While Russia is concluding a week’s celebration of the one-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, world is finally realizing how dangerous the Russian propaganda-machine really is. The European Union (EU) has recently made a decision to create a new communications team to counter what they perceive to be misinformation coming from the Kremlin.
Thanks to the Kremlin’s propaganda, Russian President Vladimir Putin is able to wage a war in Ukraine and increase his approval rating at home at the same time. The most recent Putin’s approval rating has reached 86%, despite the fact that annexing Crimea led to a worsening of the country’s sanctions-hit economy and relations with the West.
A year ago, when Putin was preparing his takeover of Crimea, Russia launched its all-out propaganda war in an aim to portray the protesters who had overthrown Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych as neo-Nazis. That kind of narrative tricked the Crimea’s and eastern Ukraine’s population into believing in all those horrible things about the West. And that’s not a coincidence that one of the first acts of the Russian-backed rebels in Donetsk was to take control over the televised center and replace Ukrainian broadcasts with the Russian propaganda-driven ones.
The thing is that Ukraine is not the only target of such propaganda here. No. It spills much further. It spills into eastern European countries via televised broadcasts of RT (aka Russia Today, fully financed by the Kremlin, broadcasts in English, German, Spanish and French) or op-ed pieces placed in the New York Times and such. And then, of course, there are those Putin-backed online trolls who fool around at discussions forums, comment sections and social networks.
A year after the annexation, Putin admitted in an interview aired on Sunday that he indeed ordered the Russian soldiers to execute a well-planned operation to take over Crimea. Furthermore, Putin admitted in the interview that “we were ready to do this” when asked about his willingness to ready Russia’s nuclear forces.
Russia vs. EU: the beginning of propaganda war
EU leaders, most especially in the Baltic states, have been alarmed at how Russia has used its propaganda machine to get support for its policies in Europe.
The EU officials told Reuters that a dozen public relations and communications experts would start work by the end of March in Brussels in an aim to counter what the EU says is “deliberate misinformation” coordinated by the Kremlin, which targets Ukraine, the Baltic states and other member states.
The EU leadership agreed to extend economic sanctions in order to push Russia to stick to the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk on February 12. The EU’s summit statement also said they “stressed the need to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” and have the developed plan of how to do so by June.
The task of the new Brussels’ expert team is the “correction and fact-checking of misinformation” and to “develop an EU narrative through key messages, articles, op-eds, factsheets, infographics, including material in Russian language”, according to a description circulating among EU officials reported by Reuters.
The EU official said experts could be brought in to help create programs that attract Russian-speakers who do not watch the existing Western-funded Russian-language media such as the BBC, RFI, Deutsche Welle or Radio Free Europe. “We need to spread the word beyond the usual suspects,” he said.
The most effective way for the EU to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda would be to get Russian-speaking EU member states such as Lithuania—or any other state that has been clear and unmistakable in its opposition to Russia—to put together qualified people in order to disseminate more information giving the EU perspective to Russians.
Russia vs. the Baltics: information warfare has already begun?
However, some EU countries will have to do most of the work on their own, given that, for example, the UK’s challenges to win a war against RT’s propaganda are very different from those in Baltic states or in war-torn Ukraine.
Last year the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania temporarily banned Russian broadcasters. The third Baltic state of Estonia is poised to launch its own general televised channel aimed at the Russian-speaking minority, which is the quarter of Estonia’s population.
Furthermore, Latvia, home to the EU’s largest Russian-speaking minority, has proposed publicly funded pan-Baltic channels. Meanwhile, the Dutch government has financed the European Endowment for Democracy, a source of promoting the European values of freedom and democracy created by Brussels, to consider a number of proposals. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, will carefully read its report, due in May. However, Ms. Mogherini and her team made it crystal clear that large schemes that require large funding is not something the EU is looking for.
However, the EU is facing plenty of its own problems, some of which are much more serious than the growing pro-Russian sentiment in some of its 28 member states.
“The political challenges facing Europe are now immense – dealing with the perceived threat from Russia, the rise of far right/far left and anti-immigration impulses, and generally centrifugal forces and the sense that European institutions are still detached from the people,” Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank, told CNBC.
EU officials participating in the project said they could not even hope to compete with the Russian-financed news and entertainment channels, or the trolls that promote Kremlin ideas on social media and comment sections. Which is true considering how well-financed the Russian propaganda is, and how hard the Kremlin is trying to ‘zombie’ as many people as it can.
Therefore, Europe’s best hope and the best way out is to promote European values such as free speech and a commitment to truth.