At the NATO summit in Wales last week, General Philip Breedlove, the military alliance’s top commander, made a bold declaration. Russia, he said, is waging “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”
It was something of an underestimation. The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. Take Novorossiya, the name Vladimir Putin has given to the huge wedge of southeastern Ukraine he might, or might not, consider annexing. The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it—at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitter feeds. It’s like something out of a Borges story—except for the very real casualties of the war conducted in its name.
The invention of Novorossiya is a sign of Russia’s domestic system of information manipulation going global. Today’s Russia has been shaped by political technologists—the viziers of the system who, like so many post-modern Prosperos, conjure up puppet political parties and the simulacra of civic movements to keep the nation distracted as Putin’s clique consolidates power. In the philosophy of these political technologists, information precedes essence. “I remember creating the idea of the ‘Putin majority’ and hey, presto, it appeared in real life,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a political technologist who worked on Putin’s election campaigns but has since left the Kremlin, told me recently. “Or the idea that ‘there is no alternative to Putin.’ We invented that. And suddenly there really was no alternative.”
“If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda,” argues Igor Yakovenko, a professor of journalism at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, “this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests—and then amplify the message through his total control of television.”
We saw a similar dynamic at work on the international stage in the final days of August, when an apparent Russian military incursion into Ukraine—and a relatively minor one at that—was made to feel momentously threatening. Putin invoked the need for talks on the statehood of southeastern Ukraine (with language that seemed almost purposefully ambiguous), leaving NATO stunned and Kiev intimidated enough to agree to a ceasefire. Once again, the term ‘Novorossiya’ made its way into Putin’s remarks, creating the sense that large territories were ready to secede from Ukraine when, in reality, the insurgents hold only a sliver of land. (For an earlier example of these geopolitical tricks, see Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency from 2008 to 2012, when Russia’s decoy leader inspired American faith in the possibility of a westward-facing Russia while giving the Kremlin time to cement power at home and entrench its networks abroad.)
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The belief in the absolute power of propaganda has roots in Soviet thinking. Jacques Ellul, in his classic 1965 study of the subject, wrote, “The Communists, who do not believe in human nature but only in the human condition, believe that propaganda is all-powerful, legitimate (whenever they employ it), and instrumental in creating a new type of man.”
But there is one great difference between Soviet propaganda and the latest Russian variety. For the Soviets, the idea of truth was important—even when they were lying. Soviet propaganda went to great lengths to ‘prove’ that the Kremlin’s theories or bits of disinformation were fact. When the U.S. government accused the Soviets of spreading disinformation—such as the story that the CIA invented AIDS as a weapon—it would cause howls of outrage from top Russian figures, including General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
In today’s Russia, by contrast, the idea of truth is irrelevant. On Russian ‘news’ broadcasts, the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred. Russian current-affairs programs feature apparent actors posing as refugees from eastern Ukraine, crying for the cameras about invented threats from imagined fascist gangs. During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.” The Kremlin tells its stories well, having mastered the mixture of authoritarianism and entertainment culture. The notion of ‘journalism,’ in the sense of reporting ‘facts’ or ‘truth,’ has been wiped out. In a lecture last year to journalism students at Moscow State University, Volin suggested that students forget about making the world a better place. “We should give students a clear understanding: They are going to work for The Man, and The Man will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written,” he said. “And The Man has the right to do it, because he pays them.”
The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative. It is the perfect genre for conspiracy theories, which are all over Russian TV. When the Kremlin and its affiliated media outlets spat out outlandish stories about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July—reports that characterized the crash as everything from an assault by Ukrainian fighter jets following U.S. instructions, to an attempted NATO attack on Putin’s private jet—they were trying not so much to convince viewers of any one version of events, but rather to leave them confused, paranoid, and passive—living in a Kremlin-controlled virtual reality that can no longer be mediated or debated by any appeal to ‘truth.’
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Now Russia is exporting its reality-reinventing model through the hundreds of millions of dollars that it spends on international broadcasters like the rolling, multilingual news channel RT (Russia Today). Domestically, RT helps convince Russians that their government is strong enough to compete with the CNNs of the world. In the United States, RT isn’t taken too seriously (if the channel manages to sow some doubt among Americans, all the better in Moscow’s view). But in Europe, Russian propaganda is more potent, working alongside the Kremlin’s influence over local media as well as economic and energy pressures.
The situation is tensest in the Baltic countries, whose large Russian populations are serviced by Russian-language TV channels like the Latvia-based PBK, which receives Kremlin programs at very low rates. ‘‘Huge parts of our population live in a separate reality created by Russian media,” says Raul Rebane, an expert on propaganda in Estonia, where a quarter of the population is ethnic Russian. “This makes consensual politics impossible.” In his research on how Bulgarian media covered the conflict in Ukraine, Christo Grozev, of the Bulgaria-based Risk Management Lab, found that the majority of the country’s newspapers followed Russian rather than Ukrainian narratives about events such as the downing of Flight MH17. “It’s not merely a case of sympathy or language,” Grozev says. “The Russian media just tell more and better stories, and that’s what gets reprinted.” Organizations like the Ukraine-based StopFake.org have been working hard to expose disinformation in Russian and foreign media. But for every ‘fake’ they catch, Kremlin-allied news outlets produce a thousand more. These news organizations don’t care if they’re caught in a lie. They care only about clicks and being compelling.
Like its domestic equivalents, RT also focuses on conspiracy theories—from 9/11 truthers to the hidden Zionist hand in Syria’s civil war. Western critics often snigger at these claims, but the coverage has a receptive audience. In a recent paper, “The Conspiratorial Mindset in the Age of Transition,” which examined conspiracy theories in France, Hungary, and Slovakia, a team of researchers from leading European think tanks reported that supporters of far-right parties tend to be more likely than supporters of other parties to believe in conspiracies. And right-wing nationalist parties, which are often allied ideologically and financially with the Kremlin, are rising. In Hungary, Jobbik is now the second-largest political party. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front recently won 25 percent of the vote in elections for the European parliament.
“Is there more interest in conspiracy theories because far-right parties are growing, or are far-right parties growing because more conspiracy thinking is being pumped into the information space?” asks Gleb Pavlovsky, a little wickedly.
The United States, meanwhile, is struggling with its messaging to the outside world. America is in an “information war and we are losing that war,” Hillary Clinton told Congress in 2011, citing the success of Russian and Chinese media.
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Just as the Kremlin’s international propaganda campaign intensifies, the West is having its own crisis of faith in the idea of ‘truth.’ It’s been a long time coming. Back in 1962, Daniel Boorstin, who would later serve as librarian of the U.S. Congress, wrote in The Image about how advances in advertising and television meant, “The question, ‘Is it real?’ is less important than, ‘Is it newsworthy?’ … We are threatened by a new and a peculiarly American menace … the menace of unreality.” By the 2000s, this idea had moved from the realm of commerce to the realm of high politics, captured in the now-legendary quote from an unnamed George W. Bush aide in The New York Times: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The pressure on reality from capitalism and Capitol Hill coincides with an anti-establishment drive in the U.S. that likewise claims that all truth is relative. In a Prospect magazine review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, for instance, George Packer writes, “Greenwald has no use for the norms of journalism. He rejects objectivity, as a reality and an ideal.” (Similarly, RT’s managing director once told me that “there is no such thing as objective reporting.”) Examining the sins of omission, biased value judgments, and half-truths in Greenwald’s book, Packer concludes that “they reveal a mind that has liberated itself from the basic claims of fairness. Once the norms of journalism are dismissed, a number of constraints and assumptions fall away.” The ties that bind Greenwald and the Kremlin consist of more than a shared desire to ensure Edward Snowden’s safety. In some dark, ideological wood, Putin the authoritarian gay-basher and Greenwald the gay, leftist-libertarian meet and agree. And as the consensus for reality-based politics fractures, that space becomes ripe for exploitation. It’s precisely this trend that the Kremlin hopes to exploit.
Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies. But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next—that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.
By Peter Pomerantsev, a TV producer based in London, for theatlantic.com. He is the author of a forthcoming study on Russia’s weaponization of information, culture, and money, and a forthcoming book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, about working inside Vladimir Putin’s postmodern dictatorship.