve because the exact same accusation had been made by Belgian climate minister Joke Schauvliege in January. Schauvliege was subsequently forced to resign because of what she said.

“I know who is behind this movement, both of the Sunday demonstrations and the truants,” she told an audience of farmers. “I have also been told that from state security. I can guarantee that I do not see ghosts alone and that climate demonstrations are more than spontaneous actions of solidarity with our climate.”

But after the comments were picked up by the media, the Belgian state security services issued a statement denying they had reported anything of the kind to Schauvliege, “neither verbally nor in writing.” The climate minister then held a tearful press conference where she said she could no longer serve because of the controversy. She said she had misspoke because of exhaustion.

But why would both Angela Merkel and Joke Schauvliege make the exact same accusation and then walk it back? What do they know that we don’t?

Russian fingerprints

Russia's information warfare has been documented by security services in the U.S. (in the 2016 presidential election) and in the U.K. (in the 2016 Brexit referendum). Further instances were documented over the past two years in European elections in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Russians created Facebook advertisements and created fake news with lies about the governments and centrist politicians of these countries.

But in the case of the climate protests, there are no lies involved. The students are using the scientific consensus of the IPCC report as their rhetorical weapon. And these are facts on which the centrist parties of Europe agree with the protesters. Climate change is objectively a real, serious problem. Why would students need to be manipulated into protesting against inaction on combating it?

But the accusations of Russian manipulation have continued. Last month, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who was in Brussels as a guest at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, told journalists Russia was “definitely” behind the student climate protests.

In the most explicit comments yet making the accusation, he said, “Russia has been supporting stirring up trouble around Europe because Russia’s goal is to weaken up the democratic institutions and to weaken the EU as such. Climate change protests: definitely yes. Different pseudo-environmental organisations: look at Italy, where they are trying to disrupt the future gas pipelines”, he said.

There have been growing protests in the Puglia region of Italy against the planned Trans-Adriatic pipeline (TAP) to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe bypassing Russia.

“To shift, to reshuffle climate change movements is one of the key Russian priorities, to explain that ‘more gas is fine, coal is bad, but Russian gas is good, Russian gas is reliable”.

“It’s about fake NGOs, it’s about trying to buy journalists, it’s about trying to buy media, it’s about meddling in the political class,” he continued. “Not the same scope as in Ukraine, but it’s so visible”.

What's the problem?

Klimkin’s explanation for Russian interference caused even more head-scratching, as the student protests haven’t promoted gas in any way. They also not urging for European governments to fall, as some of the populist movements such as the Yellow Vests, which intelligence services say are operating with Russian support, are.

However, the fact that so many politicians are making these oblique references to Russian sponsorship of the student climate protests suggests they may know something that we don’t. If that’s the case, they should share specifically what they know that is causing them to make these accusations. And then students can judge for themselves whether they are comfortable participating in a movement that may or may not have grown with the help of propaganda from the Russians.

Even if such evidence of Moscow stoking the flames were presented, it may not dampen the student enthusiasm. After all, no matter who is helping the students come together, they feel they are demonstrating for a good cause that has nothing to do with Russia (and in fact, is counter to the Russia’s interests as a giant energy exporter).

On the other hand, many students would probably be uncomfortable with the idea that they are being used as pawns in a Russian game to destabilize the West. Russia has shown that it is ideologically neutral when it comes to its English-language propaganda. After all, its Russia Today TV network attacks the U.S. government for trying to increase gun control, even though Russia has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. The network often features far-left Western guests who would probably be in jail if they were Russian. Russia has shown itself happy to amplify the views of dissenters from Western governments, whether they are from the right or the left. But such dissent would never be tolerated in Moscow.

It's hard to see how climate change marches could destabilize a government in the same way that the Trump or Brexit votes have. But at the same time, every little bit helps. If Russia is playing the long game, then it would be happy to encourage anything that fosters citizen resentment in the West. And meanwhile, Russia remains one of the biggest contributors to climate change in the world.

There are no large climate change protests planned in Russia today.

 

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Students take part in a protest against climate change in Hong Kong on March 15, 2019, as part of a global movement called #FridaysForFuture. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)Getty

This morning, thousands of schoolchildren in Australia and New Zealand began a national day of climate demonstrations that will see students ditching class in the largest #FridaysForFuture demonstration yet.

For three months, students have been ditching class every Friday to protest. It's part of a movement started by the 16-year old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this week. Demonstrations are expected today in at least 1,500 cities in 100 countries.

The protests, which started in December, have thus far been relegated mostly to Europe. And while some European politicians have welcomed the students’ enthusiasm, others have been suspicious about what forces are causing this sudden mass mobilisation.

Last month at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of European and American leaders to discuss defence and geopolitics, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the protests in the context of Russia's hybrid warfare – efforts to manipulate public opinion using cyberwarfare and disinformation in order to destabilize enemy governments.

“In Germany now, children are protesting for climate protection - that is a really important issue,” she said. “But you can't imagine that all German children, after years, and without any outside influence, suddenly hit on the idea that they have to take part in this process.”

“Hybrid warfare from Russia can be felt every day in every European country,” she added. “This hybrid warfare in the internet is hard to detect, because you suddenly have movements that you wouldn't have thought would appear.”

Merkel faced an immediate backlash against her comments, and her spokesperson quickly backtracked on her behalf, saying on Twitter that she had used the climate protests merely as an example of how campaigns can be mobilized on the internet.

"The pupils' commitment to climate policy is something she expressly approves of," he said.

But Merkel’s comment hit a nerve because the exact same accusation had been made by Belgian climate minister Joke Schauvliege in January. Schauvliege was subsequently forced to resign because of what she said.

“I know who is behind this movement, both of the Sunday demonstrations and the truants,” she told an audience of farmers. “I have also been told that from state security. I can guarantee that I do not see ghosts alone and that climate demonstrations are more than spontaneous actions of solidarity with our climate.”

But after the comments were picked up by the media, the Belgian state security services issued a statement denying they had reported anything of the kind to Schauvliege, “neither verbally nor in writing.” The climate minister then held a tearful press conference where she said she could no longer serve because of the controversy. She said she had misspoke because of exhaustion.

But why would both Angela Merkel and Joke Schauvliege make the exact same accusation and then walk it back? What do they know that we don’t?

Russian fingerprints

Russia's information warfare has been documented by security services in the U.S. (in the 2016 presidential election) and in the U.K. (in the 2016 Brexit referendum). Further instances were documented over the past two years in European elections in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Russians created Facebook advertisements and created fake news with lies about the governments and centrist politicians of these countries.

But in the case of the climate protests, there are no lies involved. The students are using the scientific consensus of the IPCC report as their rhetorical weapon. And these are facts on which the centrist parties of Europe agree with the protesters. Climate change is objectively a real, serious problem. Why would students need to be manipulated into protesting against inaction on combating it?

But the accusations of Russian manipulation have continued. Last month, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who was in Brussels as a guest at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, told journalists Russia was “definitely” behind the student climate protests.

In the most explicit comments yet making the accusation, he said, “Russia has been supporting stirring up trouble around Europe because Russia’s goal is to weaken up the democratic institutions and to weaken the EU as such. Climate change protests: definitely yes. Different pseudo-environmental organisations: look at Italy, where they are trying to disrupt the future gas pipelines”, he said.

There have been growing protests in the Puglia region of Italy against the planned Trans-Adriatic pipeline (TAP) to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe bypassing Russia.

“To shift, to reshuffle climate change movements is one of the key Russian priorities, to explain that ‘more gas is fine, coal is bad, but Russian gas is good, Russian gas is reliable”.

“It’s about fake NGOs, it’s about trying to buy journalists, it’s about trying to buy media, it’s about meddling in the political class,” he continued. “Not the same scope as in Ukraine, but it’s so visible”.

What's the problem?

Klimkin’s explanation for Russian interference caused even more head-scratching, as the student protests haven’t promoted gas in any way. They also not urging for European governments to fall, as some of the populist movements such as the Yellow Vests, which intelligence services say are operating with Russian support, are.

However, the fact that so many politicians are making these oblique references to Russian sponsorship of the student climate protests suggests they may know something that we don’t. If that’s the case, they should share specifically what they know that is causing them to make these accusations. And then students can judge for themselves whether they are comfortable participating in a movement that may or may not have grown with the help of propaganda from the Russians.

Even if such evidence of Moscow stoking the flames were presented, it may not dampen the student enthusiasm. After all, no matter who is helping the students come together, they feel they are demonstrating for a good cause that has nothing to do with Russia (and in fact, is counter to the Russia’s interests as a giant energy exporter).

On the other hand, many students would probably be uncomfortable with the idea that they are being used as pawns in a Russian game to destabilize the West. Russia has shown that it is ideologically neutral when it comes to its English-language propaganda. After all, its Russia Today TV network attacks the U.S. government for trying to increase gun control, even though Russia has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. The network often features far-left Western guests who would probably be in jail if they were Russian. Russia has shown itself happy to amplify the views of dissenters from Western governments, whether they are from the right or the left. But such dissent would never be tolerated in Moscow.

It's hard to see how climate change marches could destabilize a government in the same way that the Trump or Brexit votes have. But at the same time, every little bit helps. If Russia is playing the long game, then it would be happy to encourage anything that fosters citizen resentment in the West. And meanwhile, Russia remains one of the biggest contributors to climate change in the world.

There are no large climate change protests planned in Russia today.

 


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