Russia’s information war in Europe (selective memory at home)

russia ukraine

Russia is adopting an aggressive new propaganda strategy to undermine relations between the world’s leading democracies, the Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski reports:

A Russian official in Berlin briefed on the media plans for Germany said a significant portion of the German public was receptive to Russia’s message. They included people with antiwar, antiglobalization and general leftist views. Conservatives, including opponents of “homosexual propaganda,” were also targets, the official said. “One can do some pretty powerful work with this segment,” the Russian official said.

RT, launched by the Kremlin as Russia Today in 2005, is a news channel now available in English, Spanish and Arabic that positions itself as an alternative to Western international media such as CNN, the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. While viewership is relatively small, observers say that by airing increasingly shrill criticism of the West and comments from anti-American conspiracy theorists as well as far-right and far-left Western politicians, RT has sought to undermine the authority of Western media.

russua rep wsjIn the Ukraine crisis, for example, RT has accused Western media and politicians of hiding evidence opposing the view that pro-Russian separatists shot down the Malaysia jet. “The biggest success of the Russian propaganda is to create confusion about what is true or not,” said Marieluise Beck, a member of the opposition party Greens who is one of Mr. Putin’s most prominent critics in the German parliament.

On Thursday, Russian police upgraded from ”vandalism” to ”hooliganism” a recent stunt in which four activists raised a Ukrainian flag on a Moscow skyscraper (above), the Moscow Times reports:

Under this new charge, the four could be sentenced to as much as seven years in prison.

If they are convicted, it will certainly send a pointed message to all Russian activists. But fear of punishment, not punishment itself, may prove to be the greatest lid on dissent in Russia. A raft of recent legislation on the Internet, especially the so-called blogger law, encourages many to police themselves.

Rossiya Segodnya now says it will employ hundreds of journalists around the world to produce local-language news reports, radio shows and social-media content, the Journal’s Troianovski adds:

According to a Rossiya Segodnya brochure that provides an overview of the organization for the German public, the organization planned to build up hubs in about a dozen cities, with a goal of participating “in shaping public opinion and the news agenda.” Mr. Kiselyov said financing for the expansion was still being worked out. ……

“The U.S. was always the symbol of the good, democracy, freedom, alliance, defense, while Russia generally represented the opposite,” Mr. Tulchinskiy, the Rossiya Segodnya bureau chief in Berlin, said. “It turns out the first statement isn’t so true, so it’s logical to think that the second statement isn’t so true.”


Credit: Moscow Times

One of the most important moments of the perestroika era was when the secret additional protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were made public, notes analyst Ivan Sukhov:

These secret additions assigned the Baltic states to the Soviet Union and divided up Poland into German and Soviet spheres of influence. These protocols were a real shock to a country that had been proclaiming itself the defeater of fascism since 1945.

That uncomfortable moment of closeness between the Soviet leadership and the Nazis explained, for example, much about the way in which the Baltic republics left the Soviet Union. That is, it was an explanation for those who wanted to understand, but those people were and still are few and far between in Russia.

Even today, the leaders of the ministries of culture and education are seriously discussing ridding the school curriculum of the paragraphs about the secret protocols. This part of history too obviously contradicts the official propaganda on the war with Hitler, which, as we know, is so significant in today’s manipulation of public opinion.


Seeking utopia in Ukraine: Western liberals play into Putin’s hands?

ukrainesolidarnoscFearing abduction at the hands of separatists, thousands of residents have fled Donetsk, an eastern province where separatists have declared independence from Ukraine’s new, pro-Western government, AP reports:

Accounts also abound of militia profiting from abductions by demanding ransoms. Human Rights Watch researcher Tanya Lokshina wrote this week about seeing a woman in a Luhansk village whose son had been taken captive.

“She said the insurgents demanded $5,000 for his release but the family had no money,” she wrote, without identifying the woman or her son. “He called her recently from his captors’ phone, crying and saying he’d be killed unless the ransom is paid promptly.”

Television reports from independent Ukrainian channels make clear that the population—earlier portrayed as pro-separatist by Russian and other media—is not hostile to Ukraine, notes Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and co-director of its Ukraine in Europe program.

“A poll taken last week by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology showed that in the Donbas, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko now enjoys more trust than either Russia’s President Vladimir Putin or the insurgents,” he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Russian media have also changed their tone markedly since the Ukrainian counteroffensive began to make major progress in mid-June. There has been a sharp decline in the use of terms like “fascist junta” to describe Ukraine’s government. Some Russian media outlets have even reported on the humanitarian relief efforts by Ukraine’s forces…..Russian public opinion appears to have shifted accordingly. A survey released this week by VTsIOM, a Kremlin-friendly polling group, showed that 66% of Russians now oppose military intervention in Ukraine, while in March a poll by the Levada Center found that 65% of Russians said Russia has the right to militarily intervene in both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Three months after since Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech to the duma following his military seizure of Crimea, Putin faces three basic choices, amid continuing uncertainty regarding Russo-Ukrainian relations and growing international costs for Russia, notes Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser from 1977 to 1981:

1. He could pursue an accommodation with Ukraine by terminating the assault on its sovereignty and economic well-being. … Such an accommodation should involve the termination of Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, ending any threat of a larger invasion, and some sort of East-West understanding that entails Russia’s tacit acceptance of Ukraine’s prolonged journey toward eventual European Union membership.

2. Putin could continue to sponsor a thinly veiled military intervention designed to disrupt life in portions of Ukraine. Should Russia continue on this course, obviously the West would have to undertake a prolonged and truly punishing application of sanctions designed to convey to Russia the painful consequences of its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. This unfortunate outcome would likely yield two basket cases in Eastern Europe: Ukraine, because of destructive Russian actions, and Russia itself.

3. Putin could invade Ukraine, exploiting Russia’s much larger military potential. Such an action, however, would not only prompt retaliation by the West but also could provoke Ukrainian resistance. …..

“The issue of Crimea will remain unresolved for now, but it will serve as an enduring reminder that chauvinistic fanaticism is not the best point of departure for resolving complex issues,” Brzezinski writes for the Washington Post.

Seeking utopia in Ukraine?

“The idea of Ukraine as a place where you can glimpse the dream of a post-national, pan-European utopia, where people were prepared to die under the EU flag while standing up to Moscow, is perhaps most popular among certain Western intellectuals,”  argues Peter Pomerantsev, the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a forthcoming book about Putin’s postmodern dictatorship.

But these paradigms play right into Putin’s hands, he writes for The

The Kremlin has desperately sought to transform the story of the Ukrainian revolution from an uprising against corruption and terrible governance—grievances that could apply to Putin’s rule too—into a muddled narrative about ‘Holy Russia’ versus ‘Euro-Sodom.’ The idea of Russia as a beacon of religious conservatism is specious—68 percent of Russians might identify as Orthodox Christian, but only 14 percent go to religious services once a month or more frequently, and 60 percent of Orthodox Russians don’t consider themselves religious. Western liberals risk being spun by Putin.

In the post-Soviet space, it’s the idea of utopia, almost any utopia, that is perhaps the most important thing. Cynicism is the great underlying ideology of Putinism, fostered by decades of late-Soviet and post-Soviet disillusion, and now reinforced by Kremlin media, with its recurring message that democracy everywhere is a sham, that the Maidan is a con, its ideals doomed.

“This dynamic isn’t confined to Eastern Europe. When was the last time a Western country had a revolution that brought with it the promise of everything beginning again? 1989?,” Pomerantsev adds.

There are two possible outcomes of the proxy war, according to Karatnycky:

First is the military track. With Ukraine’s use of air power, and with effective control of borders, the military will continue to make inroads, taking peripheral towns and smaller cities, and squeezing the insurgents to the main cities of the Donbas region. ….Rising factionalism and divisions among the insurgents seem likely. With Russian propagandists now signaling to their own population that Moscow will not directly invade Ukraine, many more fighters are likely to lay down their weapons or desert. ….

The second way out may be through negotiations. This is the strategy that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has been pursuing. To that end, the Germans have been pressing Ukraine’s leaders to integrate Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Russian former chief of staff to ex-Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma, into a peace process. There is even talk that Mr. Medvedchuk (Mr. Putin is the godfather of his daughter) may emerge as an interim governor of Donetsk as part of a peace accord. ..

“But the reality is that no matter the outcome, President Putin’s Ukraine strategy is a shambles.”

Putin rides the tide (but lacks strategy)

mcfaulobamaRussian President Vladimir Putin himself doesn’t know his strategic objectives in Ukraine, says Stanford University’s Michael McFaul (left), the US ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year.

“I think that this was not some master plan that Putin’s been plotting for decades — annex Crimea and go in to take Novorossiya,” he told NPR:

This phrase “Novorossiya,” New Russia, which is [used] to describe these eastern Ukrainian regions — I think he used that for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. So that actually gives me hope, because that means it’s not some grand plan, master design that he feels he is now empowered to execute, but that this is more contingent. He’s making it up as he goes, and he’s calculating about the cost of direct military intervention and then occupation in Ukraine.

“Putin is a smart person. He’s not doing it a vacuum, and he, I think and I hope, he knows how costly that would be,” said McFaul, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Putin looks like he will continue to ride the tide he has set into motion for the time being, says Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies’ Research Council,

But amidst his tactical successes we can already see the signs of a looming strategic defeat, she writes for The American Interest, adding several “finer brushstrokes to bring the wider landscape into view.

The Kremlin’s efforts to root Russian identity and patriotism in shows of force and in seminal historical events like the victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) has prompted a continuous search for enemies. Russia has embarked on a path of perpetual war (or at least perpetual confrontation) with those who refuse to accept this identity—whether those enemies are to be found beyond Russia’s borders or within them. Cooperative gestures by other nations will not change this paradigm; it can only be undone when those who set it in motion relinquish power.

While the results of this “war/patriotic” consolidation of Russian society have been impressive thus far, the recent history of such efforts (the second Chechen War of 1999 and the Russia-Georgia war of 2008) suggests that this gambit will only work for a time. Eventually, the numbing effects of mass military psychosis begin to wear off. And if recent polls are any indication, they may be wearing off quickly this time: ……

The elites are still behind Putin. But the comprador segment of the elite, which is integrated into the West, is already unhappy. It is feeling the pinch of the sanctions and of the West’s growing hostility. Pragmatists within the ranks of the elite have begun to doubt whether Putin can successfully protect their interests. But the elites will voice their doubts and misgivings openly only if the people take to the streets……


Russia’s media imperialism

putinrussiaThe repressive “bloggers law” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin on May 6 says a good deal about the troubling decline of free expression in Russia, according to two leading analysts. This measure comes on the heels of a series of other laws recently put in place to restrict television, books, films, and certain public performances, further curtailing Russia’s already besieged media space, Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung write for Freedom House’s Freedom At Issue blog…..

During the decade and a half of Putin’s rule, media freedom in Russia has gradually eroded. As we write in a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, the Kremlin is finding alarmingly effective ways to manipulate and control media, despite the proliferation of new communication technologies and methods of news distribution…..

Diffusion of Kremlin Media Values

Putin’s revanchism brings with it some distressing byproducts, one of which is the projection of illiberal Kremlin media values beyond Russia’s borders. …..The first order of business for Russian-backed forces in Crimea was to cut off sources of information beyond the control of the Kremlin. The crackdown on mass media was accompanied by fierce repression of local activists, bloggers, and others who voiced opinions contrary to the Kremlin line, according to a report written by Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights. ….

The same type of propaganda invasion that coincided with the physical invasion of Crimea has been on view in eastern Ukraine. As pro-Russian forces extend their hold, Kremlin media values take root there, too, with coercive tactics used on independent journalists and dissidents in ways that are common in Russia, but had been rare in Ukraine….

As the Kremlin’s ability to project media power has strengthened over time, the authorities in countries on Russia’s periphery have been forced to contend with increasingly provocative and destabilizing messaging. Moscow’s well-funded media complex simply outguns local Russophone alternatives in places like Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Baltic states.

Moscow’s propaganda effort in these countries is nothing new; it has been a staple of Putin’s rule, calibrated to suit Russian authorities’ needs at any given time. What is different now is its intensity, the sheer brazenness of the falsehoods disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media, and the fact that its disruptive and provocative elements are being escalated as part of Russia’s new revanchist push. The Kremlin’s claims that it wants stability on its borders ring hollow in the face of its own utterly destabilizing propaganda.

Censorship and Propaganda: Two Sides of a Coin

Even as the Kremlin and its surrogates saturate social networks and the internet in general with comments from Kremlin-friendly trolls and provocateurs, more elaborate measures to censor online expression are being put in place. The “bloggers law,” for instance, requires bloggers with significant audiences to register with the authorities and obliges both domestic and international hosting services to record and turn over user data. Additional evidence that the walls are closing in on Russia’s online world is abundant. Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social-networking website, fled Russia on April 22, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies. At a forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, Putin called the internet a “CIA project” that needed to be controlled, giving a strong signal that further restrictions are in the offing…………


Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy and can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He can be followed @RobertOrttung.

Putin’s new social contract: Russians feel Great Power high again

Why did the annexation of Crimea have such a powerful mobilizing effect and strengthen the position of the Kremlin so much at a time when economic growth has stopped, capital flight has reached record levels, the ruble is falling and prices are rising? a leading analyst/activist asks.

The reason, it would seem, is simple: The ”nation of consumers” that arose in the boom years of the 2000s, which followed the chaotic and lean years of the 1990s, wants to see the country extend its influence and strength onto the global arena, says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007.

The triumphant annexation of Crimea enabled Russians to once again feel that they live in a country that is a great global power, he writes for The Moscow Times:

According to the April Levada Center poll, the overwhelming majority of respondents — 90 percent — welcomed the decision to annex Crimea with feelings of joy, approval, national pride and the sense that a historical injustice had been corrected. Only 3 percent of those polled experienced feelings of fear and anxiety, and only 0.6 percent felt shame, despair and outrage over the move.

According to the new social contract that has emerged after the Crimean annexation, the majority of Russians support Putin’s pursuit of Russia’s great-power status, Ryzhkov contends:

By extension, that means most Russians have given their consent to the creation of the Eurasian Union, the formulation of a new corporatist state ideology, a rejection of political and economic reforms, increased military spending, greater isolation from the West and a shift toward China in an attempt to form a political, economic — and perhaps eventually even military — Moscow-Beijing coalition against the West.