As opinion polls show, Russian propaganda is not effective in improving Russia’s image abroad. The situation is dramatically different inside Russia, where most popular media outlets seem to operate based on the concept of ‘truthiness’: preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true rather than the concepts or facts known to be true.
According to Stephen Colbert ‘truthiness is tearing apart’ the United States since at least 2005. In Russia, state-sponsored truthiness has actually had a unifying and uplifting effect. What often is missed from the debates on Russian disinformation or propaganda is that the state narrative promoted by state-controlled media does not simply shape, but often feeds off already existing public sentiment.
State narrative does not come from scratch, but is likely to be embedded in already present sentiments among the Russian public, which distinguishes itself from the west and would like to again see Russia as a great power. These sentiments, described in more detail below, are also the drivers of the specific narratives Russian media shape. By doing so, Russian media ensure the enduring support of the government’s actions that may seem controversial to an outside viewer. Thus, as an outcome and in a sort of a cyclical motion, Russia’s media techniques (or propaganda) reinforce these sentiments making them even stronger at the same time justifying the government’s actions.
Large portions of the observations here are based on the analysis of opinion poll data, which may seem controversial in an authoritarian setting. Yet, in conversation with me, polling experts argue that polls largely reflect the actual opinions of the respondents, even if the interpretations of and the reasoning behind these opinions can vary. Academic research also acknowledges that despite caveats, Vladimir Putin’s popularity rankings seem real. More specifically, support of governmental policies and Putin’s remarkable ratings are explained by limited access to various sources of information. Thus, the polls largely measure ‘the power of collective perceptions’. Whether these perceptions are based on rational thinking or, as some may argue, emotions is of lesser significance, since the existence of given perceptions causes certain actions regardless their origins.
Russia’s specific narrative based on creating the idea of ‘others’ clearly derives from the existing perceptions and enhances them. Russia’s capitalisation on these perceptions is clearly visible in the attitudes towards the west, which helps it fend off possible negative reactions of the public to the consequences of the sanctions. The US, the European Union (EU), and other institutions have initiated numerous projects on the economic and political development of other states, while association and trade with the EU have been presented as a development opportunity. But the message of democratic and free market ideals seems to have left Russians unimpressed: even if 57 per cent of respondents in 2014 (a decrease from 76 per cent in 2000) wanted expansion of economic, political and cultural ties with the west, an even higher 77 per cent of surveyed Russians believe the prosperity of their country is possible only by taking a different path to the west.
This dislike of the west is not a Putin-era phenomenon, but is rather vested in the still alive anti-western sentiments and the perceived western disregard of Russia’s interests in the 1990s: 72 per cent of respondents in 1999 said that Russia should take a different path from the west. Meanwhile, 53 per cent of surveyed Russians have responded that they ‘absolutely do not feel as a person of western culture’ and 28 per cent have responded that the feeling of the western culture is not important. Russians’ animosity towards the west has been also lodged in Moscow’s lament over the ‘lost empire’.
53 per cent of surveyed Russians have responded that they ‘absolutely do not feel as a person of western culture’.
While many lamented the loss of the great power status, the president has become the embodiment of the country’s symbolic might, and Crimea’s annexation has provided Russians with ‘imperial satisfaction’. While Russians, with the exception of Putin, seem content with their countries role as an ‘energy superpower’, this image propagated also in the west, yields in positive attitudes to the advancement of such images as of a strong and modern military power.
Thus, the Russian government’s actions are explained not only by authoritarian practices but are alsosupported by the sentiments of large portions of its population. Sixty eight per cent of respondents in November 2014 considered Russia a superpower as opposed to 14 per cent in March 1994 or 48 per cent in September 2012.
The great power rhetoric of Russia’s authorities, which started with president Putin also conforms to the noticeable trend among Russian population: 64 percent of respondents prefer to live in a ‘large country that is respected and sometimes feared by other countries”’ rather than ‘a small, comfortable and non-threatening country’.
With the increase in the opinion that Russia is a superpower, there is a noticeable increase in the opinion that Russia should not pay attention to western criticism—from 38 per cent in February 2007 to 57 per cent in December 2014—while 87 per cent think that the west is hostile towards Russia, since it wants to ‘grab’ Russia’s natural resources (46 per cent), is afraid (43 per cent), is religiously, culturally and morally different (30) from, and is envious (24) of Russia.
Europe is rarely considered as an equal rival, but it is on the animosity towards the US, as the main adversary of Russia’s success, that the authorities and the media capitalise. Interestingly, attitudes towards the US were highly positive in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse: the negative turn started with the US involvement in Serbia through NATO and despite Russia’s objections.
While every US president after the collapse of the Soviet Union has attempted a sort of reset with Russia, those after all ended in disappointment both on the levels of political elites and the public. During the reset period initiated by the first administration of Barack Obama 53 per cent of respondents considered the US to play a negative role in international affairs, while 22 percent thought of US-Russia relations as cold, 4 per cent as tense, 47 per cent as normal, and one per cent as hostile. With the events in Ukraine, sanctions, and intensified media programming, Russians’ perceptions of the US as of October 2015 have worsened: 71 per cent think negatively of US role in international affairs, seven per cent consider US-Russia relations normal, 32 per cent as cold, 42 per cent as tense, and 12 per cent as hostile. Similarly unflattering Russian perceptions of the Americans provide ample bases for undermining US policies or statements by alluding to the ignorance of high-rank officials, reporting events, which did not happen, or doctoring images to place US diplomats in the midst of protests in Russia.
The 2011-2012 protests in Russia generated arguments that Putin’s regime may be under threat. However, not only protests have subsided, which of course can be the result of government’s actions, but the approval rankings of Russia’s policies and of Putin himself have increased. At the same time, the media and the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church argued that the Church became a victim of information war, giving ‘the impression that Russia is under siege by its enemies’. Juxtaposing ‘us’ against ‘them’, the authorities framed the December 2011 protests as a western plot to undermine Russia’s position in world politics.
The perceived ideological isolation of Russians has been promoted for many years and given the changes in perceptions of threats and enemies, this strategy seems to have been successful: while in the period of 1989-1994, less than 40 per cent of surveyed Russians thought that Russia had enemies, in 2013 that figure increased to 78 per cent.
Russian state media has picked up these attitudes and provided twofold framing of the events in Ukraine and Crimea’s annexation. First, Russia attempts to restore justice by protecting Russian speakers, and second, Russia is under the threat of western plots. While respondents in Europe and the US clearly demonstrate their negative attitudes towards Crimea’s annexation, the attitudes in Russia drastically differ. Surveys conducted in April 2014 show that 88 per cent of Russian respondents believed that Crimea’s annexation was a free act of self-determination, which according to 75 per cent of respondents has demonstrated the return of the ‘traditional great power’ status. More than a year later, in October 2015, 83 per cent said they would disagree with the hypothetical idea of returning Crimea to Ukraine and 75 per cent did not approve Gazprom’s decision to lower the price of gas supplied to Ukraine.
In addition, 48 per cent were convinced that the conflict in Ukraine erupted because the US wanted to ‘orchestrate another color revolution”’. Moreover, the narrative created by the Russian government and media of the brotherly Ukraine contrasted with Ukraine overrun by Nazis and fascists supported by the west played perfectly into Russian’s perceptions of Ukraine as a state: in the period of 2001-2015 approximately 60 per cent of Russian respondents did not consider Ukraine to be a foreign country. Similar perceptions are present in relation to other post-Soviet states. For example, in October 2015, 50 per cent (as opposed to 34 per cent in August 2009) of respondents said Georgia is not a foreign country; Belarus’s sovereignty ranks even lower with Russians as in 2001-2015 as more than 60 per cent of respondents did not consider it a foreign country.
How to end the blame game?
Russians have continued to blame the west in domestic hardships: 72 per cent believed that sanctions simply aim to humiliate Russia, while 66 per cent advised that no changes should be made to Russia’s foreign policy and approved Russia’s countersanctions. Yet, they have started to pay less attention to the events in Ukraine and became more concerned with the economic situation in Russia.
In an environment of economic decline and rising inflation, Putin’s decision to destroy food products from countries under sanctions shocked Russians. As half of survey respondents disapproved food destruction and approximately 300 000 signed a petition to stop it, this has perhaps become one of the most unpopular decisions by Putin and triggered the need to divert attention from domestic to external issues, such as Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
While the coverage of food destruction subsided, Russian media has actively renewed its coverage of the events in Syria. In time of rising economic concerns Russia has made a decision to interfere in the Syrian conflict, despite Putin’s previous stern objections to any external intervention. In support of Putin’s decision and in an effort to ensure popular support, Russian media has compared ISIS to the Nazi threat as the rationale for intervening.
European and US political rhetoric has insisted that Russia’s involvement in Syria’s conflict has aimed to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime rather than combating terrorism. Russia’s official rhetoric has differed. Russia’s involvement in the conflict has been framed as the fight against ISIS, since the latter threatens not only the security of the Middle East but also Russia.
Thus, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is presented as fight against terrorism, which highly resonates with the Russian population due to the explosions of apartment buildings in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk in 1999, Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002, and Beslan school siege in 2004. At the same time 40 per cent in September 2014 as opposed to 28 per cent in March 2012 agreed with the opinion that terrorists are instigated by the West and are fighting against the legitimate Assad government. Thus, it should come as no surprise that while in September 2014 55 per cent of respondents in Russia considered ISIS as a threat to regional and global security, 54 per cent did not approve US airstrikes on ISIS strongholds.
Given Russians’ generally negative attitudes to democracy promotion or sanctions in the name of human rights, October 2015 poll results are largely predictable: 72 per cent approve Russia’s airstrikes of ISIS positions and 48 per cent agree that Russia should support Assad in his fight against ISIS and Syrian opposition.
Nelli Babayan is Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, German Marshall Fund US and Associate Fellow at the Center for Transnational, Foreign and Security Policy at Freie Universität Berlin. Her latest book is Democratic Transformation and Obstruction: EU, US, and Russia in the South Caucasus.