The outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in the late 2013 has not only demonstrated the deepness of the abyss between Russia and the West. There is yet another aspect: quarter of a century that passed since the disillusion of the USSR has not led toward democratisations of Russia, nor has it witnessed Moscow abdicating from neo-imperial ambitions of its historical predecessor. Today Russia and the West have found themselves almost exactly where they were before 1991 - in opposing tranches, ready for the new lap of confrontation. Regretfully, the current situation might be even more complicated than at the times of the late Soviet Union. The level of spite, hatred and aggression coupled with the lack of hope for compromise and absence of any drive toward constructive dialogue painfully resemble ideological conformation at the heyday of the Cold War. But it has to be acknowledged that the outbreak of ideological confrontation greatly owes to Russian aggressive behaviour that is based on spread of disinformation and outward slant – elements that have made the crisis as acute as it is.
Indeed, some might be tempted to explain Russia’s incredulity toward the West with its arduous history. For a significant part of it the country was haunted by perpetual sense of fear and insecurity that in the end resulted in seclusion and mistrust toward the “foreign” and thus unknown, and played an essential role in formation of Russian national identity. Most certainly, this greatly affected Russian stance on culturally, economically and technologically superior Europe. Namely, it has framed Russian perception of Europe within a peculiar combination of tacit adoration of western lifestyle, culture and technologies, mixed with ostentatious rejection to openly admit this. Probably that is why in spite of some optimistic tones the majority of attempts to break the “vicious circle” of mistrust and bridge the gap between two sides have ended up unsuccessfully.
One of such episodes was the brief “honeymoon” between Russia and the West after the collapse of the USSR. Great expectations associated with perestroika, “new political thinking” and Common European Home -ideas that lured many Soviet citizens and progressive intellectuals- did not materialize.
Economic hardships that hit Russia severely during the 90s and painful transition resulted in growing resentment, discontent with reforms and nostalgia for the Soviet period when “everything” was planned for the people by the state and without their direct participation. At the same time, numerous social malaises (that existed and flourished in the late USSR being skilfully concealed by the Soviet propaganda) that became particularly visible after 1991 turned public ire against the “liberals” and those forces that had allegedly supported them -the Jews and the West– stereotypes/prejudices that had for decades(centuries) dominated mass conscious of Russian society during uneasy times.
The “liberal experiment” was practically finished by 1996 when Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev (and a number of like-minded politicians) was replaced by hardliner Evgeny Primakov. Kozyrev was vilified and accused of “capitulating to the West”. What followed next was a direct road toward increasing tensions and rebukes that were destined to break out into an open confrontation.
Building a new ideological foundation
Changing vector of internal development associated with declining popularity of liberalism demanded elaboration of a new ideological foundation. On March 15, 1999 TV program “Odnako” was aired for the first time. Anchored by Mikhail Leontiev this project became an outlet of xenophobia, spite and anti-Western/European sentiments emanating from Russian TV screens. It needs to be underscored however that the outbreak of anti-European/Western frenzy in Russian society would have been impossible without the following developments:
- Russian economic collapse (1998) widely associated not with weakness of domestic economists, yet largely ascribed to the Western economic prescriptions;
- NATO’s involvement in the war in Yugoslavia (1999) without consultations with Moscow and its eastward enlargements (1999-2004) as a “traitorous violation of a promise” given to Gorbachev in the late 1980s;
- Stern criticism of Russian policies in Chechnya by the Europeans. This “convinced” public opinion that the ultimate goal of the West was to fragment, weaken and humiliate Russia to even greater extent;
- The “colour revolutions” (in Georgia and Ukraine in particular) that were construed as an openly anti-Russian move. Many years later Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov characterised “colour revolutions” as a “new form of Western warfare” whereas President Putin read it as a “warning to Russia”;
- The “Big Bang enlargement” of the EU (2004) that brought three Baltic States and Poland – countries that were (and still are) traditionally perceived as the main source of European Russophobia – in the “European family” of nations.
However, the main activities within 2004 – 2008, were drawn towards the preparation of the “turf” on the domestic theatre. Thus, Moscow made steps aimed at consolidation of domestic anti-democratic forces. Among most noticeable the following should be mentioned:
- Creation of various “anti-Fascist” and “patriotic” organizations (such as “Nashi” (2005), “Young Russia”, “the Locals”, “the Young Guard of United Russia”) of openly anti-Western orientation;
- Emergence of two new pro-governmental ultra-conservative TV channels “Spas” (pro-Orthodox) and “Zvezda” (military oriented) as well as Russia Today (RT);
- Establishment of Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (2007) with branches in New York and Paris, headed by noticeable Russian conservative nationalists Andranik Migranyan and Nataliya Narotchnitskaya;
- Launching of the “Russian World” Foundation (2007) headed by ultra-conservative Vyacheslav Nikonov (a grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov).
Nevertheless, at a time the vast bulk of negative sentiments and propagandist escapades were levelled against the US and its European allies, whereas Germany, France and countries of Southern Europe were either subjected to a very mild form of criticism or portrayed as “victims of American domination”. This misunderstanding inspired Russian propagandist forces that attempted to create an artificial rift between members of the EU and undermine trans-Atlantic solidarity. This was seen in 2003 (the outbreak of war in Iraq), 2005 (750th anniversary of Kaliningrad/Konigsberg) and 2005/07 (first concrete steps related to Nord Stream project), when pro-Kremlin propaganda made several efforts to pit countries of so-called “old” Europe against the “new” members. This however brought only limited success causing vexation and disappointment from the side of Russian elites. Consequently, Moscow opted to switch from mostly benign criticism of the EU to the rhetoric of ultimatums and blackmail.
The central element that convinced Moscow of the “rightfulness” of this approach was a distorted vision of the EU as an agglomeration of countries bind with each other with economic ties, and unable to put up serious competition to Russia in terms of military power.
Russian confidence (along with the sense of impunity) grew even stronger when the EU failed to provide adequate response to a series of gas wars with Ukraine (2005/6) that violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (1994), cyber-attacks against Estonia (2007), aggression against Georgia (2008) and initiation of re-militarization of Kaliningrad Oblast (2009). Feeling its alleged military superiority Moscow came up with an idea of “collective security” with a key role to be played by Russia at the expense of NATO’s presence on the continent. Yet, after aggression against Georgia and massive military build-up on the Baltic aimed to harass and intimidate regional players, this project seemed to be more of a diplomatic distraction rather than a sincere instrument of security building.
The final breakup with the remnants of affinity to the West/Europe was accomplished in 2012. Events on Bolotnaya Square were construed by Moscow as the most despicable Western attempt to ignite the process of regime change in Russia following the templet of “colour revolutions”. Aside from strengthening anti-protest legal regulations, Moscow consolidated anti-European/Western forces under the umbrella of the “Izborsk Club” (2012) – an agglomeration of most well-known Russian conservatives and reactionaries.
It seemed that by 2012 Russian became ready to challenge the West on the battlefield of information and propaganda. It merely needed a spark that was to let the battle begin.
"Year of the Great Turn": Russian anti-European propaganda after 2013
The EuroMaidan in Kyiv (late fall of 2013) became a watershed that dramatically changed both course and essence of Russian anti-Western/European propaganda. The new era in history of Russian disinformation was ushered in on December 9, 2013 when Vladimir Putin signed an Executive Order giving birth to “Rossiya Segodnya” multilingual news agency that was to become the main outlet of Russian propaganda for external audience. In 2014, “Sputnik” news agency (operating in more than 30 languages) comprised of news websites, radio broadcast service and directly controlled by “Rossiya Segodnya”, was introduced. In 2013, another Russian news website LifeNews (consisting of news website and 24-hour television channel) emerged. It has been repeatedly accused not only of being extremely biased, yet also suspected of being connected with Russian Security Services as well.
These three information outlets that appeared within a very brief interim are a stupendous example of very smart, flexible and sophisticated disinformation targeting external audience. This pre-determines both methods of delivery and further dissemination of (des)information. Unlike internal, this pattern of propaganda extensively relies on quasi-argumentative discourse at the same time refraining from outward slant, fighting rhetoric or threats to turn other countries “into radioactive ash”. Instead, the main idea is based on “soft” discrediting of both the US and the EU by providing an “alternative opinion” and tacit accusation of the “other side” for not disclosing the entire truth. This naturally stems from the main slogans: “Telling the untold” (Sputnik) and “First in breaking news” (LifeNews).
Aside from employing multilingual content (that frequently varies on a country-to-country basis) the aura of “objectivity” is created by appearance of foreign journalists and TV anchors. This sharply contrasts with European mass media that tend to rely on domestic resources. Besides, these media do not shy away from citing foreign politicians and experts. The obstacle however is that these “independent” opinions are collected from either open (or tacit) supporters/admires of Vladimir Putin. Moreover, these media have been repeatedly decried for collaborating with “experts” of rather dubious reputation, many of whom are not specialists in topics they discuss. Regretfully, these are details that remain unknown to non-specialists and external spectators.
Totally different turn is visible in propaganda for “domestic consumption”. The notorious pro-Kremlin journalist, zealous anti-Semite, open xenophobe and homophobe Dmitry Kiselyov (head of “Rossiya Segodnya” and deputy director of Russian state TV holding company VGTRK) became the living embodiment of anti- European propaganda. His weekly media appearances on Russia-1 television channel were filled with misanthropic ideas and hatred amply permeated with anti-Ukrainian, anti-European, anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiments. In his allegations Kiselyov extensively relied on pseudo-historical and quasi-scientific facts and data. For instance, his anti-EU rhetorical escapade resulted in a wild revelation about existing anti-Russian “alliance” between the “European Russophobes”. According to Kiselyov Lithuania, Poland and Sweden “are still dreaming of taking a revenge on Russia for the Poltava battle in 1709”. This and other numerous preposterous allegations completed the overall atmosphere of obscurantism and paranoia that Russian audience is being filled with.
Anti-Western/European sentiments among Russian audience are also inflamed by pseudo-historians and writers such as neo-Stalinist Nikolai Starikov and ultra-conservative Alexander Prokhanov (an apologist of Stalinist USSR and North Korean model) that apparently enjoy full and unconditional support from the Kremlin. The same pool could be supplemented by Russian neo-Fascist thinker Alexander Dugin one of whose main task was establishing close ties with European far right and neo-Nazi groups as “European allies” of the Kremlin.
In her analysis, the Russian journalist, Kseniya Kirillova, presented the following tasks pursued by Russian propaganda:
1) To weaken critical thinking;
2) To create an image of the enemy;
3) To link all internal problems to external factors;
4) To emphasize the consolidation of society in the face of a military threat;
5) To create the image of Vladimir Putin as the only leader capable of withstanding the military threat;
6) To prepare for the inevitable hardships of “wartime”;
7) To create an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war.
The most dangerous feature of the post-2013 course taken by Russian propaganda is cultivation of militarism and Stalinism among Russians, with a special emphasis on the younger generation. It aims to morally prepare Russian audience for a potential war with the West, which bitterly resembles the Soviet experience. For this purpose, the Russian authorities created two movements - Anti-Maidan and Yunarmia. The first one assembles people from all walks of life including illustrious public figures, sportsmen and intellectuals as well as war veterans and Cossacks – so-called “patriotic core”. The latter intends to familiarize Russian youth with Armed Forces and promote militarism and “patriotic feelings”. Incidentally, this initiative was personally blessed by Sergey Shoygu.
Another phenomenon (not a new one though) that ought to be linked to an outbreak of political confrontation between Russia and the West from 2013 on, was emergence of a pool of so-called “trolls” and “bots”. Both “trolls” (online Internet accounts run by humans) and “bots” (operated by automatic processes) became a powerful tool of opinion-making and generating of anti-European/American feelings among both domestic and external audience. Without going into details, it should be mentioned that the main task of both elements is to create a discussion between readers of on-line publications, that will outgrow into a debate that usually ends up as a torrent of vilification and even intimidation/harassment of foreign/domestic journalists and social activists that disagree with Kremlin’s position attempting to provide alternative opinion. As a result, in scopes of information warfare against the West Moscow has received an effective army of pre-payed “virtual fighters” that are not easily detected. Out of a great pool of platforms and social networks used by trolls, perhaps it would be worthwhile to mention the following two – VK (“Вконтакте”) and Odnoklassniki (“Одноклассники”) both established in 2006) – that are one of the main outlets of pro-Kremlin (and anti-Western) propaganda at a grassroots level. It would not be entirely correct though to reduce influence of these networks to Russian domestic audience. These have become extremely popular in the entire post-Soviet area as well as among the Russians living abroad.
In an article entitled “A virtual eye of the elder brother”, the pillars of Russian trolling were identified as follows: 1) defence of Stalinism; 2) praising of personalities of Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shoygu as well as Russian Armed Forces; 3) aggressive militarism; 4) fascist-style anti-Semitism and xenophobia; 5) sacred-sanctity of the Chechen war; 6) loyalty to KGB/FSB and hatred toward the “fifth column”, “deserters” and independent journalists; 7) anti-Americanism and anti-Western sentiments; 8) Soviet nostalgia and rejection of perestroika; 9) blaming dissidents and liberals for Russophobia.
These are the key objectives adopted by Russian anti-European (and the West in general) propaganda, as identified by Keir Giles:
- Direct lies for the purpose of disinformation both of the domestic population and foreign societies;
- Concealing critically important information;
- Burying valuable information in a mass of information dross;
- Simplification, confirmation and repetition (inculcation);
- Terminological substitution: use of concepts and terms whose meaning is unclear or has undergone qualitative change;
- Introducing taboos on specific forms of information or categories of news;
- Image recognition: known politicians or celebrities can take part in political actions to order, thus exerting influence on the world view of their followers;
- Providing negative information, which is more readily accepted by the audience than a positive one.
Source: Keir Giles, Handbook of Russian information warfare. NATO Defence College, November 2016, pp. 47-48.
“Trump cards” of Russian propaganda
In sum Russian propaganda is a complex, multifaceted and skilfully crafted phenomenon. Its strong points can be presented as a pack of cards each of which plays its unique function and has a specific goal ascribed.
Card 1. Anti-Fascism. Victory inthe Great Patriotic War (1941 - 1945) that claimed lives of millions of Soviet citizens still remains one of the main pivots of Russian national pride and sorrow. The legacy of this event is embedded in the May 9 celebrations, attained additional symbolism within the Brezhnev’s period, but was rapidly losing popularity in the early 1990s. Everything changed in the second half of 2000. As a legal heir of the USSR, the Russian Federation has monopolized the triumph of the Soviet people in this war, accepting an attire of a referee when labelling countries as “Fascist”. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the “Bronze Solder affair” in Estonia would become first attempts to play “Fascist card” and mobilize internal public opinion against Ukraine and Estonia respectively, which was however done on a limited scale. The decisive moment came in 2013 and subsequent events on the Ukrainian Southeast, when themes related to the “Fascist Ukraine ruled by a mob of Nazi criminals” started to dominate Russian propagandist discourse to be employed both domestically and internationally. Preposterous and groundless as these accusations are (especially given the role of the USSR in the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939) these do find overwhelming support among Russian domestic public. Moreover, this turns to be quite effective for external purposes as well, especially among South European countries.
Card 2. Conservatism. Russia is a country that by virtue of history is predisposed toward political conservatism. Contemporary Russian conservative discourse is based on a combination of religion, political will (coupled with military might) and traditionalism in social relations. This is frequently presented by Russian authorities as a viable alternative to “morally stagnant” Europe that is rapidly departing from traditional Christian values. Russian propaganda portrays Europeans as drowning in hedonism, sexual perversions, paedophilia and immorality. This creates an image of Europe as “Sodom and Gomorra of the twenty first century” – something that is repulsive to Russian national spit, culture and traditions. In this regard, it would be interesting to recall that the so-called “conservative revolution” in Russia coincided with emergence of an extremely insulting term “gejropa” (from “gay” and “Europe”) that has become quite popular among Russians while referring to Europe.
In this juncture, it would be worthwhile to underscore an idea expressed by Russian Patriarch Kirill during his visit to Kaliningrad in 2015, when he demanded that the Russian enclave must become Russian lighthouse of morality for the entire Europe going astray. Given the level of Euroscepticism in the EU and glittering façade that Moscow was able to erect during Putin’s era, this image might be dangerously appealing, especially for those who are not familiar with the actual state of Russian domestic affairs.
Card 3. Diaspora. Collapse of the USSR (in)famously defined as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” witnessed 25 million ethnic Russians left in the newly emerged sovereign countries. Initially the matter appeared to be a humiliation and was rarely discussed on public by Russian authorities. Over time Moscow was able to turn it into one of the most powerful tools that allowed it to influence internal affairs of other countries and use it for propagandist purposes. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine have seen how the pretext of “discrimination” of ethnic Russians can lead to Russian (in)direct involvement. Employing the card of Russophobia, Russian propaganda is pursuing two goals: undermining internal cohesion within the EU, and promoting secessionist movements and cultivating conflict within these countries by purposefully pitting endogenous population and Russophone minority against one another. One of the best examples – "Latgale People's Republic" (October 2012) – should be seen as a stern warning not only to the Latvian government but to the EU as a whole especially taking under consideration the Ukrainian scenario. In fact, Russian propaganda has created a map of secessionist movements in Europe which might be used by Moscow for undermining internal stability and cohesion among European countries.
Card 4. Flexibility. Russian propaganda has proven itself to be outstanding in terms of flexibility. Paradoxically, yet it has been able to enchant powers from various sides of spectrum of Europeans forces ranging from far-lefts and anarchists (on the basis of anti-Fascism) to various types of populist and even far-right radicals (with militarism, conservativism, anti-Islamic sentiments being the driving force). Also, Russian propaganda is very effective in exploiting feelings and hopes of some recently admitted members of the EU whose expectations do not fully match the anticipated results. Appealing to the Soviet period the pro-Kremlin propagandists are claiming that membership in the EU has brought former members of the socialist camp nothing better and instead has turned them into a source of cheap labour force for more developed member-states.
Card 5. Effective myth building. Aside from the “decadent West” Russia has proven to be an extremely effective myth-builder. One of such myths -“subjugation of Chechnya” by Vladimir Putin’s iron hand -causes admiration from the side of many European (and domestic) conservatives and even ordinary people who tend to blame domestic politicians for indecisiveness. Another myth is “prosperous Russia and poor Europe”. The outbreak of the “sanctions war” between Russia and the West witnessed certain transformation of anti-EU campaign that relies on myths related to Europe allegedly “suffocating” as a result of counter-sanctions introduced by Moscow. Russia mass media are filled with stories about “poor Polish farmers” and “dilapidating Finnish agricultural sector” that are no longer able to find new markets. Similarly, Russian discourse has also accepted a thesis that boils down to the following formula: “since Europe has deteriorated economically, it’s lifestyle and economic model no longer seem to be attractive to the majority of Russians”, whereas Russia presents a much more buoyant and thus attractive economic model that is invincible to external pressure. Given the extent of Russian poverty these arguments seem to be rather ridiculous, yet they remain unknown for those Europeans who are not able to see the difference and thus cannot make accurate judgement.
Card 6. Aggressive style. In the end of 2016 Russian Embassy in Vilnius started to disseminate highly provocative leaflets that agitated Lithuanians to move from their motherland to Kaliningrad Oblast – neighbouring Russian enclave that is fully dependent on Kremlin’s financial support – in a pursuit of better living conditions. Even though this was an outward slant immediately ridiculed by Lithuanian economists the target was hit anyway. The main strategy of the Russian propaganda is to present as much disinformation as possible, since it is practically impossible (and pointless) to confront each and every piece.Russian propagandists do not give much thought about potential international reaction or counterarguments; the main goal is to spread doubt by dispersing lies. In this regard, this pattern of behaviour resembles trolling methods. Moreover, Russian aggressive style is inseparable from bluff and imitation of danger, such as threat to use nuclear weapon (as was the case during the annexation of Crimea) or “serious repercussions” for neutral states as a punishment for pro-NATO rhetoric (which was hinted by Sergey Lavrov).
The Joker card
Unlike Europeans Russians are ready to spend huge financial means on projects deemed to be strategically vital irrespectively of the wellbeing of the population. The notorious phrase uttered by Ivan Vyshnegradsky amidst the terrible famine that struck Russia in 1891 claiming lives of millions of Russian peasants (“we must go hungry, but export”) should not be seen as a relic of the past. Thanks to the powerful propaganda and historical reasons Russian domestic audience is convinced that economic and political sanctions from the side of the West (including the EU) is a punishment for assertive foreign policy. This makes Russians to readily brook hardships that are construed as a price necessary to pay for Russia to be able to “get up from its knees”.
In this juncture, one of the most distinctive features and undisputed string points of undemocratic regimes is their ability to mobilize resources (both human and material) for a specific task within a very brief period. Russian history can boast with a great number of such examples, and the propaganda domain is not an exception. This is however just one side of the picture. History has witnessed many instances of undemocratic regimes suffering a defeat because of the inability to transform after fulfilment of initial objectives.
As powerful and omnipotent as Russian propaganda might seem on the surface, it has many flaws and limitations. In this regard, Europe should not forget words of Otto von Bismarck who pointed that “Russia is neither as strong nor as weak as it appears”.
Sergey Sukhankin, Historian, Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Kaliningrad. Associate Expert, ICPS, Kiev; Visiting Research Fellow, IBEI (Barcelona), Contributing Author at the Jamestown Foundation (Washington DC).