Kremlin Disinformation and the Dutch Referendum

Author(s)
Robert van der Noordaa

On 6 April 2016, a non-binding referendum was held in the Netherlands on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine. 61.1 % voted against the agreement, 38.1% voted for it. The turnout was 32.2%. The vote was a setback for Ukraine and a victory for Moscow, whose opposition to the agreement had led to the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine and ultimately to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.  

This report describes how the organisers of the referendum drew on disinformation, especially disinformation from the Kremlin and Kremlin-sympathetic sources, in the campaign. Disinformation lines included conspiracy theories which deflected blame away from the Kremlin for the downing of flight MH17; false claims that the Ukrainian government is fascist; denials of the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine; and claims that the deposed President Yanukovych was the legitimate leader of Ukraine.  

This disinformation has to be understood in the context of limited knowledge among the Dutch public of Ukraine and its relationship with the EU; fear of refugees from the Middle East; a lack of trust in ‘mainstream’ politicians, and broad negative attitudes towards the EU. 

Background

The official organiser of the referendum was a group called GeenPeil. GeenPeil was set up by GeenStijl, a Dutch blog founded in April 2003. It is one of the top ten news-sites in the Netherlands with 75,000 visitors each day. GeenStijl is provocative, anti-immigrant and anti-EU. It is 40 % owned by the Telegraaf Media Group, acquired in a deal worth €2.6 million in 2006. Among other media, Telegraaf Media Group owns the Eurosceptic Telegraaf Newspaper. 

Several other anti-EU organisations were also very active in the anti-Association Agreement campaign: Burgercomité EU (who initiated the referendum idea), Forum voor Democratie and Powned. 

About a week before the referendum, Pepijn van Houwelingen and Arjan van Dixhoorn of the Burgercomité EU, a citizens' initiative supporting the No vote, confessed in an interview with the NRC1 newspaper that their real aim was to get the Netherlands out of the EU, and they would take any opportunity to spoil relations between the Netherlands and the EU.2 At a debate3 the author of this paper heard van Dixhoorn say he would use any means short of violence to get Holland out of the EU.4

Essentially, Ukraine was used as a proxy in someone else’s fight, and the Kremlin's disinformation served as a weapon in that fight. 

The Campaign to Collect Signatures

The Advisory Referendum Act came into force in the Netherlands on 1 July 2015. It decreed that most primary laws can be subjected to a non-binding referendum  if the organisers can first collect 10 000 requests and then, within another six weeks, another 300 000 signatures. For the referendum to be valid, 30 percent of eligible voters have to vote. 

The first article calling for a referendum on the Association Agreement was published on the GeenStijl website on 10 July  2015.5 It exhorted supporters to sign a demand for a referendum and stated GeenPeil needed to collect 300,000 signatures by 28 September. The article argued that the Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova were examples of the ‘lack of democracy in Europe’.6

In the article GeenPeil stated: 

  1. There is a civil war in Ukraine and this war was partly caused by the EU (as opposed to an invasion by Russia) 
  2. Ukraine has many ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groups (ignoring their failure to make any impact in elections)
  3. Georgia and Moldova were also discussed. There was a claim that many IS fighters come from Georgia (a fabrication)7
  4. Countries such as Ukraine will only cost the EU money- but the EU will never earn any money through countries such as Ukraine 

On 13 August 2015 the first 10,000 signatures were collected. Campaigners also sent requests for a referendum about Georgia and Moldova, but these only gained 100 signatures. 

On 15 September GeenPeil released a short YouTube film, which claimed: 

  1. Ukrainian government officials are ultra-nationalists and fascists (false)
  2. The Maidan demonstrations were a result of the Association Agreement (not a result of it being pulled at the last moment) 
  3. The Netherlands will have to support corrupt Ukrainian banks  (untrue)
  4. The shooting down of MH17, where 193 Dutch citizens lost their lives, was a result of the Association Agreement and the ‘civil war’ (as opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine) 
  5. Putin annexed Crimea as a result of the Association Agreement. The civil war in eastern Ukraine is a result of the Association Agreement. (This ignores Ukrainians’ demands for the Agreement and Russia's support for the fighters in eastern Ukraine.) 
  6. People in eastern Ukraine wanted to join Russia of their own free will (No mention is made of Russian propaganda and the Russian military intervention. The movie simply says ‘Russia is closely involved’ in a Ukrainian 'civil war') 

As the campaign got going, GreenPeil’s posters focused on attacking the EU, mocking EU leaders and their pro-EU quotes: 

“Europe has to become one empire”: Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament

 “Most Europeans do not understand what is being decided on anyway”: Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission

By November 2015 the two subjects – bad Ukraine and bad EU - appear to have coalesced in people’s perceptions. In a November 2015 analysis of Facebook comments by people who opposed the Agreement, the following reasons were the most prevalent (in order of importance)

Reason 1: With the association agreement Ukraine is basically already an EU country

Reason 2: As soon as the treaty comes into force billions will be pumped into Ukraine (as with Greece)

Reason 3: The country is so corrupt that it should never be part of the EU

Reason 4: Lack of confidence in Dutch politics 

Reason 5: The Association Agreement with Ukraine is basically waging a war on Russia

Reason 6: Ukraine ousted its legitimate president

Reason 7: MH17 was shot down as a result of the war in eastern Ukraine which was again caused by the EU and the Association Agreement. Some people are under the impression that MH17 was shot down by Ukrainians.

By this time GeenPeil had already collected their 450,000 signatures. A key role was played by an ICT specialist who collected signatures digitally, which made them much easier to collect. The campaign also received 21,000 euros from the government, which paid for advertisements in newspapers. 

The Leader’s tweets

Thierry Baudet, a leading anti-EU intellectual, is the founder of Forum voor Democratie and cooperated with GeenPeil, and was one of the main faces behind the campaign against the Association Agreement. He is the author of "The Significance of Borders. Why Representative Government and the Rule of Law require Nation States". He is active on social media and regularly tweeted during the campaign, including retweets of disinformation about Ukraine. Here are some examples: 

Thierry Baudet ‏@thierrybaudet  · 2 April  BREAKING - man lynched in Ukrainian parliament (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dqfdplc7bNc&feature=youtu.be

This tweet is a video from RT that shows Ukrainian politicians fighting. It is strange to claim that someone was lynched, as this is not what the video shows. In the movie a Dutch person relates how corrupt oligarchs rule the country and politics.

Thierry Baudet retweeted  Graham W Phillips ‏@GrahamWP_UK  · 29 mrt.  Ukrainian shelling wrecked this apartment block in Novosvetlovka, by Lugansk, in 2014. 2016, Russian funds repair it

Graham Philips is a stringer for RT and an outspoken supporter of the Russian-backed forces in Ukraine. He has been given a medal for his services by Igor Plotnitsky, a leader of the Russian-backed, separatist Luhansk National Republic.8 There is no evidence that Ukrainian shelling destroyed the block. 

Thierry Baudet retweeted Cafe Weltschmerz ‏@cafeweltschmerz  · 29 March.  .@thierrybaudet interviews Karel van Wolferen: Treaty is damaging and not well thought through! http://www.cafeweltschmerz.nl/thierry-baudet-interviewt-karel-van-wolfe… … via @cafeweltschmerz

Karel van Wolferen is a high-profile Dutch journalist and RT contributor. He wrote a letter of apology to Putin claiming that Dutch media and politicians lie about Ukraine. He claims MH17 was not shot down by Russian-backed forces, and refers to an alleged Ukrainian aircraft as the reason why MH17 crashed.9 Thierry Baudet has also posted multiple tweets which question the official cause of the MH17 crash. 

Thierry Baudet retweeted NedoUkraïnka ‏@ValLisitsa  · 2 April.  French senator uncovers Daesh training camp in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk - gets promptly labeled "Paid-by-Putin-to-Derail- Dutch-Vote"?

NedoUkrainka is the Twitter name for the musician Valentina Lisitsa. She was fired by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for inciting hatred against Ukraine and Ukrainians.10 Baudet regularly retweets her. There is no evidence that there is a Daesh training camp in Dnipropetrovsk, nor is it likely that there is such a camp. 

Summarizing the findings, the following can be concluded:

  • Many tweets are very negative about Ukraine and in many cases do not offer objective information or proof behind these claims. 
  • Thierry Baudet uses known disinformation actors and Kremlin advocates without explaining their backgrounds. These people are portrayed by him as experts, their statements or opinions are not introduced as their opinions but as facts. 

Fake Video Death Threats

On 18 January 2016 a video appeared on YouTube. In the video men claiming to be members of the Ukrainian Azov battalion – infamous for its far-right leanings - said they would commit terrorist attacks in Holland if the Dutch vote against the Association Agreement. The men wore ski masks and appeared to be holding Kalashnikovs. They claimed their operatives were already in Holland, waiting to attack.11 

The leader of Azov and the Ukrainian government immediately denied the video was made by Azov. Both Azov and members of the Ukrainian government even visited the Dutch Embassy in Kiev to confirm this. 

According to the Azov battalion, the uniforms of the men differed from uniforms used by Azov and the weapons appeared to be fake. The YouTube channel ‘Patriot’, where the video appeared, seems to have been created specifically for this video. 

GeenStijl, meanwhile, immediately claimed that they were being threatened by Ukrainians.  The news of the video was used by GeenPeil, GeenStijl etc. The story was covered extensively by Dutch media.12

On 1 February 2016 a second video appeared on YouTube.  In this video the ‘Azov Batallion’ again threatened Dutch citizens and even mentioned that they would carry out terrorist attacks specifically at the Royal Carré Theater.13

On 3 April 2016 the online investigative publication Bellingcat published an extensive article about the origin of the ‘Azov’ Video. In the article, Bellingcat concluded that the video was most likely created by a Kremlin affiliated disinformation firm called the Internet Research Agency, popularly known as the 'troll factory'. Based in St Petersburg, this organisation pays staff to create pro-Russian content and attack critics of Russia using fake social media identities.14 

According to Bellingcat, “After open source analysis, it becomes clear that this video was initially spread and likely created by the same network of accounts and news sites that are operated by the infamous “St. Petersburg Troll Factories” of the Internet Research Agency and its sister organization, the Federal News Agency (FAN).  The same tactics can be seen in a recent report from Andrey Soshnikov of the BBC, in which he revealed that a fake video showing what was supposedly a U.S. soldier shooting a Quran was created and spread by this “troll factory.”15

The Strange Case of the Trolls and the Toilet Paper

The Dutch government made 2 million euro available as grants to campaigners: 700,00 euro for the pro-agreement campaign, 700,000 for the anti-agreement campaign and 600,000 for neutral campaigns. Companies could ask for a maximum of 50,000 euro and private individuals for 5,000. 

The process, however, had loopholes:

  • There was no way to check whether a private applicant really was pro, anti or neutral. This system allowed persons or companies that were anti to ask for money from the pro budget
  • The referendum committee did not evaluate the quality of the applicant or the campaign. The only aspect evaluated was whether the campaign would reach people. 

In the referendum, Geenpeil and its associates first raised 200 000 euros for the anti-Ukraine campaign, and then suddenly switched their position to apply for ‘pro’ and ‘neutral’ funds. When an article was published on this issue by this author, it was attacked by pro-Kremlin trolls from several countries including Ukraine and Russia.16 

Some of the government funds were used for questionable campaigning tactics. An organization called Raspoetin B.V, a trade company, submitted a request for 47,000 euros, in order to print their arguments against the Association Agreement on toilet paper. The toilet paper stated that MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, making it look as if Ukraine was to blame for shooting down the airplane. The toilet paper also claimed that Ukraine is known for trafficking in women and organs. 

The toilet paper propaganda was so offensive the Ukrainian government considered a lawsuit against the Dutch government. The wife of the former President of Ukraine, Kateryna Yushchenko, sent a letter to the Referendum Committee: 

“We fully respect the possibility to hold a referendum as such and the freedom of expression to print and distribute such arguments on whatever means, including rolls of toilet paper.

However, the motivation you have published on this award, regarding ‘the accession of Ukraine to the EU’ (toetreding van Oekraïne tot de EU), is factually incorrect and not subject of any text or debate.

It may well be that some parties use such arguments to falsely proclaim an imaginary future outcome of further developments (i.e. accession to the EU), attempting to make them subject of the wider debate in the run-up to the referendum on 6 April 2016. 

But using such an argument officially to justify state subsidies falls well beyond the scope of this referendum and this public debate. Provoking a non-neutral debate about this point is highly misleading at best and fraudulent at worst. Subsidizing equal amounts of printed toilet paper with arguments in favor of the Agreement would not change this opinion, as the motivation would still be flawed.”

Another question mark regarding funding lies in the use of subsidies to place ads in newspapers with the aim of collecting signatures. According to the law, subsidies may not be used for such activities.17 Newspaper ads were placed by the Institute for Direct Democracy in Europe (IDDE), which used EU subsidies to pay for them. The IDDE is an outspokenly Euro-sceptic group. The advertisements were placed in the Telegraaf (the biggest newspaper in the Netherlands and owner of GeenPeil). 

Commentary on GeenPeil in the Dutch Press

GeenPeil’s use of Kremlin disinformation did not go unnoticed in the Dutch press. Here are some typical opinions on the matter. 

On 29 September 2015 the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant published an article about GeenPeil being "Putin’s useful idiot".18 The author of the article was Hans Loos. Mr. Loos is an expert on Russia, a communication expert and a freelance journalist.

Loos concluded that GeenPeil used Kremlin propaganda to pollute the discussion on Ukraine.

  • GeenPeil claimed that the EU and NATO are trying to incorporate Ukraine;
  • According to GeenPeil the Association Agreement was the cause of the violent demonstrations on the Maidan;
  • GeenPeil claimed that Ukrainian politicians are ultranationalists with fascist characteristics;
  • If ‘we’ had stayed away from Ukraine there would not be a new cold war with Russia and MH17 would never have been shot down.

On 6 February 2016 an article was published on Joop.nl by Willem-Gert Aldershoff, an analyst of international politics in Brussels. He showed that the organizers of the referendum systematically used opinions and statements from the Kremlin,19 and that GeenPeil used only Kremlin lines and did not engage with the opinions of independent Russian journalists or the Russian opposition. 

On 31 March 2016 the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant published an article by Sijbren de Jong, a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

The following conclusions were made in the article:

  • In the past many Association Agreements came into force, for instance with Chile and Moldova. No one ever complained about these Association Agreements
  • According to GeenPeil, Ukraine is a country in a civil war with fascist groups marching through the streets, so Holland should vote against an open border with a country that is in a war. The claim that there will be an open border is not true, that is not part of the Association Agreement.
  • The suggestion that Ukraine is being governed by fascists is pure Kremlin propaganda. The far right party Pravy Sector only had one of 450 seats in parliament after the last elections.

Despite such articles however, the pro-Association Agreement vote lost heavily. To what extent this was down to the use of Kremlin-sourced disinformation it is hard to tell. As the organisers of the referendum openly admitted, Ukraine was only really a proxy for their real target: the EU and ‘establishment’ politicians. Associating Ukraine with fears about immigration, elite corruption and decisions made above people’s heads by bureaucrats were strong themes independent of Kremlin disinformation about MH17 or Ukrainian ‘fascists’. Maybe targeted myth-busting about Kremlin disinformation could have had an impact, but it could also have missed the real motivations of voters.

Meanwhile the government and pro-EU vote got their game-plan wrong. First they encouraged voters to not vote to keep the turn-out below a certain threshold, and when they tried to get out the vote they left their supporters confused.

Ultimately the Dutch referendum needs to be seen as part of the greater nationalist, anti-establishment movements throughout Europe and the US, such as Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US. What is curious about many of these movements is how openly they associate themselves with the Kremlin’s position. If you want to appear anti-establishment, after all, you probably want to be seen as close to Putin’s Kremlin, the enemy of liberal values and the geopolitical ‘establishment’. 

Robert van der Noordaa is a Dutch journalist and analyst specialising in Ukraine and Russia. He has been following events in Ukraine and Russia since 2004 and the Orange Revolution. He has conducted extensive work interviewing Russian dissidents and studying hybrid warfare and propaganda since 2014, and lived largely in Ukraine and Russia through 2014 and 2015. During the Dutch referendum campaign, he helped a number of groups supporting the Association Agreement, and conducted a study on the misuse of government referendum subsidies, triggering official investigations into the abuses. 

The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 

Classifications
Affected countries
Netherlands