How the US and Europe can fight back against Putin's information war

Vladimir Putin visits RT headquarters.

by Brittney Lenard

As the conflict in eastern Ukraine simmers, Western leaders and policymakers grow ever more concerned about Russia’s use of “information warfare.”

Through social media, television, and billboards, Moscow has advanced its agenda in new and often sophisticated ways that bear little resemblance to the overdone propaganda of the Cold War.

This onslaught has shaped Russian and Ukrainian views of the conflict, and has even affected the conversation in Western Europe and the United States.

Russian propaganda’s power lies not only in its effect on its audience, however, but also in the uncomfortable position in which it puts the West.

The United States and the European Union have struggled to fight the messaging emanating from Moscow. And it's largely because such an effort would require a serious look at whether actively countering propaganda is consistent with Western values. 

From the outset of the Ukrainian conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in shaping Russian public opinion. Through propaganda news outlets broadcasting abroad, he has extended his reach into parts of Europe and the United States as well.

In addition to promoting Russian versions of events in Ukraine, state-run media like RT, formerly called Russia Today, gleefully highlight racial tensions and riots in Ferguson and Baltimore as examples of western crises. RT’s slogan, “question more,” reflects the Kremlin’s strategy: rather than trumpeting one truth, its media allies propose many possibilities, sowing doubt and disbelief among viewers while discouraging critical thinking.

These methods have proven unnervingly effective. Putin is enjoying some of the highest ratings of his presidency, with 86 percent approval according to the independent Levada Center. Russian views of the West, meanwhile, are at an all-time low, with 81 percent having a negative view of the United States, up from 44 percent just one year prior.

Such figures are particularly discouraging given that the first generation born after the Soviet Union's collapse, a generation which should never have seen the West as an enemy, is now entering adulthood in this polarized environment. The Kremlin’s approach is also effective among Russian-speaking populations abroad, many of which feel alienated by – or simply cannot understand – their home country’s mainstream media.

Independent Russian-language media is difficult or impossible to find in former Soviet Republics, and unbiased reporting on Ukraine is hindered by limited access to separatist-controlled areas. As a result, Moscow’s voice is often the only source for local and regional news.

Western capitals have rightly recognized the need for a strategy to counter Russian disinformation.

The Obama Administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy, released in February, advocates “countering Moscow’s deceptive propaganda with the unvarnished truth.”

In March, EU heads of government asked EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to develop a detailed plan for addressing Russian propaganda, to be unveiled at next week’s Leaders’ Summit. What such efforts will look like in practice is unclear, however.

US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) proposed bolstering public diplomacy capabilities with an overhaul of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees public information efforts through outlets such as Voice of America. As government-sponsored entities, however, these outlets often lack public credibility. Washington will need to use these tools with care to avoid any suggestion, justified or not, that it too is engaging in propaganda. 

Countries nearer the conflict’s frontlines face an even greater challenge. Lithuania, whose Russian-speaking minority makes up eight percent of its population, recently suspended Russian state-owned television channel RTR Planeta for “inciting discord, warmongering, [and] spreading biased information.”

As the head of Lithuania’s broadcasting regulator noted, the case marked the first time in the European Union’s history that a regulatory body ordered a channel completely off-air. Entering these uncharted waters may be warranted. But by banning the channel, Vilnius risks further alienating ethnic Russian citizens and exposing itself to accusations of infringement on media freedoms.

Similar cases will undoubtedly play out in other Western countries. Governments will need to decide how to counter disinformation while upholding core values, including freedom of speech, protection of minority rights, and independence of the media. This will be no small feat.

By design or not, Moscow has succeeded in putting leaders and policymakers in Washington and Brussels in a serious bind. 

So what can be done? Western governments cannot stand by and allow disinformation to shape perceptions and, ultimately, events. At the same time, they must think carefully about their approach to avoid crossing into the realm of propaganda themselves.

In addition to direct public diplomacy efforts, Western governments should amplify more credible, local voices, many of which exist only online, and make their reporting more accessible to communities that rely on television and radio.

Efforts to promote independent voices could face more difficulties in Russia itself, which has already cracked down on “foreign agents” and more recently on “undesirable” organizations. But it is preferable to an approach which relies on outlets perceived as Western mouthpieces and lacking public credibility. 

In Ukraine, the West should continue to push for access to conflict areas, so that journalists and observers can report the reality on the ground. Such reporting may be the best weapon against Russian aggression.

Stories about Russian “volunteers” returning from the front suggest that Moscow will soon have many angry veterans and families on its hands, leading to spreading discontent. As the consequences of Putin’s adventurism come home to roost, even the well-oiled Russian propaganda machine may falter. Until then, Western leaders must promote independent, local voices, rather than simply broadcast their own talking points.

Finding a balance will be difficult. But these efforts will allow the United States and Europe to counter Russian propaganda without losing sight of the values that make the West unique.

This article was originally published with Business InsiderView the original article here.

Brittney Lenard is a Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Fellow for the Changing Nature of Power program and a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, specializing in Global Politics and Security. She was previously a member of the Europe and Eurasia practice at McLarty Associates, an international strategic advisory firm in Washington, DC.

Photo: Kremlin.ru

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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