Interview with Vasily Gatov, visiting fellow at Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, University of Southern California.

What is the role of information & media front in the Russian non-linear warfare? Which are the core features of the Kremlin’s narrative?

If we concentrate on Russia, I see three layers of informational activities. One is definitely kind of military related. The other two are societal, political and ideological.

It was said several times that Russia has developed within the last 15 years a particular narrative, an anecdotal foundation of its politics which is based on a completely subjective, biased interpretation of post-war developments in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It is kind of a revanchist interpretation of the meaning of the 1991 moment – the collapse of the Soviet Union – as the “illegitimate victory” of the West. After 2007 with Putin’s speech in Munich where he canonized this interpretation – he kind of signed for this perspective that Russia has been humiliated on purpose – this narrative becomes mainstream. Now, it completely dominates the national mass media.

Everything that the West does is interpreted in this frame to prove the point. In the end this is a strategy that has deep psychological foundations. It is how our brain works. The interesting thing about Russia is that this is managed by governmental people whose business is the defense of Russian interests. The humiliation part of the narrative is very useful for the people that are using it with a military purpose. What do they mean? Do they really want to build support for invasion or for a major military conflict? Do they want to kind of make camouflaged, masked moves? The military component is always broadcast. They may want just to deliver a powerful message to the West: I am so dangerous, so outraged, so stay out. They try to incite dissent, to divide and intimidate the enemy, and create an illusion relative to your capacities and power-I would rather not deal with this guy. Stay away from my domain and my people.

Secondly there is a policy component. It is much more advanced and more cynical. This is the ideology of a certain group which surrounds Putin, the so called “siloviki”, the beneficiaries of the Putin regime.

They are the supreme pragmatists. They are conducting an active media operation to achieve certain goals in Europe and break the relations between major European powers and the United States. This has been always the goal of the Russian elite since the mid 19th century, since the Crimean War. Already then, it was clear that Russia individually can subdue into submission every European state except the UK, but not a Europe that has the US behind it. It is that simple. Some traits that we see today are grounded then and never change. Marx himself was writing about this mechanism when he was reporting for the US media about the Crimean war. The policy problem is that Russia feels insecure if every major power forms an alliance regardless if it is aggressive or defensive vis-a-vis  Russia. The policy problem is that Russia cannot accommodate itself with any kind of alliances that have no immediate existential threat. When there is an existential threat –like Napoleon, like Germany – Russia becomes an allied state. As soon as the immediate existential threat disappears Russia distrusts the partners. Stalin demonstrated this point in the formulation of the post-war world with perfect clarity: he only trusts the alliance that he builds. Any other alliance is by default an enemy for Russia and Russian interests. The interesting thing for the Russian current elite is that they are much less convinced by what they are doing, they are more corrupt, not only in criminal terms, but by the Western ideology. Therefore they cannot develop a continous ideology like in the Soviet times. They replaced communism with Russia. A Russia surrounded by enemies.

But the mechanism they use to reinforce this mindset is natural. It is like in the old experiment by Felix Sobolev, the Russian-Ukrainian psychologist and documentary maker (1971, «Me and Others»[1]) who took a group of adolescents and created a closed telephone network so he can listen to their conversations with a second line. And he was feeding this network with unfinished impressions of reality. He started to leak some wrong information and look at how they developed it. He discovered that every story that can be used to reinforce this network to make it closer, to feel the common danger, to create a community, makes the communication faster, longer, more extensive. Things that divide them are being discarded. The emphasis is on what unites them. This narrative is installed in the verbal version of the policy, not in the actual policy, in the deeds of policy.  Its emphasis is always on denial, negation, on the destructive part, on what is wrong.  A narrative analysis shows that within the last few yeas the Russian MFA deliberately returned to Stalin logic of communication. This is immediately recognizable for certain Russians.

Relative to the third layer, I would say that some weapons look impressive even in a museum. What you see here is a weaon museum, an antiques shop of Soviet propaganda and techniques. This is happening not under any kind of command, but in the brains of the people of the Soviet ideological ancestry. Every nation has such complexes. Most of them could be urban legends, but as long as they have even a bite of reality, a bite of logic they trigger, appeal and invoke these things that play in the human (collective) consciousness.  Russia has a lot of this ancient weaponry stored. She has been invaded many times, every invasion was under the conditions of superiority of the invader. Every invasion has resulted in many sufferings for the people. Although Russia never been defeated in its borders, this presumption that enemies want to invade Russia is deeply grounded in the public understanding, in the public mind. Even when the enemy is not clearly identified, there’ll still be this need for a hidden enemy. There is an interesting episode relative to the development of the Russian public opinion before WW1. Actually Russia had no major trouble in the European front since the Crimean War. The army was powerful, the Empire at its peak, but there was still this need for an enemy. That is something that mobilizes the public mind. It resulted in pogroms, in anti-Semitism, against the hidden enemy, the enemy within. One of the things in this ancient weapons layer is that sometimes the development that invokes this weapon in support of something that you even don’t know.

Which are the most vulnerable Western societal segments for Russian info-war?

Sometimes the Russian state messages address «relations beneficiaries», such as the people and the institutions that had some profit from good relations with Russia. The typical example of this are politicians and businessmen who benefited from Russian trade and money in the last 25 years. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a classic example, or France’ Nicholas Sarkozy. This audience is not an easy one to work with, as they bear some personal attitude along with definitive ties with their local politics. Sometimes Russian messages are formulated even exclusively for them. When Russia addresses different parts of the foreign public opinion or foreign chain of policy making it usually has some tailored strategies for different countries and personalities.

We have more or less an estimation about Russian investments in hard-power. Do we have any numbers to assess Russian investments in non-kinetic means, specifically in info-war tools?

One should make a clear distinction between the content weapon (let’s call them «warheads») and the distribution carriers (let’s call them «missiles»). The content weapon exists as a sequence to policy and Russia’s physical existence – so, we can establish it as something that exists by default. The cost of this «warhead» can vary from zero to a very substantial sum, but it’s still very modest expenses assuming the size of Russian national budget.

But sometimes you need an expensive carrier that should deliver the message especially if this message intends to break protected national media spaces and intimidate the audiences there. That’s when money becomes crucial.

Of course it is RT (formerly Russia Today), Sputnik International and the reconstructed Ria Novosti (MIA Rossya Segodnya). But also this brigade gets reinforcements from Diaspora Russian Press, a compound of Russian-language newspapers and radio stations in foreign countries that gathers support from Russian Ministry on the Relationship with the Russians abroad. This takes a lot of money because people who are doing this for Russia are quite greedy and corrupt. Between 2007-2015, RT was receiving at least 120 millions dollars per year with a spike in 2013-2014 to 400 millions annually. Sputnik and «new» Ria Novosti receive a budget that totals just under 200 millions dollars a year. The problem is that although these budgets are not mind blowing they were consistently spent. A formal analysis of the content that RT & RIA & Sputnik provide, regardless of tool one uses to deconstruct it, shows the only goal – intimidation of the recipient. The communication has no goal to «convert» the recipient, but the goal to create a mess in his or her brain – the mess, that discredits the overall concept of truth.

Should the West come back to the old Cold War days and become able again in counter-messaging and invest extensively in countering Soviet propaganda? 

In my opinion, the basic pillar should be nothing different from what George Kennan emphasized: cheap containment. Don’t pursue an over investment in the containment, would it political or military or economic. Also, an important issue is the reaction. Of course, Russian leaders – and Putin in particular – want to be heard, they want the world to react to their messages. But this is more complex than just a desire to insert Russian agenda into EU or global agenda. Putin also needs the Western reaction as he utilizes it in the internal policy, in domestic propaganda and agenda setting. Therefore, less reaction, less policy is directed towards Russia –  more likely you will succeed to make Kremlin at least to negotiate.

Whatever insane they sound, Russian leader (yet Putin is a frontman, he is not the sole ruler and must resort to the interests of different groups) are still pragmatists and they are still reflecting their own interests (or national interests the way they understand them).

As propaganda and counter-propaganda are all about messages – their meaning, their style, their reasoning – the whole discourse must be concentrated on them. Russian messages are deceptive and destructive; Kremlin constantly uses camouflage of a «multipolar world» and exploits naturally existing anti-americanism. If researchers starts to peel this off those layers of camouflage, sooner or later the original idea comes out.

Russia as I said earlier, bears a sheer complex of «illegitimate defeat» in the Cold War; this complex is not only Putin’s one, it is a popular mass feeling. To understand this complex, one should dig deeply into Russian history. Usually, Russian state and army won wars, especially wars that were fought on the Russian land. Exceptions are few, Crimear War 1854-1856 is one rare example. As for Soviet people the Cold War happened everywhere, including the Russian soil, they attribute the collapse of the USSR as a humiliation, as a defeat caused by treason. Not the warfare and might but «something» – much less important under Soviet mentality, the economic absurdity of the late Soviet regime, became a cause of collapse. USSR (and its people) saw the Soviet block as a war trophy, as a reward for a WW2 heroism of Russian soldiers and officers; the fallout of it have been perceived as a revision of the WW2 results. It was easy for Putin’s propaganda inside the country to revive those feelings as they never really were healed.

Current Russian information constantly addresses the issue of «legitimate interests» of Russia, it’s security demands, it’s claim for a limitrophe bound. Russian propaganda revises history of 1980-1990’s and calls for a factual restoration of Potsdam architecture. It dismisses the natural sovereign right of the Eastern European nations to choose their governments, their alliances and their perspectives. Is there a subject to discuss?

In my humble opinion, Europe just have to craft a very-very clear message: Russia cannot dissect the continental unity, pursuit for integration, pursuit for mutual security and economic development. Every member state, every associate state is valuable, and pressure over smaller member states, like Estonia or Latvia, will be considered as a challenge to the EU as a whole. Propagating Russian speakers in Baltic countries is not a «hybrid operation» against small and literally defenseless states, but an assault on EU common interests.

Second, every major political message that goes out of Brussels must be heavily tested for its «reflective controversy». As I mentioned earlier, Russia wants EU (and NATO) to react on its words, accusations and provocative actions. This reaction is perfectly used in domestic media space to demonstrate how «Western partners» disregard Russia and Russians. Every statement by senior NATO and EU official that somehow touches relations with the eastern neighbor, should undergo a «stress test» whether it may conduct more harm to already neglected image of the West in Russia.

I think, that the European message to Russia should be extremely formal on a publicity level. But  when it comes to «the messenger», the media system must be creative and adventurous. Russian media regularly start to humiliate «the messenger», like they did with Jenn Psaki, Department of State spokesperson (at some moment she became the most hated foreigner in Russia, and the whole DoS messaging system of public diplomacy was broken). It is important that the mouth pieces of the European communication with Russia should be people with some additional (political, cultural, societal) weight in Russian public opinion.

As the history of the Cold War teaches us, every reaction to this propaganda should be strategic rather than tactical. Putin’s Russia is a reactive country. The policy, the ideology, everything is built on reaction, on reflecting what the West said or did.

It is an old game here. Reflexive control is something that the Russian establishment very much believes in. Reflexive control is part of the game theory where game theory merges with math, logic and psychology. I can do something that invokes something in you that I know how you will react. Reflexive control is about programming your reaction.

Instead of trying to play this game, the West needs a strategic communication campaign with a positive agenda addressed to the Russians, not to the Russian state or the Russian elite. The messages and the messengers must address the concerns and interests of real people, not the RT commentators. As EU feels danger in Russian submissive media campaigns in Baltic states, it is far more important to push Latvia and Estonia to solve the problems of un-citizens (primarily Russian leftovers) than to start a counter-propaganda campaign «Don’t trust Russian TV» directed on the same people.

As far as mainland Russia (and Russian-speaking Ukraine) is concerned, the EU must develop a consistent positive agenda. I understand, how difficult this may be, but Europe must deliver its own simple and positive message: ordinary Russians are not undesired aliens but neighbors who are welcome to trade, visit, learn, teach and exchange. EU should have had a much broader conversation with the groups in Russia that are concerned about ties and relations with the West. This is not only for VOA, Radio Free Europe or RFI. There are many ways of communicating Russians without communicating Russian government.

Maybe the decline in Russian studies, that resulted a decline in analysis and understanding of Russian social and political discourse has prevented the West to design a clear communication strategy. Neither Europe nor US managed to communicate effectively to Russia or to people of Russia «Putin has crossed the redline». Putin’s internal propaganda was more efficient than this weak Western message. And not because the West didn’t have the right message. It didn’t communicate it in the right way. The West thought that it is self-evident. But it wasn’t for a country that is haunted by old, even ancient humiliations, fears and urban legends. The old ghosts are still hurting the collective Russian memory.

In the middle of Kremlin is this Tsar Cannon. A huge Cannon. It never fired because everyone realized that the amount of power that need it to be used has not been made. If you are trying to fire it will explode. That is exactly the image of what Russian psychology could use in response. An imaginary weapon. It is like the Valyrian steel.

Are the Baltic states vulnerable?

There are no better tools to decrease the level of danger than to eliminate the problems that have been made in early 1990’s there. It is nothing more dangerous than having a real problem in your backyard and especially on the other side of the frontline. The Baltic states should be persuaded to close the un-citizen problem forever. On a legal level is like the Americans would keep Japanese in virtual camps for 25 years after 1941. Yes, there are no camps, the people are free, they have passports, they can travel and work abroad. But politically, they remain second-class citizens and this is nothing than a human rights problem.

Should the West develop its own info-war propaganda tools to target the Russian public and the illiberal world?

My colleague from University of Southern California, Nicholas Cull, has written two great books that list and classify the strategies of counter-propaganda in the XXth century (Cull, N. J. (2008). The cold war and the united states information agency: American propaganda and public diplomacy, 1945-1989. New York: Cambridge University Press. and Cull, N. J. (2012). The decline and fall of the united states information agency: American public diplomacy, 1989-2001 (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan). I know none better collection of «weaponry roster» for the subject. Although the digital revolution has greatly expanded the arsenal of tools and platforms that help to reach the audience, one thing remained unchanged – the human itself.

All propaganda and counter-propaganda techniques are based on our knowledge of ourselves. Civilian and military professionals know this arsenal. When the world was a bit more normal, the rusty weapons of deception laid somewhere in a hideout; but later Russia decided that the West still maintains propaganda campaigns in Russia, seeking further destabilization of the central powers. It doesn’t matter now whether this perception had some ground or was completely fictional; the fact is that in response Russia has constructed its own arsenal that we discussed above – RT, Sputnik and «satellite press». As Putin and his subordinates insisted on «covert media & propaganda operations» somehow conducted by treacherous «GosDep» (Department of State) and «foreign agents» (NGO’s that had received foreign funding), the charges in RT and other «cannons» became more and more aggressive, poisonous. In a meantime, domestic coverage of global affairs had completely mutated into war-like reports of heroic Russia withstanding a massive assault against its interests.

If Russia was a human, this is rather a case for a psychiatric emergency call, when specially trained paramedics arrive and swaddle the insane person to prevent him from doing a harm to himself. But the state, the country is not managed this way, especially nuclear capable countries.

I think, the best Western policy in this situation – on the front on the information war – is to leave Russian state as lone as possible with this daydreams. Development of new «weapons» and expansion of the ongoing operations may only incur more conflict.

As far as domestic (inside the EU) counter-propaganda is concerned, the best way is to have Union’s own positive agenda that has clear humane goals, that insists on mutually accepted principles and values and projects a benefit of peaceful, friendly co-existence on the continent.

What message/messages can the West tailor in order to engage Russian public mind without triggering the old demons?

Once again, every Western state has a first problem – «how to speak with Russian public?», and a second problem – «what to discuss with Russian public?».

Today, the digital communication eliminate at least partially the first problem. Russian internet audience is large and diverse; there is no major technical obstacles to create and maintain a direct communication channel there. Although Russians are very attached to the TV (state controlled and manipulated), Internet is a second most important news source.

The second problem is more serious; when you want to establish a dialogue with the other nation, you must speak about the issues that really concern the audience. The communicator has to be deeply involved in the Russian issues and must possess good knowledge of cultural and historical issues that exist between Russia and EU.

In 1987, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrived to Moscow and one of the items of her agenda was an interview with the leading Soviet TV propagandists, mature male info-war sharks who prepared a roster of questions that were «to demonstrate an ugly nature of UK policy and unmask adversary» (although the interview itself is considered to be one of the great milestones of perestroika). Mrs Thatcher had not only mastered the answers to the «difficult» questions but averted the situation when three communists were nearly verbally abducting her, but managed to turn the dialogue into the realm of USSR’s own problems, including war in Afghanistan, economic problems, censorship and oppression of the dissent. Not only she excelled as a politician, but she also won the hearts of Soviet audience who still – 27 years ago – cheer her and respect.

So, the conclusion will be simple: to speak with Russians, Western politicians must first understand what Russians want to hear from them. They should be determined and brave, and formal – demanding the same channels like Putin uses to address certain countries when he goes there with a visit, or just when he feels appropriate. I dare that Russian Channel One declines a request from Angela Merkel to address Russians precluding her visit to Moscow, or even just for a purpose of dialogue. I dare other major Russian TV will avoid an invitation to the White House to interview President Obama on the issues of bilateral relations.

The only question remains – do they really have something to say to the Russians?

 By Octavian Manea, Defence Matters