Forbes Business Policy The West Is Failing To Penetrate The Russian Information Space: How We Got Here And What To Do About It Melik Kaylan Contributor Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. I cover conflicts, frontiers and upheavals mired in history. Following Feb 2, 2023, 07:30pm EST | Press play to listen to this article! Got it! Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to Linkedin (Photo by Mikhail KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty .
. . [+] Images) SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images As we watch the horrors unfolding in Ukraine, we cannot fathom the Russian people’s imperviousness to what’s being done in their name.
By this time, a massive outcry of shame or outrage should be emanating palpably from across the Russian Federation, large enough at least to curb the Kremlin’s policies. No doubt, the police state’s iron fist accounts for some of the quiescence: the widespread arrest of protesters, the sowing of fear via public assassination of dissidents over the years, relentless propaganda and the like have had the desired effect. But, ask any group of experts and they will tell you the problem goes deeper, goes in fact to the hearts and minds of the Russian public.
It’s not at all clear that Putin’s personal popularity has taken a huge blow. The relatively respected Levada opinion pollsters peg his approval rating still above 80%. Most recent estimates of the numbers fleeing abroad hovers around 700,000 or so, pretty insignificant in relation to the total population.
Is it merely that Russians are simply not getting the information that would alter their minds, or do they inhabit such a parallel universe that they’re immune? Times have certainly changed since the late Cold War era when, behind the Iron Curtain, news from the West was considered precious, more reliable (and more sane) than the Kremlin’s; sources such as the BBC Russian Service and Radio Free Europe were revered as fountains of truth. According to Prof Thomas Graham, veteran Russia expert at Yale University, Soviet citizens “couldn’t trust official outlets even for their own local news – Chernobyl is just one example – so they learned to trust our alternatives. ” But it went beyond hard news.
The West teemed with entertainment, glamor, fashion, sport and rock music in contrast to the Kremlin’s monolithically dull broadcasting. The Soviets were losing the soft power struggle just as drastically, through which counter-information flowed passively yet effectively. But that was then.
Under Putin, Russian media made a sustained and successful effort to up their game, multiplying TV channels, adding young and sexy faces, glossing up production values to world standards, franchising Western shows, imitating others, creating a dazzling, self-sufficient ecosystem – probably impervious to penetration from outside. Then there’s the internet universe. According to most observers, the online Russian information space is not so absolutely sealed, certainly not like China.
The deeper problem, it seems, is that Russians themselves are not so open to Western media and information, don’t feel the need for it, are effectively insulated from any sort of moral self-awareness, partly because Moscow modernized its mediascape, and its propaganda ecosystem, with great guile. Peter Pomerantsev’s famous 2014 book on the subject, “Nothing Is True But Everything Is Possible”, outlines how Russian television developed a form of propaganda which didn’t exactly provide their version of truth so much as to assault the very notion of truth by floating multiple – often contradictory – conspiracy theories about anything that implicates the Kremlin. A perfect example was furnished by the notorious July 2014 downing of Holland to Malaysia civilian flight MH17, clearly perpetrated by a Russian missile system operating just inside Ukraine.
Moscow’s media claimed to show evidence that it was shot down by a Ukrainian warjet, then by Ukrainian air-defense, that it was a suicide flight carrying dead bodies and much else. Several years later, the International Court at the Hague undeniably and officially pinned the onus on Kremlin-controlled separatist forces, by which time the Russian public had lost all interest. The long-term result of such intensive disinformation barrages is the ubiquitous present-day attitude of cynicism and apathy among the populace: everybody lies, nobody knows what’s really going on, for sheer sanity’s sake leave everything to the strongman in power.
Which really translates into a kind of moral off-switch towards heinous acts by the Kremlin, especially abroad. Moscow has never faced its colonial past (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty . .
. [+] Images) AFP via Getty Images MORE FOR YOU The Inside Story Of Papa John’s Toxic Culture Hublot, Takashi Murakami Unveil Unique Rainbow Gemstone Watch, NFT Valentine’s Day Gift Guide: The Most Romantic Experiences Around The World The blame lies partly with the West. During the Putin years, as the Kremlin media machine caught up, we manifestly took our eyes off the ball, believing at some level that the message of Euro-American values and lifestyle spoke for itself, needed no extra propagandizing.
Western legacy media, once so effective inside Russia, stayed with the outdated approach of simply ‘telling the truth’, providing objective news with the emphasis on news, which had scant effect against Moscow’s sophisticated disinformation techniques blended with entertainment. Those were also the ‘war on terror’ years from 2001 onwards when the free world’s focus drifted elsewhere. And also a time when Russian citizens could travel abroad largely unimpeded, and witness firsthand the messy innards of democratic processes in a freer environment.
For many, this reminded them of the chaotic conditions of the Yeltsin years and the ensuing socio-economic hardships, civil wars, homeless babushkas and the like. “They started to believe that the West had nothing to teach them ideologically, very much in line with the Kremlin’s message,” says Ivana Stradner, a prominent Putin critic at the Defense of Democracies Foundation. “They liked the West’s lifestyle but not its values.
Oil money was pouring in. They could afford consumer and luxury goods, for the first time in decades. The Kremlin persuaded them that Russian exceptionalism and patriotism, supremacy in effect, was symbiotic with the stability and success.
” Most crucially, it allowed the vast majority, the politically inert, to stay that way. In the end, Moscow felt emboldened to move from defense to offense both militarily and information-wise, comfortable in the knowledge that it had secured its home turf fully. After all, directed towards the West, the same techniques have created, to this day, a kind of polarizing cynicism with a corrosive mistrust of consensus information or ‘objective’ news.
Unable to bridge the gulf within our own societies, we have lost the ability to bridge the gulf to Russian hearts and minds. You could say that, up until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian public didn’t feel the need to know more than the government wanted them to. The murder of dissidents, the poisonings and defenestrations at home and abroad, the military incursions into Georgia, Donbas and Crimea, didn’t shake the public’s comfort zone sufficiently to alarm the Kremlin.
But the disasters in Ukraine starting from the failed attack on Kiev have changed things , according to Prof Graham, “creating an information shortfall that people do seem to care about for the first time in years. ” Dependable news on setbacks in the warzone, the sudden need for mobilizing conscripts, how badly they’re trained and sent in to be mauled plus the growing economic effects (in the provinces) of sanctions, has provided an opening for Western counter-information of the kind that existed during the Cold War – even a little among the older generation who, by all accounts, are mostly considered beyond reach. They were the first to be enfolded by the great post-Soviet expansion of multi-channel cable television, so pleasing and all-encompassing for those accustomed to the previous condition of broadcasting, long a gloomy symbol of national failure.
So confident was the Kremlin in this growing hothouse effect that, for many years, opposition newspapers were allowed to exist under Putin because he knew how little influence they wielded compared to all the channels, universally state-controlled under various oligarchs. On the whole, though, challenging Kremlin propaganda through that closed domestic TV universe appears technologically impossible. It would require creating new cable systems or broadcast towers within Russia.
The hope for generating large-scale alternative information campaigns goes through the internet and skews somewhat younger. There’s plenty of high-profile group-chat criticism on Telegram, the Russian messaging app, often from harder, pro-war voices. That’s in addition to news websites and broadcasting via Youtube from abroad, most notably based in Riga, Latvia, run by Russian exiles, which rack up millions of views.
So, to some degree, the process is already under way. According to Andrey Illarianov, a former senior adviser to Putin now living in the US, “It will take time. Russians in Russia will not trust any news or criticism coming from non-Russians.
And they tend to reject anything that sounds unpatriotic. ” As a result, old media like Radio Free Europe and the BBC have fared badly while the Riga-based outlets have done better. The Russian emigre outfits have had their problems, chiefly for trying to retain their audience appeal inside Russia by aiming to chart a middle course while being anti-Putin and pro-Russia (Balts and Ukrainians, among many others, don’t like the pro-Russia part).
A prominent example, TV Rain (aka Dozhd), had to move to Holland recently because it alienated local Latvians. Still, broadly speaking, the opportunity is there to exploit the Kremlin’s news shortfall, and the timing seems propitious. How to exploit it? Many recommend launching a Russian-emigre media giant abroad, complete with entertainment and sports, that can compete with Moscow-based channels in size and glamor.
If, however, the Kremlin could effectively shut down parts of the internet when necessary, who would be rash enough to invest the needed big bucks? The answer is that satellite technology already exists aplenty to bypass such measures, Starlink being merely one example. The real question is about content: gradualists like Illarianov believe in the long game of winning hearts and minds. But the present depraved slaughter in Ukraine arguably demands otherwise.
Harder-headed voices like Ivana Stradner call for a more offensive direct propaganda strategy: use nationalism against itself and inflame the extremely pro-war voices against Putin, incite division at court, and simultaneously provoke the already restive minorities like Buryats and Kazan Tatars to rebel and secede. They’re proportionately more likely per capita to be mobilized and lost in Ukraine than Russian counterparts. (Pushback like anti-conscription protests have been much sharper in such regions.
) The unintended outcome may be a hard-line coup, with even nastier leadership, but whoever prevails would be busy quelling internal rifts, perhaps a civil war, which might even lead to the Russian federation’s break-up. And there’s the rub. Hitherto, for most policy makers in the West, that’s been a scenario to be avoided above all, with the potential for vast refugee flows and the nightmare of loose nukes.
But perhaps it’s time to make plans for managing such eventualities, so the argument goes, or watch Ukrainians get battered and butchered for months or years, possibly followed by other near-abroad countries. As Stradner says, “the uncomfortable scenario is probably unavoidable sooner or later”. Melik Kaylan Editorial Standards Print Reprints & Permissions.