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destroyed bridge, Slovyansk Ukraine
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Bridge at Slovyansk, Ukraine, 2015. Ben Robinson

Why is Russia Bombarding the West with Disinformation?

Integrity Initiative Op-Ed

Vladimir Putin grew up in a system in which there were two opposing camps. Although these were based on ideology – Capitalism versus Communism – there was an added element: the age-old question of Russia’s relations with the rest of the world. For centuries, Russia had cut itself off from Europe, partly due to religion (Orthodox Christianity on one side, Roman Catholicism and later Protestantism on the other), partly because of geography.

Russia missed out on the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the Renaissance. Russia was isolated from the rest of Europe, and this isolation bred mistrust. Napoleon’s invasion and attempt to conquer Russia in 1812 made Russia feel threatened by Europe. As other countries experienced the industrial revolution, Russia lagged behind, heightening its sense of insecurity. The Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, in which foreign countries intervened to try to defeat the Bolsheviks pushed to new heights the Russians’ sense that they were up against the world.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a huge psychological blow for the Russian people. This country, which was so backward in 1917, had become a superpower: it had put the first man in space and had a nuclear arsenal to rival that of the USA. If life was tough, so what? Russians were used to putting up with hardship; and anyway, most people had no concept of how far the country was behind the West in terms of standard of living.

After the USSR collapsed, Russians lived in chaos. There was hyperinflation. A handful of men became rich by stealing the country’s wealth. Many ordinary people who tried to take advantage of the new capitalism came up against mafia-style gangs. And many Westerners who arrived in the country with promises of rich business turned out to be charlatans.

Nevertheless, the 1990’s were a time of hope; and many Russians stopped thinking of the West as “the enemy”. Putin and his KGB cronies, however, were not among them. They had a different vision of Russia’s future. They bided their time. And when Boris Berezovsky came knocking, looking for someone who would guarantee Boris Yeltsin’s immunity from prosecution for the rest of his life in return for the Prime Ministership and subsequently the Presidency, Putin was only too ready to accept.

Putin considered that the answer to the chaos of the ‘nineties was a return to a system of order and discipline, as he had known in his youth. For him, that was the only way you could rule that huge country called Russia. And as an added bonus for Putin, power would bring with it wealth and privilege; privilege on a scale that the old Communist leaders could never have dreamt of.

But the ‘nineties had also brought into Russia “dangerous” ideas of freedom and democracy. The majority of the population was not infected by these concepts, but significant numbers of the growing middle class were; how could Putin and his circle get away with robbing the country blind if some people would cry “foul!” and attempt to create a state governed by the rule of law? These ideas had to be discredited – not just at home, but in the countries from which they emanated, too.

So as well as cracking down on “dissent” (liberal thought) at home, which was comparatively easy to do by closing down TV channels which showed “subversive” (liberal-minded) programmes, harassing or arresting (or even killing off) outspoken opponents, Putin turned his attention to disrupting the source of the ideas.

For a man with a background in the KGB, this was not difficult. “Active measures” had been honed in Soviet times, and it was not difficult for Putin to reactivate them. Propaganda and disinformation aimed at discrediting the West was put into action with a vengeance, confusing the public in those countries by making it difficult to believe what was true and what wasn’t; and by extension, therefore, making Russians believe that the West was in chaos and was determined to destroy Russia to distract from its own problems.

And after the West criticised what Putin considered as Russia’s rightful taking back of Crimea into Russia, these information attacks on the West were stepped up. He denied that the troops which seized Crimea were Russian (although on the first anniversary boasted that they were); he denied that Russian forces were fighting in Eastern Ukraine (despite overwhelming evidence that they are); he denied that it was a Russian missile that shot down MH17 (something which has been proven beyond all doubt). In all of these denials and others, Putin played on a suspicion held by significant numbers of people in the West that the USA was to blame in some unspecified way.

The Russian people are not stupid. But the vast majority of Russians have still never met a foreigner, nor been abroad. Even if they joked in Soviet times about the two main newspapers, Pravda (the Truth) and Izvestia (the News) that, “there’s no news in the truth and there’s no truth in the news”, they tended to believe what they were told by the media, especially television. Knowing this, one of Putin’s first actions after becoming President in March 2000 was to start to clamp down on the media – notably television. He had learnt one lesson: don’t allow TV to become as dull as it was in Soviet times. So now entertainment programmes became the opium of the people, while the news and other information programmes carried the “correct” political message.

Putin will never lose the mind-set that the West is the enemy. No matter how many Western leaders bend over backwards to accommodate his wishes – if they were to accept the annexation of Crimea, lift sanctions imposed on Russia, remain silent about human rights’ abuses – he would still see the West as the enemy and continue his campaign to disrupt Western democracy. While Putin or those around him are in power in Russia, there is no hope for a genuine improvement in relations with the West.

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