The Western Response to Kremlin Propaganda Should be as Forceful as it was During the Cold War
Austrian Marshall Plan Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations,
Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)
Over the last few years Russian-American relations have deteriorated to an extent not seen since the end of the Cold War. After annexing Crimea and initiating a violent conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has raised the stakes of international politics by provoking not only its neighbors but also regions well beyond its borders including in the EU, Middle East and even the United States.
According to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the Kremlin has launched a “multifaceted campaign” against the United States that “also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation and fake news.”[i]In May, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, stressed that Russia is a bigger threat than ISIS: “They just tried to affect the outcome of the French election. So I view Vladimir Putin…I view the Russians as the far greatest challenge that we have.”[ii]
Various concerns with the Russia threat have sparked a number of debates in a range of foreign policy communities on how to confront Russian disinformation in the West. Are the U.S. and its allies ready to take serious steps and what strategy should be applied right away? How should disinformation be defined and does it pose a direct threat to the U.S. national security? Should information warfare be considered as a distinct arm of the Kremlin strategy to disrupt its rivals and undermine democracy all around the globe? What are the most effective tools for disinformation containment, and can they be universal or must they be regionally specific? What is the role of NATO in these regards and should the Alliance adopt its own approach to informational warfare to deterring Kremlin’s aggression?
Informational warfare is an essential tool of Kremlin’s broader strategy or so-called “hybrid warfare,” which Russia actively promotes at the domestic and international levels.
As Ukrainian-American journalist Maxim Eristavi mentions in his publication: “The main lesson we’ve learned, and it’s one that many journalists don’t seem to understand, is that disinformation exploits and thrives on the weaknesses of modern journalism. The creators of modern propaganda appreciate good storytelling, bringing light to untold stories and finding global trends in local stories, which create strong bonds of trust with the audience. These are the same things that make real journalism socially valuable. But these days it is replaced by the much cheaper substitutes of opinion and aggregation. In the end, the sad irony is that modern propaganda uses the building blocks of journalism far better than real journalists.”[iii]
In this regard, and within its disinformation strategy, the Kremlin uses different tools that the Western media actively exploit. Therefore, their misleading products do not seem like fake news at first blush. Furthermore, the Kremlin state media even relies on different democratic instruments to expand its audiences, including in the West. This became obvious during the climax of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, and has become all the more clear with Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016. Most disinformation instruments are considered as a part of “hybrid aggression” conducted by Kremlin.
One of the key issues of disinformation is to mix real facts with fake news. Blending legitimate reporting with dubious sources widens the potential audience and levels the media playing field so that reputable and disreputable purveyors of news occupy the same headspace of the consumer. One of the Kremlin’s most frequent methods is to identify a complicated social, political, economic, etc. problem, and then package it with an unfeasibly simple solution in the Russian state media. Needless to say that most of “facts’ are based on fake statements, evidences and conclusions of different “experts” which are introduced as independent.
In recent years, Kremlin state media began using the sticky practice of inviting Ukrainian experts for discussion on Russian TV-shows. Some of the guests are genuinely independent and strongly advocate for Ukraine. The legitimate experts serve as a foil for the scores of loud Russian talking heads that ultimately end up drowning the arguments of the legitimate guests with the patriotic bluster. In general, audiences tend to agree with the Russian expert guests, who almost uniformly argue on behalf the Kremlin’s Ukraine positions.
As Olga Oliker, a resident Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), argued during congressional testimony: “In Ukraine, Russian-language print, internet, and television media had fairly heavy saturation prior to 2014, particularly in Crimea and in the East. Their narrative, aimed at both Russians and Ukrainians, was meant to convince audiences that EU association would lead to political chaos, widespread homosexuality, and economic collapse. Social media activism amplified these messages, particularly on Russian-language websites. As the crisis unfolded, the coverage denigrated the protesters on Ukraine’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) who called for the ouster of then-President Yanukovych; the government that took control after Yanukovych fled; Western governments, which were depicted as orchestrating this “fascist coup;” and eventually the elected government of new President Poroshenko.”[iv]
All these topics, including fighting against “fascists,” “American conspiracies” and their role during the “color revolutions,” expansion of NATO to Russian borders, and other issues are highly sensitive in Russian society. Such messages target anxieties of the Russian population in order to spread panic and frustration across the country, and to create an external enemy against whom the people must unite to defeat. This explains why, after the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, a newly elected Ukrainian government and President immediately became “fascist” in the eyes of the Kremlin state media and its audience of millions.
On the international stage, the Kremlin diligently works to sow the same kind of fear within international audiences, especially in countries that have already shown discontent and frustration with their government. In these cases, the Kremlin tries not only undermine the actual functions of the democratic institutions but also to create uncertainty within the population’s perceptions of democracy and its institutions.
Multiple strategies are used to spread domestic Russian propaganda. Among them are the following: to create the image of President Putin as the only leader capable of overcoming a military threat, to create an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war, to discredit critical thinking or intellectualism as an attack on expertise writ large, to create an image of the enemy, to link all internal problems to external factors and other essential tools.[v]
Meanwhile, there are different approaches and messages of informational warfare that can target specific audiences. Which audience a disinformation campaign targets depends on the purposes it serves. Therefore at the international level, “Russia tries to persuade Western audience about Russia’s reasonableness, create grassroots movements or even political lobbies for pro-Russian position, or as is most often the case, just confuse people and muddy the waters about key issues.[vi]
Methods of Russian propaganda are manufactured to reduce an audience’s ability to digest information accurately. Any critical thinking capacity a viewer might have is neutered by disinformation campaigns designed to short-circuit that crucial last line of defense. Common themes in these campaigns include an appeal to a strong emotion including those of pity, pain, religion, and artificial creation of “ethnic” pressure from a virtual enemy. Such methods are used to diminish rational thinking, which then affords space to exploit many other kinds of manipulative tactics. In the case of the Ukraine-Russian conflict, Russian state media used labels of “fascist,” “junta,” or “punishers” to describe those who came to power in Kyiv after the Revolution of Dignity, and that therefore Russians are compelled by honor and duty to confront this “evil.” At the end of the day, propaganda creates fear that can generate a general panic, based on a feeling of an impending military threat.
Other Russian propaganda methods used, particularly in Ukraine, include broadcast programs that promote unfounded statements. Examples include Russian journalists, who blame the West, the U.S. Department of State, and other Western institutions that “escalate conflicts all around the world,” according to Russian state media. However, these assertions are rarely more than erroneous claims that have taken hold media discourse through the force of mere repetition.
Many of these disinformation tactics are native to the Soviet Union. The key terms are the same; Soviet propaganda demonized the West with rhetoric like “occupation,” “evil of capitalism,” “imperialistic goals,” and other equally loaded language. As we observe today, the Kremlin has successfully weaponized this language in the neighboring countries such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Moldova.
What are the Best Methods to Confront Russian Aggression?
Given the evidence, it’s clear that today’s Kremlin broadly considers the Soviet Union a propaganda repository and feels no qualms about updating the red relics of disinformation. In his Munich speech in 2005 Putin called the breakup of USSR “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”[vii] This statement has been cited widely, and for good reason, given Russia’s repeated efforts to reestablish Moscow’s influence within the former Soviet Republics and satellites, but the statement goes deeper than that. Russia’s opinion held weight in every capital in the world during the Cold War. At this point we can assume that Moscow does not seek global domination, just reestablishment of global influence on the order of the Soviet Union.
This is why in case of informational aggression the Western response should be similar to that of the Cold War. Above all, the U.S. has to be aware about the Kremlin’s real goals and informational methods, not only within Russia but also overseas. Without any doubt, one of Putin’s main goals is not only to redraw European borders, as was done after the annexation of Crimea, but also to undermine democratic institutions and conduct a “Putinization” of the West.
In her Congressional statement, Olga Oliker offers that “the best defense against false narratives at this point is surely the stream of displaced persons from the separatist-controlled territories, the experience of continued fighting for those near the front lines, and other first- and secondhand knowledge of the realities of the situation.”[viii]
On the other hand, it is also crucial to identify the roots of Russian informational aggression, including its trolls, fake sources and journalists who actively spread it through state media, social media and other informational resources.
In that context, Maxim Eristavi asks a reasonable question: “Why is propaganda so effective? People love it because it is fascinating, no matter how unbelievable. But in the last three years, I unearthed or helped produce hundreds of no less exciting stories that propaganda ignores: Russians fighting against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gay pogroms in Chechnya, and an exposé on Russian troops in covert military operations abroad…The only reason why these stories remain underreported is that the newsrooms telling them lack the ability to make them travel far. Frustratingly, important stories usually get ten to twenty times less online shares than fake ones.”[ix]
In this regard, the best way would be to identify the roots of Russian propaganda and to fire back with true stories based on real and verified facts. This is why fact-checking, labeling fake commentaries, news and other materials, and implementation of counterpropaganda methods through various media outlets are crucial for identification of hybrid trolls.
As during the Cold War, one also should not forget the capabilities of popular Western media, including Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, and various local organizations that receive their funding from different human rights organizations and political foundations, such as National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and others. It is important to understand that the most effective response to Kremlin informational aggression would be through local initiatives in countries experiencing such warfare. It is also worth noting that cooperation with local journalists and opinion makers is far more effective, since these experts are more trusted in their countries and able to deliver information to a broad audience in their language.
In comparison to period of the Cold War, international media today has many more tools to deliver its agenda and break the Kremlin disinformation machine. Media outlets should confront propaganda with high-quality storytelling, professional journalism, broad use of social media and other important tools.