Mart Alaru

Science Tuesday

31 January 2023

In this entry we will take a look inside the security operations of Putin's Russia. In his recently published article, Sanshiro Hosaka, our PhD student and research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security, takes us on an introductory tour where he outlines the different ways security services have purposefully infiltrated the key institutions of the federation, carrying on the legacy of the KGB.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, however the regime had a built in survival mechanism in the form of Chekism. It is the operational code inherited from the first political police of the Soviet Union - the Cheka. It persisted throughout the union and, as we will see, still persists to this day. Chekism "rests on the securitisation of society and preoccupation with neutralizing adversaries, [---] complemented by a world view that these rivals harbour an intention to penetrate and destroy that regime." The founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, made it clear that this organization ""stands above any law" and that its mission is "organized terror"". During the years of the Soviet Union, this code has been able to sink its roots deeply into the organizational culture of the state security system. With this background, a regime does not simply become democratic after its apparent collapse.

An integral part of the security services in Russia is a system of "officers of active reserve". "The KGB infiltrated its officers into government institutions, news agencies, universities, and enterprises (Aeroflot, Intourist, etc.) to utilise these entities for counterintelligence and the protection of state secrets." This was not done overtly - these officers seemed to do the same job as ordinary staff.

With the counterintelligence agents peppered throughout the society, and siloviki (power ministries) fighting among each other for power (and by proxy for survival), we have an effective recipe for paranoia. With this air of fear, truth becomes beholden to power, and the confusion that the paranoia fuels, keeps people subjugated. The same fear lives in the hearts and minds of the very top. And it also projects outward. It is effectively a system of conspiracies, that expects the world around it to be the same. Even if the FSB has come out on top of most of the fighting between agencies, the fighting still continues in and is built into the agency itself. It is as though in order to maintain control over Russian society, the built-in paranoia that keeps the counterintelligence ever vigilant, has become a self-perpetuating order; a reason unto itself.

"While the West employs counterintelligence to expose the espionage activities of foreign intelligence services at home, Soviet/Russian counterintelligence is preoccupied with the potential enemies, and that activity begins abroad. [---] This blurred boundary between foreign and domestic services is based on Chekists' distinctive and implicitly conspiratorial perception that internal and external  domestic vulnerabilities, should be exploited by external intelligence. This view persists both in practice and in the legislation of modern Russian intelligence."

As mentioned earlier — democracy doesn't just happen. And it is especially truthful with Russia, whose society is infiltrated by security officials. With a counterintelligence organization such as FSB functioning on the level of ideology, it is perhaps indeed naive to imagine that once the reign of Putin is over, a whole lot will change.

Previously on Science Tuesday

What makes people (not) vote – via Internet? And how is it connected to personality traits? A brief overview, based on an article by Mihkel Solvak, Anu Realo, Kristjan Vassil, Dmitri Rozgonjuk and Cornelia Sindermann

With the option to use internet voting in Estonian elections, one might ask – why is it not more popular? It is relatively convenient and quick, plus most of Estonians (90.4 % in 2019) have internet connection, yet only 43.8% of participating voters in Estonia in 2019 used the Internet to do it. In order to get an insight into why some people choose to vote by the Internet (in Estonia) and some people don't, let us turn to psychology.

We have always been intrigued by what makes us who we are and since time immemorial, humanity has tried to come up with ways to classify the personalities, fates, or psychological makeups of people. Some examples of these different attempts to understand the human psyche include, for instance, Western astrology, the four temperament theory, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. All of these are still used by many. One of the ways these different theories could be put to use is to predict whether or not a person is willing to use the option to vote via the Internet. However, if you wanted to get scientifically sound results, you would need to use the Big 5 personality traits model.

So, what are the five factors in this model exactly? They are Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. These are five different scales by which we can make sense of different aspects of a person. A person high in Openness to Experience (OTE) tends to be more naturally curious and inventive, on the other hand someone low on OTE tends to be cautious and consistent. High Conscientiousness indicates that a person is more effective and organized whereas low Conscientiousness points towards carelessness and extravagance. People who are high in Extraversion are more sociable and energetic, conversely – people low on Extraversion tend to be solitary and reserved. High Agreeableness – friendly, compassionate, empathetic; low Agreeableness – critical, rational, competitive. High Neuroticism – sensitive, nervous, careful; low Neuroticism – calm, emotionally stable, unfazed.

Now, when it comes to internet voting, which of these traits might say something about a person's willingness to use internet voting? Could it perhaps be Openness to Experience? While internet voting might be considered a novel experience by many, OTE has no statistically significant connection to internet voting. The trait that is most likely to predict willingness to use internet voting, is Agreeableness. 

How is the trait of Agreeableness associated with internet voting? Agreeable people, being more empathetic and friendly, are also more trusting. Trust is the operative aspect that is consistently positively linked with internet voting. With that in mind, we can also point out that trust is not solely dependent on people being agreeable. Trust can be built in time and with right, transparent action. Webpages can be designed in ways that reassure their users to trust them. We can also see that "speaking Estonian language at home and higher PC literacy were positively associated with internet voting". This is to be "expected as the Estonian internet voting system is only available in the Estonian language".

Having the knowledge that Agreeableness is a predictor of using internet voting helps us understand what to pay in mind when developing e-voting systems and what are the challenges in terms of getting more people to vote by Internet. It is important to know that it is also possible to earn the trust of people low in agreeableness. It requires transparency, reassurance, and right conduct. This is not only important for developing a faster and more efficient voting system but most of all – achieving a higher, more representative turnout in elections.

Today (meaning 29 November 2022) was the last day of the Ghent-Tartu research workshop "Russia's Wars: Power and Agency in Times of Crises and Exceptions". To mark that moment in time, this Science Tuesday makes a few conclusions from one of the panels of this event featuring Natalia Kovyliaeva (Tartu), Anselm Schmidt (Tartu) and Kostiantyn Yanchenko (Hamburg). This summary is mainly centered around Kovyliaeva's approach.

On the panel "Russia's War Against Ukraine: Agency and Communication," Natalia Kovyliaeva reflected on gendered aspects of Russia's war in Ukraine and concluded that the current war constitutes violent patriarchy, machismo, misogyny and homophobia that have been nurtured by Putin's regime since its neoconservative turn to the so-called "traditional values" after 2012 and served as a regime's legitimation strategy. The spill-over effect of violence is what we observe today in Ukraine when totalitarian Russia demonstrates aggressive behavior outside its territory against its neighbour that protects democratic and pro-Western values.

This is reflected in Putin being portrayed as a father-figure of the Russian nation with the emphasis to his masculinity, making him "a model biopolitical object" to be feared and desired by millions. In order to stay dominant and keep his subjects in check, he uses aggression and violence as a tool of subordination. However, it is not just domestic violence - it spills over Russia's domestic border. Russia sees Ukraine also as one of its subjects and through narratives of feminization and implementation of physical power, propaganda and discourses of "othering" - Russia tries to keep Ukraine as its subordinate. It uses sexual violence against women, kidnapping, not to mention the physical occupation of territory and all other kinds of terror as a means of trying to assert its dominance and  deny agency to Russians and Ukrainians alike.

It is not a coincidence, therefore, that the Feminist Anti-War Resistance is "one of Russia's fastest-growing anti-war campaigns", opposing war, patriarchy, militarism and authoritarianism. Kovyliaeva also indicates that by waging war in Ukraine, Russia is bringing masculinity of war "to the forefront of international politics, reinforcing the traditional narrative and gendered responses to the war."

As stated in the last Science Tuesday, this is not only a war against Ukraine or in support of "family values", it's aimed to undermine democratic values in general. One can't help but feel that there is a panicking ruler, grasping at straws to maintain his power. And it's also representative of a whole group of powerful people who are feeling a growing anxiety due to the fact that their privileges are in danger of being washed away by more democratic values. Thus, it is very helpful to look at the Russo-Ukrainian war in a gendered perspective and as a struggle for agency for the (previously) oppressed - and note the dimension of cultural power struggle reflected in this fight.

By looking at the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia and russophone world, we get an overview of Russia's cultural conflict with the West. In short, we can say that Russia is not just waging war against Ukraine or against Western society, but against democratic values in general.

Alar Kilp and Jerry G. Pankhurst have observed the statements of Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, starting a month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and continuing to one month into the war. These statements are discussed with thematic focus on soft/sharp/evil power and compared to the statements of Russian political leaders. Taking also into account longer historical timeframe, this work proposes that we should recognize the Russian Orthodox Church as playing a far more insidious role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine than the term "soft power" calls to mind.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is mostly known as a representative of so-called "soft power", with the mission to de-secularize Western societies where the church and "traditional values" have been losing influence. The ROC has been an important player in this fight and used the rhetoric of standing for traditional and family values as a soft power weapon against the Western values.

Kilp and Pankhurst argue, however, that in light of the extreme circumstances brought on by the war, "soft power", behind its foggy exterior, hides a lethal spear that is effectively part of the war machine. "By setting out a strong anti-western cultural argument, they gave the Russian Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry foundational themes to justify the Russian invasion." In addition, the ROC is instrumental in spreading the idea of unity of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian people, which in and of itself can sound rather benign. Yet, the idea of unity is presented under the roof of "Russkii Mir" or Russian World, giving Putin the opportunity to frame the invasion of Ukraine as "putting down an internal rebellion and re-incorporating the rebel regions into the mother country". This is one example of soft power obtaining a sharp edge.

Additionally, the Church hides behind the apparent message of being against war. Yet by omitting from its message the condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine, it becomes a tool of power that essentially says that anyone opposing the Russian invasion is an aggressor and that the Russian war-waging is actually a form of peacemaking.

A Very Brief Summary on the Article "How am I doing financially compared to expectations? An experimental comparison of messaging strategies in investor newsletters" by Kristjan Pulk, Andero Uusberg and Leonore Riitsalu

How can banks nudge people towards a more prudent financial behaviour? Banks hold a lot of sway in how people spend or save their money — they can increase savings by encouraging messaging, increasing informed decision-making, improving timely loan repayment etc. It is proven that banks can and have improved their clients' financial well-being by nudging them towards better decisions. Yet there is still a lot of research to be done to understand and better the mechanisms of these guiding interventions. Consequently, Kristjan Pulk, Andero Uusberg and Leonore Riitsalu have contributed to understanding what type of messages are successful at positively influencing financial decisions.

More specifically — the research focusses on the effect of newsletters with messaging that contains praise/scolding and/or personalised references to past finance behaviour. It turns out that to some people — the ones who already have an investing habit, yet for some reason have forgotten to follow it recently — these messages function as reminders. Yet for others, the effects of the designed newsletters are mostly insignificant. So in a way, these types of newsletters work, but only for those who already are behaving somewhat prudently — to keep up their good work, so to speak. For instance, sending personalised messages with references to past investments, comparing them to the recent ones — is most effective for clients "already investing more than they regularly do".

Despite having little impact, the effects of scolding were still noticeable in the form of creating regret. Messages that illustrated what could have happened if the person had invested or saved a little, made an impact. Pulk, Uusberg and Riitsalu theorise that the motivation to change here comes from negative emotion (regret) avoidance. Praise, however, turned out to be a little more effective, still the effects were mostly evident for clients who were already praise-worthy, so to speak.

In essence, it seems that newsletters as an influencing factor, are useful to people who already have a somewhat decent financial awareness and routine. Perhaps paying attention to these newsletters (or any newsletters) might be one predictor of good financial hygiene?

A Summary on "Freedom Writ Large", a Conference On Assaults On Liberties In Europe And What We Can Do About It

At the end of September, 2022, several Skytte staff members participated in what was advertised as the final “impact” conference of the POPREBEL network — an EU-Horizon project that has studied the rise of populism in Central and Eastern Europe and has encompassed Tartu University as well as five other academic partners.  Entitled "Freedom Writ Large", the conference focused on multiple aspects of contemporary populism: what role it has played and will play in European politics, how has opposition to populism been organized, and how the populism discourse has changed over time. Among the questions posed during the conference was whether or not populism can be a force for good (for example, by shaking up ossified mainstream politics). And while most of the educated opinions were doubtful about the positive potential of populism, there were some who argued for it, saying that disillusionment about the current governing in many democratic countries is necessary to bring about meaningful change. However, most of the populism we have seen recently, is right-wing populism. Contrary to many predictions, right-wing populists who come to power, can actually maintain their positions and what tends to happen next is that they start slowly eroding the foundations of democracy. Their claims to rule “in the name of the People” end up undermining institutions that are meant to balance different interests in society in the name of a single volonté générale.

One of the anxieties about populism (both left- and right-wing) can perhaps be summed up by one of the participants, who said that they are nervous about collectivism in that "some people get to be individuals and other do not". Yet, on the other hand, becoming politically active and conscious, would in a way be a step towards collectivism, albeit perhaps in a non-affective way. So it's not necessarily the collectivism aspect of populism that makes it scary — it is the fact that populism in and of itself is not a political stance. It is a powerful tool that can effectively hide its wielders’ true intentions. And such a tool can often find itself in the wrong hands.

While that may be true, some have even argued that right-wing populism is the natural order of things and liberalism is an artificial construct. If that is the case, liberal democracy, as paradoxical as it would sound, would always be in need of upkeep and conscious effort, while right-wing populism would just happen naturally and require only time for it to realize itself.


University of Tartu to lead six Estonian centres of excellence in research

Cyberattacks in Albania

Albania Was Hit by Cyberattacks. What it Can Learn From Estonia.


Thomas Plant’s public lecture “Decode & Empower: Using Simulations to Teach Media Literacy and Politics”