Russia’s international media ‘weaponized’ to poison minds


russia todayAt a time when Russia’s image in Europe and the U.S. has sunk to extreme lows, the Kremlin has announced dramatic new plans to increase spending on foreign propaganda, according to George Washington University’s Robert Orttung and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker. The Russian state budget includes a 41 percent increase for RT, the state-backed television network that broadcasts around the world in a number of languages. Rossiya Segodnya, the successor to the now defunct global news agency RIA Novosti, is set to see a tripling of its budget, they write for the Moscow Times:

The Kremlin is focused on poisoning minds through an insidious mix of information designed to muddy the media waters and disorient international audiences. ….It is telling that the growth in resources devoted to media beyond Russia’s borders is now outstripping those within them. At home, the Kremlin’s censorship and mass media control prevent alternative ideas from entering mainstream discussion and enable the government to dominate crucial narratives.

The Kremlin’s international propaganda applies a similarly cynical and manipulative approach, where it insinuates, for instance, that all societies are thoroughly corrupt and craven, suggesting moral equivalence between autocracies and democracies. RT unloads an endless stream of material seeking to portray the West, especially the U.S., in the most decadent of ways…..

As media analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed, debunking false information is time-consuming and expensive; the Kremlin’s fabrication of information is easy and relatively cheap. While the Kremlin tightens restrictions on the Internet at home, state media takes advantage of opportunities to make deeper inroads online beyond Russia’s borders. RT’s YouTube channel has garnered more than 1.3 billion views. Even accounting for clicks from phony accounts, this is a staggering number. 

Russia and authoritarian regimes claim that their media outlets are just like Deutsche Welle, BBC or Agence France-Presse, Orttung and Walker observe:

But RT operates under the direction of unchecked authoritarian political power and is therefore an entirely different enterprise. Accordingly, it should not be understood as a news outlet, but instead seen for what it is: a weaponized media instrument.

While it denies any meaningful space at home for independent voices, beyond its borders the Kremlin is flooding the media space with half-truths and outright lies with the aim of polluting audiences’ understanding of the world.

Given the serious stakes involved, the democracies must devise a far more thoughtful response  to meet the dual challenge of Russia’s intensifying censorship and modern propaganda, they conclude.  

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. Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.



Remembering Anna: Iraqi Yazidi MP awarded Politkovskaya prize

Iraqi legislator Vian Dakhil on Monday received the Anna Politkovskaya prize for her denunciation of the jihadist group Islamic State over its brutal treatment of Yazidi women, AFP reports:

The award — handed out by London-based organisation RAW in WAR to honour women working to help those trapped in conflict — is named after crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was gunned down in Moscow on October 7, 2006.

Vian Dakhil has given “a voice to the many Yazidi and Iraqi women and girls whose voices cannot be heard,” the organisation said in a statement.

“We are peaceful people, but our men are being butchered, and our women and girls are being tortured, raped and taken as slaves,” Dakhil told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I must make the world aware that there are still people who want to rule with the laws of the Dark Ages, by forcing us to change religion or be killed.”

Dakhil stood up in parliament and made a desperate plea for help (above), warning that Yazidis, a non-Arab and non-Muslim community whose unique customs make them barely human in the eyes of the jihadists, faced genocide.

“We are being slaughtered, our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity,” she said, breaking down in tears during the televised session.


Anna politozskaya“We continue to be concerned that the mastermind of [Politkovskaya’s] killing still has not been brought to justice,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

We call on the Russian government to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of Paul Klebnikov, as well as those of Timur Kuashev, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, Kazbek Gekkiyev, and several others in the North Caucasus,” she added. “Impunity for these crimes, as well as for many other acts of violence against journalists and activists in recent years, has only worsened the atmosphere of intimidation for those who work to uncover corruption or human rights abuses.”

In commemoration of the murder of Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006, Freedom House issued the following statement:

“The murder of Anna Politkovskaya has come to symbolize the grimmest aspects of life in Russia under Vladimir Putin,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.

“Politkovskaya was an uncompromising journalist whose courageous reporting on the military conflict in Chechnya embodied freedom of the press, a universal right that remains only an aspiration in Russia….”

Journalists honored the late Russian investigative reporter by bringing paper flowers to the headquarters of her newspaper, “Novaya Gazeta,” on the eighth anniversary of her murder, RFE/RL reports. The flowers were fashioned from pages of newspapers and other media outlets taking part in the commemoration organized by Amnesty International. Ceremonies were also held in other cities


Why it’s ‘almost impossible to beat a modern autocracy’

kasparovWhy are the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong enduring where their counterparts in my country failed? asks Russian democracy activist Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.

“Thanks to a decade of anti-democracy propaganda and the annihilation of civil society, Russians worry, not unreasonably, that toppling Putin could lead to something even worse,” he writes for the Washington Post:

But there is something deeper at work. In truth, the Communist dictatorship in China needs its people—especially its young, educated, and global-minded ones—in a way Putin doesn’t….

Decades of economic and political engagement with the West and improved standards of living were supposed to liberalize dictatorships and provide leverage against them. But leverage is only useful if applied, and it is not clear Western countries are willing to do this. .

Europe’s timidity comes at a time when Russia is vulnerable to further sanctions, say analysts.

“The country’s economy has suffered under Western sanctions for Moscow’s role in the conflict in Ukraine,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Growth is expected to be no more than 0.5% this year; the ruble, pummeled by low oil prices and capital flight, has hit record lows against the U.S. dollar. Russia is on track to drain around $100 billion in net capital outflow this year, its highest amount since 2008.

The citizens of China and Russia have similar social compacts with their authoritarian governments: economic stability in exchange for their rights, Kasparov notes:

They both have heavily censored state propaganda instead of news and minimal freedom of speech and assembly. The key difference is that the Chinese regime is built on a broad collective and ideological base that is unlikely to experience drastic shifts. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, is the most dangerous and unpredictable form of government: the dictatorship of just one man.

The use of the cliché of a “return to the Cold War”  is ironic, “since it requires forgetting, rather than emulating, how the Cold War was fought and won,” he argues:

Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, of right and wrong, and on the universal values of human rights and human life, we have “engagement,” “resets,” and moral equivalence. The Cold War was won not just by military or economic superiority, but on values that I, a former Soviet citizen, un-ironically call traditional American values. Chief among them is the belief that individual freedom matters and is worth sacrificing for, fighting for, even dying for. For now, the Hong Kong protesters appear admirably willing to test that proposition.

“We cannot resolve the problems of globalization with the tools that created it,” Kasparov insists. “We need new frameworks to confront the globalized dictatorships in Russia and China.”           RTWT

Khodorkovsky – Russia nearing 1917-like crisis

KHODOKOVSKYThe last time he was in the U.S., Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky was an oil tycoon and Russia’s richest man in the midst of a political fight with the Kremlin. He had been warned to leave his country, but defiantly headed home, Peter Baker writes for the New York Times:  

Khodorkovsky announced last month that he was re-establishing Open Russia, his foundation supporting civil society in his home country. In recent days, he has positioned himself as the leader of a renewed opposition intent on replacing Mr. Putin and bringing European-style democracy to Russia.

“It’s not just Putin that needs to be replaced,” he told a small group of journalists and foreign policy specialists over lunch this week. “The entire system needs to be changed.”

He said only a fraction — he estimated 12 percent — of Russians are currently European-oriented, but he hoped to convince many of the rest that they should be, too.

“All authoritarian regimes, especially ones like this that aren’t based on an ideology but on an individual person, are highly unstable,” he told Bloomberg. “In order to retain power, such authoritarian leaders are forced to burn the field all around themselves, which is what Putin is doing.”

“I fear that Putin is going to bring the country to a crisis much more quickly than many would like,” Khodorkovsky, 51, said in an interview with Charlie Rose in New York. Russia could end up seeing “a repeat of 1917 when a person brings the country to an economic crisis, and we are certainly moving right in that direction.”

The chief executive of Russia’s largest bank Sberbank, Herman Gref, delivered a scathing critique of Putin’s statist management of the economy, warning that Russia could repeat the fate of the Soviet Union, reports suggest:

“Why did the Soviet Union break up?” said Gref, a former economy minister. “There is one key reason which determined the rest: it’s mind-boggling incompetence of the Soviet leadership. They did not respect the laws of economic development.”

Gref seemed to question the Kremlin’s policies including the ban on imports. “I beg your pardon but we import nearly everything.”

“You cannot motivate people through the Gulag — like in the Soviet Union,” he said, referring to Stalin’s system of forced labour camps. “People cannot make creative products when they don’t understand the current economic policies and business climate.”

Addressing reporters, Khodorkovskyexpressed some hesitance about the idea of becoming Russia’s leader himself. “I really hope they find somebody else,” he said. “Historically, the person in charge during the transition period most likely ends up in jail.” Then he added with a laugh, “I’ve had enough.”

“I have to say I’m impressed by him,” said David J. Kramer, the president of Freedom House, which promotes democracy and human rights around the world. “But he’s still figuring out how he can make a difference. And it’s obviously very difficult to do from outside the country.” RTWT

Russia’s choice: liberalism or fascism, says Khodorkovsky

khodorkovskiyRussia faces the choice of reviving the European values that generated its launch into modernity or regressing “to the Middle Ages,” according to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos and the country’s leading political dissident.

“All that my country has today, everything that it considers truly ‘its own’, everything that has allowed it to become a great power and that is now its ‘calling card’: space exploration, the nuclear shield, literature and art, the high level of education and science – was created within the scope of the European cultural tradition,” he said, delivering the keynote speech at last night’s annual Freedom House Awards dinner.

“A break with the West, with its values and its knowledge, is a dangerous step, one that leads to Russia losing its true cultural identity,” he said. “The ‘Eurasianism’ that is being actively forced upon society as the new totalitarian ideology is nothing more than a verbose justification for militant ignorance and barbarism,” he argued.

Russia is fighting a war in Ukraine “not for the sake of national interests, not to defend their Fatherland, but in order to save power for a handful of plutocrats, who in this way are trying to extend life of the regime which is outdated already,” Khodorkovsky said:  

European choice, social justice and national mobilization

There is a legend about how nearly 200 years ago, the Russian political émigrés of that time asked the Russian court historian Karamzin for the news about what was happening in the Motherland. Karamzin thought for a moment and then replied with a single word: “Stealing”. Little has changed in Russia since those times.

khodorkovsky prisonThe worst thing that I discovered when I got out of prison was that those ten years had been stolen not only from me, they had been stolen from the entire country. …. Concealed behind a façade of outward prosperity is the fact that the country has stopped its development. Not only that, in most areas it has been flung back far into the distant past: politically, economically, psychologically.

But that is not all. It turns out that the regime has robbed not only Russia. It is trying to throw the whole world back into the era of the cold war (if not a hot one), when disputes are resolved at the point of a gun, while one’s superiority is proven not by rates of economic growth, but by military aggression. Russia and the world have come to a very dangerous point, beyond which looms a Third World War.

The return to Europe

A return to the European values that lie at the foundation of the Euro-Atlantic civilization, – a mental and political return – is the starting point for the new political course that could help Russia work its way out of the historical snare it is now in. ….

All that my country has today, everything that it considers truly “its own”, everything that has allowed it to become a great power and that is now its “calling card”: space exploration, the nuclear shield, literature and art, the high level of education and science (which even thirty years of “timelessness” were incapable of destroying) – was created within the scope of the European cultural tradition, in interaction with European culture and within the milieu of European culture. ….

A break with the West, with its values and its knowledge, is a dangerous step, one that leads to Russia losing its true cultural identity. The “Eurasianism” that is being actively forced upon society as the new totalitarian ideology is nothing more than a verbose justification for militant ignorance and barbarism. ….

European values (or Euro-Atlantic, as it is now the common practice to call them) are first and foremost values of a strong and just state with effective institutions and laws that work. Russia needs these no less than any other people in the world do. Russia needs a law-based state and an open economy not because this will please Western Europe and America, but so it can work together with the Euro-Atlantic world – and if necessary compete with it as well – on equal terms. …..

Anti-Western hysteria is a manifestation of psychological insecurity and fear of competition on the part of those fringe elements who are today’s elite in Russia.

Restoring the “balance of fairness” is a top-priority task for all of the forces that have the transformation of Russia into a modern and dynamically developing state as their objective. If a solution is not found for this strategic task, society is not going to put its support behind any economic, social, or political reform. …..

The vector of development of Russian liberalism, which is exclusively political today, needs to be rethought. Producing draft constitutions and plans for radical political and economic reforms is a futile exercise until society begins to feel that the liberal idea is a fair idea…..

Society has enormous potential for self-organization when there is an idea around which a matrix can form. For Russia, such an idea can only be a socially oriented nation state. The only question is will this socially oriented nation state be liberal or fascist?

Russia is already making real war. those who send heroes to die not in the name of national interests, not to defend the Fatherland, but in order to keep in power a small group of plutocrats who are trying in this way to prolong the life of a regime that has already outlived itself.

National mobilization     

Russia has gotten stuck on a dangerous historical track, getting out of which is very complicated. In order to simply stop, and all the more so to switch to some other track, is going to require mobilization of all of the energies of the Russian people. The task of true Russian patriots is not in promising the Russian people smooth sailing but in telling the truth. Only if they understand the scale of the threat and of the historical significance of the moment can the people be moved to perform heroic deeds. And without heroic deeds, Russia today cannot be saved.

The heroic deed of the Russian people must consist of constructive labor, of inculcating discipline and moderation, and of developing the ability to work together and to help one another – in other words, of reviving all those moral skills that had helped Russian culture to develop and that have been lost to a large extent in recent years. In order to raise the people up to be able to perform this heroic deed, the pro-European minority needs to prove its moral soundness and its readiness to observe, not in word, but in deed, the principle of equality of all before the law. It is precisely this equality of all before a law that is the same for all, before an adversity that is the same for all, and for a common cause that is the same for all, that the true sense of liberalism consists.

The above excerpt is taken from the prepared text of a speech delivered by Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the 2014 annual Freedom House Awards held on the evening of October 1, 2014.


A Conversation With Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Founder, Open Russia

Stephen Sestanovich
George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Board member, National Endowment for Democracy.

Date: Monday, October 6, 2014
Press Registration: 8:00 a.m.–8:30 a.m.
Meeting: 8:30 a.m.–9:30 a.m.

Location: Council on Foreign Relations
58 East 68th Street, New York, NY 10065

Please note: Video cameras will not be permitted at this event. However, the event will be live streamed at and available on our high-definition Waterfront circuit ID 4680.

Reply by: 10:00 a.m. on Friday, October 3, 2014
Reply to:
Open to accredited journalists only.

Press Contact:
Jake Meth