The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles that are focused upon the operation of the propaganda machine within the system of power constructed by Vladimir Putin. In the first installment, IMR experts analyzed “domestic” propaganda, aimed at sustaining the popularity of the regime and its leader among Russian voters. Part two of the series studies "foreign" propaganda—that is, building a positive image of the Kremlin abroad. Despite the destruction of the USSR, many Soviet style mechanisms of propaganda have been recently reengaged. Still, new methods of propaganda have also been developed.
Some may find it surprising, but it is not only “imperialist propaganda that sticks its tentacles into <…> our country” . Since Vladimir Putin took office, the Kremlin has been increasingly engaged in expanding its formidable “information” and public relations activities throughout the world. The Heritage Foundation (2012) estimates that in 2010 alone, the Russian government allocated $1.4 billion for international propaganda.
The Heritage Foundation experts believe that Russia’s current vision of “soft power” has remained practically unchanged since the Soviet period and consists of, above all else, the idea of strengthening Russia’s international influence while weakening the influence of the United States. Quite a few experts and analysts suggest that in many respects Russian propaganda is based on the principles of anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism.
For example, in her book Lonely Power: Why Russia Has Failed to Become the West and the West is Weary of Russia, Lilia Shevtsova suggests that Russian official propaganda has not changed significantly since the Soviet era. Old ideas still dominate Russia’s politics: “Americans cannot be trusted, Americans are guilty; Americans are hypocritical; and the Americans are a threat!” . As Lev Gudkov pointed out, creating a feeling of external threat is an effective means to consolidate society: "The specter of an enemy is an extremely powerful means for creating internal cohesiveness and, solidarity with the authorities. As soon as this image of the enemy gets formed <…> there emerges a powerful mechanism for consolidation on the basis of the principle “us vs. them” and America becomes the main villain."
In Putin’s Russia, it took quite a few years to develop a relatively broad “soft power” strategy to fight the “villain” and create a favorable image for itself in the international arena. Indeed, elements of this strategy are still being developed.
“Creating a positive perception of Russia abroad” has been identified as one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities according to “The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” approved by Vladimir Putin on June 28, 2000. In addition, the Concept emphasized the importance of “developing Russia’s own means of influencing public opinion abroad.” In 2004, speaking at the meeting of Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives of the Russian Federation, Putin declared that there existed “deliberate campaigns to discredit” Russia and emphasized the importance of creating a positive image for the country.
In 2005, a significant step was taken to advance the President’s policy when it was decided to launch an informational TV channel Russia Today (RT). According to the ambitious plans of RT’s founders, the new media project was to compete with prominent international channels, such as CNN International and BBC World. Mikhail Seslavinsky, head of the Russian Federal Agency for Print and Mass Media, pointed out that the main objective of the new channel is to create a positive image of Russia abroad. Today, RT, which broadcasts in English, Spanish, and Arabic, serves as the Kremlin’s main weapon of soft power.
Interestingly, at the initial stage, the idea that the channel should serve as a propaganda tool in which the Kremlin would participate was ostensibly rejected. Despite those claims, however, the Kremlin assigned monitors to the project: Alexey Gromov, Assistant to the President; Mikhail Lesin, Advisor to the President; Russian Information Agency (RIA) Novosti, the founder of RT. Moreover, funds from the state budget were allocated to support the new channel. At first, Russia Today received $30 million. In the following years, the government’s support of RT grew and RT expanded its reach. In 2007, RT’s budget grew to $90 million, in 2008—$150 million, and in 2012—to more than $200 million.
In the words of RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, “[w]e fully support our country’s foreign policy.” In many respects, RT’s “support” consists of creating a rather idealistic picture of Putin’s Russia, in contrast to an America drowning in poverty and crime, facing continuous class struggle, and ruled by ruthless corporations. Not surprisingly, in the best tradition of propaganda, the focus puts a particular spin on the events it covers. For example, although RT informed the audience about the protests in Russia, it created the impression that nothing serious was happening. Everything was under control of the authorities, who have their hand on the pulse of the citizens’ needs and, as usual, out of concern for ordinary citizens, reacted sensitively to public discontent by “liberaliz[ing] the political system and strengthen[ing] the democratic process.”
On the other hand, protests in the UK and the United States received significantly greater coverage, which is quite consistent with the tactics chosen by official Russia: “What right do you have to criticize us? Look at what is happening in your country!” (See the recent article “Kremlin Diplomacy, Soviet-Style: Putin’s Russia Revives ‘Look Who’s Talking’ Routine” by Vladimir Kara-Murza.) This tactic, to a large extent, defines the direction of RT’s work and its reaction to external irritants.
According to the ambitious plans of RT’s founders, their project was to compete with CNN International and BBC World. The main objective of the new channel is to create a positive image of Russia abroad.
RT has a hard time dealing with criticism of its anti-Americanism. In one particular example, NPR commented on RT’s “extremely confrontational stance when it comes to US ." In reaction, RT responded that "[w]hile RT is delighted to be recognized by NPR, their choice of expert used to profile the channel raises some questions about NPR’s own stake in the media war.” In the words of Edward Lucas, International Section Editor of The Economist: "I think one of Russia Today's big strengths is the West is in a mess, there is no doubt about it. They love any sign of protest and systemic weakness in the West is great for them. The core of Russia Today is anti-Westernism <...> you get these kind of silly stories about pets that can talk and just ludicrous sort of feel good stories, while turning a complete blind eye to the, I would say, rather more serious problems such as lack of democracy, rule of law, collapsing infrastructure and the rest of it in Russia itself.
In general, a “shiny updated version of Soviet propaganda” is built on the basis of contrasting effects. For example, a recent article on the “Voice of America” website describes RT’s views in the following way: “Turkey bad—Syria good; <…> shale gas bad—Gazprom good; <…> U.S. bad—USSR good.” RT’s choice of experts and analysts who are invited to share their opinions with the channel’s audience is not haphazard. These are mostly individuals critical (or hostile) to the US official agenda (e.g., Lyndon LaRouche, Julian Assange, Lawrence Freeman, Lawrence Korb).
In 2012, Vladimir Putin ordered that “full support” be given to the budget requests of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), Russia Today, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta. It is expected that in 2013 approximately $355 million will be allocated to RT. As Novaya Gazeta points out, “… on the external front, inside the enemy trenches, it is television, not radio, aimed at a foreign audience that is important.” (With Putin’s approval, the budget of “Voice of Russia” has been cut.)
With the President’s support and an allocation of $156 million in funds in 2013, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, has become another key player in the information structure. In Russia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta plays a crucial role in the government information propagation. Abroad, it is a powerful tool “strengthening the image of the Russian Federation” (Federal Agency for Print and Mass Media, 2012). Since 2007, as part of the project Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), Rossiyskaya Gazeta has published monthly supplements in 21 leading foreign publications.
According to recent studies, some 42% of the readers of the foreign newspapers in which the supplements are published, look through RBTH paying particular attention to such sections as politics and economics. In many respects, the content of Rossiyskaya Gazeta reflects Russia’s official agenda. For example, a year ago, the supplement to the largest German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, featured an article about Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the words of Ulrich Schmid of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the article is reminiscent of the Russian media’s “journalistic execution” of Russia’s number one political prisoner. In the article, Khodorkovsky is painted in the darkest colors as a Komsomol apparatchik, cynical businessman, and an interpreter of the Bible.