Russia’s information warriors are on the march – we must respond

Russian television news is reporting…” Nowadays, when I hear those words pronounced on the BBC or ITN, I can’t help but wince. Over the past 10 days, Russian television news has reported, among other things, that 675,000 Ukrainian refugees have flooded over the Russian border; that extremists and neo-Nazi militants have illegally taken over the Ukrainian government in Kiev; and that Crimean “self-defence forces” or “pro-Russian forces” have spontaneously gathered in front of the Crimean parliament in order to defend it from those same Nazis.
Each of these statements is a lie: there are no refugees flooding into Russia. The queues of cars that appeared on broadcasts were found to be taken at a Polish border point, which thousands cross in any case every day. Nor have extremists and neo-Nazis taken over in Kiev: the elected parliament has now formed the government in Ukraine, following the president’s extraordinary decision to discard a negotiated agreement and flee the country.
Let’s be clear about the “self-defence forces” in Crimea – sometimes called “pro-Russian forces”: they are Russian troops. They are driving vehicles with Russian plates. Their machine guns are definitely not for sale at local shops. They have not arrived in Crimea to defend the local Russians from attack because local Russians were not under attack. They are there to create hysteria, to undermine the government in Kiev, and to persuade outsiders that the accelerating Russian occupation of Crimea is legitimate – and perhaps that the coming occupation of eastern Ukraine, or other parts of Ukraine, is legitimate too.
In this last endeavour, they may be succeeding. After all, the tradition in this country is to give the other side a fair hearing, so those lies being reported on “Russian television news” are often used to create a sense of balance on British programmes, too. Sometimes members of the Russian media are also hauled into the studio. Their views are gently contradicted by British reporters or anchors, but still: they seem so certain of what they are saying, surely there must be a kernel of truth? Doesn’t the real story lie somewhere in between? Aren’t they merely seeing the world from a “Russian point of view”?
Of course, the most important target for Russia’s new information war is not the British. The information warriors – or “political technologists” as they are now called in Moscow – care most about Russians and those who speak Russian. Huge numbers of Ukrainians watch Russian television: both eastern and western Ukraine are widely and easily bilingual. But although the Kremlin might not be able to dictate the way the story is told on British or European television channels, they would certainly like to help shape it.
The impact is palpable. For example, the drumbeat of news about “separatists” has caused serious British pundits to wonder, in recent days, whether Russia doesn’t have a “right” to “have a say” in Crimea. Russia, after all, conquered Crimea at the end of the 18th century and there are lots of Russian speakers among the population (which was ethnically cleansed more than once); one could argue from the same logic that maybe Britain has a “right” to “have a say” in India, also a country that was conquered in the 18th century where there are lots of English speakers.
But although we can argue about whether past conquest always equals present possession, these aren’t the issues at stake. As the Russian media and its representatives in British television studios will not tell you, Russia’s legitimate right to its naval base in Sevastopol is not under threat, and never has been. The Russian navy’s access to the base has been recognised in carefully negotiated international treaties, none of which has been seriously challenged during more than two decades of Ukrainian independence. Russian sailors and officers have lived on the peninsula too. Never before have they broken the treaty rules or moved forces around the peninsula without notifying the Ukrainian government, as they are legally bound to do.
Even during and after the Orange Revolution in 2005, when another “pro-Western” government took charge in Kiev, the Russian and Ukrainian governments were able to work out their arrangements. But now there are “self-defence” forces gathering in front of government buildings – so there must be something to it, right? Russian television is reporting that Crimean separatists feel threatened by the new government in Kiev, so surely there has to be some truth in that, too?
I confess: the crude and shrill nature of the propaganda now being aired on Russian media and especially on Russia Today (RT), the international news channel owned by the Russian state, has surprised me. Until now, the tone has generally been snide and cynical rather than aggressive. With slick, plausible American anchors and some self-styled hip outsiders – Julian Assange had a regular show – it seemed designed to undermine Western arguments, not denounce them. But now it is openly joining an information war being conducted on an unprecedented scale.
The bald-faced lie has now become commonplace – RT is already showing Crimea as “Russia” on its electronic maps – along with other, spookier, tactics. Even the NSA doesn’t actually publish the interesting gossip it hears on Angela Merkel’s phone, but the Russian secret services have no qualms about posting misleading audio clips online, taken out of context. The latest, if you missed it, was a fragment of a conversation between Baroness Ashton, EU high commissioner for foreign policy, and the Estonian foreign minister. She was calling from a landline in her office in Brussels, he was on a landline in Tallinn. During the call, made at the height of the violence in Kiev, the Estonian repeated a garbled theory he’d heard about the identity of the snipers who were shooting demonstrators.
His garbled theory didn’t prove to be remotely true: the BBC Ukrainian service investigated, and spoke to the doctor who was the alleged source of the gossip. No one who was there has any doubt that the Ukrainian government, with Russian support, ordered the men to fire. But the seed of suspicion has been planted. The conversation is now being cited by Russian parliamentarians and used to spread the outrageous story that the demonstrators themselves organised snipers to kill fellow demonstrators.
Unfortunately, the only response to an all-out information war is an all-out information defence. The West used to be quite good at this: simply by being credible truth-tellers, Radio Free Europe and the BBC language services provided our most effective tools in the struggle against communism. Maybe it’s time to look again at their funding, and to find ways to spread their reach once more.
But politicians and diplomats, accustomed to speaking in bureaucratese, also need to get creative. A few days ago, the US State Department put out a statement entitled “President Putin’s Fiction: 10 False Claims about Ukraine.” Hours later, the Russian foreign ministry fulminated against the list, calling it “shocking, not as much for its primitive distortion of reality as its cynicism and overt ‘double standards’…” In other words, the statement hit its mark. I hope there is more to come.

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