WASHINGTON—With its annexation of Crimea, aggression in the eastern Ukraine, and military and economic threats to NATO nations, the Kremlin has resumed a new kind of Cold War. Regardless of what Vladimir Putin may say, his motives are not benign. The West has reacted with surprise, confusion, paralysis, and mostly inaction.
To understand the Kremlin’s modus operandi and to counter it, the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR), a nonprofit think tank based in New York, sponsored a special report. Authors Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss described the methods the Kremlin uses to confuse its adversaries and exploit the West’s weaknesses.
“The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money” describes Russia as a Mafia state, whose leaders have no qualms about spreading falsehoods through the media, supplemented, if need be, by covert military threats and force deployment.
Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can speak in diplomatic voices, while Russia is really engaged in a war with the West that is leaving it bewildered. The democracies of the world have not figured out how to deal with Putin and the challenges he poses to freedom, democracy and the security of nations.
“Essentially, they are weaponizing information, and I recognized as a journalist, I had no analytical tool to which to analyze it,” said Pomerantsev. He spoke at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) on Nov. 13.
“Around 2004, Kremlin theoreticians and Duma members talked about setting up Russian compatriot NGO organizations abroad to subvert foreign countries,” he said. In his introduction to the report, Pomerantsev said the Russian Orthodox Church was to be used for the same purpose.
It’s making war with minimal use of military. Pomerantsev and Weiss say that in the Ukraine conflict, Russia used local vigilantes, but when that was insufficient, it resorted to small-scale incursions that “change facts in the ground without ever quite seemingly enough of a reason for a full-blown declaration of war.”
Enigma of Putin
“One of the stranger aspects of 21st-century geopolitics has been the West’s denial that it has an adversary or enemy in Vladimir Putin,” stated Weiss, in his introduction to the 44-page report. For 14 years, the United States and Europe believed they had “an honest partner or ally in the Kremlin,” no matter how badly he behaved, Weiss said. The annexation of Crimea and his invasion of eastern Ukraine changed all that.
Michael Weiss is editor-in-chief of “The Interpreter,” which is a daily online journal that seeks to make available to English-speaking people Russian language press and blogs. The Interpreter is a project of IMR.
“[Putin] is very adept at the conning of the openness and transparency of the Western system, particularly the Western media outlets, essentially becoming accomplices in his information warfare,” Weiss said.
Disinformation on the Ukraine
Pomerantsev and Weiss say the weapon of choice is “disinformation,” which goes much further than just propaganda. For example, Russian television inside Russia and in eastern Ukraine created the reality that “‘fascists’ have taken power in Kiev, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine are in mortal danger, and the CIA is waging a war against Moscow.”
Those brave souls who brought down corrupt Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and lost about 100 lives in doing so were depicted as fascists. The authors quote Ben Judah, “The Maidan never managed to shake the impression it was inherently far right.”
Western journalists looked for the Nazis among the revolutionaries, and so the Kremlin narrative managed to spoil the image of the Maidan for people in the West.
Another example of disinformation was when Putin used the name Novorossiya for a part of southeastern Ukraine, which he might annex someday. The name was pulled from czarist history. The authors say the people in the area don’t identify with living in Novorossiya. Yet, “Novorossiya is being imagined into being.” Russian media show its map, its history is being written in Russian school textbooks, it has a flag and a news agency, and several Twitter feeds.
The Russian disinformation technologists came up with some imaginative tales about the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, when 298 people died, presumably shot down from a Buk surface-to-air missile fired by Russian separatists supplied by Russian military. The Russian state-funded cable and satellite television’s RT spread conspiracy theories, such as the plane was shot down by Ukrainian forces aiming at Putin’s personal plane.
The Kremlin’s Internet-troll army was turned on The Guardian covering the MA17 tragedy, flooding it with 40,000 comments a day, rendering any kind of meaningful discussion impossible and undermining normal communications.
Russian media technocrats know that the Western media, such as the BBC or the New York Times, are obliged to present both sides for balance in reporting. So no matter how absurd or outrageous the lie, when the Russian Foreign Ministry puts out a claim who downed the MA17, Western media “is duty bound to repeat both sides of the story,” Weiss said.
RT used to be named Russia Today, but the name was changed to make less evident to people living outside the Russian Federation that it is Kremlin-funded or even associated with Russia, said the authors. It’s not guided by “objective truth,” which its managers say doesn’t exist. One opinion is equal to another in their view.
RT is very popular online because of its anti-US and anti-West themes, and its abundance of conspiracy theories.
“Recently, Spanish-language RT featured a report that considered whether the US was behind the Ebola outbreak—a modern echo of Soviet dezinformatsiya about the CIA being behind the AIDS virus,” states the report. The made-up account was translated into English, said Weiss.
Regarding the Syrian civil war, RT broadcast programs about an alleged massacre by rebel forces at Adra. Even after it was evident that there was no Adra massacre, RT commentators continued to discuss it as a reality, states the report.
“Even if people don’t believe it, they are still talking about it,” said Weiss. The Russian disinformation is not to convince others that their version is true; “it’s to distract them, confuse them—’look over there, but don’t look over here’.”
The report recommends a way to counter the “weaponization of information.” Legitimate media organizations should adopt the practice that when there is conscious deception, they will not use the source in news reports. Media should resist the practice of seeking to present “balance” in this case.
One big reason that more investigative reporting is not done on Putin and the “near-institutionalized corruption” that the Russian state has become is the fear of libel suits that Russian criminals bring, especially in the UK where laws are more favorable for these kinds of suits. Few publications have the means to expose Kremlin-connected figures. The authors recommend establishing a fund for journalists who face libel litigation.