A little over a year ago, Spain’s caretaker foreign minister, Josep Borrell, received his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Madrid and accepted the latter’s offer for the creation of a joint working group to fight cybersecurity threats and information manipulation.
A year later, there is no trace of such a body. And even though he never admitted as much in public, Borrell eventually walked away from the agreement. The decision was based on evidence that at least part of the disinformation affecting the European Union – and Spain to a lesser degree – originates in Russian territory.
Borrell was caught off guard by Lavrov’s offer of cooperation when they met on November 6, 2018
The meeting between Lavrov and Borrell at the Spanish Foreign Ministry produced a plan for political consultations aimed at strengthening the ties between both countries. The third follow-up meeting took place on November 15 in Madrid between representatives of both ministries. A spokesperson for the Spanish ministry refused to reveal whether the fight against information manipulation was on the agenda that day, and the ministry’s press release did not mention the issue.
Regardless of what Fernando Valenzuela – Spain’s state secretary for foreign affairs – and Alexander Grushkó – Russia’s deputy minister for foreign affairs – may have discussed that day, other government sources confirm that the idea of cooperating on information manipulation has been ruled out.
Borrell was caught off guard by Lavrov’s offer of cooperation when they met on November 6, 2018, and he accepted. The Spanish minister had made some public statements complaining about the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the Catalan crisis, and Levrov responded with a surprise plan for cooperation. Borrell presented this plan to the media as the main achievement of the bilateral contacts. But a subsequent analysis of the project led authorities to rule it out.
Borrell has since said that there is no truth to this information, and even used the term “fake news” to describe EL PAÍS’ reporting on Spain’s decision to stop cooperating with Russia on disinformation matters. “Everything [in the story] to do with the Foreign Ministry is hogwash,” he said at a Thursday morning gathering organized by the New Economy Forum in Madrid.
But a spokesperson for the Diplomatic Information Office has admitted that the joint working group has not been created, and will not be. This, however, does not mean that Spain and Russia are not cooperating against fake news, said this source. The cooperation is taking place through dialogue and exchange, not through working groups, said the spokesman.
While Eastern European countries were clamoring against Russian interference, Spain remained skeptical for quite some time about the destabilization campaigns allegedly being orchestrated by agents in the Kremlin’s orbit.
But the warning signs kept accumulating. In May 2018, before Borrell’s meeting with Lavrov, a unit of Spain’s official intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Center (CNI), had already suggested, for the first time, that Russia could be working to increase friction in Catalonia. In a report, the National Cryptologic Center (CNN), a Spanish intelligence agency, expressed certainty about “the presence of activists sponsored by Russian institutions in the media-based expression of the conflict derived from the situation created in Catalonia during 2017.”
Russian media outlets’ interest in the Catalan crisis has been decreasing in recent months
The first test was the illegal independence referendum of October 1, 2017, when an EU service created in 2016 to combat Russian propaganda tracked a moderate amount of fake news on the Catalan crisis. A spokesperson for this service said that “no particular cases have been detected on occasion of the last elections,” alluding to the Spanish general election of November 10.
But the service’s database (euvsdisinfo.eu) does pick up on a story released five days before the vote by the Russian website Stoletie, claiming that the recent protests in Catalonia over the Supreme Court’s conviction of separatist leaders were in fact staged by the United States and by the financier and philanthropist George Soros to punish Spain for its close relationship with Cuba.
In any case, other sources at the Spanish Foreign Ministry say that Russian media outlets’ interest in the Catalan crisis has been decreasing in recent months, and that coverage of the Supreme Court trial and its consequences in Catalonia has shown more restraint than in the past.
English version by Susana Urra.