Nine Lessons of Russian Propaganda
After visiting repeatedly, I moved to Ukraine from the United States in 2012. My parents had been born in Ukraine and taught me some of the language during my childhood in Queens, NY.
Being so close to Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and the subsequent Russian invasion gave me perspective on American perception of these events. The audacity and effectiveness of Russian propaganda has left me in utter awe. After two years of close observation, some strategies and motifs of Russian propaganda have become evident. Hopefully these lessons will lend some clarity on the information war which overlays the kinetic one.
- Rely on dissenting political groups in Western countries for dissemination.
- Domestic propaganda is most important.
- Destroy and ridicule the idea of truth.
- “Putin is strong. Russia is strong.”
- Headlines are more important than reality, especially while first impressions are forming.
- Move the conversation.
- Pollute the information space.
- Gas lighting — accuse the enemy of doing what you are doing to confuse the conversation.
There may be several explanations for the strangest strains of Russian propaganda — the dissonant messages that seem to create chaos and confusion for its own sake.
Both in business and war, Russian institutions are structured much more vertically, and would normally be outperformed by high-trust Western institution that more readily delegate authority and initiative. Russian corruption and distrust prevents them from restructuring their institutions, but perhaps under a miasma half-truths and confusion, Russian vertical power structures have the best chance of being competitive.
Secondly, Russian aggression is very opportunistic (see my previous essay). Chaos creates exploitable opportunities, including exploitable dissenting parties among your opposition.
Lastly, as Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny speculated, the Russian regime fears what Marquis de Custine described almost 200 years ago: “The political regime here would not survive 20 years of free communication with Western Europe.” They are deliberate polluting the information space in anticipation of the remaining 40% of Russians starting to use the Internet, because they fear the truth want to pollute and discredit all the information platforms they don’t directly control.
But for all the cleverness and pervasiveness of their propaganda, the gravity of people’s individual preferences does not seem to be on the side of Russian autocracy. Right now, the Kremlin makes is very hard for Russians to feel good about themselves without also embracing Russian militarism and expansionism as part of that identity. There are great examples in Russian history like the remarkably individualistic Republic of Novgorod, and a frontier spirit in their east sometimes referred to as the “Siberian Paradox.”
The more the West leads by example, demonstrates rule of law, creates a prosperous contrast to Russian society, imposes costs for ban behavior (as recommended by the Heritage Foundation), and forces the Russian public to countenance their poverty and corruption, the more Russians will be able to reject the siege mentality and construct a better narrative for themselves from the best aspects of their history.