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Nine Lessons of Russian Propaganda
After visiting repeatedly, I moved to Ukraine from the United States in 2012. My parents had been born in Ukraine and taught me some of the language during my childhood in Queens, NY.
Being so close to Ukraine's Maidan revolution and the subsequent Russian invasion gave me perspective on American perception of these events. The audacity and effectiveness of Russian propaganda has left me in utter awe. After two years of close observation, some strategies and motifs of Russian propaganda have become evident. Hopefully these lessons will lend some clarity on the information war which overlays the kinetic one.
1. Rely on dissenting political groups in Western countries for dissemination. Kremlin talking points appear with uncanny similarity in most alternative political movements in the West, including communist, libertarian, nationalist, and even environmentalist, whose protests occasionally overlap with anti-NATO protests.
I had an especially close look at the libertarian community as I have long been a part of it. Rampant misinformation led me to write these three increasingly horrified essays about what some prominent libertarians were saying about Russia and Ukraine: Putin's Libertarians, When Your Former Libertarian Hero Calls You a Nazi and The Latest Libertarian Shillery for Russia.
The persistence of demonstrable lies and their almost word-for-word repetition in radical left media was uncanny and put into perspective only after I discovered the Active Measures interviews and the Deception was My Job interview of Yuri Bezmenov. KGB agents who had defected to the United States in the 1970s and 80s all said the same thing. Espionage was a minor consideration of Russian intelligence. Their focus was controlling the message and it often happened through influencing media and political movements in freer societies.
Russian intrigue with dissenting groups even makes an appearance in Joseph Conrad's fantastic 1907 novel The Secret Agent.
Radical Kremlin ideologue Alexander Dugin articulates this strategy fairly explicitly: "The most important factor should not be whether these groups are pro-Russian or not. What they oppose is of much greater importance here. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is simple and easy to understand. If we adopt such an attitude in order to appeal to all possible allies (who either approve of us or who do not) more and more people will follow suit – if only due to pragmatism. In doing so we will create a real functioning network – a kind of Global Revolutionary Alliance."
Much of Dugin's work attempts to explaining why groups with diametrically opposed beliefs should unite to oppose the United States and, if only implicitly, support Russia. Demonizing the United States and "Atlanticism" underpins his rhetorical strategy, just as demonizing capitalism and the bourgeois class underpinned communism's (and also placed Russia as first among equals in a "Global Revolutionary Alliance").
Dugin's Anti-Atlanticism is a cargo cult for the reach and influence that Moscow had through Communism, but the centuries old influence that Moscow has among the West's dissenting political movements remains palpable.
2. Domestic propaganda is most important. Marquis de Custine, a French travel writer, wrote in his 1838 book, "The political regime here would not survive 20 years of free communication with Western Europe."
The long term viability of Russian autocracy is more threatened by the standard of living in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, than by any foreign military. This fear of facing their own poverty and oppression also echoes throughout the troubled history of Russia's relations with Ukraine:
In his book, The Cossacks, historian Shane O'Rourke writes: "[The Cossacks] demonstrated to those masses that an alternative and viable social order did indeed exist. This was to prove far more threatening to Poland-Lithuania or Muscovy and the Russian Empire than the cossack swords and muskets on their own could ever be."
This is why the Kremlin so frantically saturates the Russian public with paranoia and a siege mentality. Their society does not compare favorably to that of their neighbors.
The Kremlin's sway over Russian public opinion cannot be underestimated. I know more than one Ukrainian who received a phone call from relatives in Russia after the Maidan revolution to confirm stories about people murdered in the streets of Kyiv or Lviv for speaking Russian, and to urge them to escape. No such thing ever took place. Russian was and is spoken every day. The term "zombified" as entered the Ukrainian lexicon to describe acquaintances under the sway of Russian propaganda.
Russian media diligently puts the world in context for the Russian public. It would be unconscionable to allow Russians to believe Ukraine's 2014 revolution was a populist uprising against corruption, and absolutism. It needed re-branding: not a revolution but a coup, not driven by a desire for rule of law, but by a hatred of Russians, not Ukrainian but CIA-Jewish-Nazis. The broad range of villains in their contradictory narratives reflects the range of ideologies to which they attempt to appeal. Amazingly, they have some success.
The American diplomat's handing out of cookies, and Ambassador Nuland's off-hand insult of the EU were the grains of truth upon which the Russian propaganda machine built monstrous, menacing narratives of American and/or Nazi conspiracy.
It was not true, but it was extremely interesting, and that was enough, at least for the Kremlin's myopic thinking.
3. Destroy and ridicule the idea of truth. Many people, including Peruvian statesman and Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargo Llosa, have observed that Russian propaganda destroys meaning.
They pursue several tactics including the false moral equivalences of "whataboutism," polluting the information space (more below), and hosting seemingly objective discussions that give equal play to the truth alongside the most ludicrous distortions, making the truth seem like the least interesting of many possible narratives.
The West isn't completely innocent when it comes to truth telling, but while Western propaganda attempts to construct a narrative and convince people of it, Russia propaganda often seems to strive for contradiction and dissonance.
For example, just days after signing a ceasefire in Syria, the Russian military bombed at least five medical facilities in Syria. While doing so, their ministry of foreign affairs tweeted about humanitarian aid shipments.
Regarding the Budapest Memorandum, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said ". . . we have not violated it. It contains only one obligation—i.e., not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine." This is outrageously untrue, and cannot be an accident.
The dissonance is part of their strategy. They need chaos and confusion, and actively strive for it.
Peter Pomerantsev, a British-Russian Journalist from London with access Russian media described its thuggish manipulations of reality and the Russian public's seeming susceptibility. The title of his scathing memoir could easily be the rallying cry for all Russian propaganda: "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible."
George F Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow in 1944 observed, "Here, men determine what is true and what is false."
There is a Russian expression: умом россію не поймешь ("intelligently, you cannot understand Russia"), which comes from a 150 year old quatrain by Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev. The poem concludes, "in Russia you can only believe."
The bias against comprehension is deep seeded.
4. "Putin is strong. Russia is strong." This message permeates all Russian information efforts.
Power is the perception of power, and the Kremlin understands this very well. They constantly allude to or directly threaten invasion and nuclear war with everyone from their neighbors to Turkey to the United States.
In 2013, the Russian Air Force ran a mock nuclear strike against Sweden.
Former Russian MP and political party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, sometimes referred to as the Kremlin's court jester, is frequently the mouth piece for the most bombastic threats. He is nominally a part of the opposition, but in actuality seems to be the Kremlin's platform for radicalism of any sort, creating headlines in foreign countries, exciting the public, testing ideas, and nominally acting an the opposition to create the illusion of Democracy, and providing an extreme reference point to moderate perception of Putin's policies.
When the American military conducted joint exercises with Estonians, Zhirinovsky said the US tanks will end up in a Russian museum. He once threatened a female journalist to have his bodyguard rape her.
He received 6.2% of votes in the 2012 Presidential election. One of his campaign commercials showed him in a sleigh shouting "the whole country got stuck . . .", then whipping donkeys harnessed to the sleigh and shouting "Go! Go! Go!" Think of this in the context of Custine's 1838 observation: "they are intoxicated with slavery."
Regarding Turkey, he said: "You just chuck one nuclear bomb into the straits, and there’d be a huge flood. The water would rise by 10-15 meters and the whole city would disappear."
It is impossible for serious Western journalists to ignore such threats, so the Kremlin gets a message inserted into foreign societies, exciting those voices who seek to avoid conflict, while maintaining a degree of separation from the messenger.
A similar vivid but scientifically dubious threat was made against the United States by Konstantin Sivkov of the "Academy of Geopolitical Problems":
"Geologists believe that the Yellowstone super-volcano could explode at any moment. . . . it suffices to push the relatively small [nuclear weapon], for example the impact of the munition megaton class to initiate an eruption. The consequences will be catastrophic for the United States, a country just disappears."
There's a joke about an old Russian woman carrying buckets of water through the mud. Her husband died in a famine. One of her sons was killed in a war, and the other exiled to Siberia. Suddenly, a Mig Fighter jet flies over her. The sonic boom kocks her over into the mud. The water spills. But she looks up at the jet and thinks: "Wow. I'm so big and powerful."
The Kremlin needs to distract its public from the needless economic hardship and rampant corruption.
The I'm a Russian Occupier propaganda video is a great example of this: "I occupied the Baltics and many factories and power plants were built on their farmland. The Baltics used to produce high quality radio equipment and cars, famous perfumes and balms. I was asked to leave. Now they sell sprats [herring] and some of their people clean toilets in Europe. "
The distortions and lies directed domestically seem especially crude, testifying to the low standard of truth. A 2009 survey indicated that a slight majority of Russians never used the internet. (Usage is now estimated at 61%.)
Occasionally, Russian propaganda misses the mark, like the "bros" workout video featuring Putin and Medvedev.
When faced with sanctions, Russia could not allow itself to be seen as the victim. They immediately issued counter sanctions and flooded both the news and comment sections with stories of how Polish apple growers and other European producers were suffering without the Russian market.
I know from a friend in the trucking business that Polish apples were merely re-routed through Belarus, likely with tacit approval from the Kremlin who took the opportunity to enrich an oligarch of their choosing.
The same was at least partially true with Russian sanctions against Turkey. The black market through Azerbaijan mitigated their effects. Sanctions are bombastically announced, and quietly done away with.
As is usually the case, headlines were more important than reality.
5. Headlines are more important than reality, especially while first impressions are forming.
During recent protests by Russian truck drivers, Russia's transport minister staged a meeting with counterfeit truckers before the media. They also seem to have invented Syrian opposition leaders with whom they held negotiations.
It did not matter that the "humanitarian aide" convoys to Eastern Ukraine were eventually revealed to the whole world as ammunition resupplies. For two weeks coverage of the war focused on Russia's "humanitarian aide."
First impressions are known to be extremely sticky. They persist even after subsequent evidence is conclusive. Consequently, Russian propaganda seems to fight hard for the first impression and then relent.
When opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated, they quickly spun several elaborate theories which played on Russian news.
Their propaganda about neo-Nazis dominated coverage of Ukraine's revolution, even after multiple statements and an open letter from the leaders of Ukraine's Jewish community. In support of the Nazi narrative, Russian state television even reported fake results of Ukraine's 2014 election, stating that now-President Poroshenko lost the race to Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh. (In reality Yarosh received about 1.5% of the vote.) Obviously, anybody paying attention would find out this was nonsense within days, if not hours, but being proved wrong does not seem to matter to them.
Perhaps the consider distant half-interested parties as their target audience -- people who cannot devote enough attention to the issue. Such people will see an initial chaos of contradictory information and conclude the situation is too complicated to understand, and that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
They're remarkably successful. No matter audacious, Russian lies delivered from semi-official sources succeed in muddying the waters, and preventing the formation of clear impressions that recognize the reality of what is happening.
6. Demoralize. During both the 2009 war with Georgia, and the 2014-present invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda very effectively showed pictures of dead, dying, and tortured Georgian and Ukrainian soldiers. They were on the news, and all over the internet.
One largely unnoticed parallel between the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine is that both began with the kidnapping of a local activist, followed by his, torture, murder, and then discovery of the body, Tartar activist, Reshat Ametov, and local, pro-Ukrainian politician, Volodymyr Rybak. This tactic seems informed by Lenin’s infamous 1918 hand-written hanging order: "Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometers around the people might see, tremble."
This strategy extends to Western society and is discussed explicitly in the Active Measures interviews of former KGB agents. There seem to be seem to be libertarian organizations only interested in libertarianism when it intersects with anti-Americanism. It is easy to imagine why magnify Western corruption and weakness is in Russia's interest.
7. Move the conversation. No matter how ridiculous their propaganda, no matter how many times it is proven to be false, it succeeds in shifting the conversation. Western journalists were consumed with determined if Russia was invading Ukraine, that they had little space left to examine how Russia was invading.
The propaganda dominated the conversation at the expense of the actual invasion.
Only a few journalists noticed that Russia's proxies in Ukraine publicly encouraged their forces to engage in atrocities. An online instruction manual included the advice: "Don’t pass up any opportunity to engage in some atrocity that can be blamed on the junta’s fighters," a strategy they seemed to follow.
The exploitable bias of Western journalists is that each side has its perspective and the truth is somewhere in the middle.
8. Pollute the information space. One of the strangest examples of Russian disinformation is the Columbia Chemicals Plant Explosion Hoax in which it seems that either the Kremlin or a close ally orchestration a chorus of reports about an unfolding terrorist attack in the United States that never actually happened:
"It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off. And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year."
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny said about the polluting strategy in Russia:
"... the paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction. The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it. You have to remember the Internet population of Russia is just over 50 percent. The rest are yet to join, and when they join it’s very important what is their first impression.”
Domestically, they want to ruin the one media which they don't control. Internationally, they want to sow confusion and paranoia.
9. "Gas lighting" -- accuse the enemy of doing what you are doing to confuse the conversation.
After American generals began using the term "hybrid war" to describe Russia's planned, deliberate scaling of hostilities from pseudo-civilian protests to military formations, a Russian general, without irony, accused the United States of hybrid war against Russia.
While Russian proxies were burning Ukrainian books, and flags, destroying monuments to Ukraine's great famine, the Holodomor, Crimea Tartar cultural centers, and everything else that wasn't strictly Russian, they were accusing Ukrainians of hostility toward Russian culture, even though nothing of the kind had taken place. The accounts Russians who struggled on Maidan alongside Ukrainians were ignored.
It was Ukraine's leadership who eventually had to give reassurances on the international stage that the rights of minorities would be respected, not Russia's and not the leaders of their Proxies, despite harsh crackdowns on Ukrainian culture, Tartar institutions, Catholic and Protestant churches, and everything else that wasn't Russian.
There may be several explanations for the strangest strains of Russian propaganda -- the dissonant messages that seem to create chaos and confusion for its own sake.
Both in business and war, Russian institutions are structured much more vertically, and would normally be outperformed by high-trust Western institution that more readily delegate authority and initiative. Russian corruption and distrust prevents them from restructuring their institutions, but perhaps under a miasma half-truths and confusion, Russian vertical power structures have the best chance of being competitive.
Secondly, Russian aggression is very opportunistic (see my previous essay). Chaos creates exploitable opportunities, including exploitable dissenting parties among your opposition.
Lastly, as Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny speculated, the Russian regime fears what Marquis de Custine described almost 200 years ago: "The political regime here would not survive 20 years of free communication with Western Europe." They are deliberate polluting the information space in anticipation of the remaining 40% of Russians starting to use the Internet, because they fear the truth want to pollute and discredit all the information platforms they don't directly control.
But for all the cleverness and pervasiveness of their propaganda, the gravity of people's individual preferences does not seem to be on the side of Russian autocracy. Right now, the Kremlin makes is very hard for Russians to feel good about themselves without also embracing Russian militarism and expansionism as part of that identity. There are great examples in Russian history like the remarkably individualistic Republic of Novgorod, and a frontier spirit in their east sometimes referred to as the "Siberian Paradox."
The more the West leads by example, demonstrates rule of law, creates a prosperous contrast to Russian society, imposes costs for ban behavior (as recommended by the Heritage Foundation), and forces the Russian public to countenance their poverty and corruption, the more Russians will be able to reject the siege mentality and construct a better narrative for themselves from the best aspects of their history.