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Making Sense of Russian Disinformation and Propaganda

Making Sense of Russian Disinformation and Propaganda

Making sense of an ambiguous threat like state disinformation is not easy, but more important now than ever. Because nations such as Russia artfully implement denial and deception, it may seem near impossible to determine the scale and types of covert disinformation and propaganda (D&P) they, or other foreign adversaries, disseminate.

What makes denial and deception important assets for a nation like Russia is it can mask what it is doing. But it is possible to comprehend the past, and anticipate future actions. To ascertain the scale and types of Russian D&P projected into the U.S. or E.U., Area Studies—a study of the history, foreign policy, military doctrine, culture, and politics of a region—is critical for illuminating its contours. Evaluating Russia’s weaponization of D&P yields insights on where and when it has been used, and where it might be deployed next. 

President Vladimir Putin’s agenda is encoded in a localized theory called Russkii Mir or Russian World. Russkii Mir focuses on ethnic Russians. Russkii Mir’s rewriting of history, changing facts, and recasting culture are all dependent on state-sponsored D&P.

Russian doctrine draws from past Soviet experiences. The Soviet Union considered what Soviet propagandist and defector, Yuri Bezmenov, described as “ideological subversion” to be a cornerstone of defeating Soviet domestic and international adversaries. Fluency in the past Soviet doctrine is vital for assessing where the Russians are headed. But recognizing how the two diverge also matters. The primary difference between the Soviets and the Russians is two-fold. First, social media can more easily and rapidly scale up D&P. Second, the scope of D&P has narrowed. The Russians now lack a global ideology. In the Soviet era, Marxist communism held a widespread appeal. President Vladimir Putin’s agenda is encoded in a localized theory called Russkii Mir or Russian World. Russkii Mir focuses on ethnic Russians. Russkii Mir’s rewriting of history, changing facts, and recasting culture are all dependent on state-sponsored D&P. Russkii Mir gives the Russian’s a variety of policy options. For example, a component of Russkii Mir, the “Compatriot Policy,” lends itself as a cover for malign influence. Officially, the policy is a Russian guarantee to intervene should an ethnic Russian population in a third country come under duress. This is the pre-text argument the Russians projected via their D&P for the annexation of Crimea.

Therefore any study of D&P starts with the fact the Russian government has in the past, and is now, invested in using it foremost against the Russian population. D&P is designed to control the Russian people. As an autocratic state, its leaders rely on silencing dissent and spinning the truth to secure stability. Connected to domestic stability is the desired image of a strong resurgent state. D&P remains a valuable tool in a broader Russian array of coercive domestic techniques. 

To further determine the scale of D&P it is advantageous to identify who Russia considers its enemies. The U.S. and NATO top the list. Undermining the commitment and competence of NATO is important for Russia’s defense. During an armed conflict, a less effective enemy will not be as quick to make progress across Eurasia and into Russia. The Russian defense relies upon trading land for time to mobilize. It knows militarily it is weaker than NATO. So instead, it obliquely attacks. D&P is used to demoralize a populace and destabilize an adversary’s institutions by casting doubt on the legitimacy of the government. A country in chaos gives Putin some feeling of control and leverage.

The connection points are fraying among the electorate because they are increasingly reliant on insular social media networks which are governed by not only social pressure, but also algorithms and filters. Partly because of social media, political bi-partisanship at the political level has been more difficult.

D&P preys on pre-existing points of polarization to redirect the focus of government, the media, and the public at large from addressing threats to the United States. The aim of D&P is to influence the information consumer. It is a motivation designed to inflict, according to Jennifer Kavanaugh and Michael Rich in Truth Decay, “political inaction and dysfunction at all levels of government and contribute to the erosion of civil discourse.” D&P capitalizes on the fact that connected electorates are increasingly demanding their respective elected representative only votes for its party’s issues. The connection points are fraying among the electorate because they are increasingly reliant on insular social media networks which are governed by not only social pressure, but also algorithms and filters. Partly because of social media, political bi-partisanship at the political level has been more difficult. The social media environment was not created by the Russians, but they are keenly aware it is a ready-made attack surface.

Moreover, the Russians believe D&P can be deployed as a counter thrust against an aggressive West which is trying to change Russian public opinion. The Russians believe they are being subjected to Western “ideological subversion.” The Russians are in part concerned about the disappearance of Russian culture at the hands of the Hollywood-led “Americanization” of the world. The Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, articulated the problem and solution in a speech he gave to the Russian military. In 2013, Gerasimov advised his colleagues the Russian military needed to respond to how the U.S. and its allies were now fighting against Russia. The U.S. strategy to defeat Russia was to isolate it by removing its allies one country at a time. In the new paradigm, the initial attack from the U.S. was not led by traditional arms, but instead, it was circuitous. The U.S. arsenal, Gerasimov said, included the covert use of Western news media outlets, the surreptitious manipulation of social media to influence the political and social systems, and the deployment of NGOs. Gerasimov explained the Russian military needed to craft similar strategies and gain superiority in the “information space.” He called for a combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical tactics to be used in a “hybrid war” against the West.

The political scientist Joseph Nye posits that in past, power was solely based on a country’s military and economic strength. But in the information age, national power “may ultimately be about whose story wins.”

Where and how Russia sees itself in relation to other nations is important to understand what it has done and may do next. It influences how the Russian identity, vis-a-via the international community, is structured. Without some form of commonly recognized identity among nations, the situation can become precarious. The state with an ambiguous identity is viewed as unpredictable and unreliable by friends and foes. The importance of certainty and consistency in inter-state relations is considered crucial to building coalitions and keeping the peace among rivals. Chaos and uncertainty among members of NATO is a D&P objective. At the root of this is power relative to your opponents. Some schools of thought contend that discursive power— i.e., the power of knowledge, ideas, culture, ideology, and language—is among the preeminent determiners. The more polarized Americans become, and the less trusted America's institutions are, the harder it is for the U.S. to exercise soft power in foreign affairs. The political scientist Joseph Nye posits that in past, power was solely based on a country’s military and economic strength. But in the information age national power “may ultimately be about whose story wins.” 

The Russian failed experience with democracy gives knowledge into when, where, and how it is fragile. D&P is intimately related to destabilizing democratic society and making room for an autocrat to move in. D&P eats away at the pillars of intra-societal trust due to its coercive nature. The internet age allows populists to tailor their stance on issues and communicate directly to a highly fragmented and polarized base. Thoroughly intermingled with democratic health is access to accurate information. Early democracies did better and progressed into mature democracies if the state was able to protect the movement of reliable knowledge among its populace. Without accurate information, individuals and societies may be prone to engage in behaviors adverse to democracy. If the governed believe they don’t have legitimate partners, democracies can backslide toward an autocratic form of government. For a strongman like Putin, this was a strategy he successfully pursued. 

The Russian-backed D&P threat is here to stay. A cross-disciplinary approach can cut through the denial, and reveal the aims and methods of the Russian state's objectives with its disinformational operations.

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