Foreign Affairs

Disinformation: Putin’s Truth

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in a worn down embassy; enemies are at your gate. For days protests have mounted, but you have done your best to fend them off. You have called your central government repeatedly, but you have only received silence. Yet, you alone manage to fend off the assailants with the imaginary threat of violence with weapons you do not truly have and men you truly can not muster. The enemies at your gate disperse and you return home a hero and a victor, not due to the reality of the events that occurred, but due to the notion of reality that you created. The factual basis of the story is irrelevant, as the only thing that matters is public reception, something Vladimir Putin proved in his first election campaign where he ran off this very story and it won him the vote. Perception is important — facts are not.

This has been a general trend throughout Putin’s various terms in office; the truth seemingly takes a back seat to the intended message he is trying to deliver. This makes sense considering Putin’s ties to the KGB where he spent most of his early career. He spent a majority of his time there developing and promoting various disinformation campaigns. The value of disinformation would have been ingrained into him by his superiors; that type of dedication doesn’t just vanish with the fall of one government and the rise of a new.

From the very start of Putin’s presidency, one can observe disinformation on all fronts. In the beginning, Putin favored positive relations with the West. He cooperated with the United States after the 9/11 attacks and attended a NATO summit in 2008 where he favored the idea of European economic integration. But as he centralized the state and consolidated his own power — rewriting the constitution to enable him to potentially rule for life — he turned ever more harshly repressive at home and violently aggressive abroad. He promotes ideologies rooted in authoritarianism, as Putin’s favored ideologist, Alexander Dugin, said one “could celebrate the victory of fascist in fascist language while condemning as ‘fascist’ his opponents.” Exemplifying the clear sense of doublethink that exists within Putin’s ideological foundation, Dugin spares no remorse in painting those that oppose the state as fascist, while coincidently citing the failures of democracy for allowing such people to exist in society.

In Putin’s Russia homosexuals play the role of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Democratic societies were branded by Russian TV as “homodictatorships,” and when Ukrainians protested against faked elections and the murder of protesters, Russian TV referred to them as “sexual perverts.” Putin himself took on a much more masculine public image — he was offering masculinity as the solution to the corruption of democracy. He was creating a narrative that cast himself as the moral savior of the Russian people.

Democracy relies on the foundations of truth: not broad rhetoric but an independent reality visible to all citizens. Authoritarianism arises when this goal is openly abandoned, and people conflate the truth with what they want to hear. Then begins a politics of spectacle, and there has been no larger spectacle than Putin’s consistent affirmation that Russia needs to be saved from moral corruption.

So, as a means to “save” the Russian people from this moral corruption, the government has passed restrictive new laws silencing democratic debate in Russia. The most recent piece of legislation introduces fines for publishing materials showing disrespect to the state, its symbols and its government organs. Repeat offenders could face a 15-day jail sentence. This would essentially give Putin’s government direct oversight of the Russian news cycle. The Russian people would ultimately fall victim to this propaganda, as they would have no way to validate the claims of the stories being published; they would simply have to accept them as truth. Domestically, this is the clear goal of the regime because complete control of the news cycle allows one full control of public perception and power. Yet, Russia can not directly control the news cycle abroad and its influence over internal state matters. Therefore, the Russian government must rely on disinformation.

To combat this western influence the Russian government launched a broad influence campaign against the United States with the goal of influencing the global political agenda. This campaign has seen many forms and has included many elements over the years:

First, cyberattacks have targeted more than 500 people or institutions, including the Democratic National Committee, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, top military commanders and the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign John Podesta. Much of the information is distributed through WikiLeaks as a proxy of the Russian government.

Second, Russian state actors utilized fake accounts on social media to insight controversy within the United States, pitting Americans against Americans. In some instances, these operatives went as far as to organize public events through Facebook to spark controversy such as rallies that occurred in Texas.

Third, Russian operatives established contact with American political organizations in order to try to wield influence in the U.S. to further Russia’s aims. One woman even admitted in court that she served as an unregistered Russian agent inside the U.S.

Finally, Russian operatives forged documents and other secret material in an attempt to confuse FBI agents and other intelligence officials with regards to the Clinton investigation. Russian agents, fabricated narratives that conservative outlets, such as Breitbart, quickly ran with, and which eventually became talking points of the mainstream media.

At first glance, these may seem like a series of independently orchestrated events serving as a broad spectrum of U.S political attacks, but the reality is much simpler than that. These attacks were clear, direct and targeted. Putin bore long-standing personal animus against Hillary Clinton from her tenure as secretary of state and probably feared the policies she’d adopt toward Russia if she had been elected in 2016. So, he took preemptive measures to ensure this was a reality that he would not have to face. Hillary Clinton posed a threat to Vladimir Putin, and like many of his other political adversaries, he attacked the threat on all fronts until it disappeared.  

The power Putin holds is frightening. He is no longer simply the head of state but has become the Russian government, with his political agenda becoming the agenda of the nation. The rise of Putinism, characterized by the concentration of political and financial powers by siloviki those that make up the 22 government enforcement agencies, as a doctrine has allowed Putin to utilize all the resources at the Russian government’s disposal. He is the arbitrator of the law, the controller of the press, the father of modern disinformation, and we in the United States are just starting to take notice.

So, how is one to combat such a man? A man who is backed by an entire nation and who spent most of his young adult life studying espionage and political subversion. The same way you combat any other threat to the institution of democracy: with a free and fair media. Yes, we can not ensure a fair media within the Russian Federation, but we can suppress those attempting to disavow current news services. We can reinvest as a nation into our journalists. We can promote the idea of a fair American news cycle. Because when people consider the most reputable news source to be a comedian, who he himself stresses is not news, then there is clearly a vulnerability within the American news media that needs to be corrected before the American people fall victim to the narratives of Vladimir Putin.

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