Isolation and Propaganda: The Roots and Instruments of Russia’s Disinformation Campaign
Western scholars and politicians struggle to understand the elements of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” and how to counter it. Means for “soft,” non-military Russian influence in the post-Soviet sphere and the European Union includes export media such as the television broadcaster RT and the media platform Sputnik, the targeted expansion of informal financial networks, and funding and support for left- and right-wing populist political parties and organizations. The chief of the Russian General Staff described new rules of 21st century warfare in a 2013 speech, where political goals are to be obtained through the “widespread use of disinformation… deployed in connection with the protest potential of the population.” The Russian government claims it is merely copying the instruments and techniques that the West itself employs, and deems legitimate, to promote democracy in Russia and the post-Soviet states. It has also cracked down against foreign influence and dissent in Russia through restricting the work of Western NGOs and independent media. This information warfare is an approach born out of weakness that provides more flexibility against a challenger with much greater economic and technological resources.
The possibilities for directly influencing developments in Russia from outside are limited. Europeans, on the other hand, are vulnerable to Russian influence with their open societies, and Russian efforts can help fuel self-doubt in increasingly fragile and fragmented Western societies. The EU can protect itself by reinforcing its own soft power and improving governance within Europe, standing firm on sanctions, improving its knowledge base on Russia and the other post-Soviet states, and taking steps to improve pluralism in the Russian-language media space. It should also come up with a serious offer for its eastern neighbors including an EU membership prospect. If reform efforts succeed in Ukraine, the impact could spread to Russia and other post-Soviet states. Moscow encourages destabilization, corruption, and weak states in order to maintain relationships of dependency. The EU has something much more attractive than that to offer the societies of neighboring countries and should make greater use of its strategic advantage.