Mon, May 07, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Fighting the tropes of Russian propaganda

By John Lloyd  /  Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been mad at the West for years. Indeed, he came to office mad at the West, because he thought the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and has blamed NATO expansion for post-Cold War tensions with Russia.

Like most Russians, he blamed the liberal policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, for much of the catastrophe. However, Putin also saw the West, especially the US, as unrelenting in its efforts to destroy the country that he, as a KGB officer, had been trained to both venerate and serve.

Tens of millions of Russians, who had moved to, or were born in Ukraine, the Baltic States, Central Asia and the Caucasus, found themselves, on the rending of the Soviet Union, foreigners in new nation states. In these, they were often regarded — as in the Baltic states and Georgia — with hostility. Putin saw it as his first task to protect the country left to him and to do what he could to protect the exiled Russians.

By his measure, he has done quite well in these tasks. He fought a savage war in the Caucasian republic of Chechnya to stop it from breaking away from Russia, and installed a dictator in the country beholden to him for his power. He swept aside Georgian attempts to take back its northern province of South Ossetia and had his troops drive on till near the capital, Tbilisi, to show that they could snuff out Georgian independence, before pulling them back. He invaded the Ukrainian province of Crimea, inhabited mainly by Russians, and declared it part of Russia. He sponsored, and sponsors still, mainly Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine in a war that continues, draining away Ukrainian resources and statehood.

Meanwhile, his reasons for hating the West have become the constant tropes of Russian propaganda, domestic and foreign. The West has expanded NATO up to the Russian borders, after promising not to. (On that claim, Putin has half a point.) The West bombed Serbia, Russia’s long-time ally. (It did: to prevent worse bloodshed in Kosovo.) It invaded Iraq, and bombed Libya. It supports Ukraine against Russia. It finances Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and institutes (many of which have been designated as “foreign agents”) in Russia that allegedly oppose his rule and seek to overturn it. (Disclosure: I am chairman of one such NGO, designated a “foreign agent.”)

HYBRID WARFARE

This is a large charge sheet, and it is still longer than that. It justifies, in Putin’s and many Russians’ minds, retaliation. However, what form does that take?

It has become clear in the past few years that the Russians (and others, such as the Chinese, typically more cautiously and delicately) are seeking to become experts in hybrid warfare, with a heavy reliance on the Internet and social media. At an event in London earlier this week hosted by the monthly magazine Prospect, one of Britain’s spymasters and a security world intellectual, Sir David Omand, spoke of present and future ways of waging war — warning that they were both harder to counter and more fraught with danger than at the time of the Soviet Union.

This is because of the nature of the Internet, and the capacities of social media. Both had been advertised as benign, capable of opening the world to human curiosity in an unprecedented way, linking person to person and nation to nation.

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