Sunday, May 25, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Despite Its Crudeness, Putin’s Propaganda Campaign Works Where He Needs It, Polish Study Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – The essential dishonesty of the Kremlin’s propaganda message is so blatant and so easy to unmask given the Internet and the ugliness of the ideas Moscow is pushing are “not appealing” to the West. But Vladimir Putin’s “ideological newspeak based on disinformation falls on fertile socio-cultural ground in the East,” a new Polish study says.

            In a 38-page case study entitled “The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation,” Jolanta Darzcewska argues that this distinction explains why Putin’s campaign works where he needs it to now but may not work more in the broader world (

            The study, released last week by the Warsaw Centre for Eastern Studies, argues that the information warfare campaign Moscow unleashed before seizing Crimea, is consistent with what Moscow has been doing “for years now”  both at home to strengthen the regime and abroad to spread Russian influence in the former Soviet republics.

            This longstanding effort reflects the large number of people in Russia’s “power elite whose careers started in the secret services” of either the USSR or the Russian Federation and who “have adopted a strategy of rivalry with the external world.” 

            These people have backed “above all the consistent building of the scientific and research base dealing with information warfare, as well as developing the base to ensure organizational, media, ideological, legislative, diplomatic, social, academic and culture circles’ along with other support.”

          What the world has seen in the case of Crimea, Darzcewska says, is “an old product in new packaging” rather than any broader innovation. Indeed, she suggests, what innovations there have been “concern the organization of activity within the network” of communications channels rather than the message itself.

            “The contemporary Russian information geopolitics,” she notes, “which uses in its theoretical deliberations a kind of ‘ideological newspeak,’ clearly draws upon Soviet psychological warfare and Soviet mental stereotypes.”  What it has done in the case of Crimea is “to take into consideration new media tools” like the Internet.

            Some have wondered whether this might allow the Kremlin to launch such information warfare against the West as did the Soviet Union, but that is unlikely she says because “the Russian propaganda is rather incredible and easy to verify in the era of new technologies. Furthermore, the propagated ideas are not appealing.”

            But such efforts do work among Russian speakers in neighboring countries like Ukraine, and it was they who were “Russia’s main ally during the Crimean operation.  The linguistic space where Russian is used was also one of the factors which contributed to the successful action.”

            It is, Darzcewska continues, “a convenient information and media space, and one receptive to Russian propaganda. Furthermore, the post-Soviet area (including Ukraine) is also thoroughly reconnoitred and permeated with the aid of agents of influence originating from the multitude of Russian diaspora organizations.”

            “The Western public,” in contrast, “is less receptive to Russian disinformation.” Its members “are fully aware that the ‘new’ project of ‘conservative revolution,’ that is, the de-Americanization of the world, including Europe, being promoted by Russia, is unattractive, nothing new, and in fact means setting partition lines between the spheres of influence.”

            Moscow is thus promoting its messages to Western audiences via other “specialist media” like the Voice of Russia and Russia Today television and the Russian foreign ministry “in a more sophisticated manner. Disinformation provided [via these channels] has been and will continue to be more difficult to decipher.”

            (Darzcewska does not mention by the late Nathalie Grant, probably the West’s greatest authority on disinformation, frequently argued that one of the reasons disinformation is so successful is that it is mostly true and its audiences are unwilling or unable to make distinctions between what they know to be true and what they would discover is false.)

            In the case of the Voice of Russia radio station and TV RT, disinformation is also spread by local opinion leaders. Different wording is used here, but manipulation is also inherent in this wording” which “draws upon generally respected values” that its audience won’t challenge.

            And at the same time, Darzcewska says, those behind Moscow’s propaganda and disinformation effort “also play on the various motivations of various social groups in the West” exploiting “pacifists’ fear of war, politicians’ fear of unpredictability,’ and entrepreneurs’ fear of losses.”

            These channels also draw on experts from the target community to explain “why Western models will not work for example in Ukraine.  Such efforts are often successful, the Polish scholar says, because “public opinion is not aware of the fact that [it is] the object of a planned and coordinated information struggle.”

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