Vienna, September 12 – Vladimir Putin yesterday lashed out at what he described as the anti-Russian attitudes animating Western media coverage of Moscow’s moves in Georgia, even as his government used Moscow’s rapidly expanding control of the Russian media to step up its ongoing disinformation campaign against the West.
At a press conference last evening at the Valdai discussion club meeting, Putin was asked why Russian forces had gone beyond the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His response, says a great deal about how Putin views the world and why he clearly believes that he can win a propaganda war (www.polit.ru/news/2008/09/12/valda.html).
Instead of directly answering the question, he responded that the query didn’t surprise him. “What surprises me,” Putin said, “is something else: just how powerful the propaganda machine of the West is.” He said he “congratulate[d]” its organizers. “It is remarkable work! But the result is poor. And it always will be because this work is dishonest and amoral.”
And then he added that as far as Russia’s advance into Georgia was concerned, everyone should “remember how the Second World War began. On September 1, fascist Germany attacked Poland. Then they attacked the Soviet Union. Were we supposed to go back only to the [pre-war] borders and stop there?”
“Moreover,” Putin continued, “not only Soviet forces entered Berlin – there were Americans, French, and British.” The armies of these countries didn’t stop at their borders because it was necessary not only to repel the invader but to ensure that “an aggressor must be punished.”
Besides the tendentiousness of this argument – Putin neglects to recall that Hitler invaded Poland after concluding a pact with Stalin that allowed Soviet forces to move into that country as well – and his invocation of the defeat of Nazism -- which for Moscow is a moral solvent in which all Soviet crimes dissolve – there are two other important aspects to his remarks.
On the one hand, Putin is clearly seeking to equate what the Georgian government did with what Hitler did, an ideological line certain to whip up emotions. And on the other, Putin’s lashing out at the Western media coverage is not only a reflection of his own anger at being challenged on anything but an effective cover for what he and his regime have been doing.
In the course of his time in power, as almost all media watchdog groups have documented, Putin has worked to intimidate or shut down any media outlets critical of him and his siloviki, a process has accelerated in recent times. (On this, see, among many others,
newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/295329/, and www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/67/18.html.)
But almost all the attention that this unfortunate process has attracted has focused on the ways in which Putin’s policies are denying the citizens of the Russian Federation of the information they need to be able to function as well-informed citizens and to hold their government accountable for its actions.
Beyond any doubt, Putin’s attack on media freedom has that as its first target, but it is increasingly obvious that he is using his expanded control over the Russian media to spread misinformation and disinformation about and also to Western media outlets that make use of Russian news agencies.
Misinformation, the spread of completely false reports, is the less serious threat. Typically, reportage that is completely false is not only easily identified but quickly challenged, as for example when Interfax reported that a Russian book on Islam was about to be published in Iran, something the Iranians quickly denied (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/4478/).
But disinformation is another matter. As the West’s best students of the subject, Natalie Grant and Vladimir Volkov, have pointed out, disinformation almost always involves the careful mixing obviously true things with false ones that some will find plausible or at the very least difficult or impossible to check.
As a result, disinformation, especially if its dissemination begins in what many would view as a more or less reliable media outlet, quickly gets picked up by other sources that use it in good faith, something that adds credibility to the disinformation that helps those who have launched it in the first place
A recent example of this was the report in Moscow’s “Kommersant” that suggested that the Azerbaijani government had neither treated visiting U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney with the respect he and his office are due nor agreed with his arguments on the continued, even growing importance of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and of a trans-Caspian line as well.
Because the “Kommersant” report was the first article on the Cheney visit and because it appeared to be consistent with what some expected, it drawn on by many writers in the West -- including the present author who then issues a corection -- and then repeated by others, who did not go back to the original source or take note of denials by Azerbaijani and American officials.
There are other examples of such disinformation, but there are three important conclusions to be reached, all of which put new or more precisely restored from Soviet times burdens on those who are trying to keep track of what is going on in areas that Moscow cares very much about delivering a particular message.
First, Western writers need to be far more skeptical of all reporting coming out of Kremlin-controlled or Kremlin-influenced publications, something that will slow down the news cycle but perhaps lead to better reporting and certainly to a fuller appreciation of what kind of rulers Russia now has.
Second, Western governments who are involved in activities that the Russian government has an interest in misinforming the world about need to be far more pro-active in ensuring that they get repots out about what really has taken place so that the Putin government cannot “set the weather” not only in the Moscow media but in the Western media as well.
And third, people in both Russia and the West need to remember that the worst action a regime can take against news media outlets is not to close them but, as Putin has, to subvert them into purveyors of a pastiche of truths, half-truths, and lies, an action that makes it difficult to learn the truth but easy to see the nature of the state that uses this approach.