Western democracies have “fallen asleep at the wheel,” in response to Russian disinformation and propaganda, Ben O’Loughlin argued.
Through misinformation campaigns that capitalize on a more fragmented and competitive media environment, “authoritarian regimes are taking the initiative,” to distort truth and advance their national interests.
In a global “marketplace for loyalties,” where no one power can completely control the public’s perception, information warfare is taking on a new level of strategic significance in advancing a state’s national interest – and Russia is aggressively leading the charge into this brave new world.
Ben O’Loughlin, professor of international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London was amongst others who spoke on Russian disinformation at a talk in Washington last March. Along with professor Alistair Miskimmon from the same department, both explained the role these strategic narratives are playing in forging a new world and their leverage in the Ukraine crisis.
Competing for Legitimacy
Violating its sovereignty and prolonging a conflict that has left thousands dead, Russia painted itself as the savior of oppressed people in Ukraine, fighting for democratic values against Western imperialism.
By depicting the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine as an anti-Russian, Western-backed, neo-Nazi junta, Russian elites stirred domestic support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea, while radicalizing Russian sympathizers within Ukraine. Through international coverage of these strategic narratives and an extensive direct and indirect network of pro-Russia NGOs, influencers and media like RT, Russia worked to discredit Europe’s foreign policy narrative, while stocking international groups critical of the West with narrative ammunition against it.
“The EU is still struggling to define its own foreign policy narrative,” Miskimmon said and has yet to truly grasp its capacity to shape perception amongst its own and neighboring states, leaving it vulnerable to Russia’s salacious and conspiratorial counter-narratives.
While NATO defines its narrative through commitments to territorial integrity and promoting freedom, its inability to coordinate a consistent narrative with the EU against Russian propaganda leaves both institutions more vulnerable, he argued.
A War Without Blood
Arguing on behalf of a more aggressive response, Alina Polyakovich, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy argued that Western inaction has empowered Russian propaganda and demands a more coordinated retaliation.
From the Ukraine to the United States, this narrative warfare operates with a “multifaceted, but unitary purpose,” Walker argued, creating a new form of interstate competition that is characteristically different from the information battles of the Cold War.
In contrast to the Soviet’s unified communist narrative, Walker and Polyakova explained how Western societies now face the challenge of countering disinformation campaigns with far less regard for the truth and no singular, cohesive story.
Around the world, Russian propaganda unites disparate communities and fringe ideas whose only common purpose is to foster hostility and mistrust towards the Western liberal order, they argued.
Across the panel, recommendations for retaliation included a mixture of offensive and defensive strategies as well as efforts to understand where Russian and Western narratives can find common ground and tell a more collaborative, mutually beneficial story about their role in the world.
“Politics, warfare and war can be narrated out and some alignment can be found,” Miskimmon claimed. Through a more collaborative definition of a polycentric world order, based on international law and territorial sovereignty, Russia and the West could begin to work towards a common vision and a more robust and durable set of agreements.
Instead of thinking only about narrative contestation, he believes we need to think just as much about convergence.
Finding the right balance in-between inaction and panic is difficult McLoughlin said. It’s easy for governments to get lost in the rat race of chasing every dubious claim back to its source and get distracted from the more important work of shaping the larger narratives around a developing world order.
However, wars are won through smaller battles and as Polyakova pointed out, “we need a little bit of panic to start a broader, more strategic effort” if we intend to win this “war without blood.” Like Walker, in contrast to the two academics who argued for a more measured response, Polyakova pressed the demand for aggressive action against these “attacks on our societies.”
In the meantime, Walker argues governments should push for a media literacy updated for the 21st-century media landscape, capable of weeding out fact from fiction to build resiliency against misinformation, especially amongst Russia’s neighboring and most heavily bombarded states.
Though it’s comforting to believe the truth will always out, the reality of politics can be quite different. An audience’s attention belongs to the best storytellers and those who are most active and capable of fighting for the opportunity to tell the world a narrative to believe in.
Truth may be the weight of history but it is never consistently the force that shapes it.