(Exerpt from the main report of Peter Pomerantsev and Edward Lucas)
Preface of Chief Editor “Light and Shadows”. Stanislav Ovcharenko.
This message of Edward Lucas and Peter Pomeranstev we hold as too timely even belatedly from the Western thinkers and analysts. We recognize all the conclusions of these authors that try to analyze the mechanisms and methods of Russian “spetspropaganda” inherited from the former Soviet Union. Quite positively we can appreciate the role of this warning for the Western public opinion and national governments that were underwent by the means of disinformation warfare against open Western societies and political regimes.
Nevertheless, we ought to notice the necessity to comprehend the reasons that caused these so expensive actions that targeted to undermine the ground of the Western society. In short, we, living inside post-soviet country such as Ukraine, we can perceive better and more clearly the true motives of these inimical efforts against the existence of the Western society, especially the new shoots of a free society in Ukraine that survived after two maidans 2004 and 2014.
Russian Empire cannot will be transformed as the open free society without the sequences of the collapse of Empire as such. The Russian population prefers the preservation of the Empire at the cost of the modernization of Russian society. Correspondingly, this empire can survive in the conditions of external expansion in the areas of former Soviet Union. The inner evolution in the so called “Russian World” exists as the reversal back to the archaic past.
Impossibility to the social modernization in the conditions of the existence of empire causes the aspiration to stop off the same process in the rest of the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. This problem can be facilitated by the existence of Russian diaspora that very often ardently backs the memory of the former Soviet Union. The so called “Russian World” belongs to the Eastern civilization with the predominance of the despotic state power over the civil society and relationships of private property, regime of private property that antagonistically counters the rules of the life in the Western society, so restricted on the surface of Earth. In Russia dominates the regime of collective responsibility with lack of public solidarity.
We, eventually, must highlight the leaning of the cultural inheritance, embedded in the mass psychology during the lives of several generations. Next we ought to disclose the consequences of the technological revolution in the worldwide and the unforeseen social results of this technological growth.
In short, the theme of the social consequences of the collapse of Communism and technological revolution is inexhaustible…
Below the very interesting message:
Russia’s use of information as a weapon is not new, but the sophistication and intensity are increasing. Belatedly, the West has begun to realize that disinformation poses a serious threat to the United States and its European allies, primarily the “frontline states”—Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine—but also to Western Europe and North America. Across the Western world, the Kremlin promotes conspiratorial discourse and uses disinformation to pollute the information space, increase polarization and undermine democratic debate. Russia’s actions accelerate the declining confidence in international alliances and organizations, public institutions and mainstream media.
The Information Warfare Initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) analyzes the impact of Russian disinformation by drawing on dozens of case studies, both those directly commissioned by the authors and those made available by allied organizations. This paper synthesizes those works and analyzes the tools of Russian information warfare—overt propaganda channels such as RT, proxies disguised as mainstream media outlets and social media—as well as the political forces, civil society actors, businesses and public figures who use them. It also looks at several examples of Russian policies which have been enacted using disinformation: Specific interventions in decision-making (such as seeding fear of Western institutions and alliances (Lithuania); fomenting insurrection (eastern Ukraine); general denigration of a country’s international reputation (Latvia); the development of native pro-Kremlin media (the Czech Republic and Estonia); and support for far-right and ultranationalist movements and sentiments (Poland).
The dangerous age of disinformation
This report examines Russia’s use of state-sponsored propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) at a time when the age of information is fast becoming the age of disinformation. As revisionist, autocratic states like Russia sharpen their use—and abuse—of information, liberal democracies are failing to keep pace.
Unlike Soviet propaganda, Russia’s contemporary methods of information warfare do not crudely promote the Kremlin’s agenda. Instead, they are calibrated to confuse, befuddle and distract. Russia aims to erode public support for Euro-Atlantic values in order to increase its own relative power. It exploits ethnic, linguistic, regional, social and historical tensions, and promotes anti-systemic causes, extending their reach and giving them a spurious appearance of legitimacy. Consequently, information warfare intensifies geopolitical, economic and ideological competition in areas that are crucial to U.S. interests, such as the Baltic north and Black Sea south.
This is by design; Russia believes it is entitled to a “gray zone” along its borders, an area in which the sovereignty of other nations is constrained and in which its politicians and its companies enjoy privileged economic and political status. It regards the post-1989 settlement of Europe as both deplorable and temporary. It sees democracies and open societies as a threat, because they may “infect” Russia with their ideas. It regards Western talk of human rights and the rule of law as deliberately misleading, naïve or delusional. It aims to undermine a rules-based multilateral security order in Europe that it regards as unfair and unsustainable. In both Georgia and Ukraine, it has proven that it is willing to use military force to destroy this security order too. But military force is not Russia’s only weapon.
As this report demonstrates, Russian propaganda efforts in Europe form an important part of its hybrid approach to the projection of power. Although the Ukraine crisis first drew Western attention to the significance of Russia’s information campaign, the Kremlin’s use of disinformation long predates that crisis. It has been growing in sophistication, intensity, reach and impact. Russian efforts are carefully orchestrated, thoughtfully targeted, generously funded and professionally produced.
So far, they have met little effective resistance. Although the West may have the military and economic edge over Russia, it does not have the same level of focus or control. Western democracies do not—and will not—exert the same power over media, business and intellectuals as does Russia. At the same time, policymakers in the United States and Europe—distracted by other issues such as migration, economic upheaval, Middle East wars, Britain’s departure from the EU and tensions with China—rarely appreciate the scope and depth of the Russian threat. When they do, they do not know how to counter it because they have largely forgotten the skills and knowledge gained during the Cold War. The West has diminished its counter-propaganda infrastructure, for example by abolishing the U.S. Information Agency and winding down the Cold War-era Active Measures Working Group. Current defensive efforts are either useless or counterproductive.
But if Europe and North America do not promptly respond to this challenge, the result may be dramatic. Russia is radically challenging Euro-Atlantic solidarity and adding to widespread public discontent. At stake is the West’s ability to manage crises and guarantee the long-term future of the European security order and America’s role as a European power. Nor is Russia unique. Neo-authoritarian states and nonstate groups across the world aggressively employ disinformation. China is using its “Three Warfares” policy to challenge the international order in the South China Sea. ISIS reaches Western households with tailor-made propaganda, grooming the vulnerable for radicalization. If the West can learn to deal with Russian disinformation, then it will be better prepared for further challenges in the future.
What is information warfare?
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. Inside Russia, this concept is known as “information-psychological war.” It is a tactic used to disorganize and demoralize an opponent. It is fought in the realms of perception and the minds of men. It continues through both official peace and wartime.
Russian disinformation is disseminated both overtly—though foreign-language television (notably the multilingual RT) and the self-styled news agency Sputnik International—and covertly, using notionally independent journalists, experts and commentators (many of whom lack legitimacy or status elsewhere) as well as Internet trolls (paid propagandists).1 It operates in many languages and regions including Europe, the Americas and Asia, though this report concentrates on the CEE region.
The underlying message is simple: the United States is engaged in a selfish, ruthless bid for world domination. By implication, anything Russia or any other country can do to resist this is commendable and justified. It portrays the foundations of modern Euro-Atlantic security—including NATO enlargement to former communist countries and Western support for Ukraine—as hypocritical and unjust. CEE countries—now the Western alliance’s frontline states—are depicted as hysterically Russophobic U.S. puppets run by unscrupulous elites who do not have their peoples’ interests at heart.
This message is customized for particular markets, varies from country to country, and includes both local and foreign policy themes. Kremlin outlets accuse Finnish authorities of child abduction in disputes arising over child welfare and custody battles following the breakup of Finnish-Russian marriages.2 In Sweden, the security police force, Säpo, notes that Russia has “flooded the news arena with nonsense” as part of psychological warfare efforts.3 In Germany, a recent propaganda campaign featured the (invented) sexual assault by migrants on “Lisa,” a young woman of Russian heritage.4 In Britain, the Sputnik International “news agency” highlighted the EU’s shortcomings during the recent EU referendum campaign.5 In Poland, Russia’s message is that the West undermines national values. The Baltic states and Ukraine are portrayed to their own people as failures—blighted by corruption, disorder, emigration and poverty—and run by a sinister elite of Western puppets with fascist sympathies. At the same time, Russia threatens Finland with World War III and Sweden with “retaliatory actions” if either country joins NATO, and warns Denmark that it will become a nuclear target if it joins NATO’s missile defense program.6
Internal issues in one country can become a foreign policy theme in another. Russian propaganda in Western Europe makes great play of the supposed plight of its “compatriots” in the former Soviet area—a loosely defined term that includes those who speak Russian as a first language, or identify themselves as Russian by ethnicity. It falsely claims that these segments of the population face discrimination or outright persecution because of their ethnic, civic or linguistic affiliations
Kremlin propaganda also rebuts and deflects any criticism of Russia’s own behavior. All negative commentary about Russia is portrayed as either invented or unfair: the result of double standards, prejudice and self-interest. In a CEPA research paper, information warfare expert and former NATO spokesman Ben Nimmo characterizes these tactics as dismissing the critic, distorting the facts, distracting from the main issue and dismaying the audience.8 Russia’s disinformation campaign constitutes a formidable offensive and defensive weapon, one with deep historical roots.
Case study: Ukraine
Several important studies have already been made on the techniques of Russian information war in Ukraine. Few, though, have sought to chart, analyze and explain the numerous examples of Russian propaganda in any meaningful way. This case study draws on the work of Stopfake.org, an online myth-busting initiative set up by teachers and students at Kyiv-Mohyla University.41 Stopfake.org has analyzed, fact-checked and debunked more than 500 stories from Russian TV, print and Internet media as well as social media, both government-controlled and private. Once collected, Stopfake.org categorizes these stories depending on the themes of the fakes, forms of output (text, photo, video, meme) and the target audiences.
In Ukraine, Stopfake.org has identified two major narrative “themes” used by Russian disinformation. The first interprets the Euromaidan protests as a coup d’état in which a Western-backed junta seized power from Ukraine’s rightful rulers. This plays into aforementioned wider narratives about a supposed Western–mostly American–plot to dominate the world. The second attempts to define the emerging democratic regime in Ukraine as “fascist.” This dual narrative has “cultivated unrest inside the country by sowing enmity among segments of Ukrainian society and confusing the West with waves of disinformation.” Against this backdrop “…Russian proxy forces and covert troops launch just enough military offensives to ensure that the Ukrainian government looks weak.”42 The ultimate objective of both narratives is to destabilize Ukraine psychologically and to advance a conviction that the country is a failed state. With this pessimistic view of the country, Russia hopes to destroy both domestic and international support for reforms that would make Kyiv more independent from Moscow.43
By associating the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine with fascism and an anti-Russian, Western-backed coup, Russia hopes to galvanize its own domestic audience behind its assertive foreign policy. Similarly, it hopes to radicalize potential supporters in eastern and southern Ukraine to bolster its military campaign there. Finally, Russia hopes to discredit the Ukrainian government in the eyes of Europe and NATO.
In addition, the Kremlin seeks to reach a wide range of potential supporters. For that reason, the major narratives are backed up by tactics designed to targets those with little appetite for complex politics. “Human interest stories” that act as “clickbait” have accused the United States of deploying the Zika virus and other diseases as a weapon to attack its enemies (see Box, below). These human-interest stories perpetuate the same narratives—that the United States seeks to dominate the globe or that the Ukrainian government is fascist—but do so by targeting individuals with different levels of education as well as regional audiences.
Content and organization
Three terms are particularly useful in understanding Russian disinformation in Ukraine. Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive.
The term “provocation” belongs to the traditional repertoire of distraction. It works
upon the assumption of a threat from outside that may manifest itself in a series of provocations targeted against the regime’s stability. The term is rooted in Soviet political language, which sought to denounce potential critical voices by framing them as provocations or instances of sabotage by foreign agents or fifth columnists. This type of narrative construction is particularly well suited to consolidating a narrative of an active West provoking a passive Russia to defend itself. Consequently, the dynamics of the conflict are turned upside down: the attacker becomes the victim and the victim is accused of starting the conflict.
To conceal the presence of Russian armed forces in the region, a more subtle deception scheme was needed. The “humanitarian catastrophe” narrative provided a convenient cover for action: the delivery of humanitarian aid and Russian weaponry to the region. On August 5, 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia was going to organize “an international humanitarian mission for the southeast of Ukraine.” By March 2016, altogether 50 convoys, consisting of over 100 trucks each, had crossed the border into Ukraine, allegedly delivering humanitarian assistance to the locals, but reportedly supplying illegal military groups and Russian regular troops with weapons and ammunition.
The terms anti-Russian and Russophobic have become part of the official parlance. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the dismantling of war monuments in Ukraine and described it as “barbaric Russophobic action.” Ukrainian researcher Alexandr Osipian has argued that the framing of Maidan activists as anti-Russian and Russophobic has been made on purpose to render “any attempt to carry out similar protests in Russia unthinkable” and to automatically classify anybody speaking in support of Ukraine’s Maidan as a traitor. Thus, in the Russian domestic context, a citizen who is critical towards the official line or expresses sympathy for countries in conflict with Russia is now deemed a “Russophobe.”.This is important, since the “stigmatizing effect” created by the constant use of political slogans, labels and clichés is extended from the purely domestic sphere to the outside world.