In 2013 an activist and expert in cyber-security told me that Russian hackers and propaganda outlets were more focused on optics than “kinetic outcomes.” When I asked him to clarify what he meant by “kinetic outcomes”, he said, “What actually happens on the ground.”
The statement has stuck with me. Russian diplomacy and projection of power is now inextricably linked to so-called “hybrid warfare”, the mixing of information warfare, traditional warfare, propaganda, and geopolitics. Russian interference in the 2016 US election, its attempts to break up the European Union via direct support for the anti-immigrant European right, and its troll farms have come to symbolize Russian power, taking the place of the nuclear weapons and tanks in the 20th century.
Yet if hybrid warfare strategy has allowed Moscow to punch above its weight in geopolitics, there is a major pitfall: Russian propaganda can be used to study the weaknesses of the Putin regime, and to some extent can be used to predict its geopolitical moves.
Covering Up Quagmires
Russian President Vladimir Putin is stuck in a Catch-22, thanks to a foreign policy that is focused on optics and not actual force projection. If he admits to meddling in foreign politics, like the 2016 US election, the international perception of Russia will worsen. If Putin denies interference, he is downplaying the effectiveness of Russia’s main geopolitical weapon.
Russia’s wars in Syria and Ukraine are being touted in western media as major military successes, but in traditional terms they are quagmires. The perception of victory is based largely on publicity stunts, such as the concert that was staged by a Russian symphony in the Roman ruins of Palmyra, Syria after the ejection of the Islamic State. With the setting of the arena where ISIS had beheaded Assad regime soldiers, Putin addressed the concert via a video uplink and Russia’s flagship outlets used slick visuals to broadcast the event.
But despite the propaganda coup, within months ISIS had retaken parts of Palmyra, capturing significant Russian-made hardware which the US was forced to destroy in targeted strikes to prevent the Islamic State from repurposing it. Though pro-Assad forces eventually routed ISIS one more, Russia’s weakness had been exposed. Because Russian “victories” are political, as opposed to military, they are built on shaky ground.
Even though Russia holds the political upper hand, and is unquestionably the dominant power in Syria, it is unlikely they will achieve anything resembling a complete “victory”. If recent diplomacy is an indicator of maneuvers to come, Moscow is anxious to cut its losses via partition of Syria into de-escalation zones, “zones of influence”, or even “occupation zones”. Optics aside, Russians in Syria could continue to die and get captured, in small but steady numbers. Putin is fighting an expensive war, with the themes and ideas pushed by his propaganda outlets, with no decisive outcome in sight.
The Arab Spring
Long before the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Russian outlets demonized anti-authoritarian movements as “color revolutions” or “regime change conspiracies”. The world stood awestruck by the courage of the Tahrir Square protestors in Egypt, symbolizing the spirit of “freedom” in the region, but Russia Today immediately turned to ultra-right conspiracy theorists like Lyndon Larouche to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the movement.
The official Russian narrative has constantly been that the Arab Spring was part of an amorphous regime change conspiracy, one that included villains like the Saudi regime and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as favored scapegoats of the far right like George Soros and Hillary Clinton. Propaganda mantras around themes of “national sovereignty” and “radical jihaidsts” played well with a segment of America commonly referred to as “Trump’s base”, many of whom see anti-authoritarian movements as a sinister threat to their own worldview.
Russian casting of Syria as the victim of a Gulf/Zionist/Turkish/American regime change plot has long been deliberate, working well in Moscow’s favor until now. But after more than two years of its escalated military intervention, Russia has yet to achieve total victory for Bashar al-Assad, who still faces a daunting crisis of legitimacy. Putin needs to make friends with former enemies if he wants the regime to survive, so Moscow’s outlets are working rapidly to turn former villains into new friends.
Any fan of Sputnik or RT is already convinced that the Arab Spring and its fallout were part of a Zionist/Saudi/US plan to partition Syria and reshape the Middle East for America and Israel’s benefit. Anyone who reads Sputnik’s Arabic-language site knows that Russia killed dozens of Western, Saudi, and Israeli officers who were training terrorists in Aleppo in 2016. Anyone who reads RT knows that Syria’s lauded White Helmets rescuers are a front for “Al Qa’eda terrorists” and that the sarin attacks in East Ghouta and Khan Shaykoun are part of a Turkish plot to provoke regime change against Assad. Russian outlets have spent years cultivating a relationship with the American and European far right, carefully constructing a conspiratorial narrative against the democratic movements of the Arab Spring.
But now the Russian line of unfettered support for Bashar al-Assad faces challenges. The regime’s military victories, beholden to foreign allies, are still tenuous when compared to Kurdish-led forces who have been far more effective at holding and governing territory taken from the Islamic State. Flagrant violations of ceasefire deals, forced conscription, and mass regime-imposed displacement of civilians have eroded faith in what was already a dubious attempt to coax former opposition members back into Damascus’s orbit. Statements from senior regime generals, such as Issam Zahreddine’s assertion that he would not “forgive or forget” those who have fled Syria, have been interpreted as threats to refugees not to return. Syrian men who have escaped military service have no assurances they will not be drafted if they return to regime-held areas and accept reconciliation deals. Civilians have no assurances they will not be deported to northwest Syria if their neighborhoods surrender to the regime.
Despite reconquering destroyed empty cities and welcoming ambassadors back to Damascus, Assad’s Russian backers see the looming crisis of legitimacy. They are desperate to cut their losses and gain international support for the so-called “de-escalation plan”, essentially an accelerated partition of Syria into regime, opposition, and Kurdish zones of influence, bolstered by foreign backers.
The urgency to shore up military successes has led the Russian government to reach out to the former perceived adversaries of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and has led Russian diplomats to demonize the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. With disinformation now inextricably tied to every geopolitical move, the flagships of Russian propaganda have wasted no time doing a 180-degree turn to match the tone set by Moscow’s diplomacy.
Targeting the SDF
Sputnik and RT continue to disparage established foes, such as the White Helmets civil defense organization. But now they need to tear down any group often favored in international coverage.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are a coalition of the Kurdish militia YPG, Arabic-speaking rebels, and local tribes. With victories over ISIS such as October’s capture of Raqqa, the SDF have challenged the Assad regime for governance through a system of local councils, elections, and deals far more favorable to local Arabs than the regime’s forced evacuations of civilians. It also has the PR advantage of being comprised almost entirely of Syrians, Kurdish and Arab, in contrast to an Assad military so reliant on non-Syrian troops that it has given foreign generals official positions in the Syrian military.
There have been cases of Kurdish and Russian forces working together: for example, a small Russian deployment in the city of Afrin is intended to deter a potential Turkish attack. However, SDF successes against ISIS, notably across the Euphrates River from pro-Assad forces in Deir ez-Zor Province in eastern Syria, have forced the Kurdish-led group into a tense confrontation with the Assadists who view them as illegal separatists. Russian forces have issued threats against the SDF and have bombed their positions.
Just as Russian propaganda outlets demonized Arab Spring protestors as agent provocateurs and Syrian rescue workers as terrorists, they now accuse the SDF of working with the Islamic State rather than battling it. Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s force in Syria, has said, “According to available reliable information, in early June ISIS terrorists entered into collusion with the command of the Kurdish armed units, which are part of the Democratic Forces Union.” In September Russian diplomats, military leaders. and propaganda outlets repeated the claim. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov proclaimed, “SDF militants work to the same objectives as ISIS terrorists. Russian drones and intelligence have not recorded any confrontations between IS and the ‘third force’, the SDF.”
S-400s and a New Spin on Turkey
As calls for Assad’s departure from capitals around the world have died down, Russia has seized the diplomatic initiative and reached out to former opponents. Sputnik News reported on an unprecedented statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last month in which he indicated Russia would support “anti-Nusra armed factions” in Idlib Province in northwest Syria. Presumably this is in reference to Ahrar al-Sham, the rebel group currently fighting the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham bloc, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra.
“We have information that the armed formations which have joined the arrangement on the Idlib de-escalation zone have started to fight more actively against Jabhat al-Nusra. We will be assisting them in this matter, as well as, of course, assisting the Syrian army,” Lavrov said.
Suddenly, Russia’s long-standing position that Ahrar al Sham is an Al Qaeda-linked extremist group — as Jabhat al-Nusra was, until July 2016 — has given way to tolerance, as long as it is within the Russian de=escalation plan which leaves Assad in Damascus. Putin met Turkish President Erdoğan after the sale of Russian-made S-400s to Turkey was completed in September, a visit that coincided with reported discussions between major Free Syrian Army factions and the Turkish military about a potential military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces and a large new Turkish deployment into northern Syria.
Russian propaganda outlets are firmly on a new footing over Erdoğan, no longer a nefarious actor eager to carve up Syria. A Sputnik article reiterated Russian willingness to work with Syrian rebels and presented the latest Turkish military operation in Idlib as a positive step towards enforcing Russia’s de-escalation plans, stressing Ankara’s cooperation. Sputnik now repeatedly uses the term “Free Syrian Army” to refer to Ahrar al Sham-led rebels, instead of the prevous labels of “jihadists,” “extremists”, and “so-Called rebels”.
In return, official Turkish outlets have backed the Russian narrative and have even released talking points which make no secret that the deployment of “Turkish troops in Idlib will make sure that truce holds in Idlib as part of deal with Russia and Iran”. The Andolou Agency has stated that “confrontation with local or Assad regime forces is not the objective” while hinting openly at the possibility of confrontation with Kurdish groups in Afrin which aim “to expand their dominance. The Turkish army will block the terror group.”
The oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a frequent bogeyman of Russian propaganda outlets. Sputnik’s Arabic-language website claimed that Russian forces killed Saudi officers who were training terrorists during an airstrike on Aleppo last year. RT frequently cites Saudi Arabia as a major exporter of terrorism.
However, Saudi Arabia seems to be back in the good graces of Moscow after the Gulf Kingdom made good on its promise to purchase components of Russian-manufactured S-400 anti-aircraft missiles and signaled a new willingness to work with Moscow on an official state visit from King Salman. Sputnik has put out a flurry of positive Saudi coverage talking up trade between Russian-annexed Crimea and Saudi Arabia, celebrating the history of Saudi/Russian relations, and touting new Saudi-Russian technology investment.
Perhaps most bizarrely, Sputnik published a “Special Report” that resembled a tourist pamphlet, “Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom of Sun, Youth and Oil”, praising the Kingdom’s UNESCO heritage and its bilateral relations with Russia. Mysteriously, the coverage made scant reference to Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, which saw the Gulf monarchy singled out as one of the worst killers of children in the world today.
In the last two weeks, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has honored the Saudi royals by tweeting out a chummy photo of himself with King Salman: “Meeting with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.”. Moscow ignored a report by the Intercept, drawing on declassified documents from the US National Security Agency, indicate Saudi Prince Salman bin Sultan ordered a rocket assault on Assad regime targets in Damascus in March 2013. Instead of seizing on the revelation, Russian outlets continued friendly coverage of Saudi Arabia’s “moderate” approach to Islamism.
Countries that want assurances from Russia are probably aware that Moscow’s strongest asset is its propaganda. Saudi Arabia can request guarantees of good press coverage in the way they would have asked for diplomatic or military assistance in past decades. Nations like Saudi, Turkey, Israel, and Bahrain are already “reverse engineering Russian propaganda” because they know it is the bellwether of how reliable a partner Russia will be.
We should also look at Russian propaganda with a new critical and analytical eyes. Sputnik and RT continue to drop hints to Moscow’s future intentions, from an article touting a potential arms deal with former adversary Bahrain to a sudden increase in positive coverage of former Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who is described by his lawyer in a recent Sputnik piece as “Libya’s only hope right now”.
While authoritarian governments have learned how to read Russian intentions from their propaganda outlets, democracies are struggling to cope with the unfamiliar threat posed by this new version of hybrid warfare. Some in Europe and the US are advocating the shutting down of Russian propaganda outlets, and some have even toyed with the dark prospect of mimicking authoritarian governments by outright censoring Russian government disinformation.
This would be not only undemocratic but short-sighted. The threat of “weaponized disinformation” is evolving, and it will not stop with Russia. We can expect every government with an aggressive agenda or something to hide to engage in this type of hybrid warfare in the future. The only way civil society can fight back is by studying propaganda and systematically fact-checking it against real information and, perhaps more importantly, against itself.
Censorship is a trap in the culture war between dictatorship and democracy. It is up to journalists and activists to turn the weapons of disinformation into exquisite tools against the purveyors of dishonesty. In short, sometimes the best cure for Russian propaganda is critique and re-purposing of Russian propaganda.