The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Countering Propaganda Attacks Against the Euro-Atlantic

The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Countering Propaganda Attacks Against the Euro-Atlantic


164 CDSDG 15 E bis

Original: English

NATO Parliamentary Assembly

Committee on


The battle for THE hearts and minds: countering propaganda attacks against the

Euro-Atlantic community




Sub-Committee on Democratic Governance

October 2015

164 CDSDG 15 E bis












164 CDSDG 15 E bis

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”

– George Orwell, 1984


  1. The scale and intensity of Russia’s “soft power” projection towards its neighbourhood and beyond indicates that the Kremlin ranks information operations as one of its major foreign and security policy instruments. The information campaigns that accompanied – and, in fact, proceeded – the aggression against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were not merely catered towards the military effort, but rather the other way around. It is plausible that, just as European countries have significantly reduced their dependency on Russian hydrocarbon resources in recent years, Moscow is increasingly relying on its propaganda machine to advance its foreign policy agenda.[1]
  1. Russia’s aggressive campaign for the hearts and minds of people in its neighbourhood and beyond has caught the Euro-Atlantic community off guard. While the West’s economic and information resources are infinitely greater, Russia’s information machine appears to have the edge due to its professionalism, lack of scruples and ethical boundaries, as well as its unified message and narrative. Moscow skilfully exploits the pluralistic nature of the free world’s media scene and the fact that Western governments have little control over the media in their countries. The objective of legal media frameworks in the Euro-Atlantic community is to provide a level playing field for mainly privately-owned media outlets. Therefore, the West is poorly suited to restrain a concerted informational invasion by an outside power. The explosion in the use of social media provides additional opportunities for Russia to influence populations and politicians in targeted countries.
  1. The aim of this report is threefold. First, it will discuss Russia’s (mis)information strategies and methods in order to grasp the scope of the challenge. Second, it will provide an overview of the measures and initiatives launched by the Euro-Atlantic community and other institutions to address this challenge. And third, it will offer specific ideas that might be useful in bolstering the resilience of the Euro-Atlantic nations against future information attacks.


  1. This chapter will analyse Russia’s information policy by discussing the Kremlin’s policies towards controlling the Russian domestic media scene. It will also look at how the Kremlin has developed the narrative and the tools that are employed to project its “soft power” onto its ‘near abroad’ neighbours and other countries further west.


  1. It must be noted that the consolidation of Russia’s media space to serve the interests of the Kremlin is not a new development. This consolidation began in the 1990s. Even before the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin along with Russian oligarchs conducted a remarkable media campaign enabling Boris Yeltsin to miraculously win the 1996 presidential election against his communist opponent. Mr Putin came to power with the clear agenda to build an unchallenged “power vertical” and to gradually subdue all important stakeholders – including the Russian parliament, regional governors, political parties, the judicial system and the oligarchic empires – and place them under the control of the Kremlin.
  1. His first priority, however, was to subjugate national TV channels – the main information source for over 80% of Russians (Orttung & Walke, 2013). Even as Prime Minister under Yeltsin, Mr Putin successfully employed the skills of political technologists, a term referring to the Russian version of media spin-doctors who have vast financial and administrative resources as well as access to major TV channels. These political technologists were able to transform Putin, an almost unknown political figure in Russia, into the most popular politician in the country in the course of several months. Media coverage of his war against Chechnya came exclusively from a pro-governmental point of view (unlike the first Chechen war in 1994-1996). Soon after becoming President, Mr Putin and businessmen associated with him (such as Yuri Kovalchuk, the owner of Bank Rossiya) took control of the major national TV stations including ORT/Channel One and NTV, which were previously owned by oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, respectively. The takeover of the pro-opposition NTV channel in 2001 essentially marked the end of free media in Russia. Under Mr Putin’s watch, Russia’s ratings by Freedom House have progressively deteriorated; the country has been listed in the “not free” category by the independent watchdog organisation since 2005.
  1. Today, to preserve the façade of democracy, some small pro-opposition outlets are allowed to operate – for instance, Dozhd (TV channel) and Ekho Moskvy (radio station) – but their territorial coverage is limited and their editors and journalists are constantly harassed by authorities and subjected to periodic denial-of-service cyber attacks. The print media and online scene is more diverse, but here too opponents of the government face serious difficulties. Six investigative journalists of the notable opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered since 2001 and there is a strong possibility that the newspaper will suspend its printed version in the near future. At a media forum in
    St. Petersburg in April 2014 Putin called the Internet a “CIA project” that needs to be controlled. Anti-blogger legislation has been adopted imposing strict control over bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers. Russian authorities were also granted access to Internet users' information. Web sites of opposition figures or organisations are routinely the targets of cyber attacks. The government has recently enforced a change of ownership of Russia’s popular news portal and social media giant VKontakte.
  1. Under the guise of countering terrorism and protecting Russian children from indecency, Russia’s media legislation gives the Kremlin the ability to exercise censorship and prosecute journalists and media owners. The regulations allow the government to restrict the contents of television programmes, films, books, as well as public performances. Occasionally, Western media – such as Voice of America radio broadcasts – are banned and excluded from Russian cable and satellite programming. The growing popularity of the BBC's Russian-language service (6.9 million listeners in 2014, more than double the listenership prior to the Russia-Ukraine crisis) prompted the Russian Duma in October 2014 to quietly pass a bill that will limit foreign ownership of media assets to 20% by 2017. Consequently, in two years, Russian nationals will take over nearly all foreign media in Russia.
  1. To keep his popularity at high levels, Russia's mainstream media supports Mr Putin's publicity stunts such as his over-the-top displays of manliness or machismo such as the piloting of a firefighting plane in the fight against wildfires or his participation in pre-orchestrated annual TV conferences with "ordinary people”. Opposition figures are banned from appearing on any of the main TV channels. Moreover, opponents are frequently presented as traitors and immoral human beings in propagandistic documentaries such as the “Anatomy of protest”. Opposition rallies are depicted in a belittling fashion, often focusing on insignificant details that make protesters appear overly radical. Events that might be damaging to the Kremlin – for instance, the gravity of Russia’s economic situation or the Permanent Court for Arbitration in The Hague ruling that requires Russia to pay USD 50 billion to former shareholders of the Yukos company in compensation – have been passed over by the mainstream media in silence with barely any mentioned at all.
  1. Interestingly, the viewership of Russian TV news and political talk shows has seen a surge since the beginning of the confrontation with Ukraine. The length of TV news bulletins has also increased considerably – for instance, Rossiya 1 TV channel’s main "Vesti" bulletin, which lasted on average for around 45 minutes before the conflict, is now running for 70-75 minutes. Russian TV news is also increasingly focused on developments abroad, particularly in Ukraine. A recent EU-funded study conducted in March 2015 found that “Vesti” devoted over 35% of its airtime to Ukraine, compared to a mere 1.3% on Russian social issues. The viewership of TV news has also increased among young Russian people, who were not previously interested in news programmes. It was noted that even the youngest generations are not immune to politics. At the time of the illegal annexation of Crimea, the popular children’s daily show "Goodnight Little Ones" featured one of its furry little characters saying he wanted to join the army to defend Russia's borders. Another edition of this show featured a satire of street protests (Ennis, 2015).
  1. The continuous brainwashing of the Russian public under Mr Putin’s reign has reached such an extent that TV audiences have been prepared to accept even grotesquely absurd stories such as Mr Putin’s apparent discovery of two ancient Greek urns on the floor of the Black Sea while scuba-diving, an event that, of course, was caught on camera. Many Russians find it normal that Mr Putin has recently explained at length how Russian special forces, under his personal guidance, staged the occupation and annexation of Crimea. He thus admitted that he lied in early 2014 when he claimed that the presence of so-called green men in Crimea had nothing to do with Russia. Exposing such lies would be detrimental to a Western politician, yet Mr Putin’s popularity was unaffected. It is therefore important to understand that a significant part of the Russian population is immune to the type of arguments that people in the Western world consider logical and objective. According to prominent Russian expert Paul Goble, the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign seems to land on fertile soil domestically because it plays on the deep-rooted emotions of the Russian people and distracts society's attention away from more immediate political and economic concerns (Goble, 2014). As a result of years of deliberately manipulating the media to root out alternative points of view, Russian society is now highly receptive to any narrative offered by its government, including the notion of a Western conspiracy against the motherland that manifests itself within Russia’s immediate neighbourhood.



  1. Russia has been surprisingly open about its intention to use information as a foreign policy tool, but the Euro-Atlantic community did not pay due attention to Russia’s key state policy documents, namely the 2007 Review of Russian Foreign Policy, the 2009 Russian National Security Strategy and the 2013 Foreign Policy Concept. These documents spell out the following objective in the media domain: "Russia’s main task is to create effective information campaigns everywhere we detect real challenges to Russia’s interests have been detected by maintaining a wide public consensus about the direction of Russia’s Foreign Policy". Therefore, "Russia will develop its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad, strengthening the role of Russian media in the international information environment while providing the media with essential state support" and Russia will "take necessary measures to counteract information threats to its sovereignty and security". The documents also recommend limiting the amount of foreign broadcasts and expanding Russian media offices abroad.
  1. According to the analysis conducted by the NATO Stratcom Centre of Excellence, Russia is not merely trying to make sure its voice is heard in the former Soviet space and beyond, but it has mainstreamed the informational dimension in its strategic thinking as well as diplomatic and military activities. For instance, the so-called green men, or Russian Special Forces, in Crimea and Donbas were not merely performing traditional military functions, they were also engaged in communication efforts; they were cooperating with Russian media representatives to help them to obtain footage that corroborated Russia’s version of the events in Ukraine.
  1. Russia is also continuing its efforts to streamline its communication mechanisms in order to deliver strategic narratives in a highly uniform fashion. Reportedly, representatives from the three largest TV channels meet weekly with the Presidential Administration. These meetings are chaired by one of the top officials of the administration (NATO StratCom CoE, 2014). Russia has consolidated its international media outreach by establishing RT TV and the Sputnik multimedia news agency (which also includes radio). The latter is led by Dmitry Kiselyov, who has been labelled as Russia’s propaganda tsar. To maintain and spread Russia’s cultural and political influence onto its neighbours, Rossotrudnichestvo (including the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) was created in 2008. The Gorchakov Fund and the Russkiy Mir Foundation are also notable elements of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
  1. In terms of content, Moscow has developed a broader strategic narrative for both domestic and near abroad audiences. Unlike in Soviet times, this narrative has a less solid ideological base and appeals to a wide range of people with anti-Western, anti-liberal and anti globalist views. Anti-Americanism is a key element of the narrative, designed to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. This narrative embraces virtually all notions side-lined by the mainstream Western worldview. Quite paradoxically, it equally praises Russia’s tsarist and Communist legacies. Prominent Russia experts Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss refer to this as a “fluid approach to ideology,” which effortlessly combines right wing messages such as intolerance towards homosexuality or Islamist movements with leftist ideas directed against US-style capitalism.
  1. Surprisingly, Putin’s far-left supporters are undeterred by the fact that Russia’s highest officials and crony oligarchs have accumulated colossal fortunes, and that the government routinely cracks down on domestic environmental activists and seeks to control the Internet. At the same time, Putin’s far-right admirers seem to ignore certain actions made by Moscow such as the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden or the development of a rhetoric that glorifies the country's Communist past. It is also symptomatic that Putin’s supporters both inside and outside of Russia do not seem to see a contradiction between Moscow’s anti-Nazi rhetoric in Ukraine and the fact that the Kremlin is friendly with a number of far-right movements in Europe. Pomerantsev and Weiss conclude that the Kremlin’s narrative appeals to so many different people because “Putinism is whatever they want it to be.”
  1. This narrative also loosely builds on a concept that is referred to as Eurasianism, which has been promulgated by ideologists such as Lev Gumilev and, more recently, the highly controversial Alexandr Dugin. Eurasianists believe that Russia constitutes the core of a separate civilisation, defined by Orthodox Slavic culture and values. It is allegedly more spiritual and honest than the mercantilist and decadent West. These ideologists advocate for the creation of a Russian-led Eurasian empire that would encompass, at the very least, the area that was once the former Soviet Union. Dugin’s imperialist extremism and chauvinism makes it difficult for the Kremlin to officially adopt the concept of Eurasianism, but the notion of a “Russian World” (Russkyi Mir), introduced by President Putin, echoes many of the tenets of Dugin’s philosophy. The “Russian World” implies the existence of a community that is much larger than Russia itself. It includes millions of citizens of the former Soviet Union who, according to the Kremlin, allegedly “woke up in a different country” against their will in the early 1990s.
  1. These people, referred to as compatriots, do not necessarily speak Russian as their first language, but they are culturally, historically and psychologically drawn to Russia. Moscow, therefore, expresses a sense of responsibility for these people and considers that these compatriots are oppressed by their governments and require Russia’s assistance.