Russian social media vs. Kremlin’s information warfare



Almost anything Vladimir Putin touches these days is perceived by the West as a weapon, and almost everything he does is seen as an attack, very often a successful one, notes Vedomosti analyst Maxim Trudolyubov. The Kremlin can change facts on the ground, stage quasi cease-fires and create zones of influence to exert pressure on other nations. It has done so in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, and the pattern is now being repeated in Syria, he writes for the New York Times:

Historically, the Kremlin’s rulers have always considered their country’s first line of defense against what they perceive as Western mischief to lie well beyond Russia’s borders. But Moscow has made people in the West think that its policies are motivated by aggressive revisionism, not defense.

Some analysts claim that current anti-Americanism among the Russian leadership is purely instrumental and policy-related. But there is much more to it than that, notes analyst Maria Snegovaya. The notion that the United States is trying to destroy Russia appears in various shapes and sizes throughout the Soviet and contemporary Russian history, she writes for Brookings:

Take, for example, the Soviet conspiracy theory known as “Dulles’ Plan,” according to which the CIA chief Allen Dulles allegedly sought to destroy the Soviet Union during the Cold War by secretly corrupting the Soviet cultural heritage and morals…Or read the interview in early February with Leonid Reshetnikov, a head of Russia’s Kremlin-linked Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS), in the popular Russian newspaper Argumenty I Fakty. (RISS, a think tank under the umbrella of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, was restructured in 2009 to get funding directly from the office of the president.) In his recent interview, Reshetnikov made several bold historical claims, including that “the United States first attempted to destroy Russia in 1917 by assisting the Bolsheviks, that Washington tried it again by hounding Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in late 1930s, and yet again by destroying the Soviet Union in 1991…..Vladimir Putin’s top security adviser Nikolay Patrushev has similarly suggested that the United States has tried to “dismember Russia.” Putin himself has accused the West of attempting to weaken his nation by stealing its natural resources.

The West has only recently started to understand how deeply public opinion in the Russian Federation has become infected with rabidly anti-Western conspiratorial and Manichean worldviews, notes Andreas Umland, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv.

There is, however, a readily available channel through which accurate information, balanced journalistic reporting, alternative view points, and revealing artistic interpretation can be and, to some degree, already is being communicated throughout Russia—social media, he writes for World Affairs:

Those groups and individuals who wish to reach Russian citizens—pro-democratic Russian and Western groups, social and cultural organizations, international mass media and ordinary citizens alike—can easily do so through social networks like VKontakte, OdnoklassnikiMoi mir and others. Like in Western social networks, registration is not complicated, neither is the posting and sharing of texts, videos, graphs, and podcasts. These could include independent analyses of the post-Soviet political system, documentaries on current European affairs, investigations into corruption cases in former Soviet republics, reports on Moscow’s foreign adventures, interviews with prominent critics of the Kremlin, discussion shows on today’s world affairs, and so on. Ideally, this material should already be in Russian language. In addition, such posts could include entertainment shows, movies or programs that have some political dimension and may use satire, irony and other forms of humor.

The obsession among Russian elites—particularly in the Kremlin—with the United States is real and sincere. The challenge is that many of them have biased perceptions of reality, and it’s hard to combat that mindset, Snegovaya observes:

The opportunity is that most Russians do not have strong opinions on the West and increasingly want to improve relations with Europe and the United States. U.S. and other Western policymakers should continue to engage in people-to-people contact that helps promote a more honest and positive view of the Western world. Yet Western policymakers should also keep in mind that the beliefs of the current elites will probably stay the same, as they are based on deep psychological and historical grounds. Policy-wise, that means that Russia under the current presidency of Vladimir Putin will likely continue to view the United States as an enemy and structure its foreign policy accordingly, whatever the Russian elites say publicly at international meetings.

“The Kremlin is waging nothing less than an information war internationally and domestically,” notes Umland, editor of the series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society”:

Its well-funded, highly professional and multidimensional propaganda campaign is, above all, designed to keep a kleptocratic regime in power, to diminish Western values as threats to its existence, as well as to expand its influence and reach. The current Russian ruling elite’s enormous prosperity is dependent on blind support of a brainwashed citizenry afraid of a Western invasion of Russia. It is time for the West to reach more actively out to ordinary Russians.


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