After the events of the Euromaiden Revolution, the occupation of Crimea by Russia and the following uprising in the eastern regions of Ukraine, the impact of media on public opinion in Europe has received far more attention in the State Department, the European Union, and beyond. While US interest in public diplomacy has already grown with the War on Terror and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the situation in Eastern Europe brings a unique situation wherein a state actor is playing the key role against the United States and its allies.
In what is being referred to as the “weaponization of information,” Russia has utilized its media to shape the sentiments along its borders and beyond towards its own geopolitical aims. While the United States has made steps towards giving this issue the focus it deserves and improving their current structures towards addressing it, significant problems still remain. With the resurgence of anti-Americanism in Russia and among its bordering Russian-speaking populations, it is clear that the US must do more to identify the core challenges it faces and address them.
Why is it that Russia has such a capacity to shape the opinions along its borders towards its own needs? This problem lies primarily in the issue of language in these regions. Since their independence, the former republics of the Soviet Union have grappled with the question of native Russian-speakers and how to address them. Some, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, chose to recognize Russian as an official language in addition to their own local language. With this, states would need to broadcast in their national languages in addition to Russian, whereas Russian state broadcasting would be constant, consistent, and of an entirely better quality. Thus, while local alternatives remain, most people watch the Russian Federation channels. Other countries, most notably those of the Baltics, chose to prioritize their local language over Russian. This created a divide between those whose native language is Russian and the rest of the state, once again encouraging the Russian-speaking populations to turn to Russian state broadcasting. Either way, the Kremlin maintains dominance over media in Russian-speaking regions, and often uses this advantage towards its policy goals. With this, media plurality is diminished, and the only opinion that the public hears is one that consistently degrades and builds fear against the United States and its allies.
Analyzing the “Information War” with Russia, Ben Nimmo of the Central European Policy Institute argues that the solution must be a more tactical and strategic communications approach that identifies the Russian methods and counters them while exposing its flaws. While Nimmo makes valid points, this course of action is extremely difficult when every other channel available to the public is telling the viewing audience not to trust the United States. Before United States efforts for direct policy advisement can come to fruition, the United States needs to address the issue of the dominance of Russian media in broadcasting. So long as the vast majority of channels claim that the United States is the scourge of global politics and is seeking to deceive, manipulate, and ultimately subjugate Russian-speakers and the world as a whole, direct programming from the US will largely be shunned and ignored. In order to for public diplomacy efforts to have the fullest impact, The United States must do more to promote media plurality in these regions before it can move towards direct policy influence.
The Department of State currently includes efforts to promote media plurality under its Public Diplomacy branch and under the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. However, it programs promote media diversity are regarded largely as part of general civil society platforms, and are implemented simultaneously with direct US programming efforts rather than leading up to them. While independent media not associated with United States public diplomacy may not necessarily promote US interests, and may even criticize US policy, their existence and ability to criticize the Russian Federation and point out the dominance of Kremlin-controlled media would be a necessary first step to removing the antagonism against the United States. If the State Department provides assistance for start-up news agencies and existing competitors in these regions in Russian, by local Russian-speakers, without seeking to control their programming, it will reduce the grip of the Kremlin and the anti-American sentiments that have grown with Russian state media dominance.
One example that the United States could emulate and expand is the Meduza Project of Latvia. The Meduza Project was started in Riga by Galina Timchenko, former editor-in-chief of the extremely influential Russian news website Lenta.ru. The project is comprised entirely of Russian journalists who resigned in protest over the politically-motivated firing of Timchenko. This website focuses more on aggregating news, but also provides its own news on “topics which Russian media do not raise for various reasons – due to direct and indirect censorship.” The site is well designed with a modern layout and easy access through apps on all major smartphone types. On the recent controversy of the Panama Papers, Meduza has pointed out Russia’s lack of coverage of the incident and compared it to the Wikileaks controversy and their fixation on Edward Snowden. With the use of Russian journalists, the clean and effective layout, and the independence of their work, this project displays remarkable promise in providing a respectable alternative for Russian speakers.
This project displays how assisted media plurality should look like. The project is led by Russians and is written foremost for Russian-speakers. Unlike other attempts at alternatives, the site is clean and modern, encouraging newcomers to try it. Furthermore, the site does not focus on backing Western policy, but rather points out the dominance of the Russian state media and the falsities it often promotes. In this manner, it attracts new viewers, maintains their trust by not prioritizing Western topics and views, and reveals the problems with Kremlin-controlled broadcasting.
If the United States wants to eventually be able to defend its policy to the Russian-speaking public and promote its interests abroad, it must first weaken the grasp that the Kremlin has over media in these regions. By emphasizing the promotion of media plurality, US public diplomacy can weaken this grasp, reveal the fallacies in propaganda from the Russian Federation, build a freer press for the people and open the way for cooperation and understanding between Russian-speakers and the West.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.