Upcoming in Estonian Journal of Military Studies, the journal of the Estonian National Defense College (ENDC) By Yevhen Fedchenko
This article traces the evolution of Russian propaganda as part of active measures from Soviet times through Russian occupation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine in Donbas as the climax in use of propaganda and media manipulations. Fakes and forgeries are a part of active measures conducted by the Kremlin and amending its military capacity and diplomacy efforts to cover it up. The manufacturing of fakes is characterized by centralized and systematic approach to manufacturing and distribution of fakes, their coherence and connection with the Kremlin policies and talking points. The article concludes that the use of media-related active measures is not a new phenomenon and was widely used by Soviet Union before as an instrument for conducting its foreign policy by clandestine means. Through examination of more than 500 items from Russian propaganda, debunked by StopFake.org verification project, we can conclude that the same themes for fakes and forgeries used in USSR since 1950s and are used now. The only thing that changed is the parasitizing of Kremlin propaganda on the Western concept of liberal values that allows Kremlin to disguise it under the pretext of freedom of speech and delivering ‘the other point of view’. As Kremlin historically relied on traditional media, mainly printed as a key channel for the distribution of fakes, now it also utilizes the wide range of new opportunities provided by internet and social media.
WHAT ACTIVE MEASURES ARE
Russian occupation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine in Donbas demonstrated the climax in use of propaganda and media manipulations, fakes and forgeries. They are a just a part of active measures conducted by the Kremlin and amending its military capacity and diplomacy efforts to cover it up.
War in the Eastern Ukraine is very dramatic and tense but has limited local impact and less visibility beyond Ukraine, especially after ceasefire within the framework of Minsk agreements. The information war as a part of hybrid war is very important because its influences are ongoing and it has a global impact as more and more countries are finding traces of Russian active measure on their territory.
Peter Pomerantsev notes on the concept of hybrid war: “Described by scholars as ‘hybrid’, ‘full-spectrum’, ‘non-linear’, ‘next-generation’, or ‘ambiguous’—the variations in the description indicate the slipperiness of the subject—these conflicts mix psychological, media, economic, cyber, and military operations without requiring a declaration of war”.
The extend of active use of media-related active measures is one of the major differences between Soviet information war and contemporary Russian hybrid war. Soviet Union was considering these activities mainly as covert operations that never were publicly declared, articulated or disclosed as those conducted or related to Soviet government agencies. Instead contemporary Russia coopts these instruments of public opinion manipulation and made it visible part of the public discourse for domestic and foreign audiences.
President Putin used similar approach openly describing the importance of informational component in the military strategy of Russia. At the opening of RT’s Spanish-language broadcasting in Argentina he said: “The rapid progress of electronic media has made news reporting enormously important and turned it into a formidable weapon that enables public opinion manipulations”.
Kremlin considers such manipulations not only as an important instrument for conducting foreign policy but also as an instrument for conducting or supplementing military warfare. Russian military doctrine adopted in December 2014 emphasizes the importance of information and information technologies:
- There is a tendency towards shifting the military risks and military threats to the information space
12.l) use of information and communication technologies for the military-political purposes to take actions which run counter to international law, being aimed against sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity of states and posing threat to international peace, security, global and regional stability
13.c) subversive information activities against the population, especially young citizens of the State, aimed at undermining historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions related to the defense of the Motherland.
Older version of Military Doctrine from 2010 also featured (article 13d) the possibility of the information war measures /…/ to pre-empt the use of the military force or to form positive public opinion after the use of military force (http://kremlin.ru/supplement/461)
Anatoliy Nogovitsyn, former Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, defines the role of information in hybrid war as follows:
the disorganization of the functioning of key military, industrial, and administrative facilities and systems of the enemy and also the information-psychological effect on his military-political leadership, troops, and population with the use of modern information technologies and means.
President Putin, opening RT Spanish 24/7 broadcasting in Argentina on July 2014, also focuses on the importance of media, especially electronic media (first of all television but also Internet):
The rapid progress of electronic media has made news reporting enormously important and turned it into a formidable weapon that enables public opinion manipulations. The intense media warfare has become a mark of the times, when certain nations attempt to monopolize the truth and use it in their own interests.
When Putin speaks of media warfare, he means the war which is conducted against Russia by unnamed countries. Although Russian President does not mention here who conducts this war, he means the West in general, and the United States and NATO in particular. This is also overtly mentioned in Military Doctrine. That puts Moscow reactively in defensive position and necessitates the retaliation:
In a speech to Russia’s Academy of Military Sciences in January 2013, Chief-of-Staff Valery Gerasimov complained that Russian knowledge of asymmetric warfare was “superficial.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United States in particular, had demonstrated their mastery of non-military campaigns in the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, Gerasimov said. Such modesty is disingenuous. Disinformation and subversion as weapons of war are as old as catapults and cavalry. The Kremlin’s advantage in the information age is that all of Russia’s major media outlets are under its control, allowing it to hammer its audience with one, unified message. The Kremlin claim that it’s in an “information war” with the West implies that there is vast conspiracy among myriad media in the United States and Europe, public and private, to produce the same lies about Russia.
Russia perfectly understands the importance of propaganda and heavily invests with money and human talent into organizations that work for international audience like RT (formerly known as Russia Today), Sputnik International (formerly known as the Voice of Russia), Ruptly, RIA (that still operate as a brand in Russian), TASS, Russia Insider, Russia Beyond the Headlines(RBTH) and myriad of other sources for propaganda, fakes and falsifications. As we see some of these “media” organizations are well-known propaganda brands from the Cold War times, others are quite new.
RT was created in 2005, immediately after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and was fully operational during Russian war in Georgia in 2008. Sputnik International was launched during Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv.
Both RT and Sputnik International dropped the word “Russian” from their brand names which is quite interesting but explainable. They do not work for Russian market, do not cover primarily Russia and they do not do Russia’s nation branding as many argues. For example, Shawn Powers calls RT a part of “global engagement strategy that combines Russian and international media platforms to communicate and articulate Russian foreign policy. The most developed of these is Russia Today (RT), which is a Russian satellite television broadcasting system similar to Qatar’s Al Jazeera or France 24.
Margarita Simonyan, RT head, explains that it’s not about national branding at all: “To some extent, if you do not have broadcasting for abroad – it’s like you do not have the army. When there is no war you do not need it. But when the war already started you cannot create it in a week”.
Sputnik International website says that their mission is “to points the way to a multipolar world that respects every country’s national interests, culture, history and traditions”. In reality it’s just the opposite as Kremlin “has systematically learnt to use the principles of liberal democracies against them in what we call here “the weaponization of information”.
In other words, Kremlin is using these so called ‘media’ organizations to deny others to have the right for their own culture, history and traditions through twisting facts and faking stories to undermine the policy making process or compromise their core values and institutions:
Like RT, the German branch of Sputnik — named after the satellite that established the Soviet claim to supremacy in space almost 60 years ago — is part of the Rossiya Segodnya media empire. Its mandate is to broadcast Moscow’s worldview at Putin’s behest. Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, serves as Sputnik’s general director. The only Russian journalist on the EU sanctions list against Moscow, he sees himself as being involved in an “information war.” In fact, he says, this is the “primary form of warfare” today.
The core of the Kremlin’s propaganda, both inside and outside Russia, is a post-modernist denial of everything. It’s aiming at destructing the whole liberal concept of western society including democracy itself and its separate elements like free media, fair elections, effective governance, right of people for self-determination and self-governance. There is no new ideology contained in current Russian propaganda, because Russia does not have one ideology. Instead, it borrows a little from everything. In this way, the system produces a large number of “small propagandas”, each of them targeting a specific audience. The more messages the better; this multiplies the confusion. To paraphrase Peter Pomerantsev, one could argue that the aim is not to provide a sole narrative, but to create clashes of narratives in order to confuse different audiences with different messages:
Unlike in the Cold War, when Soviets largely supported leftist groups, a fluid approach to ideology now allows the Kremlin to simultaneously back far-left and far-right movements, greens, anti-globalists and financial elites. The aim is to exacerbate divides and create an echo chamber of Kremlin support.
Although Russian war in Ukraine became the climax point for the use of Russian propaganda, it is a continuation of Soviet propaganda that never disappeared with collapse of Soviet Union. In reality it was just reviewed, rebuilt and transformed according to contemporary situation in order to increase its efficiency.
The contemporary Russian propaganda system is often compared to that of the Soviets during the Cold War. Because it has the same objectives, borrows the same techniques from the KGB playbook; many terms are easily recognizable, from the “puppeteers from Washington” to “foreign agents”, yet it is different in terms of quantity, quality and instruments it uses.
Ideology was a central element in the propaganda of the Soviet Union, which clashed against values-based counter-propaganda coming from the West. The central role played by the communist ideology ultimately made Soviet propaganda weak and ineffective; such ideological narratives only appealed to left-leaning political groups or countries.
As US Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs “Special Report on Soviet active measures” mentions in 1981, “Soviet use of Marxist-Leninist ideology to appeal to foreign groups often turns out to be an obstacle to the promotion of Soviet goals in some areas; it is now being deemphasized though not completely abandoned”.
To achieve their goals, the Soviets created a concept of active measures (aktivnyye meropriyatiya) that refers to operations intended to “affect other nations policies, as distinct from espionage and counterintelligence. Soviet active measures included:
- Written or spoken disinformation
- Efforts to control media in foreign countries
- Use of Communist parties and front organizations
- Clandestine radio broadcasting
- Blackmail, personal and economic
- Political influence operations.
These instruments are summarized by Active Measures Working Group – the interagency taskforce formed in 1981 and led by the United States Department of State and later by the United States Information Agency(USIA). In their annual reports produced from 1981 till 1989 they provided detailed account of the use of active measure by Soviet Union.
Very important insight into active measures practices of Soviet Union can also be obtained from the books by defectors from Soviet Union or satellite socialist states who were insiders in the disinformation system like Ladislav Bittman, Mihai Pacepa, Anatoliy Golitsyn, Stanislav Levchenko, Vasili Mitrokhin. All the evidences they give support the idea that Soviet Union active measure never seized their existence.
Ladislav Bittman, the former StB Czechoslovak intelligence officer who in 1968 defected to the West summarizes existing instruments during Soviet times:
Forgeries/…/ are classified into two major categories. The first category includes misleading information(disinformation) that contributes to poor policy decisions among government leaders. This type of fake usually does not require or receive widespread attention of the media. The second type, propagandistic forgery, seeks to mold public opinion in a target country. Propagandistic forgeries take a number of different forms: leaflets in the name of non-existent organizations, counterfeit pamphlets circulated to key individuals and groups, facsimiles and subtle alterations of official publications, reproduction and shading of entire issues of newspapers and magazines, fake personal letters, and phony bank statements. Even duplicate best-sellers have been offered to publishing houses.
As we can see the approaches used by Moscow included many instruments related to media manipulations such as general control of the media in foreign countries, complete or partial forgery of media stories that contain partial truth or are complete lie, set up of bogus media organizations abroad, exploitation of journalists as collaborators to influence policies of the nation.
It’s exactly the same set of tools that is currently used by Kremlin for deception and disinformation. Especially interesting for us are fakes and forgeries as a part of active measures as we will discuss them later in more details.
Another important issue is chain of command and hierarchy in the production of fakes and forgeries. To answer who is a mastermind behind this elaborated system we might also have a peek at how this system was managed in the past. According to Active Measure Working group report,
Depending on its sensitivity and importance, approval for a forgery may be obtained from the KGB leadership, the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, or the Secretariat of the Central Committee itself. KGB specialists prepare the forgery under the supervision of the active measures section of the KGBs First Chief Directorate.
According to the Report “Soviet Active Measures in The ‘Post-Cold War’ Era 1988-1991”, The International Information Department(IDD) of the CPSU Central Committee was also involved in manufacturing fake and forgeries. Quite interesting is its internal organizational chart which might give us a clue how it might be organized today:
IDD was divided into 6 sectors organized around geographical and functional lines. Each sector employed about half a dozen professionals, who determined the themes, arguments, and information used in Soviet foreign propaganda and the treatment of international affairs in the Soviet press. After these were decided upon, the IID and its successors would hold regular meetings to issue their guidance on international information issues to Novosti, TASS, Radio Moscow, Radio Peace and Progress, and other leading Soviet media.
If we would compare it to current operations, we also can find in place effective system of management and coordination of production of fakes and their dissemination across the platforms and across the countries. Without such a coordination it would be impossible to imagine high level of cohesion between active measures, policy making, military actions and diplomatic coverup of seminal events like Crimean occupation first, and then war in the Eastern Ukraine.
If we will use the Soviet model of command, KGB can be replaced with FSB and SVR who share the responsibilities according to the spheres of their competence – Russian domestic audience or international audience respectively. Also GRU military intelligence is deeply involved in planning and conducting of active measures as soon as Russian Ministry of Defense is conducting military operations. International Department and International Information Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party will be replaced by Kremlin itself that directs and coordinates active measures. Newsweek quotes Ilya Ponomarev, an opposition Duma deputy: “That role is played by Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, who calls in chief editors to coordinate the Kremlin line. Gromov distributes the orders to the mainstream media in Moscow, /…/ and his orders are as strict as any in the army.”
Also there are secondary evidences coming from text messages hacked by Anonymous International that other Kremlin high-ranked officials representing Presidential Administration, Government or ruling United Russia Party are involved in planning and conducting media-related active measures: Vyacheslav Volodin, Timur Prokopenko, Arkadiy Dvorkovich, Robert Shlegel among others.
Soviet leadership, the same as Russian leadership, always insisted on defensive character of their active measures, and as a result their moral superiority:
KGB’s active-measures doctrine improbably insisted that its influence operations were ‘radically different in essence from the disinformation to which Western agencies resort in order to deceive public opinion’: KGB disinformation operations are progressive; they are designed to mislead not the working people but their enemies – the ruling circles of capitalism – in order to induce them to act in a certain way, or abstain from actions contrary to the interests of the USSR; they promote peace and social progress; they serve international détente; they are humane, creating the conditions for the noble struggle for humanity’s bright future.
The same idea of moral superiority can be found in views of one of the public faces of contemporary Russian propaganda Dmitry Kiselev, who “with typical brio, argued that East and West appeared to be trading places. In Russia we now take full advantage of freedom of speech, whereas in the West political correctness, or political expediency in the name of security, have become arguments against freedom of speech”.
The idea of freedom of speech, high moral ground in information battle with the West and access to alternative point of view through Russian so called ‘media’ become a cornerstone concept for Kremlin propaganda inherited from the Soviet past. Putin opening RT Spanish 24/7 broadcasting in Argentina in July 2014 says: “Your nation is now getting a reputable and, most importantly, reliable source of information on the events and developments in Russia and worldwide. The right to information is one of the most important and inalienable human rights”.
In reality it means just the opposite: more fakes disguised as real news. Those conducting these activities do not care much about being caught telling lies – the audiences will already consume that and it will be very difficult to debunk: “Although the fabricators are aware that once a document appears in print the supposed author will promptly deny its authenticity, the Soviets calculate that a denial will never entirely offset the damage from news stories based on the forgery”.
To make sure that fakes will be consumed by audiences at a face value, will amass and create parallel reality it’s important to make sure that they are not complete lie but combination of some kind of authentic information: it can be mixture of real facts and fiction, some facts in the background of the information, some irrelevant details to make ‘news’ looking more realistic: “Active measures were based on 95 percent objective information to which something was added to turn the data into targeted information or disinformation.”
Also important for comparative perspective is evaluation of the scale of active measure conducted by the USSR and Russia. Soviet forgeries detected by the inter-agency Active Measures working group were totaling only 4 cases in 1980, 7 in 1981, 9 in 1982, and 12 in 1983.
Although their number was increasing from year to year, in the Soviet period they never reached the level of contemporary Russian active measures. Only those fakes that were debunked by StopFake.org amounts to more than 500 cases in just 2 years. According to The Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at National Defense University’s (NDU’s), “conducting more intense disinformation campaign was expensive for the Soviet Union, with estimated spending of about $3 to 4 billion per year in hard currency at the beginning of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, some insiders believed that the Soviet Union was spending three to five times that much.”
To make sure that fake information will look more credible and trustworthy and to avoid direct responsibility or even to use a false flag, Soviet propaganda was actively using Communist proxy newspapers to deliver propaganda messages or ideally – non-Communist media. Very often information was attributed to newspapers like The Morning Star(British socialist newspaper), L’Humanite(daily newspaper of French Communist party), Rude Pravo(newspaper of Communist party of Czechoslovakia) and then Soviet propaganda outlets were ‘quoting’ them.
Ladislav Bittman explains why it was important to do:
to maintain an aura of authenticity, disinformation must first appear through a mass medium not openly identifiable as pro-Communist. A journalist-agent working for a reputable publication is usually supplied with disinformation and told how to write the story. In most cases, the initial appearance of sensational materials is enough to start a chain reaction of further publicity as other media outlets become interested I the subject. Local communist newspapers are left out of the game to act according to their ideological bias and editorial decision. Even the reaction of Pravda,/…/ does not provide the key for understanding the real purpose of the KGB Strategy.
Nowadays manipulating foreign media is also widespread technic of active measures. If Russian propaganda is not capable to place their doctored stories in Western mainstream media they can invent fake connections to them.
In 2015 several Russian web-based media(including fake Kharkov News Agency, actually based in Russia) distorted The New York Times article allegedly called “Nazi Terrorist ‘Death Squads’ Exterminate Ethnic Russians in the Eastern Ukraine“ and reported that the newspaper had written about “the extermination of ethnic Russians in the Eastern Ukraine” by Ukrainian volunteer battalions. But nothing to this effect was in the article, which reported on three Chechen battalions fighting alongside the Ukrainian army in the eastern part of the country.
On October 22, 2015 the Russia’s Ministry of Defense television network Zvezda posted a false report on its website claiming that “Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused the leader of the Batkivshchyna political party, Yulia Tymoshenko, of sexual harassment.” It claimed that the original source for the story was an interview given by Yatsenyuk to a journalist of the Russian service of Radio France Internationale (RFI), Elena Servettaz. The RFI Russian service, however, immediately denied that it had made any such report and condemned Zvezda for making up both the sexual harassment story and its coverage by RFI.
The Russian website Ukraina.ru(that belongs to MIA Rossiaya Segodnya International Information Agency, formerly RIA Novosti) at the very beginning of Russia’s endeavor in Syria published a story by little-known American author Jack Smith claiming that Russia is an important player in Syria and Washington is obliged to listen to her. The site presented the story as if it was published in the prestigious Foreign Policy Magazine. In fact, the article cited was published in the little known private web site called Foreign Policy Journal.
Documentary “Ukraine: Masks of revolution” by French journalist Paul Moreira can be another example of a possible manipulation of foreign media by Kremlin security apparatus even without the prior knowledge of it. The film was commissioned and shown recently be CANAL+, French commercial TV channel. It included many factual mistakes and irregularities which accidentally completely coincide with Kremlin narrative towards Ukraine. According to Galya Ackerman, Executive Director of the Paris-based “European Forum-Ukraine”, this is a classical example of active measures, conducted according to Soviet tradition by using Western journalists (without their knowledge): “One thing when documentary like this is shown on (Russian) NTV channel or spread by Sputnik International but when it’s broadcasted by (French) CANAL+ – that’s quite another pair of shoes”.
In order to ‘use’ foreign media to seed necessary fake story USSR needed to create their own media, control them or to buy or use any other means to get access to journalists.
For example, according to Report “Soviet Active Measures in The ‘Post-Cold War’ Era 1988-1991”, Soviet Union helped to launch Indian newspaper Patriot “with KGB funds in order to spread Soviet propaganda and disinformation”. This newspaper was later used to break a most seminal in the history of Soviet active measures ‘news item’ on alleged US government involvement in ‘creating’ AIDS as part of development of biological warfare research. Later the same newspaper “falsely claimed that the U.S. was encouraging Turkey to seize northern Iraq”.
Another example was a German Magazine Geheim published and edited by Michael Opperskalski since 1985. Although there were no direct evidences of connection between him and Soviets, Herbert Romerstein (one of the active members of Active Measures Working Group) in “Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda, and Political Warfare” quotes Hubertus Knabe, a leading German expert on Stasi activities, who “identified the publisher of Geheim with the code name ‘Abraham’ as Michael Opperskalski”. He closed his magazine in 1992 but then resumed publishing in 2002. Now Michael Opperskalski is regular contributor to RT.
Another difference between Soviet and Russian active measures can be the benefits of Internet and social media usage that Kremlin may utilize now to fullest extent and that were not available in Soviet times. That allows to create and use anonymous sources for spreading fakes that later will be picked up by mainstream media.
For example, on August 30, 2015 RT published a translated anonymous post from a blog, Blauer Bote (Blue Courier), in which the writer summarizes an article from the Kyiv Post. The original article is about a children’s training camp of the Azov Battalion. Yet while the Kyiv Post article is neutral, the anonymous writer of the German blog deliberately and subjectively radicalizes it in his retelling. The writer also adds a collection of news stories on the speculative topic of Ukrainian Nazis. Russia Today presents this loose compilation of links and anonymous opinion pieces under the headline “Blauer Bote: Kyiv Newspaper Boasted of Hitler Youth Camps” – and, moreover, wrongly describes some of the material it contains as opinion pieces from serious German media outlets. The website, however, offers neither contact information nor the names of the writers.
Soviet disinformation campaign continued through Perestroika and Glasnost and actually never stopped. During Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting, USIA Director Charles Wick confronted Gorbachev personally about Soviet disinformation. Gorbachev responded “no more lies, no more disinformation”.
According to A Report to Congress by the United States Information Agency “SOVIET ACTIVE MEASURES IN THE ERA OF GLASNOST” published in March 1988,
Since the December 1987 summit, state-controlled Soviet media have falsely claimed or suggested that: the United States manufactured the AIDS virus in a U.S. military facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland [Radio Moscow, Feb. 13, 1988]; the United States is manufacturing an ethnic weapon that kills only non-whites [TASS, Jan. 9, 1988; January 1988 Novosti Military Bulletin; Radio Moscow, Feb. 5, 19881; the FBI assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King [Literaturnaya Gazeta Jan. 20, 1988]; the head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission conference in Geneva, Armando Valladares, was jailed in Cuba for bombing stores [Izvestia, Feb. 6, 1988]; 2 the CIA assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, Indian Prime minister Indira Gandhi, and attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II [Moscow Television, Feb. 9, 1988].
Active Measures Working group that monitored, measured Soviet active measures and did annual reports stopped monitoring it in 1989 and after this date we do not have any reports summarizing Soviet activities in this field.
But another Report to Congress “Soviet Active Measures Forgery, Disinformation, Political Operations” predicts that
there is every reason to believe that the Soviet leadership will continue to make heavy investments of money and manpower in meddlesome and disruptive operations around the world. While Soviet active measures can be exposed, as they have often been in the past, the Soviets are becoming more sophisticated, especially in forgeries and political influence operations. Unless the targets of Soviet active measures take effective action to counter them, these activities will continue to trouble both industrialized and developing countries.
As historian of Perestroika Brian Crozier warns about what the West overlooked in the period of ungrounded euphoria of Gorbachev’s Perestroika:
there was, however, a hidden dimension to perestroika, which passed largely unnoticed by the Western media and by Western political leaders: the restructuring of the “active measures” apparatus. In contrast to the “restructuring” of the economy, the perestroika of the overt and covert propaganda apparatus of the Soviet Union was considerably strengthened and made more sophisticated under Gorbachev.
Andrei Soldatov, who studies Russian security and intelligence apparatus, also confirms that Soviet Union continues their active measure operations in 2000s:
When the First Chief Directorate was renamed the Foreign Intelligence Service, its Section A was renamed the Section of Assistance Operations. In the early 1990s, the CIA had asked the foreign intelligence service to stop carrying out ‘active measures’ that undermined the national security of the United States. As a result, the section was given a new name, but its methods, structure, and employees were retained.
Soviet propaganda apparatus was carefully refurbished to order to make it more modern and more effective. Valentin Falin, Head of Novosti Press Agency and later the head of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was one of the architects of this system reboot and suggested to create new model for propaganda manufacturing and dissemination that envisaged the current system, including the creation of RT and Sputnik International:
Under capitalism information is the main commodity and you need to sell this commodity. If the government will do this – it’s doomed to fail. We need to create state-public company subordinated to the Communist party Central Commetee that will combine Novosti Press agency APN, TASS, State TV and Radio Commette, State Publishing Comittee, State Cinema Comittee, Union of Journalists. Central Commetee should start its own TV channel, TV Pravda and also global video news agency.
RUSSIAN ACTIVE MEASURES AND FAKES ON UKRAINE
Peter Pomeratsev describes influence of Russian propaganda on Ukraine as follows:
In the case of Russia’s ongoing campaign in Ukraine, for example, hyper-intense Russian propaganda has cultivated unrest inside the country by sowing enmity among segments of Ukrainian society and confusing the West with waves of disinformation, while Russian proxy forces and covert troops launch just enough military offensives to ensure that the Ukrainian government looks weak. The point is not to occupy territory—Russia could easily annex rebel-held eastern Ukraine—but to destabilize Ukraine psychologically and advance a narrative of the country as a “failed state,” thus destroying the will and support inside Ukraine and internationally for reforms that would make Kiev more independent from Moscow.
Ben Nimo describes anatomy of Russian info-war against Ukraine with the concept of 4Ds: “Russia’s narrative can be viewed as an offensive weapon: Its effect is to discredit the West and shift the blame for the Ukraine crisis onto Western shoulders. When it comes to defending Russia, different tactics are used. They can be summed up in four words: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay”.
To better understand the content of media-related active measures, we will use materials, researched by fact-checking project Stopfake.org that was launched in March 2014 by faculty, students and alumni of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine.
The team was then joined by other journalists, editors, programmers, translators, and those concerned about proliferation of propaganda. The main purpose of this Project is to check facts, verify information, and refute verifiable disinformation about events in Ukraine covered in the media. StopFake team does not represent or is supported by any political party, commercial organization, or Ukrainian government and is focused on journalistic standards of information.
During 2 years of its existence Stopfake.org analyzed, fact-checked and debunked more that 500 stories from Russian media (that includes TV, print and internet media, and social media, both Government-controlled and private – which it reality also means quasi-governmental control).
We can divide them into different types and categories depending on the themes of the fakes, forms of output (text, photo, video, meme); target audiences they are aiming at: Russian domestic audience, Ukrainian audience, US/Europe, rest of the world/global audience. Also we can differentiate it by platforms used for spreading them.
For our typology we use the disinformation themes.
By analyzing 500 items of debunked disinformation(fakes) we can identify 18 major fake narratives themes formed by Russian propaganda:
- Сoup d’état and Western-backed junta
- Ukraine as a ‘fascist state’
- Ukraine as a ‘failed state’
- Russia is not a part of occupation/war
- Ukrainian Army
- Volunteer Battalions
- Internally displaced persons(IDPs) and refugees to Russia
- Territorial disintegration of Ukraine
- ‘Territorial claims’ from neighboring countries
- Fake legitimization of Crimea annexation and occupation of Donbass by foreign governments, international organizations or foreign media
- War in Ukraine is actually conducted by the US, NATO or private contractors
- Decline of Western support for Ukraine
- International organizations manipulated
- Ukraine and the EU
- Disintegration of the EU, decay of the US and West in general
- AIDS/ZIKA/ other disease stories
Although we identified 18 main disinformation themes during last 2 years, we will do more detailed analysis of only those that identically repeat Soviet propaganda patterns and put narrratives in a a wider perspective. The most used frames for post-Maidan Ukraine were frames of coup d’etat, Western-backed (mostly US-backed junta) seizing power and fascism as defining ideology of emerging regime in Ukraine.
Сoup d’état and western-backed junta
Coup d’état or illegal overthrow of the legitimate president(Yanukovych) and its government was one of the central topics for propaganda manipulation (https://www.rt.com/news/159664-italy-protest-nazism-ukraine/, accessed February 27, 2016). Ancient regime Ukrainian leaders who fled the country were harbored in Russia for further propaganda use. They had numerous media appearances in Russian media and subsequently were proclaimed as “Ukrainian government in exile”.
The main disinformation theme about US-backed junta of radicals and banderites, according to evidences coming from text messages hacked by Anonymous International, was initially launched from Kremlin by Alexey Gromov, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, and pushed to different media outlets by Timur Prokopenko, the head of the Kremlin internal affairs department.
This disinformation theme was picked up by all Russian mainstream media and social media and was main frame of reference for the depicting Ukraine-related events during next two years.
Valentin Zorin, one of the biggest propagandists from Soviet times who still occasionally works for RIA in his 90s and still publishes, explains at government-owned outlet US government complicity in Ukrainian ‘coup’: “From the very beginning, being in charge of coup d’état in Kiev, Washington DC relied on extreme nationalistic forces, banderites who oathed to Hitler and committed atrocities against Russians, Jews, Polish”.
This is written in 2014-2015 but you cannot say the difference between these talking points and ideological verbatim of Cold war times. The idea to depict Euromaidan through the US involvement and the use of Cold War framework was intended to mobilize Russian domestic audience, radicalize audience in the Eastern and Southern Ukraine (which was planned by Kremlin to be transformed into wider Novorossia separatists’ entity) and sow suspicion among Europeans and the rest of the world.
As Ladislav Bittman notes,
Anti-American propaganda campaigns are the easiest to carry out. A single press article containing sensational facts of a ‘new American conspiracy’ may be sufficient. Other papers become interested, the public is shocked, and government authorities in developing countries have a fresh opportunity to clamor against the imperialists while demonstrators hasten to break American embassy windows.
The same language and visuals were used in Soviet propaganda and Russian propaganda to depict US involvement in the potential breakup of the Soviet Union and almost 30 years later depicting the US meddling with Ukraine within Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. For example, in early January 1991 Soviet Television produced 40-minute documentary, “The Faces of Extremism” where shots of terrorism in Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Spain were mixed with film clips of U.S. military operations in Grenada, Panama, and Libya, followed by scenes of a rally held by Rukh (the democratic party in Ukraine], riots in Central Asia, fighting in Azerbaijan, and demonstrations in Lithuania. The narrator suggested that the U.S. government would soon try to organize underground political movements in Central Asia in order to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 2014 NTV channel produced pretty similar ‘documentary’ called “Ordinary Fascism: Ukrainian Variant” to form the same perception of events in Ukraine among first of all Russian domestic audience as “The Faces of Extremism” did in 1990s.
In both ‘documentaries’ US government and western non-governmental institutions are blamed for committing direct and indirect actions to disrupt Soviet/Russian influence. For example, in 1991, according to the US Congressional Report, Soviet Defense minister Yazov “joined in the anti-U.S. and anti-democratic chorus, accusing the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which aids democratic groups worldwide, of trying to influence events in the USSR”.
This rhetoric is very similar to rhetoric of Kremlin now, accusing organizations they dub as ‘foreign agents’. Even in the case of StopFake.org when opponents want to insult the project, they immediately invoke National Endowment for Democracy donor support as an evidence of US government and CIA involvement.
Junta in Ukraine that usurped the power through ‘undemocratic’ procedures are considered to be American (Washington DC, The White House) puppets and Ukrainian people as US lackeys.
We find a lot of fake stories supporting this line of narrative: photo fake “Kyiv Residents Kneel before Biden”, textual fake story “Biden Proposes to Federalize Ukraine”, another photo fake “Ukrainian Soldier Kisses American Flag”.
Ukraine as a Fascist State
As a result of coup d’état Ukraine is depicted by Russian propaganda to be transformed into de facto fascist state. All necessary attributes like anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia are exploited by propaganda and are core of active measures against Ukraine.
The ‘fascist narrative’ is one of the most important themes as it connects Ukrainian events with the narrative of World war II, the heroic page in Soviet, and then Russian history. It became the staple of the whole anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western propaganda and its main points where used as prerequisites for occupation of Crimea and aggression of Russian army in Eastern Ukraine.
The Report “Putin.War”, prepared by Russian opposition, explains why it was important for Kremlin to use ‘fascists narrative’: “Rhetoric of war was projected to current political news. This exposed Ukrainian authorities as ‘banderite’ and ‘nazi’ by Kremlin propaganda and Russia got involved in the same cause as in 1941-45 – struggle with fascists”.
The fake news on WWII (or Great Patriotic war as it’s called in Russian historiography) veterans in Ukraine, their war benefits, ban on celebrations and gatherings, ban on wearing their awards and war heroes memorials demolition were circulated. Sometimes veterans were even reported to be beaten. The main purpose of these distortion of history is incitement, war mongering and dissemination of hate speech.
On April 20, 2015 Russia’s private tabloid Lifenews TV channel falsely reported that Kharkiv regional council head forbade Second World War veterans from wearing St. George ribbons and flags (commemorating the Red Army’s victory) during a Victory Day’s march on May 9.
On September 3, 2015 Russian REN TV and Channel 5 falsely reported that unknown persons had destroyed memorial plaques commemorating Soviet soldiers in Kharkiv.
The news was accompanied by an amateur video, published in YouTube. The video shows two men dismantling memorial plaques and taking them away to an undisclosed location. However, when contacted the speaker for the Kharkiv city council said that the plaques had been removed for renovation.
On June 30, 2015 LifeNews TV channel used video from the celebration of the anniversary of the Declaration of Ukrainian Independence in Kherson. At a small event in the city’s center, young people gathered to read the Declaration aloud and to sing the national anthem. The manipulated story was “Nationalists Swear Allegiance to Hitler in Kherson”.
In April 2015 Zvezda TV channel and REN TV published a false report about an unfinished concentration camp made by “pro-American” for those “accused of terrorism and separatism by the ruling regime in Ukraine.” The report is based on a video by a war correspondent who claims that the construction site is an uncompleted prison in Zhdanovka in the Donetsk region. He opines: “It is very convenient place to keep prisoners of war here, wouldn’t you say? There is such an Eastern European Guantanamo!”
On May 18, 2015 the government-owned Russia 24 network dedicated a news program to focus exclusively on alleged anti-Semitism in Ukraine. “Vesti at 23:00” aired a report and discussion entitled “The new exodus of Jews from Ukraine: Jewish organizations accuse Brussels of keeping problem of neo-Nazism in Ukraine quiet”. StopFake debunked this ever increasing Russian disinformation narrative and Vyacheslav Likhachev, the head of Monitoring group of the rights of ethnic minorities at Association of the Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (VAAD) confirmed the falseness of the Ukrainian anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi claim.
Fascism is not a new invention as it was one of the most exploited themes for Soviet active measures. They’ve been using it for compromising policymakers in different parts of the world or for putting pressure on whole countries – like postwar Germany, Italy or Austria.
Intelligence historian Christopher Andrew describes how ‘fascism’-themed narrative was used to undermine the renome of Egyptian President Saddat:
(KGB) Service A’s active measures against Sadat made much of his early enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler. Sadat himself acknowledged in his autobiography that, as a fourteen-year-old when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he had been inspired by the way the Führer set out to ‘rebuild his country’/…/ As late as 1953 he said publicly that he admired Hitler ‘from the bottom of my heart’. The KGB claimed the credit for inspiring publications with titles such as ‘Anwar Sadat: From Fascism to Zionism’, which portrayed him as a former Nazi agent who had sold out to the CIA.
Ion Mihal Pacepa, high-ranked defector from Romanian security services, gives detailed account of how ‘fascism’ narrative was instrumental part of active measure against Catholic church after WWII “faulting the Catholic church for its role in the rise of Fascism”. The same tool was also used to compromise or as it was called within active measures procedures ‘to frame’ Pope Pius XII, Croatian Cardinal Stepinac or Ukrainian Cardinal Slipyj who were framed as ‘nazi collaborators’.
When US-backed junta and fascists are not enough to scare the audience who might not fully follow high politics, Russian active measures effectively use what it’s known on TV as ‘human interest stories’. Most of them will be about different diseases and the ‘fact’ that they are invented by US government. The purpose of planting such a story will be double-fold: first, to scare as many people as possible and work with their primary fears, second – to blame US in spread of infections and fuel the new wave of anti-Americanism which is by default a grand objective of Soviet/Russian active measures.
In 1983, Indian newspaper The Patriot, that was crafted by KGB to publish fakes, broke a story blaming the U.S. military in creating the AIDS virus and releasing it as a weapon. This story appeared first in minor Soviet-controlled outlets. In 1985 it was picked up by the Soviet weekly newspaper, Literaturnaya Gazeta and then – mushroomed in many other outlets: “In 1987 alone, it appeared over 40 times in the Soviet-controlled press and was reprinted or rebroadcast in over 80 countries in 30 languages. The AIDS virus was terrifying and not well understood at the time, so this piece of Soviet disinformation was especially damaging to the U.S. image”.
US government put a lot of pressure on Kremlin and Gorbachev personally to make sure that Soviet Union will stop disseminating this fake. All medical research cooperation between the Us and USSR was suspended before Moscow drops this story: “The Soviets stopped using the AIDS disinformation story. It became clear, /…/, that they would back off when the cost of their lies became too much for them. As the new disinformation stories appeared, we pressured the Soviets on their failure to carry out Gorbachev’s promise”.
But this story was not dropped forever. It was revived in some other forms recently – from tweet saying that Ukrainian army in Donbas is firing shells to disseminate AIDS among local population to accusations that ZIKA virus was spreading from US government facilities:
An outspoken former chief Russian sanitary inspector has suggested that the United States could be infecting mosquitos with the Zika virus in the Black Sea area as a form of biological warfare against Russia. In comments to the BBC Russian Service on February 15, Gennady Onishchenko said that Russian scientists have identified a surge since 2012 in the kind of mosquito that carries the virus in Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian region that borders Russia on the Black Sea coast. “This worries me because about 100 kilometers from the place where this mosquito now lives, right near our borders, there is a military microbiological laboratory of the army of the United States.
On January 26, 2016 the website Pravda.ru ran a news item claiming that 20 Ukrainian soldiers died and 200 were hospitalized with the deadly California flu virus outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.“Doctors have recorded an unknown virus causing extremely high temperatures which cannot be brought down with any medicine”, – claimed DNR separatist spokesman Eduard Basurin. On January 22, the same Basurin announced at a press conference that Ukrainian soldiers were admitted to a Kharkiv hospital suffering from a virus “that leaked from an American laboratory located in the village of Shelkostantsia”.
None of these fake stories were accompanied by facts or photos and in the last several days, the two stories have melded one, gaining mileage on the web and in social media.
There has been no mass illness or viral infection among Ukraine’s armed forces. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has no information about any such mass illness.
Although Russian war in Ukraine became the climax point for the use of Russian propaganda, it is a continuation of Soviet propaganda that never disappeared with collapse of Soviet Union. In reality it was just reviewed, rebuilt and transformed according to contemporary situation in order to increase its efficiency. Both contemporary Russian propaganda system and Soviet system has the same objectives, borrows the same techniques from the active measures playbook, yet it is different in terms of quantity, quality and instruments it uses.
By analyzing more than 500 stories StopFake debunked during last two years, we could identify18 main disinformation themes, covered by Russian state- and privately owned media. Many of them are variations of Soviet paradigm, build on anti-Americanism, own moral superiority and falsified history.
Most Russian journalists, media top managers or policymakers will deny the fact of existence of propaganda or existence of vertical chain of command connecting Kremlin and ‘media’ outlets in conducting active measures. When Margarita Simonyan, RT(formerly Russia Today) head was confronted why RT twisted information in their item “Putin Will Bring Down Western Economies” (http://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-putin-will-bring-down-western-economies/) she explained it as incompetence and lazy journalism. According to her, usually it’s not evil intentions of media to twist or falsify facts. Problem might be with the source of information that initially publish it but then all others just republish it without caring to check the information:
There is a huge competition, everybody wants to be the first, quicker, more interesting. All this is done to get more audience. If you are the first to publish something – it will attract audience, that’s why you are doing this. It’s too long to verify information – someone might be quicker to publish it before you do.
Unfortunately, this is not realistic picture of origins of hundreds and hundreds of fakes and forgeries coming from Russian media system. They are not results of bad journalism but the result of well-preserved and refurbished system of active Soviet measures used to manipulate media on a global scale in order to amend military and diplomatic efforts.
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Yevhen Fedchenko(PhD), co-founder of StopFake.org