The Kremlin bets on a ‘tit for tat’ media strategy to maintain public support

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In order to stay in power, the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin creatively applies propaganda tools to sustain and deepen its popular support among Russia’s citizens. On 18 April, the Moscow-based news agency reported that the Russian Duma’s Information Policy Committee launched an investigation into the operations of U.S.-owned Russian-language media including the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and CNN in Russia, which it sees as a part of a much broader effort by the United States to interfere with Russia’s internal affairs.

“We’ll have to clarify concrete cases of influence on the elections in Russia. The structures we are discussing are part of a larger American system of pressure on our country,” said Leonid Levin, the head of that committee. “Therefore, it is advisable to consider not only the U.S. intervention into the Russian election process, but also in the affairs of our country as a whole.”

The pro-Kremlin website explained that this was a response to a similar effort by U.S. senators, who drafted a bill last month to give the U.S. Department of Justice expanded powers to check Russian-owned television network RT’s compliance with U.S. law on foreign agents.

In April, the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission did likewise by asking Lithuania’s courts for permission to ban the transmission of Russian TV channel TVCI as well as the programs of RTR on the grounds that they spread disinformation and promote hatred and tension in society. CEPA’s StratCom report of 13 March describes the actions of Russian TV networks in Lithuania.

Other European governments have also addressed the issue of RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik as tools of Russian propaganda aimed at subverting Western societies. In November 2016, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing the need to counter Russian and Islamic State propaganda. It asked the EU to “respond to information warfare by Russia,” and noted that ”the Russian government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks, multilingual TV stations, pseudo-news agencies, multimedia services, social media and Internet trolls to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighborhood.”

The measures taken by Russia’s Duma line up with the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is besieged and must defend itself from U.S. aggression. For the past four years, the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored or even treasonous. Russia controls its mainstream media but it cannot censor foreign media, and perceives it as undermining Russian support of Putin and his regime. 

The Kremlin understands that to be effective, the government must make sure that public opinion supports its policies and actions. Accordingly, propaganda must be carried out in a unified, disciplined way without giving a chance for second opinions—especially when those opinions come from U.S. or Western media, which the Kremlin perceives as an enemy.

Photo: Planet Pix/Alexei Druzhinin