Russia’s Propaganda Blitzkrieg

The propaganda war propping up Putin and his cronies has reached new heights with the bombing campaign in Syria.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

When Vladimir Putin spoke before the UN General Assembly last week, he proclaimed the need for an international coalition to destroy ISIS. But when Putin then went to war in Syria, his fighter jets began by rocketing everyone opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad except ISIS. At a superficial level, this discrepancy is explained by Moscow as follows: There is no such thing as a moderate opposition in Syria and that includes the U.S.-backed rebels. In fact, as Putin darkly insinuated at the General Assembly, ISIS was “initially forged as a tool against undesirable secular regimes,” and the unnamed smith here was not terribly hard to discern.

The jihadist army rampaging through the Middle East was therefore America’s Frankenstein monster and it was now up to a confident Russia, a year into a failed U.S.-led coalition campaign, to deliver this reanimated corpse unto eternity. Anyone not willing to join with Russia, Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah was a “terrorist” or a covert sponsor of terrorism who’d do well to get out of Putin’s way. He arrogated to himself a very broad martial remit to bomb whenever and whomever he pleased, which is precisely what he did a mere 48 hours later, hitting several Free Syrian Army targets, including those which have received advanced U.S. weaponry courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

We’ve seen this movie before—a mere 18 months ago. When the Euromaidan protests rocked Kiev after the Ukrainian government’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union, it was announced on Russia state television that those demanding the resignation of Viktor Yanukovych were neo-Nazis in the pay of the U.S. State Department or the CIA. They, too, were rampaging through Ukraine and perpetrating pogroms against embattled Jewish and ethnic Russian minorities who demanded Moscow’s fraternal assistance. That these minorities demanded no such thing didn't matter.

Although it would not be acknowledged until much later, or simply not at all, the seizure of Crimea and the “separatist” war in the Donbas were framed as Putin’s sole resistance to America’s other Frankenstein monster—its sinister, covert plot to suborn fascism in the breadbasket of Europe. That actual fascists on the continent celebrated and certified Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his invasion of the Donbas was an ignorable detail.

The reductio ad Hitlerum looms large in Putin’s rhetorical landscape, and in his blitzkrieg on any semblance of objectivity or truth. Not for nothing did he invoke the Allies’s united front against the Third Reich in his General Assembly speech, conveniently eliding the Soviet Union’s initial role in inaugurating the Second World War by carving up Romania, Poland, and the Baltics—as an ally of Hitler. Where once Russia faced U.S.-backed “Banderites” in Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk, now it powders U.S.-backed “ISIS” in Homs, Hama and Idlib—provinces where ISIS either does not exist or has a minimal presence. But so what?

Lenin wrote that “there is no more erroneous or more harmful idea than the separation of foreign from internal policy.” Moscow, famously, has two audiences to which its caters: the domestic and the foreign. The former matters more for keeping Putin in office, alive, and out of the dock. It’s also designed to position Russia as a bulwark against sinister American and NATO designs through the application of soft and hard power. SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles and advanced fighter jets equipped with air-to-air missiles are not in Syria to deter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s flying carpet.Domestic propaganda is a negative definition of national greatness, with Russia set against an external conspiracy and all the mightier for having fended it off while rising from the state of a demoralized and defeated ex-superpower.The collapse of the Soviet Union, as Putin notoriously said, was the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical tragedy, not because it put an end to world communism but to imperial grandeur and self-respect. He is an derzhavnik, an ideologist of great power, and seeks to restore Russia as a dominant force in world affairs (always the puncher, never the counterpuncher) but one politically promiscuous enough to allow everyone from Alexis Tspiras to Marine Le Pen and Pat Buchanan to all find something to favor.

To feed this manic triumphalism, then, the domestic gaze has to be directed outward, onto the international scene because internally Russia’s present and future are bleak. It is bleeding money and brainpower and ever more resembling Upper Volta with sanctions. So look here but not there.

The historian Timothy Snyder explains it well in a recent Spinozan essay of logical propositions: “(1) President Putin’s popularity depends upon television. (2) Russian television news is devoted to events beyond Russia. (3) This means the president’s triumphs against American hegemony, etc. (4) In Ukraine, a weak Ukrainian army and limited EU sanctions hindered Russia. (5) Point #4 must not be noticed inside Russia. (6) Russian television just changed the subject from Ukraine to Syria.”

Peter Pomeranzev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a remarkable book that reinterprets contemporary Russia as a kind of mad public relations experiment run by postmodern performance artists and merry pranksters, says Putin’s Syria messaging is so far typical. It is also just the beginning.

“Syria is an exercise in narrative escalation dominance,” Pomeranzev says. “It’s setting the agenda, making the U.S. look weak and putting Putin center stage—whether good or bad is irrelevant because for the Kremlin any publicity is good publicity. The exact, on-the-ground aims can be interchangeable. ‘Terrorists’ in Syria are just as vague as the ‘fascists’ in Ukraine, and it doesn't really matter whether it's true, as long as the story keeps moving and the U.S. is kept off-balance, distracted and dismayed.”

On the domestic side, Russian state television “just repeats the same trick as it did in Ukraine,” according to Vasily Gatov, a former deputy CEO of Russia’s now-disbanded RIA Novosti news agency and an expert on propaganda. “They’re trying to distract public opinion locally and maintain this idea that everyone lies internationally. Official Russian coverage is that they suggest that there is an organized campaign to discredit Russian participation in Syria. They’re saying that America and NATO are engaged in an information war against Russia in order to prevent Putin’s return to the top of the global leadership order.”RIA Novosti as it had existed was killed in 2013, along with Voice of Russia and Moscow News, when the Kremlin reorganized its state propaganda system into a holding company called Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), headed by Dmitry Kisilyev. That holding company now controls, Sputnik International, and a domestic wire service still using the old name "RIA Novosti."

One article published recently by that wire service argues that U.S. airstrikes against ISIS are in fact part of an anti-Russian conspiracy designed to push the terror army toward the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus, where the resources are greater and Russia has new and old military installations.

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Even this dread accounting for CENTCOM’s lackluster campaign in Raqqa is a dramatic improvement on the earlier insistence by government relays that Russia wasn’t about to go to war in Syria at all. On September 10, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, flat-out denied a Russian military buildup in Syria. He accused the U.S. of hypocrisy and the spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Moscow of unprofessional behavior by calling attention to the obvious buildup. “If I allowed myself to publicly comment on the policies of a host country, and even accused the country of supporting extremism, there would be many who want to ask me out of this country in 24 hours,” Kosachev thundered to Rossiya Segodnya, lamenting that Russia was only backing Assad politically and not with direct military intervention. On October 2, however, Kosachev was complaining in the same outlet that the U.S. was now irresponsibly accusing Russia of striking non-ISIS targets in a war whose inevitability he disclaimed three weeks ago.

“Putin and the Russian military didn’t really want to communicate their intentions to the news organs,” Gatov says, adding that this is the reason for the abrupt 180 in the party line. In some cases, even high-level Russian officials don’t seem to know what the current line is.

In the space of a single news cycle, Putin’s own press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, doubted that the Free Syrian Army, the catchall name to describe moderate or nationalist rebels, even exists anymore, saying Thursday, “Haven’t most of them switched to [ISIS] group? It existed but whether it does now nobody knows for sure, it’s a relative concept.” But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov certified the FSA’s existence that same day and even called those rebels necessary interlocutors with Russia for solving the Syrian crisis. “We don’t consider Free Syrian Army a terrorist group, and believe [it] should be part of the political process,” Lavrov told reporters in New York. As his air force bombed them.

Another, paradoxical, theme is Putin’s indispensability to the United States—the nemesis of his worldview, but against which he is doggedly determined to wage peace. “Something I see on the Russian talk shows and in the newspapers, which I poisoned myself with watching and reading, is that the West simply cannot wait for Putin to die or retire but it must deal with him in his present form,” Gatov says. “This opens the door for dealing with him on Crimea, Ukraine and sanctions.” It also engenders the sort of speculation in Russia that puts Putin at the center of all international decision-making.

Indeed, when he was photographed clinking rose glasses with Obama during an awkward UN dinner last week, the impression given to many Russians was that of a deal in the offing. To ultranationalists, wary that Putin isn’t quite the imperialist he plays at by Anschlussing his way through Europe, this scene of forced comity constituted “a moment of truth,” as Dmitry Bobrov wrote on his blog. “Now we’ll see if the national-betrayer, Putin, is ready to flush down the toilet all Russians in Novorossiya,” referring to the aspirational blood-and-soil Russian imperium that was to have started in the Donbas and fanned out from there.

The Kremlin’s foreign media outlets are simply click-bait conduits for “active measures,” an old Soviet intelligence technique by which Moscow tries to manipulate foreign societies, usually against their own governments, using furtive and transparent methods of persuasion. For this, Putin relies on his English-language portals, chiefly Sputnik and RT, which have had a slightly trickier go of adapting to new Middle Eastern realities, or pseudo-realities.

As The Daily Beast reported a month ago, RT lies not only about world events or concocts absurd “alternative” explanations for quotidian or self-evident phenomena (the pope is a space alien, the CIA invented Ebola as a bio-weapon, 9/11 was an inside job), but it also inflates its global ratings to justify a ridiculously high annual budget, prospectively set to be close to half a billion dollars this year, if RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan gets her way (and she may not).

But because the channel doesn’t just fabricate the “news” but reacts in real time to Western reporting, its pivot on Syria has been more cumbrous, shrill and imaginative than has its domestic counterparts. Its website had earlier run several items denying and mocking allegations of any Russian military buildup in western Syria—in one case, even trolling The Daily Beast, which reported on it in early September. Now, with nary a hint of contradiction or irony, RT has accelerated straight past the buildup, into full-on war propaganda mode, offering jingoistic rah-rahs for Putin’s Top Gunnery, mischaracterized, of course, as anti-ISIS in nature.

That doesn’t stop the basic facts from being falsified or fudged. Take, for instance, “US Can’t Find 9 CIA Trained Rebels in Syria, but McCain Claims Russia Did,” which suggests that Sen. John McCain, who accused Russia of bombing CIA-backed rebels in Syria, can’t have been correct since the Pentagon had earlier stated that its rebel proxies had gone “missing” in country. “If only nine out of these US-trained rebels are actually fighting ISIL,” the article read, “while the rest are ‘missing’ somewhere in the Syrian desert, and even worse have joined [al Qaeda franchise] al-Nusra or perhaps other jihadist groups, including ISIL, then the US government is doing an awful and counterproductive job, to say the least.”

CIA-backed rebels never went missing. There are, in fact, two separate U.S. programs, one run by the clandestine service and the other by the Department of Defense. They differ in remit in that the CIA program was designed to help rebels fight the Assad regime, whereas the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program (now abandoned due to myriad problems, which even Sputnik might have exploited without the bullshit) was intended to create a rebel counterterrorism strike force to fight only ISIS. Sputnik has conflated two policies as one to argue, disingenuously, that U.S. officials are falsely accusing Russia of killing the proxies Washington supposedly can’t find.

In truth, active measures and disinformation don’t have to work very hard to sow skepticism, doubt, and confusion among Americans. Given the schizophrenic nature of U.S. policy in Syria, most Americans will already have a hard enough time deciding why they should care about what Putin’s Sukhois are annihilating. Yesterday, President Obama said all of the following things at once by way of acquiescing to Russia’s war on U.S. proxies: “We are going to continue to go after ISIL. We are going to continue to reach out to a moderate opposition… We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be a bad strategy on our part. This is a battle between Russia, Iran, and Assad against the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people. Our battle is with ISIL.”If the commander-in-chief believes that he can reach out to a moderate opposition while casting the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people to its fate against three different militaries, then who needs RT and Sputnik to keep the United States off-balance, distracted and dismayed?

With additional reporting by Anna Nemtsova.