We Must Keep a Cool Head
When listening to or reading Peter Pomerantsev, one gets sucked into a surreal world of Russian propaganda and Western incapacity, and any consolation or assurances of hope are nowhere to be found. “It will get worse before it gets better,” is the nearest thing he offers to relief in his brutal and very dark description of what he calls the first truly post-modern society.
With this reasoning, Pomerantsev approaches one of the obstacles to our understanding of propaganda – namely the very Swedish and rather vague notion that we have come further than this. We are really beyond discord and conflict in general, it only affects us if we choose to go into it, and the way forward leads like a law of nature towards better times – certainly with an occasional annoyance on the road, but not much worse than that. For those in power to lie without flinching, to be corrupt, to murder dissidents or broaden their territories is considered medieval – to use a popular expression in the foreign policy nowadays. In this lies a very treacherous risk of underestimating the power we face, while overestimating it on another level, in a way that unfortunately risks serving its purpose. Let’s start with the former:
The tendency to underestimate the propaganda is reinforced by the fact that we often associate the term with positive messages – to win ”hearts and minds,” to get people onside and arouse sympathy for a cause. But it is not exactly sympathetic when you suddenly see Putin in a television documentary changing the reality of Moscow’s involvement in the Crimea. Without the slightest hesitation, he changes the story of what took place from being a local popular movement composed of self-defence groups to basically giving an order for the annexation. Or, to take another example: when a loutish ambassador expounds roundly on the battered Russian benevolence on DagensIndustri’s debate page, it is easy to dismiss both him and all the warning calls. The reaction will be that we see through it and that people are not exactly pro-Kremlin regarding the coup. It is considered admittedly provocative, but not dangerous.
But Pomerantsev effectively hammers home the propaganda in that it was not about presenting themselves in a good light or arousing sympathy for their cause. If that had been the case, Putin’s boasting about the annexation and the ambassador’s textbook example of Russian vulnerability from the evil West would be regarded as rather unsuccessful. The aim is rather to create confusion and division. It does not even take a few staggering and well-planned KGB conspiracies anymore. It’s fine to improvise and just claim the opposite the next day. A surreal feeling arises that there is a new lie behind every door you open, no truth to be found, so why care?
However, our media do care. How anorexic and click-driven they are, they report – when they actually do – from all sides and all contributors are considered relevant, lying or not, in the name of honesty. Some caveats about the regime ”claiming” are supplied, but the perspective is still included. This idea, that people in power lie – not glossing over the truth but blatantly lying – is so alien that the thought comes as a kind of reflex: no smoke without fire, right? Voices inculcated from childhood tell us, moreover, that it is not only one party’s fault when two quarrel.
Pomerantsev is just as clear about how our somewhat inflated self-image of being a community at the cutting edge collides with the Kremlin’s opinion: it’s the West that is standing and stomping its fantasies about globalisation and open societies leading to mutual prosperity between countries instead of seeing the world as it is. Or was, rather. The European democracies engaged, to varying degrees, in naïve decadence and did not understand the zero-sum game – they are not able to even hold together the structures built up to defend their own interests. Russia looks at this with equal parts contempt and astonishment, and turns instead to leaders it respects, as long as it serves Putin and his power structure, as they are peers in that they operate ruthlessly in an ongoing power struggle for influence, where someone always loses what the other wins.
At the same time, Putin knows that the West both constitutes an appeal against his sphere of influence and is stronger militarily – at least as long as the transatlantic link does not break completely, or NATO’s mutual defence guarantees are tested and fail so that the alliance goes under without even a trace of smoke or dust. This is a very annoying fact that it is worth trying to disarm militarily, combined with the continued undermining of the theoretical possibility that the EU countries, after all, would gather and act together if required. Add to this the direct and indirect threats to those countries moving towards the West and towards those that are considered to be working actively to facilitate the journey, and we see the ingredients in the Kremlin’s soup.
Peter Pomerantsev mentions the former Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev and his words that Russia cannot compete with NATO militarily and needs instead to seek revolutionary ways of fighting against the West. Take all the tools of liberal democracy and use them as weapons, he says. It is possible to force a country to its knees without using military means; and how Russia has developed the capacity and used the entire toolkit, we have been able to study through its support for extremist and nationalist anti-European movements, screwing the gas tap and its acquisitions of energy distributors, aggressive exercises, introducing the threat of nuclear weapons use and cyber warfare – in addition to the propaganda and, of course, the war in Ukraine. Everything is in plain view and is now also the subject of debate and attention in wider circles than the hibernated cold warriors who are now saying: what did we tell you?
But the more examples we get and the more clearly the threat can be described, the more the question arises: what is the purpose of all this disruption and propaganda? If the Kremlin succeeds in dividing the EU over sanctions, stopping new countries from being incorporated into Western structures, expanding the dark forces that further increase distrust of their own governments and eroding NATO and the EU to a collection of frantic meetings and contrived pamphlets about unity and power in which no one really believes – what happens then? Is it then that the little green men begin to appear west of the former Soviet Union and the struggle for territory begins? Military experts are raising a warning finger for the threat of war, will they be right on the day the Kremlin believes that the military superiority of NATO does not matter because the political decision-making will break down and Russia will then attack for president and fatherland?
This concludes the thought, and there have now emerged two groups: those who say maybe, you never know, look at Georgia and Ukraine. It looks very alarming and therefore we should quickly prepare to meet this potential threat. Against the propaganda and the disruption we have few effective means and therefore it is important to concentrate on anticipating the next stage – war by military means. To capture the seriousness of the message, one communicates the new tricks the Russian armed forces can do in a way that makes the situation feel urgent – which is in luminous contrast to normal Swedish political management. As a result, the focus is naturally on the military defence of the country and, probably counterproductively with regard to the Kremlin’s interest in European division, a gravitation towards the immediate vicinity and land borders. In this group, there is risk of overestimating the effects of propaganda in that way if international cohesion and mutual solidarity are already considered to be lost. Now we have to save what can be saved, and build what we can while we can (implied: before the door slams).
But to add resources to build a fortress of Sweden will quite simply be inadequate. Decisions that signal investment in national defence are squeezed out of the system, but the risk is that we come out of this with a national focus manifested by some more symbolically than operationally important additions that can be loudly talked away in a national or, at most, Nordic rhetoric. Interest in both Brussels and Washington is flagging and, in the worst case, we are forced to eventually conclude that our response to the Kremlin’s strategy was to help it along the way.
The second group – to which belongs the armed forces if one consults the reports and documents that the ministry produces – would certainly strengthen the military defence, but as a part of the international fabric that rather needs to be woven tighter, and not weakened, in response to Putin’s actions. The threat of war against Sweden has not increased, is the message, which also stands in contrast to the vigorous defence policy discussions taking place, not least on social media. The challenge for the champions of this line is that the international fabric turned out to be thin in the case of Ukraine. Nor has it an understandable way of explaining what Putin’s plan is, if he will not use the weakened position that has been established as something to do with territory.
Första skottet gick in i pannan, det andra i käken. Hon slapp höra hur fadern upprepade ordet ”hora” när han sköt. Obduktionen visade att den första kulan avslutade Fadime Sahindals 26-åriga liv.
The goal is not a goal as we usually use the term, but a fluid state of uncertainty, mistrust, paranoia and game-playing around the Kremlin’s interests, it does not feel rational from a Swedish perspective and therefore it is difficult to understand.
The effect of the propaganda is that we agree on a stronger defence, but not necessarily about that which seriously restricts Putin’s influence. My understanding is that both the military and civil defence must be strengthened, not least to reduce the Kremlin’s room for manoeuver in terms of incidents, targeted attacks on vulnerabilities in society and a growing powerlessness and mistrust. It could usefully take place within the framework of both important and rational Nordic cooperation – but not instead of NATO, and not without at the same time resolutely working to strengthen the EU. We need to be cooler and smarter, to not prove the value of propaganda all the time by losing our heads, which has no other effect than causing new political wars of words. Or, for that matter, sitting passively in the boat and hoping for the best. As calmly and methodically as Sweden should fill the military and civilian gaps in resilience, we should also craft measures with high precision that can increase the capacity. Stockholm should be hard-linked to other European capitals and we should be equally insistent that propaganda should be cut apart to expose the truth. Our society must be extremely careful that there is actually such a thing as objective truth, especially as the threat to this notion not only comes from the east, but manifests completely on its own, in ways that the Kremlin must surely love.
Peter Pomerantsev’s strength is his clear view on the Russian propaganda and a necessarily terse way of settling with our credulity. The risk is that he is doing it too well. A part of the purpose of the propaganda is in fact the inculcation of the idea of Russian superiority in this area and that, in his hand, there is a weapon that is just as effective as its nuclear arsenal – the difference being that it has already exploded and that the contamination is a fact. The image of a disconcerting Russian superiority and a resigned fear get under the skin. Get us to crawl back behind our borders, and it does not matter if they are armoured and upgraded – we only keep our edge with our truths and free societies, and especially not by spreading the Kremlin’s ideas. Do we want to do Putin this service?
Annika Nordgren Christensen is a defence and security policy commentator and moderator.
Försvars- och säkerhetspolitisk debattör och analytiker.