Hi Tania, thanks so much for joining me today.
It feels like every day there is a new story about Russia meddling in other countries' affairs. Be it the constant news out of the USA, and now reports that their propaganda machine is looking to influence elections throughout Europe, namely France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
How serious are these allegations?
Hi Ari, thank you for having me.
They are serious allegations.
There is, by now, plenty of evidence that Russia is engaged in propaganda activities in the West and that it is doing so with a variety of tools. It is of course difficult to determine to what extent the Russian propaganda machine can influence elections in Europe. Kremlin-sponsored media outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today (since recently broadcasting in German and French as well) are part of a propaganda toolkit that includes also the use of so-called troll armies, PR companies and Russian state-sponsored NGOs which operate in Europe. These channels spread fake news or present facts in a biased way that can favour anti-systemic parties.
Sometimes fake news is meant to give people a skewed perception about the size or urgency of certain issues, in a way that can favour the agenda of one party or another.
Other times, propaganda actions are not meant to persuade people about one position or another or to build the credibility of Russia, but to spread confusion via the diffusion of conspiracy theories, to mix what is true and what is fake in a way that people cannot tell the truth anymore. This helps undermine people’s trust in the mainstream political parties and the state institutions, benefitting the agenda of anti-systemic parties – such as Le Pen’s National Front or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom. Russia has an interest in these parties winning elections as the goals of their anti-systemic, Eurosceptic agenda are in line with those of Moscow for whom a weak EU is a good EU.
Do you mind elaborating a bit on how a weakly-bound EU specifically benefits Russia? And how is it related, if at all, to the current sanctions against Russia?
A weak EU would have less leverage in the shared neighbourhood, an area that Russia considers to be its legitimate sphere of influence and where it sees the EU’s current influence as threatening. A weak EU would also be a less cohesive EU, whose unity on sanctions could crumble more easily. And finally, a weak EU would be an EU where the interests of the member states would prevail over the shared interests of the Union, making it easier for Russia to exploit its preferential bilateral relations with some member states.
Overall, Russia prefers bilateral relations with individual states to relations with an organisation such as the EU. The EU, as a supranational institution and liberal product, doesn’t fit into Russia’s neorealist world view, which sees nation states as the sole legitimate actors of the international arena and national interest – instead of shared values – as the main guiding principle for action.
Russia also believes it can exercise greater leverage in bilateral relations; Moscow is more likely to succeed in imposing its own terms on individual member states than it could dealing with a body representing half a million people. Russia interprets the world through a zero-sum game logic, in which one party’s loss is the other party’s gain. Following this logic, in the Kremlin’s perspective if the EU is losing – be it cohesion, influence or members – Russia is winning.
That makes sense.
Do you have a sense of how the Russian population feels about their perception in the West? Putin certainly wields a considerable amount of control, but how does that effect the people directly, and do they support his regime?
According to a recent poll by the Levada Centre, when asked if it is important to them personally what the West thinks about Russia, Russian public opinion somehow splits, with 45% saying they care and 51% saying they do not. One could perhaps expect that more Russians would not care about what the West – the land of decadence of traditional values as it is often depicted in Russia – thinks about them. However, Russians are also not oblivious to the fact that the West has higher standards of living.
Controlling the media, Putin wields a considerable amount of control on how Russians perceive him and his policies, as well as the West. Putin’s approval ratings are set on over 80% since March 2014, so people support him and the choices he makes for the country. This is due to a mix of factors that go beyond the mere control of information. The age-old Russian political myth of the good tsar betrayed by evil bureaucrats, the shared memory of the chaos of 1990s and the stability and economic development that Putin appears to have brought also work in his favour. Many Russians might not be happy with some elements of his regime but they certainly approve of him.
Thank you again for joining us Tania, and I will leave you with just this final question.
While economic sanctions persist, what additional measures do you believe should be considered?
The EU should focus on selective engagement with Russia, following Mogherini’s five guiding principles. Selective engagement should not be limited solely to nominal and secondary issues, but also include strategic sectors and decisions, as we saw for example with the Iranian nuclear deal. Keeping cooperation channels open is not only necessary to address pressing issues in the international arena but can also serve as a very first basis to reduce mistrust and promote an understanding of the other party’s position.
At the same time, the EU should invest in measures to counter Russian propaganda in European soil. The EU East StratCom Task Force is a good iniative in this direction but more should be done to assess tools, channels and methods that Russia is using. This should be done in close collaboration with the member states.
Finally, the EU should continue investing in people-to-people contacts and in the support of Russian civil society organisations. Nurturing an active and resilient civil society matters today and will make a difference in any future post-Putin scenario.
Thanks! We'll send you an update as soon as a new conversation starts.