Sunday

12th Jul 2020

Opinion

Russia: half-hearted EU propaganda no match for robust policies

The EU is engaged in a new Cold War with Russia. It is a struggle for Europe’s soul, European values and the future of peace and democracy on the continent.

Not that you’d know from reading EU leaders’ conclusions on Thursday (19 March).

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  • 'EU officials often confuse information with propaganda, prefer preaching to engaging the public in conversation' (Photo: European Parliament)

After the usual throw-away language about honouring commitments and fully implementing agreements in Ukraine, the European Council “stressed the need to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns and invited the high representative, in co-operation with member states and EU institutions, to prepare by June an action plan on strategic communication.”

In other words, a year after Russia swallowed Crimea, the EU is moving into the propaganda business in a bid to win an information war it is currently losing.

It is unlikely president Vladimir Putin and his coterie of advisers will lose much sleep over this.

Firstly, according to Reuters, the initial European PR team is set to number about a dozen officials with a budget unlikely to rise above a few million euros a year.

Compare this with the RT broadcaster, which receives over $300 million a year and employs 2,000 people.

Or contrast with Kremlin-backed troll farms - like Internet Research, which employs 400 cyber-nerds posting pro-Putin comments, blogs and tweets around-the-clock.

Secondly, the EU’s spin-team is to be largely made up of the same civil servants who have so miserably failed to convince the bloc’s own citizens of the benefits of Europe. Having worked with EU officials for almost a decade on training programmes and public information films, it is impossible to exaggerate how bad at communicating most are.

More often than not, they: confuse information with propaganda; prefer preaching to engaging the public in conversation; are obsessed with process rather than results; are incapable of using language ordinary people understand; and sign off on press releases which are unreadable, films that are unwatchable, and websites which are unnavigable.

Thirdly, the EU’s messages will only resonate with its target audiences in Russia’s backyard if they are coherent, credible and consistent. Unfortunately, when it comes to the EU’s policy towards Moscow, these three crucial communication campaign ingredients are in short supply.

For example, how is the Union supposed to convince Russians – and citizens in neighbouring countries – that it is united in ostracising Kremlin war-mongers when its own states are offering Russian warships berths in their ports (Cyprus) or cosying up to Putin for sweeter gas deals (Hungary) and bail-out loans (Greece)?

With Moscow able to play divide and rule with EU states, it is little wonder European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said last week that “in terms of foreign policy, we don’t seem to be taken entirely seriously”.

When I visited the EU’s representation in Prague in the mid-1990s, I asked one official why there weren’t the usual posters and brochures extolling the benefits of EU membership. “Czechs think they are too much like Soviet propaganda,” he said.

Propaganda

Propaganda never works in the long run because it is rarely believable and usually flies in the face of reality.

For example, despite Moscow’s relentless PR campaign since its annexation of Crimea, a survey by US pollster Pew noted that negative views of Russia in Europe rose from 54 to 74 percent last year.

“Places gain their reputation by the things that they do and make not by the things they same about themselves,” says government reputation advisor Simon Anholt. “When places talk about themselves in the media everyone recognise that immediately as state propaganda and they ignore it.”

This doesn’t mean the EU should throw in the towel in its information bout with Russia. Kremlin lies should be forcefully rebutted wherever they appear. Lobby firms that do Putin’s PR should be barred from receiving EU contracts. Political parties that act as Moscow’s cheerleaders, often in return for cash, should be named and shamed.

And the EU, which is the biggest funder of Euronews, should use its clout to make sure Russian broadcaster RTR does not increase its growing stake in the channel.

But ultimately, the EU’s success in countering Russian disinformation will not be due to what it says but because of the appealing values it stands for and the robust actions it takes to counter Putin’s thuggery.

Thousands of Ukrainians didn’t risk their lives on Maidan Square because of a glitzy PR campaign by the EU but because the prospect of closer ties with Brussels was more appealing than Moscow’s icy embrace. Likewise, Moldovans and Georgians will only remain committed to the EU path if membership of the club is offered as a real possibility, however distant.

The reason the EU is so spooked by Russia is not because its communications are weak but because its policies are.

Instead of throwing a couple of million euros to produce TV programmes few will watch – a kind of Russian version of EuroparlTV – EU states should show Putin they are serious about defending their values and borders.

This means boosting defence spending, offering unconditional support to defend Baltic states if attacked, holding out the prospect of EU membership to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, ending dependence on Russian oil and gas as quickly as possible and further stepping up sanctions against Kremlin cronies.

Muscular actions like these are more likely to change Russia’s tack than any half-hearted propaganda campaign.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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