Information warfare is the hot topic of the moment one year on from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Caught off guard by the scale and audacity of Moscow’s propaganda offensive, Western governments and think tanks are straining to catch up with seminars and conferences devoted to analysing Russia’s mastery of the information landscape. The governments of the UK, Denmark, Lithuania and Estonia have tabled joint proposals for an EU response. The Ukrainian government is launching a TV news channel and mobilising an Internet army in a conscious effort to emulate Russian tactics. Matching Russia, spin for spin, seems to be the desired goal.
Some of this may be worthwhile, but much of it will be ineffective or even counterproductive unless greater effort is made to understand why Russian propaganda works. The starting point has to be an honest acknowledgement that the Kremlin’s most effective lies are built on foundations of truth. They play on the insecurities of Western societies that have become disoriented by economic crisis and the divisive legacy of the War on Terror. Messages are cleverly targeted at those who are already questioning their values and place in the world. Above all, Putin’s propagandists are adept at exploiting our mistakes and turning them against us.
Russia’s depiction of the revolt that ousted Viktor Yanukovych from power as a Western-sponsored fascist coup may be absurd, but it’s a fiction we helped to create. An intercepted phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her Ambassador in Kiev, in which they mused imperiously on who should run the country as the regime crumbled, made it seem like Washington was pulling the strings. The decision to include the Russophobic and anti-Semitic Svoboda party in the post-Yanukovych government allowed Putin to warn Crimeans that the fascists were coming. America didn’t overthrow Yanukovych, the people of Ukraine did. The far right has very little support in Ukraine; Svoboda failed to get 5% in last autumn’s parliamentary elections. Yet these mistakes enabled Russia’s information warriors to make their narrative stick.
A favoured theme of Russian propaganda is the status of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the ex-Soviet states. The Russian government routinely refers to the seventeen million or so ‘compatriots’ living in neighbouring countries as persecuted minorities in need of protection. Although the claim is flimsy, Ukrainian lawmakers helped to give it substance in the days following the fall of Yanukovych by voting to repeal legislation that granted the Russian language official status in certain regions. The decision was vetoed by the acting President, but the damage had already been done. The language issue still crops up in conversation with those who think that Putin’s claim to be acting in defence of human rights has some basis in fact.
The Baltic States have long been a focus of criticism from Moscow and last autumn a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official threatened them with “unfortunate consequences” over their treatment of ethnic Russian minorities. Some fear that Putin is preparing the ground for his next military adventure. The reality is that Russians living in the Baltic are far less likely to be victims of discrimination than, say, people from the Caucasus living in Moscow. Yet tough language requirements do mean that many Russians in Latvia and Estonia are unable to get citizenship and experience reduced educational and employment opportunities. More could and should be done to integrate them into society.
Given the fear of Russian intervention and the suspicion that ethnic Russians might be used as a ‘fifth column’, examples of overt discrimination and political persecution are quite rare. A particularly glaring exception concerns the treatment of Viktor Uspaskich, the Russian-born founder of the Lithuanian Labour Party, prosecuted for fraudulent accounting of his party’s finances. In a case that featured political pressure on the judiciary, the use of forged evidence and countless abuses of due process, Uspaskich was eventually sentenced to four years in prison in 2013. Only his immunity as an MEP now prevents his incarceration. Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on a request from the Lithuania authorities to revoke that immunity.
For once the suggestion that the judicial process has been politically manipulated doesn’t need to be inferred. A leaked US diplomatic cable records the boast of a senior Lithuanian official that he and his government “engineered the departure of Labor Party kingpin Viktor Uspaskich from Lithuania because of the latter’s ties to the Russian SVR”. The SVR is Russia’s foreign espionage service, but no evidence linking Uspaskich to it has ever been produced, nor does a charge to that effect appear on any indictment. The only real connection appears to be Uspaskich’s Russian ethnicity.
Our best protection against Russian propaganda isn’t counter-propaganda; it’s the resolute defence of democratic standards. Compromising those standards plays into Putin’s hands by allowing him to blur the distinction between his methods and ours. This, in turn, weakens our capacity to resist by sowing doubt about what we are seeking to defend. A renewed attempt to restrict the Russian language in Ukraine would suggest to many people that this is not a fight between European values and authoritarianism, but between two different forms of nationalism. It’s a fight most Europeans would not wish to be part of. Weaponising the legal system to take out your political opponents is pure Putinism. If we weaken the rule of law to combat Russia, we have already lost.
We can’t defeat the cynicism of the Kremlin’s information war unless we remain true to ourselves. The European Parliament would be doing itself, Lithuania and the West in general a favour if it votes this week to uphold Victor Uspaskich’s immunity instead of handing Vladimir Putin yet another stick with which to beat us.