Russian infowar

11 05 2014

I drafted an op-ed piece a few weeks ago that I failed to oversee to publication, because it was quickly overtaken by events that I didn’t manage to incorporate into the piece.

I’m sharing it here for what it’s worth, as it includes some useful links to materials I have not posted to this blog. It’s more opinionated than my posts have usually been, but that’s the nature of an op-ed. The general idea remains quite relevant (as my “Right Sector vs. United Russia” post shows). A brief update follows.


Manufacturing reality: The Russian infowar over Ukraine

When the U.S. secretary of state chides a foreign media outlet for acting as a “propaganda bullhorn” promoting a national leader’s “fantasy” about an international conflict, it is important for media watchers to take note and weigh the argument carefully.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov responded to John Kerry’s claim by defending the Russia Today network as an “independent alternative viewpoint on what the Western propaganda tells us.” Lavrov might have referred to the famous argument made by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky and his co-author, Edward Herman, that western governments are in the business of “manufacturing consent” via mass media. The question is whether Russia has gone one step further – toward a more radical form of propaganda called “manufacturing reality.”

As noted by many observers, Russian state media have for months blanketed their country with news of “chaos” in Ukraine. Their neighbor is supposedly ruled by “neo-Nazi thugs” who took over in a violent, U.S.-supported coup and now engage in a reign of terror against Russians, Jews, and other supposed enemies. Never mind that most of the ruling “thugs” are members of previous governments and part of a parliamentary majority coalition, and that they include Russians, Jews, and a large number of eastern Ukrainians. Russia, meanwhile, is said to be stoically standing aside, prepared to defend the interests of Russians if necessary, but not entering into Ukraine. Media have repeated these lines even as their own footage has shown that Russian forces are already there.

In their effort to create this sense of Ukrainian chaos, Russian media have gotten overenthusiastic. In one case, three Russian TV stations filmed the same man in a Mykolaiv hospital playing three different characters: an ordinary citizen protesting Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi government,” a pediatric surgeon tending the victims of neo-Nazi gunmen, and a German EU spy who hired a group of 50 European mercenaries (!) to carry out NATO’s dirty work in Ukraine. In another case, a Russian actor promoted to the position of “people’s deputy” in the newly proclaimed Republic of Donetsk, was faced with questions he simply had not qualifications for answering.

More insidious has been the “Jewish card.” While no one has claimed authorship of the anti-Semitic flyers that recently made the news in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Jewish historian David Fishman convincingly argues that the Kremlin’s “fingerprints” are “all over them.” With its attempt to portray the new Ukrainian regime as “Nazi” and “anti-Semitic” failing to get much traction in world public opinion, the Kremlin has reverted to the other side of a longstanding Soviet-era strategy: to their domestic audience, Russian state television now claims that the new Ukrainian leadership is Jewish and Zionist. Fueled by the arrival in eastern Ukraine of Russian Cossack “Black Hundreds,” this is resulting in a surge of anti-Semitic attacks.

The nature of the pro-Russian separatist movement remains murky in Russian and western media depictions. Yet several of the leaders of the movement have histories of involvement with the Russian far right, including the Russian National Unity movement, the Eurasian Youth Union, the neo-fascist Slavic Union, and their Ukrainian allies, Oplot (Stronghold) and Natalia Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party, which Ukrainian leftists have long known is neither progressive nor socialist. These constitute some of the ground forces for destabilizing Ukraine.

All of this concurs with President Putin’s recently articulated policy of defending Russian speakers abroad. The “Russian nation,” he claimed, is “one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” and the rights of its members need to be protected by the one state that is in a position to do that.

It isn’t clear if Putin considers that nation to be defined by its language, by religion, or something else. If it is language, that nation would be trumped by the massive English diaspora, “divided” by so many borders around the world. If religion – Putin has often mentioned Russian Orthodoxy, going back to 988 in Kiev, as constituting the core of the Russian nation – this claim faces another difficulty: Kievan Rus’ is claimed by Ukrainians, too, with more geographical justification, and many of them want little to do with the Russian nation.

Or is it some more “mystical essence,” as Russian ideologues like Aleksandr Dugin, Aleksandr Barkashov, Dmitry Kiselyov, Aleksandr Prokhanov, and Aleksei Pushkov have argued. The views of these men – particularly regarding the “battle for the world rule of [ethnic] Russians,” as Dugin has called for – constitute the kind of “palingenetic nationalism” that is the core definition of fascism, according to respected scholar of fascism Roger Griffin. Such views are, unfortunately, widely promoted by Russian state media and appear to undergird official policy more and more closely. And they are supported by many in Europe’s far right as well.

As a result, the West may soon face the problem of how to respond to an incipient fascist threat growing both at the edges and on the inside of Europe.

There is no question that criticism of Russia – like the one being made here, or Kerry’s recent claim – could play into the hands of those in the West who wish for a new cold war, or even a hot one. This situation resembles the old cold war – a time when it was nearly impossible for those in the western peace movement to criticize Russia without being perceived as lackeys of “American imperialism.”

The way out of this dilemma is to build on those institutions the west can be proud of: institutions of media freedom, investigative openness, and democratic culture. The upcoming Ukrainian elections, scheduled for May 25, will be the best sign that Ukraine is moving in the right direction – which is precisely why Russia is trying to prevent them from occurring. The west should actively support an open and transparent electoral process across Ukraine. Steps toward a freer media, such as the Ukrainian parliament’s recent decision to fund a public television network, should also be applauded.

Western media, for their part, should ensure that Russian journalism is subjected to the same kinds of scrutiny that are used to criticize and improve the coverage of political issues here. If Russia is to maintain some status as a modern and civilized country, it must show that its state media know the difference between truth – or at least an honest attempt to find it – and the manufacture of reality through the cynical production of lies by legions of hired infowarriors. The latter rival the networks of “climate skeptic” trolls who patrol and pollute the online airwaves of the global warming debate.

Journalists in the West should pressure their Russian counterparts not to succumb to Kremlin directives for producing such misinformation, and they should defend them when they are disciplined for acting according to their consciences.


Adrian Ivakhiv is a professor of environment, society, and public affairs at the University of Vermont. He blogs on Ukrainian affairs at UKR-TAZ: A Ukrainian Temporary Autonomous Zone.


Update (May 7)

Several relevant articles have appeared recently, including this one on Yuri Felshtinksy’s assessment of Putin’s fascism, this one on the far-right networks supporting Ukraine’s separatists (Google Translate gives a fairly readable English-language version of it), this one on the Seliger youth camps that provide “patriotic education” for tens of thousands of Russian young people, this one from the Guardian‘s public editor on the suspected pro-Kremlin “trolling” network, this one on the kinds of journalism being rewarded in Russia, and several discussing recent announcements about policies controlling internet use in Russia.

Also relevant is the way Russian media have been spinning the May 2 events in Odessa, which I wrote about recently. Analyses of some of the photos and images in the Russian press — including one of a pregnant woman supposedly murdered by “fascists” — have been converging around the conclusion that they were also staged. That said, a thorough investigation should still be carried out to find out what happened and who was responsible for it.

No doubt there will be a continuing need for media analysis as the pro-Russian “referenda” play themselves out.






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