Sweden’s most authoritative foreign policy institute has accused Russia of using fake news, false documents and disinformation as part of a coordinated campaign to influence public opinion and decision-making in the Scandinavian country.
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs said in a comprehensive study that Sweden had been the target of “a wide array of active measures” aimed at “hampering its ability to generate public support in pursuing its policies”.
The study said Russia had used misleading reports on its state-run news website Sputnik, and public interventions by Russian politicians in Swedish domestic affairs, as well as more covert methods.
These included forged documents and fabricated news items that appeared in Swedish media and were subsequently picked up by Sputnik and “other sources of Russian public diplomacy” and broadcast to an international audience, it said.
The report admitted it was impossible for researchers to establish exactly where and how the forgeries and fake stories had been generated, but said they were consistent with Russia’s strategic objectives.
“We are able to establish intent, dominant narratives, behavioural patterns and strategic goals, where the close correlation between Russian public diplomacy and active measures suggest the operation of a coordinated campaign,” it said.
Moscow’s main aim was to “preserve the geo-strategic status quo” by minimising Nato’s role in the Baltic region and keeping Sweden out of the international military alliance, the study said.
Following accusations that Russian hackers interfered with the US presidential election and similar concerns expressed in Germany, the authors said their study confirmed a “growing body of research highlighting Russia’s increasing use of active measures as a foreign policy tool towards western states” since 2014.
“We believe it demonstrates an intent to influence decision-making,” Martin Kragh, one of the report’s authors, told Dagens Nyheter newspaper. “That is in itself a reason to try to document and understand the ways in which it is being done.”
The study identified 26 forgeries that surfaced in Sweden between the end of 2014 and mid-2016. Most first appeared on “obscure Russian and/or Swedish-language websites”. Some, purportedly from Swedish decision-makers, used fake letterheads to increase the impression of authenticity, it said.
Ten were concerned directly with Swedish affairs, according to the report, which examined three in detail. One was a letter in February 2015, purportedly from Sweden’s defence minister to the chief executive of the arms manufacturer BAE Systems Bofors, discussing arms sales to Ukraine.
Another, supposedly from Sweden’s chief international public prosecutor, rejected a non-existent request from Ukraine to drop a case against a Swedish citizen accused of war crimes. The third detailed a fake conspiracy between Sweden and Nato to secretly send weapons to Islamic State via Turkey.
The study said the forgeries contained enough factual and other mistakes to enable authorities to declare them fakes – but not before they had been widely circulated on social media, Swedish and Russian websites and, in one case, mainstream media.
In “their level of detail and the instrumental exploitation of non-household names”, the forgeries and fake news stories “suggest the originators of the documents have access to comprehensive intelligence on Swedish society”, it said.
It also identified “troll armies” targeting journalists and academics, hijacked Twitter accounts and pro-Kremlin NGOs operating in Sweden as further weapons in what it said amounted to a Russian information war.
Another of the report’s authors, Sebastian Åsberg, told Radio Sweden that a key Russian tool was the Swedish-language version of its state-funded news website Sputnik News, which published 4,000 stories between 2015 and spring 2016, when it was closed.
The vast majority fell into categories such as “crisis in the west”, “positive image of Russia”, “western aggression”, “international sympathy with Russia”, “western policy failures” or “divisions in the western alliance”, the report said.
Many were highly negative about Nato or the European Union in particular, Åsberg said, adding that false information had made its way into parliamentary debates.
Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, told a national defence conference this week that he “cannot rule out” Russia trying to influence the country’s next elections, which are due in 2018.
“We should not rule it out and be naive and think that it does not happen in Sweden. That’s why information and cybersecurity is part of this strategy,” Löfven told the TT news agency.
The Kremlin has denied claims it interfered in the US elections, hitting out at what it says are “baseless allegations substantiated with nothing” and claiming the assertions by the American intelligence agencies are a political witch-hunt.
An intelligence report declassified on Friday said Vladimir Putin had personally “ordered an influence campaign” during the US election to tip the balance in Donald Trump’s favour.