The Russian fantasy will unfortunately not only be expressed in art, film and literature, but also in an increasingly ambitious, Kremlin-directed propaganda, where untruth, truth and half-truth are fused into a corrosive mix.
Sofi Oksanen gives several examples in her article in this issue of Axess, and those who want a fuller account can usefully study a recent report by the author Peter Pomerantsev and journalist Michael Weiss. It’s called ”The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponises Information, Culture and Money” and has been published by the think tank Institute of Modern Russia, along with the online magazine The Interpreter.
To think about weapons in terms of military equipment is of course not wrong, but it is to think too narrowly. Even today, the Kremlin uses completely different kinds of weapons – information, culture, finance – to create uncertainty and gain influence. Large sums are being spent on propaganda television. Experts in the West are tied up through grants to think tanks and offers of attractive posts in Russian companies. Its role as a major energy supplier provides great leverage, and in countries such as Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria, Russia’s economic influence is extensive. According to the German secret service, as much as a third of the EU country of Bulgaria’s production is under Russian control.
The word propaganda is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, but there are considerable differences between old and new disinformation. Pomerantsev and Weiss cite a public relations man who worked with Vladimir Putin’s election campaign: ”In Soviet times, the concept of truth was important. Even if they lied, they were careful to prove that what they did was ’truth’. Now, no one even tries to prove ’truth’. You can say just about anything. Create realities.” Many Russians see through the obvious exaggerations in broadcast news reporting, but the ruling class reinforces its position not by convincing people about what is true, but by making it clear who has the power to decide what is true. Even for those who are not so easily fooled, it is difficult in the long-run to remain unaffected by the inexhaustible flow of statements about external threats, the decadence of the West and the ”fascistic” ravages of the free Ukraine.
If people are not gripped by the hostility toward the outside world, they are at least pacified and left with no illusions. It does not seem sensible to turn against authority and demand changes in Russia, for what to change Russia to? It’s as miserable everywhere.
To the outside world, the information war is not, as before, about recruiting supporters and demonstrating that their own social system is superior. The flagship television channel RT (formerly Russia Today), whose annual budget of at least $300 million is about to be increased very significantly, and which is planning to expand its English, Arabic and Spanish broadcasts with German and French, is engaged rather in maligning the West than paying tribute to Russia and the Kremlin. It sends a steady stream of programmes on poverty and decay in the US, while conspiracy theorists and extremists get to talk uninterrupted. A story is as good as any other, and objectivity is a dull and outdated notion. In the postmodern spirit, the propagandists blur the boundaries between truth and falsehood. The viewer should not be filled by the certainty of faith, but by doubt. Is it really that much better in Washington and London than in Moscow? What is there to say our vision of reality is correct?
The new freedom of judgement is noticeable even in relations between Moscow and political movements in other countries. In Soviet times, the Kremlin had most contact with marginalised communist parties. Today, it socialises happily with both the outer edge of the left and the French Front National. Any cooperation that could lead to increased distrust of the US or EU is of interest.
What has the West by way of response? The key must still be that free news and debate works. A publicity without strong forces working for objectivity and comprehensiveness is not a pleasant thought. Spin and manipulation must be exposed and countered, and Pomerantsev and Weiss’ sketch of a new ecology, where increased awareness of traditional media, combined with the efforts of non-profit organisations, for example in the form of a new, international watchdog that monitors and informs about disinformation. The public should breathe life into a part of the information work that was set aside after the end of the Cold War. To show how others’ disinformation works is a most legitimate task for a psychological defence.
The Swedish Board of Psychological Defence was wound up at the turn of 2008/09. Its successor, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) is engaged, in its own words, in ”no work on which we ourselves would put the label of psychological defence”. Even at this point, there is reason for those in power to reconsider.
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