Since Putin’s rise to power, Russia continued to pursue its expansionist desires. Legitimizing his repressive rule at home and building lies, Putin made clear that he was going to win the physical conflict in post-soviet republics, but also the information war. The Chechen wars, the war in Georgia and recently the war in Ukraine, showed that Kremlin sees media as a weapon and has full control over it. The spread of myths demonizing Euro-Atlantic structures represents a direct threat to the democratic West and strengthens Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. This paper will try to examine what is Russia’s information war, what are the tools and the strategies, its goals and its effects within and outside the borders of Russia, to finally assess how the information war impacts Putin’s regime domestically.
What is information warfare and what is its purpose? As Aro (2016) described, information warfare is “state-conducted, strategic series of information and psychological operations that influences the target’s opinions, attitudes and actions in order to support the political goals of the state’s leaders” (Aro, 2016: 122). Pomerantsev and Lucas (2016) believe that Russian narrative is not traditional propaganda that aims to persuade and mobilize, but on the contrary to confuse and distract “The Russian government’s use of information warfare – “disinformation”- differs from traditional forms of propaganda. Its aim is not to convince or persuade, but rather to undermine. Instead of agitating audiences into action, it seeks to keep them hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid. It is a tactic used to disorganize and demoralize an opponent” (Pomerantsev and Lucas, 2016: 5). By offering an alternative narrative, the main goal is to gain influence and affect public opinion in countries of Central and Eastern Europe that are likely to join Euro-Atlantic organizations such as NATO and EU that Russia considers as part of its sphere of influence, to demonize the West and the US, by making people question western, liberal values but also to legitimize its rule at home by discrediting the West and showing the superiority of “Mother Russia” to avoid any positive sentiments towards Euro-Atlantic structures.
What are the roots and strategies of information warfare? Pomerantsev and Lucas (2016) argue that although now the form and content has changed, the origins go back to the Soviet Union and to so-called “spetspropaganda”. Propaganda was actively used in the Soviet Union during the Cold war to discredit the West and gain legitimacy or at least create an image of a flourishing communism. Today political analysts argue that the same measures are taken by Kremlin. Adams (2016) states that Soviet active measures are taken in Modern Russia – “It is becoming clear that Soviet-Era “active measures” are alive and flourishing in Putin’s Russia. Enabled by technology and adapted for a globalised world, their modern incarnations are much more sinister, with far greater range and speed and through internet, able to influence popular opinion on a scale never before possible” (Adams, 2016:8). What exactly are those Soviet “active measures” in Modern Russia are explained by Pomerantsev and Lucas – “Influencing the policies of another government/ Undermining confidence in its leaders and institutions/ Disrupting its relations with other nations/Discrediting and weakening governmental and nongovernmental opponents.” (Pomerantsev and Lucas, 2016:7). One of the main differences between Soviet Propaganda and Russian propaganda is that today one can post anything on the internet, on a website whether it is the truth or not therefore the process of building and spreading lies became easier. Since the annexation of Georgia in 2008 and then the war in Ukraine, Russian propaganda actively came back. Modern Russia does not promote communism or left wing parties for the simple reason that Modern Russia does not follow the Marxist-Leninist ideology. Kremlin nowadays tries to discredit and deny western liberal democracies, in order to do so, it supports both left and right radical parties in countries such as the former soviet republic, Georgia – Patriotic Alliance, a nationalist party with the help of the TV channel “Obiektivi” are following the Russian narrative and demonize the West.
What is the Russian narrative? Russia tries to justify its expansionist policies and its attacks on western values by spreading false information through the means of government controlled media, radical, nationalist politicians, the Russian Orthodox Church and NGOs, in order to create an image of Russia fighting for traditional values, injustice and against Western, mostly US and NATO domination. Putin, mostly since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 accelerated the information war that had already been started in 2000. Gerber and Zavisca (2016) explain what exactly is the Russia narrative – they underline that since 2014, the main emphasize is on anti-Americanism – The US is the powerful but evil force that seeks world domination, its purpose is to foster instability in countries by using the name of “democracy” it creates chaos and revolutions, the US funds groups such as NGOs to fight local leaders with “human rights” and Russia is the only country that can counter attack and resist US domination. The authors also underline that in the Russia narrative, Russia often stands for traditionalism and conservative values and Europe as a perverted continent where sexual freedom dominates the sacred concept of family – “Russian social and political values are juxtaposed to those of the “West” and held to be superior, with the former linked to traditionalism, communalism, and stability, and the latter to “deviant” lifestyles (e.g. in sexual preference), selfish individualism (e.g. predatory capitalism), and instability (e.g. race riots in the United States, or chaos in the Middle East due to the “Arab Spring”)” (Gerber and Zavisca, 2016: 82). Kremlin propaganda does not spread directly these messages- for example to influence the public opinion and spread the myth that Europe is perverted or migrants represent a threat, through different means it will build a story of how a gay couple assassinated their child or how “Lisa” a Russian born German was raped by migrants.
Domestically, Putin’s rise to power also saw a turn to moral conservatism. Moral conservatism, traditional values, collective memory and a anti-west rhetoric is formulated through patriotism – almost every politician uses nationalistic-patriotic rhetoric and refers to “Mother Russia”. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kremlin refused to take an ideological stance, yet Putin’s third term is characterised by moral conservatism– issues related to tradition, identity and values are being discussed (Laruelle, 2013). This is so called “patriotism” is also translated in polls and elections – although a minor detail, Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, a far-right political party ideologically advocating an imperialist Russia, is gaining more and more votes since 2007.
Kremlin invests millions of dollars to reach audience and to create content. What are the tools used by the Kremlin propaganda machine, who are the main actors? One of the most important tool is government controlled media – both television and social media. The Freedom House Index when evaluating the freedom of press in 2016, states Russia’s status as “Not Free” and gives a rate of 83 (0=best, 100= worst). Kremlin pressures the media to promote Putin and the Russian government but also to control criticism and give a positive image of Russia. Some media outlets, that are the most watched, are directly financed by Kremlin – Russia Today is one the key players operating with a 600 million people, it is one of the most watched TV channel. As Emerson states “This operation [Kremlin financing] includes the Russia Today network which offers slick entertainment programs, interspersed with manipulated Russian news content. One of RT’s ploys is to download content from social media sites and then package it as news.” (Emerson, 2015). Pomerantsev writes about myths invented by RT “During the 2008 war with Georgia, for example, the channel ran a non-stop banner entitled “genocide in Ossetia” when no such thing had been, or indeed would be, proven” (Pomerantsev, 2013: 11). Evidently, this projects a bad image of the enemy, in this case Georgia, both within and outside the borders of Russia. Because of development of the social networks and the internet, we often call the 21st century the “Age of Information”, where internet users have access to verified and non-verified information therefore disinformation becomes easier. Although Russia has difficulties banning social media, it uses the unlimited and unverified platform offered by the internet to spread false lies by the means of websites such as a Russian alternative to Wikipedia, or Russian social media “Vkontakte” controlled by Kremlin. When discussing this topic, political analysts often mention “trolls” – fake accounts created on social media to comment and attack Russian critics, Emerson (2015) explains that Kremlin trolls use the internet to respond to critics. Aro (2016) discusses the forms used by Kremlin “Younger and more visually oriented people are lured in with memes, caricatures and videos. The messages conveyed by trolls’ memes are simple: western political leaders are often depicted as ‘nazis’ or ‘fascists’. images of corpses and alleged war crimes committed by Ukrainian soldiers are distributed” (Aro, 2016: 125).
Kremlin does not only use media to spread their lies, but actors such as Kremlin financed NGOs and far-right political parties across Europe may also be contributing in weakening the European idea. As Klapsis (2015) states “The European far right sees in Russian President Vladimir Putin the model of a strong, conservative leader who defends traditional values and opposes the decadent West. Since most far-right parties are at the same time against European integration and anti-American, they also see a close relationship with Russia as a necessary foothold in order to achieve the gradual disassociation of their countries from Euro-Atlantic institutions.” Right wing extremists group such as Marine Le Pen’s Party “le Front National” or Nigel Farage’s “UKIP” in the UK, or “Jobbik” in Hungary, are actively fighting European system of values and our belief of strong and united Europe. Kross (2016) underlines that “European leaders who look to blame Germany for the refugee crisis, who want to build walls on their borders, to negotiate separately with Putin, and end the sanctions in favor of a “new dialogue” — all in the name of their “national interests” — are demolishing Europe’s unity.” As said previously, when the Europe, as a set of values loses support and nationalist movements increase, Putin wins on both fronts – internationally, by destabilizing former soviet countries and domestically, by showing Russian superiority and decreasing the risks of opposition success.
As said previously, Kremlin invests a lot of efforts to promote the Russian narrative in the world, both in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the West but within Russia too. As Gerber and Zavisca write, Russia is operating in both fronts “Domestically, the arguments seek to legitimize the Putin regime, garner support for its policies, and demonize its critics. Internationally, they are part of a larger effort to project Russian “soft power,” sow doubts and uncertainty within the NATO alliance, weaken public support for policies countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, and solidify the allegiances of Russia’s allies in former Soviet republics whom Russia considers part of its natural sphere of influence” (Gerber and Zavisca, 2016: 79). Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye, it is “the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes” (Nye, 2011: 20).
How does the information war affect domestic affairs and Putin? When nationalist sentiments increase in Europe and in the West, when EU-NATO weakens, Putin’s sphere of influence grows. The success of Putin’s propaganda plays a key role in the success of Putin at home. The information war is necessary to create a political climate similar to the Soviet Union or even, Nazi Germany – to legitimize a repressive regime, Kremlin is fighting everyone that opposes Putin: the opposition and the civil society, including the media. Not only it projects a positive image of Russia within its borders but one of many instruments, is to call the opponents “infiltrated western agents”. Putin started an open fight the NGOs funded by foreign sources, that he considered were undermining Russian sovereignty and national interests. As a result, Kremlin through the legal system limits civic activism as much as possible – by filling cases against NGO leaders or by complicating the process of registration.
How effective are the measures taken by Kremlin? Within Russia, polls show an increase in anti-Americanism – an article published in the Washington Post in 2015 shows that “More than 80 percent of Russians now hold negative views of the United States, according to the independent Levada Center, a number that has more than doubled over the past year and that is by far the highest negative rating since the center started tracking those views in 1988.” Levinson (2015) points out that the State controlled media also plays an important role in Putin’s propaganda which results in high approval ratings since the annexation of Crimea “This virtual monopoly has led to a strong influence on public opinion. When asked “what their source of the information on events in Ukraine is”, over 90 percent of Russians refer to these three ‘central’ TV channels. Even amongst the third of the population (mostly young people) who claim to use the internet regularly to read ‘world news’, 75 percent said they get their information on Ukraine from ‘government TV channels” (Levinson, 2015) yet he also argues that Putin’s popularity can be explained by the popular support of the “Great Russia”. In his opinion, Russians are proud and enjoy the fact that Putin successfully ignored western powers, including the Euro-Atlantic structures and finally demonstrated its hard power in Crimea. “Special propaganda efforts were not required because defying rival powers, fulfils long-held dreams of seeing their motherland resurface as a great power. While in principle, opinion poll respondents agree that they would also be happy with scientific or cultural achievements (like Yuri Gagarin’s space flight), as no such achievements are in sight hard-power politics remains the only way to reach this historical goal. Putin took a chance and won. The only purpose of the propaganda in this case was to confirm the ‘mission accomplished” (Levinson, 2015) One might argue that Putin through his military actions but most importantly, through his propaganda machine and state controlled media achieved the demonization of the West within Russia and gained complete support while calling everyone one opposes him “traitors”. Some argue that with the heavy economic sanctions and a poor economic performance, a wave of social protest could undermine his regime, yet from what we know for now, the information war has done nothing but help Putin at home.
In the case of post-Soviet countries, Russian sentiments are increasing. It is difficult to asses the effectiveness of Russian propaganda since no official data has been gathered, yet we can measure the ratings of pro-Russian or Eurosceptic political parties. For the first time in Georgia, Patriotic Alliance passed the threshold of 5% and entered the parliament, through the means of printed media and television such as “Obiektivi” or “Asaval-dasavali”, the political party managed to reach a large audience and a platform to spread disinformation – xenophobic messages, anti-Europe and anti-US rhetoric, while Russia is occupying 20% of Georgian territory. In Moldova, the recent presidential elections also show an increase in Russian sentiments as a pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon declared victory on November, 13th while Bulgaria voted for Rumen Radev, who adopted pro-Russian rhetoric earlier. As for the West, the success of far-right parties, the popularization of the idea of “Better without EU/NATO” can be seen as a sign of success of Russian propaganda, since nationalists, isolationists movements are increasing in France and in the rest of the continent.
All in all, Putin when invading sovereign countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, complemented its military wars by starting an information war against the West, beneficial on both international and domestic fronts. The desire to gain power and disintegrate the West is so strong that Kremlin invests millions to control social and traditional media, finance far-right parties across Europe and NGOs not only to promote Russia as a traditional country but also to demonize the West, foster anti-European sentiments and create a wave of protests. So far, it has been working well, to a certain extent the success of far right parties and anti-establishment rhetoric – “Brexit” the election of Donald Trump as a president, recent elections in Post-Soviet countries can be success stories of Russian propaganda. One might argue that the success of the information war also determines the degree of legitimization of the regime, Putin who seeks to strengthen his rule and destroy the opposition, successfully managed to gain control of the media and to discredit the West by increasing nationalistic, anti-western sentiments in Russians and by presenting himself as a traditional fatherly figure to “Mother Russia”. For how long or whether or not he will be able to maintain his power is not clear yet it is absolutely crucial that Western leaders fight the military conflicts along with the information war. It is not only a threat to post-soviet countries aspiring to become sovereign, consolidated democracies but it is a threat to European and Western idea of “United Europe”, to EU-NATO stability and expansion, but also to democracy.