This Week in Info War

Moscow’s Achilles Heel

The Putin administration recently commissioned an independent analysis of Russian network TV, according to the website, which was highly critical of its programming. The study was reportedly prepared for Sergei Kiriyenko—the president’s first deputy chief of staff—by a private company hired to “make sense of the reality depicted on television” and determine how well this presentation “facilitates Russia’s modernization.” The study has not yet been made available to the public, but a correspondent was allowed to read an advance copy.

Researchers found that news broadcasts on major TV channels Pervyi Kanal and Rossiya-1 were relatively balanced and objective, at least by the standards of the Putin regime (to most Western viewers they are highly propagandistic). But these programs, the study concluded, devote much of their attention to foreign news, presented in strongly emotional terms and fixated on Russia’s confrontations with the United States, the West, and Ukraine—often in overtly military terms.  The study also criticizes the shows’ presenters, identifying Dmitry Kiselyov and Vladimir Solovyev as two archetypes of Russian TV news. It says the former relies on “classic propaganda methods,” while the latter is more inclined to use “dramatic tropes borrowed from street theater.” One guest embodies the good patriot, and another guest (often a foreigner or a disgraced figure from the 1990s) plays the antagonist’s role. The report supposedly found that both talk shows and news programs typically depict Vladimir Putin as a national hero. 

The report also found that Russian TV presents the subject of Russia’s modernization in largely one-dimensional terms. “National television creates a single picture of socio-political reality, the central ideas of which are the assertion of Russia’s sovereignty in a hostile foreign environment, state paternalism, patriotic values, and using foreign threats to justify economic and social problems,” the report’s authors concluded. The study says that Russian national TV largely ignores the country’s domestic political agenda, as well as the interests of social organizations and individual citizens. Researchers warn that Russian TV’s tendency to “inflate negative and disturbing narratives” poses the risk of “escalating emotional tensions” nationally.

It is difficult to believe that the report—if its conclusions are as stated—will ever be widely released, since its findings lay bare how the regime uses the media to rule. Putin’s idolization helps strengthen the system’s legitimacy, while the constant depiction of foreign enemies mobilizes Russia’s population behind government goals and distracts it from domestic problems. The concern about the inflation of “negative and disturbing narratives” reflects the Kremlin’s unease with grassroots movements it cannot control, even when they support official objectives.  Finally, it is unclear what portion of the Kremlin elite, Kiriyenko and a few others aside, are genuinely interested in facilitating “modernization” or even agree what that means.

At a time when the West debates how to push back against Russian information operations, this report highlights vulnerabilities in Russia’s information defenses that can be exploited. Russian media, as the study shows, avoids subjects uncomfortable to the regime. Deeper attention from Western media and government attention to the regime’ s domestic problems, for example, would go a long way toward putting the Kremlin on the defensive. At the 9 March hearings in Congress on Russian disinformation—at which CEPA Executive Vice-President Peter Doran also spoke— Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr. recommended that the U.S. government produce a series of well-researched, unclassified reports regarding the Russian leadership to be published in various formats including video, audio, print and digital. These reports could cover the funds and properties controlled by the Russian leadership, Russian hybrid operations in Ukraine, the July 2014 shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, and dissemination of the findings of deceased politician Boris Nemtsov about the 2014 Summer Olympics in Sochi.

Photo: REUTERS/Vladimir Konstantinov