Western powers are getting set to counter an expertly crafted Russian disinformation campaign over Ukraine that has left them wrong-footed too many times for comfort, sources said.
EU leaders plan to discuss an action plan at a summit next month designed “to counter the disinformation campaign waged by Russia,” but there are fears that a shortage of resources could leave the bloc at a serious disadvantage.
The aim is to win the daily battle for headlines, to get the EU and NATO story out and show that Russia’s message falls well short of the truth.
“In Russia, the EU is described as though it is a conspiracy of homosexuals... The old myths of the Cold War are back,” NATO spokesman in Moscow Robert Pszczel told reporters. “Propaganda is so pervasive. About 90 percent of Russians get news from national television and the segment of Russians who are critical do not watch the news at all.”
“It is a relentless narrative which portrays the outside world as basically a threat to Russia,” he added.
Russia’s annexation last year of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as Kiev pledged its future to the EU has plunged relations with Moscow into a deep freeze, with no sign of any improvement soon.
It also jolted the 28-nation bloc and the US-led NATO military alliance out of their post-Cold War complacency, showing that they need to come to terms with a much more assertive Russia.
A key part of that Russian effort is a sophisticated propaganda machine, which, analysts and Western officials say, tries to cast doubts on Western “mainstream media” and even seeks to undermine the idea of objective truth itself.
Early last month, several Russian television channels carried reports saying that a young girl had been killed by Ukrainian artillery fire, violating a ceasefire.
The BBC investigated the story, but could not track it down and find the girl’s body until a Russian journalist finally admitted that she had “never existed.”
Then there are the Russian “trolls” who plant stories on social media Web sites that cast Moscow in a favorable light, and describe Ukrainian authorities in Kiev as “fascists” and Western leaders as ridiculous figures to be mocked.
Modern technology removes boundaries and makes stories easily accessible by EU citizens, including Russian speakers in the Baltic states who were once ruled as Soviet satellites from Moscow and are now among the most suspicious of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions.
The Lithuanian government banned Russian TV station RTR Planeta for “inciting disorder, aggressive behavior and carrying tendentious information.”
Considering Russia’s outsize media machine, an EU diplomatic source said: “What is clear is that we do not have the same means as the Russians,” adding that the aim has to be to follow Moscow’s news output more closely to respond more quickly and — if possible — in Russian.
“It is not about counterpropaganda; it is meant to state more clearly certain facts and truths,” one EU official said.
NATO might provide the model, with its Brussels press center of about 20 workers constantly on the watch.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu tries to set the record straight via e-mails, tweets and the alliance Web site over what she calls inaccurate and misleading Russian news stories.
However, there are limits to what can be done.
“It would take up too much time and energy to deal with each and every lie, so we try to deal with the basic myths and with the big lies,” Lungescu told reporters.
There are also dangers, especially of going too far, which could play into Russia’s hands, Nick Cull at the University of South Carolina said.
“The worst thing the West could do right now is fall into the role scripted for them by the Kremlin’s spin doctors of Russophobes who disrespect Russian and Orthodox [church] culture and history and have no interest in a shared future,” Cull said.
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