Putin’s right-hand man and Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, has publicly described propaganda and disinformation as weapons of equal standing in the arsenal of the Russian Federation (RF). In terms of RF’s current invasion of Ukraine, it is therefore worth considering how those weapons work.
First of all, what is the Kremlin’s propaganda goal? Stanislaw Zaryn, an official with the Polish Prime Minister’s agencies, recently put it this way to a leading RF propaganda monitoring organisation, StopFake.org:
‘The Kremlin’s objective is to show a false image of the Russian invasion – its causes and consequences, to spread lies about the Ukrainian nation, to slander [the West’s] authorities, to provoke chaos, to ignite conflicts, and to break unity of the West on every possible level: military, economic and humanitarian.’
While that may be the immediate goal, let’s note that contemporary RF ‘hybrid warfare’ directed at Ukraine, its allies, and the world more broadly comes from an established tradition of the KGB, Putin’s former employer. As a report by the Institute of Global Affairs (including authorship by renown analysts Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev) notes:
‘Deception has a long-standing history in Russian strategic thinking. Often termed maskirovka (masking), Russian strategists have studied and taught the value of all kinds of deception from camouflage through to complex battlefield feints. Associated with the idea of maskirovka is the notion of ‘reflexive control’, which holds that a skilled strategist can manipulate his opponent through deception and force them into significant errors.’
By 2022, the distribution of deceptive disinformation by the RF has become fully digitised. Replacing various inefficient fifth column activities, the Internet is the propagandist’s greatest friend. It has made their dark art faster, broader, cheaper, and much more agile.
As one example, it is estimated RF troll factories employ thousands of people on a 24/7 basis each with a content quota of tweets per day. One leading factory – the Internet Research Agency – is believed to have some 400 staff working 12-hour shifts, according to a US Senate report. One IRA employee described work shifts during which she was required to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts, and 150 to 200 comments on other trolls’ postings.
And that’s just the most obvious and blunt stuff.
So, whether it’s some guy pumping out 140 characters at a time in a windowless room in Vladivostok or the ‘strategic communications specialist’ writing a Defence Ministry statement, what are some of the tactics to look out for?
Exploiting the West’s ‘two sides’ approach.
A self-perceived strength of liberal democracies is their commitment to objectivity and factuality. Journalists are drilled into hearing ‘both sides of the story’ and to verify competing claims. The RF exploits this ‘strength’ as a weakness. RF propagandists know that their information and statements will often be given the same (or at least some) weight of credibility by Western journalists – no matter what the RF says. They equally know that the news cycle is so fast that most journalists have little time to confirm factuality and therefore tag much content with the cover-all that, whether emanating from either the Ukrainian or RF militaries, ‘claims could not be confirmed’. All that has the combined effect of making the RF somehow morally equivalent in the news cycle. Mission accomplished.
This was pathetically evident in the coverage of the sinking of the Moskva battleship. Ukraine was fast to state that two of its Neptune missiles had taken the ship out. Moscow countered that the ship had experienced a fire and was being towed to port. Following further undeniable evidence, the RF then later indicated that the ship had sunk in high seas while being towed.
Because Western media would not accept Ukraine’s (true) claim as subject to confirmation and because they in part accepted the RF’s (false) claim as ‘there’s two sides’, the RF took points where it deserved none in the propaganda battle. Much of the media got duped, and the RF successfully: a) diluted the Ukrainians’ outright triumph, and; b) muddied the waters on the causality of Moskva’s humiliating sinking for domestic audiences.
Deny, distract and deflect.
The three D’s of avoiding accountability have long been part of the RF/Soviet playbook, and it plays them at both the meta and micro levels. Some leading examples have been around the shooting down of MH17 or the murder of Sergei Skripal in the UK.
The tactic is currently being used to scare the West out of full-scale military aid to Ukraine. First, deny there is an invasion but frame it as a ‘special military operation’ – which is harder to respond to than an outright war. Second, distract by saying the purpose of the operation is ‘to deNazify Ukraine’ – which forces Ukraine’s allies down various blind allies. Third, deflect by planting ‘but what about a third world war?’ – which makes further aid look like a disproportionate risk.
In terms of the atrocities at Bucha, and with little reference to either evidence or consistent logic but with major consideration of insatiable news cycles and various target audiences, the RF has denied that anything occurred, distracted by claiming that the killings and rapes were staged as a Ukrainian engineered provocation, and deflected by labelling the whole situation as ‘fake news’.
The 2 percent rule.
RF propaganda does not need to be compelling to the majority or even a substantial proportion of people in Western audiences to be successful. It only takes one stubborn juror who won’t accept the evidence to have a hung trial. Even if a tiny fraction of Westerners spin the RF’s lines, or spend time fighting them, there is a social cost in the form of destabilised, more anxious, and more doubting democratic societies. This was evident in RF cross-fertilisation of anti-vax positions during the pandemic. Under this method, the RF again takes a self-perceived Western strength – diversity of opinion and pluralism – and uses it to wedge apart different social groupings in society.
Every action has a reaction and that is true in propaganda terms as well. Indeed, at various levels, Western and Ukrainian interests have to work to monitor and rebut RF propaganda claims, usually by citing empirical evidence etc aimed at debunking falsehoods. The RF has an economical and effective way – especially for the domestic public – of dealing with such forays and avoiding substantive engagement. Namely, they are all part of a Russophobic movement led by the RF’s opponents who are hell-bent on its destruction.
This method also has emotional latency and cut-through; behavioural psychologists, political campaigners, and rhetoricians as far back as Aristotle alike attest that emotions – especially around fear and hatred – always beat rationality, especially in audiences with lower educational levels. (In this vein, this article itself will be dismissed as Russophobia too.)
Interestingly, some analysts are now suggesting that the RF needs this status as the ‘victim of the world’ for broader social purposes as well. They point out that the contemporary RF is not ethnically Russian; it is increasingly heterogeneous in its make-up. This is underscored by the significant proportion of non-Slavic minority group members cynically sent to fight and needlessly die in Ukraine.
Under Putin’s mafia state, ‘Russian’ cultural production per se is lacklustre, and there is no coherent and compelling ideology to commonly bring people together. On the contrary, it is easier to promote alternative unifying theme around ‘we must defend ourselves against all who hate us’, a theme that even the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has now adopted.
As far back as 2016, Ukrainian observers at EuroMaidan Press noted in their Guide to Propaganda:
‘The supposedly all-present enemy can be used to deflect criticism away from Russia’s rulers. Problems and political opposition are caused by external conspirators… The average person compensates for his or her helplessness through the illusion of involvement in historical events and a link to the abstraction called “Russia”… More often than not, Russians have never been abroad, and do not know the actual attitudes of western countries. For this reason, such Russians are easily subject to manipulation, in this case leading them to blame external enemies for their own problems.’
A society is truly neurotic and unsustainable society when it is based on fear and loathing of ‘the other’ rather than a pride in its own past and potential.
Firehouse of falsehood model.
The authoritative Rand Corporation in the US has thus characterised the RF’s propaganda practice including its distinguishing features: a) extremely high volumes of information output; b) use of all available channels to multitudes of audiences; c) constant repetition of claims and content; d) no commitment to any factuality and therefore releasing and relying on any number of seemingly contradictory narratives at once. The overriding principle appears to be throw as much as you can and see what sticks. But even the ‘throwing’ engages and diverts your enemy as the ‘sticking’. The West often makes the blunder of fighting by Marquess of Queensbury rules, while Putin feels under no obligation to.
That in fact may be the most important rule in considering RF propaganda. Namely, that is ultimate architect, sponsor and purveyor does not think about words the way most of us are culturally accustomed to. Rather, he may be taking his lead from another student and practitioner of the subject, others, Adolf Hitler, who said:
‘Propaganda must not serve the truth, especially as it might bring out something favorable for the opponent.’
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.