Two years into Russia’s war on Ukraine, some Western analysts and media continue to make a critical mistake: to look for logic in and give credibility to the Kremlin’s narratives.

In the past week, we have seen this massive error in full force following the terrorist attack on the Crocus venue in Moscow. It reveals continued naivete – or worse – by many who should know better about the Russian Federation’s use of propaganda as a weapon of war against Ukraine and the West.

Indeed, Russian assertions following the attack, which was unambiguously claimed by ISIS, would have the observer believe that: a) “Ukraine organized the attack”; b) the perpetrators “sought to flee the site in a Ukrainian registered vehicle”; c) “the perpetrators tried to travel Ukraine” (through the most militarized and contested zone in the world); d) “the President of Ukraine (who is Jewish) is sympathetic to Islamist extremism”; and e) “the Russian people are under attack from the whole world.”

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Each of these and other far-fetched claims featured: in statements by officials including Putin; in the Russian State-controlled media; in the parrot-like squawking of the Kremlin’s agents of influence and fellow-travelers; and across all possible media as part of the technique of “channel flooding.” As any cursory examination shows, none of the claims could possibly be true or plausible.

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Kyiv Post sources confirmed the attack on the 590th separate radio technical unit of the military unit 84680, located in Kovylkino, Mordovia, Russia.

While the West looks for clear and linear logic in what the Kremlin does and says, Moscow deploys a veritable water cannon of claims, opposing claims, distractions, and distortions – knowing that incongruence is to their advantage.

It doesn’t need to be true

But the Kremlin well knows that its narratives need not be logical or coherent to be effective. In fact, basing claims on the truth is actually a hinderance to what Putin’s propaganda machine seeks to achieve with its strategic communications.

While the West looks for clear and linear logic in what the Kremlin does and says, Moscow deploys a veritable water cannon of claims, opposing claims, distractions, and distortions. Russian propagandists know that incongruence is to their advantage, and that has been clearly illustrated by their approach to the Crocus attack.

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It’s timely to remind ourselves that “maskirovka” (literally deception in Russian) and the practice of propaganda have been official parts of Russian military doctrine for more than 100 years. This started still in the Tsarist era and was systematically and intensively developed through the Cold War period – during which KGB agent Putin would have been professionally trained in propaganda principles and practice.

During the full-scale invasion period, Gen. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s senior military commander, has publicly acknowledged propaganda as a weapon in his murderous regime’s arsenal. Russian propaganda has an infrastructure and investment on a massive scale that could never be sustained by a democracy and its competing priorities.

“Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident that they are acting of their own free will.” – Josef Goebbels

Secondly, we know that, in its own interests, Russia actively exploits and leverages the West’s own strengths. Those include a free press that believes in impartiality and is thereby actively committed to telling “both sides of a story.” While this paradigm – deeply rooted in the liberal democratic tradition and journalistic training – serves us well, it is also ripe for manipulation by the bad actors that the Russians are. Russian operatives, operating hundreds of paid troll farms, also well understand that the digital age has given rise to a nearly insatiable appetite for media content. 

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Taken together, Russian propagandists constantly manipulate the Western media’s tendency to too often share and publish Russian statements prima facie and without substantive scrutiny. Russian claims handily fill space on websites and, because they are so often so bizarre, they drive controversy, clicks and niche-but-reliable readerships.

A statement from the inventor of modern authoritarian propaganda, Nazi Josef Goebbels, is chilling and relevant to current Russian practices: “Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident that they are acting of their own free will.”

Relatedly, Russian propaganda has no intention of winning over Western public opinion en masse. It does not aim to convince or compel the majority of Americans, Europeans or Australians to be supportive of Russia, or to seek policy change via their respective domestic political systems. In fact, because it is founded in an entirely undemocratic tradition, authoritarian Russia’s aims are quite the opposite.

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Namely, Russian propaganda is designed to pull at the edges of our societies and thereby fray the stable middle ground of our social contract. It is designed to appeal and motivate those on the periphery – both left wing and right wing – to spread conspiracy theories, distortions and lies that undermine our collective capacity to objectively discern what is right and what is wrong. Doubt, discord and distraction are the aims of Russian disinformation.

(We see the impacts of this strategy being played out writ large in the US Congress at present, where an outlier group of MAGA Republicans – clearly subject to Russian propaganda and its pernicious effect on a smaller but highly cohesive group of voters – are destroying American military aid for Ukraine.)

This aspect is well described by perhaps the leading scholar and analyst of modern Russian propaganda, Peter Pomarantzev, who writes: “It is so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next – that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.”

Russian propaganda is designed to pull at the edges of our societies and thereby fray the stable middle ground of our social contract.

In this context, just as the Kremlin would wish, it becomes, on the one hand, impossible to know the real culprits, causes and consequences of the Crocus attack, and, on the other hand, possible for Russia to pivot from the incident to increased assaults against Ukraine. This is especially useful in terms of casting Russia as an aggrieved party and somehow “entitled” to avenge Crocus. Here, we should note that grievance was also at the heart of the Nazis’ territorial expansions and their genocide of Europe’s Jews.

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For example, we should expect to see Russia use Crocus as part of the pretext for an unprecedented offensive after the mud of Ukraine’s spring season – an offensive that will likely include even greater targeting of Ukrainian civilians.

For the West, the next period will require strategic clarity and a robust understanding of Russian propaganda to able to defend its own interests in the Ukrainian theater of the broader confrontation between democracy and dictatorship. That includes realizing that what we hear and see by Russia about the Crocus attack is designed to confuse and confound us – and not allowing that to occur.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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Comments ( 1)

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Einstein
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This article is so right. Normality do look for logic. Explains how all dictators work.

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