A US report by congressional Democrats has condemned Russian interference in the Catalan independence referendum on October 1, 2017. The report, presented on Wednesday by Democratic staff on the US Senate foreign relations committee, affirmed that there was “evidence that Kremlin-run news outlets like RT and Sputnik, reinforced by bots and fake social media accounts, carried out a disinformation campaign” during the referendum. The report provides an overview of Russia’s destabilization campaigns in different countries in Europe and the West, and follows on from a committee meeting that took place in November.
“The referendum was driven by decades-long domestic political, cultural, and economic issues, but it also presented Moscow with an opportunity to promote an outcome that would weaken a major EU state,” reads the report. It added that "While the referendum did not result in Catalonia’s independence from Spain, it showed that Spain is a growing target of the Kremlin’s malign influence operations."
The Democrats, referencing EL PAÍS investigations, maintain that there is widespread evidence that the Russian government promoted the publication of news and articles against the Spanish government and in favor of the independence movement. The day of the referendum, Twitter profiles controlled by Russian agents increased post volume by 2,000% – with all the tweets pushing for independence. RT and other news agencies deny these accusations.
According to the report, the objective of Russia’s recent interference was to destabilize the European Union and European countries, which are supposedly Vladimir Putin’s main political rivals. Russia also targeted Brexit and the French and German presidential elections. Beyond this, the report suggests the Kremlin’s actions in Spain were also aimed at increasing the presence of Russian companies in Catalonia and filling the whole left by the large number of companies which left the region as a response to the political crisis. The report argues Catalonia was seen as a base Russia could use to access other parts of the European continent.
Twitter profiles controlled by Russian agents increased post volume by 2,000% on the day of the referendum
In terms of Spain, the report also outlines the role of the Russian mafia and its efforts to influence Catalan political organizations through money laundering, bribes and illegal funding. According to an investigation by the non-profit investigative journalism association ProPublica cited in the report, from the 1990s on agents linked to Putin have settled in Spain and led organized crime operations, most of them in Catalonia. Over the decades, they have successfully convinced businesspeople and politicians to promote the pro-independence agenda. As an example, the Democrats point to the case of Xavier Crespo, a former deputy of the Catalan nationalist electoral alliance Convergence and Union (Convergència i Unió), was sentenced in 2015 for providing favors to Russian mafia chief Andrei Petrov in exchange for goods and €270,000.
The first evidence in the United States of Russian interference came to light in the US elections won by Donald Trump. The CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia tried to interfere in numerous instances and launched an online campaign to influence the election results in favor of Trump. Almost a year later, Russia’s plot still casts a shadow on Washington as Robert Mueller-led investigations continue into whether Trump’s team collaborated with the Kremlin. With this latest report, the Democrats hope to pressure Republicans to take measures against Russian interference in the lead-up to the US congressional and midterm elections in November.
English version by Melissa Kitson.