Kremlin media are shaping the views of a sizeable pro-Russia constituency in the EU, experts and officials warn.
The numbers show, according to US pollster Pew, that one in three Germans and one in four French people think the EU should relax Russia sanctions.
Overall approval of Russian leader Vladimir Putin is down in Europe. But one in four Germans, especially in east Germany, do have confidence in him, in what they call “Putinverstehers”, or, “Putin-understanders”.
Almost half of French people also blame Kiev for the conflict in east Ukraine. Thirty four percent of Germans blame it. Twelve percent of Germans blame the West.
Bruce Stokes, the director of Pew, which published the survey on 10 June, told Globsec, a security congress in Bratislava last weekend, that the pro-Russia bloc is “a significant minority”.
Referring to Russian propaganda, he said: “There’s some evidence this is having an impact”.
Peter Kreko, the head of Political Capital, a think tank in Budapest, added: “Considerable parts of the population in several member states are sympathetic to Russia”.
“In Greece, more people sympathise with Russia than the EU. In Italy, France, Hungary, and Slovakia, there’s a sizeable chunk of people who are buying the Russian narrative.”
Yevhen Fedchenko, a Ukrainian academic who runs stopfake.org, a propaganda-debunking website, said one reason for Russia’s success is the size of its PR budget.
The Kremlin, by its own admission, is spending at least €643 million on media this year.
“It began with Russia Today after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine [in 2005]”, Fedchenko noted.
“They’re adding new, so-called media every year. Few people talk about Sputnik [a Russian website and broadcaster]. It’s growing every week, with a new language, a new country. It uses local journalists and local languages, so that it competes with local information”.
He said Russian propaganda is becoming more sophisticated.
In the initial phase of the Ukraine conflict, media ran fake stories about Ukrainian atrocities, which were easy to debunk.
It later began disseminating conspiracy theories, for instance: that flight MH17 contained corpses and that Ukraine shot it down in a false flag operation.
Now it’s propagating relativism: The idea that no source of information can be trusted.
It’s also mixing propaganda with entertainment, the way the West used Hollywood films in the Cold War.
Fedchenko said Russia recently broadcast a lullaby show for children which used puppets to say why it was right to annex Crimea: “They’re explaining to kids why it’s OK to take another country’s territory”.
Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, who also spoke at Globsec, compared it to “littering” of people’s minds.
“The littering of Oceans is discussed at world summits. But littering of minds is not being seriously addressed”, he said.
Lithuania fears that Russian aggression in Ukraine could be repeated in the Baltic states. But the same Pew survey noted that most French, German, and Italian people don’t want their countries to defend a Nato ally against Russia.
“I’m not surprised”, Linkevicius told EUobserver.
“There’s a gap between European leaders and citizens. We have to do more”, he added.
“But there’s solidarity in the alliance [Nato] and Article V of the Treaty [on collective defence] is not based on opinion polls … if you did a similar survey in military circles, you’d get a different result”.
Its EU impact aside, the Kremlin narrative dominates in Russia, where state media have a near monopoly.
Pew, which held interviews with 1,000 Russian people, says 61 percent believe parts of other countries belong to Russia and that dissolving the Soviet Union was a mistake.
“People, overwhelmingly, think that Putin is doing a good job, handling foreign policy, the EU, energy policy. Even on handling corruption”, the pollster’s Stokes said.
Anti-Western content is also making an impact.
Russians’ approval of Germany is comparable to Arab countries’ approval of the US after the 2003 Iraq war, Stokes noted.
For his part, Robert Pszczel, who was, until recently, Nato’s spokesman in Moscow, warned that the propaganda goes beyond defending Putin’s image.
“I saw the 9 May parade [a WWII memorial in Moscow] and I don’t have a problem with kids cheering when they watch their country’s tanks go by … but I do have a problem when the biggest cheer, the kind you hear at a hockey match, comes when they see the Iskanders go by”, he told Globsec, referring to Russian missiles, which were recently repositioned to strike Berlin and Warsaw.
“You should see the billboards, five storeys high, saying [Boris] Nemtsov [a murdered opposition leader] is a traitor. Somebody paid for that. Somebody gave a permit for it”, Pszczel added.
“The question is what is this country up to? … It looks like a country preparing for war.”
By Andrew Rettman, EUobserver