The Kremlin’s use of disinformation has been laid bare after the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane on 17 July. Europeans must confront the grotesque propaganda machine on which President Putin’s authoritarian rule depends, William Horsley writes.
William Horsley is a former BBC European Affairs correspondent and co-founder of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield.
Europe may at last understand that the Ukraine crisis is a global one; at stake is the post-Cold War settlement which requires acceptance of a rules-based system of international relations.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its assertion of a right to intervene to “protect” its kinsfolk in Ukraine, and its overt and covert support for illegal “autonomous regimes” in eastern Ukraine all show contempt for the rules that Moscow has signed up to through the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Those violations have been accompanied by an unprecedented barrage of false and manipulative propaganda from the Russian state and state-controlled media. That asserts an alternative narrative in which Ukraine is painted as a fascist-led and ungovernable state, and Russia is the aggrieved party which is upholding international law.
Time and again President Putin and his government have announced one course of action — like his early denial that Russia would annex Crimea and recent denials about sending Russian heavy arms into cross into Ukraine — and then done the opposite.
Yet mainstream Russian media, under heavy Kremlin influence, can no longer fulfil the basic role of journalism — to question the veracity of what political leaders say. Those who attempt to hold power to account, such as Russian election monitoring groups, civil rights NGOs, and the political activist and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, have faced harassment or total exclusion. The lack of checks and balances is having serious consequences.
The Russian narrative on Ukraine has also found a ready audience among some political circles and parts of the public in Europe. That matters because as long as President Putin believes he can claim a measure of international support as well as popular approval within Russia, he is more likely to continue disrupting the international order and destabilising neighbours – especially Ukraine.
It seems that it was only after the horror of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in mid-July that Vladimir Putin’s alternative narrative was seriously discredited in some European minds.
That shift was reinforced by TV images of thuggish behaviour by self-proclaimed leaders of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic towards the OSCE monitors who visited the crash site, and the separatists’ lack of respect for the forensic evidence or for the 298 people who died.
But still a sizeable minority of Russlandsversteher (apologists for Russia, including those in Germany) and others who think that Russia deserves to be exempted from the normal rules continue to argue Mr Putin’s case in Europe.
Europe should draw two main lessons.
First, to establish an honest relationship with Russia it is vital to report the realities of the Ukraine crisis impartially and call things by their real names. That has proved a challenge for western news media, working in dangerous conditions amidst an information war in which residents of eastern Ukraine under separatist control are constantly exposed to distorted and hate-filled anti-Kyiv propaganda.
But Elisabeth Robson, a former head of the BBC’s Russian service, is among those well-informed observers who believe that western media have fallen short. “They had rather lost interest in Russia and did not have the necessary expertise”, Robson says. “They initially gave credence to the Russian version of events without critical examination, trying to be ‘fair’ in a situation which they did not understand.”
Meanwhile, the real success story of Ukraine largely got lost. That is about the rise of an articulate, educated generation of citizens who finally rebelled against the endemic corruption and injustice of the Yanukovich regime, and are determined to live in a free and open society, like Europeans.
“Many Western media,” Liz Robson says, “did not realise that Ukraine had made a relatively good job of pulling the country together, there was no bitter enmity and there was no language issue any more.”
Second, Russia’s propaganda machine is a core part of Mr Putin’s strategy for maintaining power at home. It also provides cover for aggressive actions by the Russian military and intelligence agencies to keep Ukraine, like the rest of Russia’s “near abroad”, in its own orbit.
In reality, the Kremlin-backed censorship and disinformation campaign in Ukraine has been applied with astonishing brutality, much of it directed at Ukrainian journalists. This year the Institute for Mass Information (IMI) and other respected civil society organisations in Kiev have published evidence of 250 physical assaults and scores of abductions of journalists, mostly in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In one of a multitude of well-documented cases of media falsification, IMI showed that Vladimir Putin’s request for parliamentary approval to deploy troops in Crimea relied on video footage aired on Russia’s Channel One TV that appeared to show Russian soldiers being shot in a gunfight outside the Simferopol parliament building. The video was a clumsily staged hoax.
Within Russia itself, press freedom has long been smothered by harshly repressive laws, including those against “extremism” and unauthorised peaceful protest.
This year, as the Ukraine crisis unfolded, that information noose has tightened further. Dozhd TV, which has a unique reputation among Russian TV channels for impartial reporting of events in Ukraine, is threatened by its exclusion from Russia’s main satellite and cable channel operators.
In March, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel described Mr Putin as “living in another world”.
It’s also a throwback to earlier times. Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Centre, Russia’s most respected polling organisation, made this comment to the BBC on the output of Russia’s state-controlled TV channels: “Aggressive and deceptive propaganda… worse than anything I witnessed in the Soviet Union”.