Thursday

19th Sep 2019

Opinion

Words speak louder than guns

  • London TV mast: Russian propaganda is finding an audience in EU states (Photo: [Duncan])

“In war, avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak”, Sun Tzu said.

Russia has taken this to heart in spinning its narrative surrounding the Ukraine crisis, leaving Europe at a loss on how to counter Moscow’s relentless propaganda campaign.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Russia’s success in the propaganda war is chiefly due to the Kremlin’s grip on the country’s main media outlets, and the ease with which these can penetrate our media landscapes.

Scrambling to find a response, the EU decided in March to create a strategic communication plan “to counter Russian disinformation”.

But rather than creating its own counter-propaganda, the EU should take its cue from Sun Tzu, and target Russia by bolstering online and social media to reach out to civil society in eastern Europe and Russia itself.

Stretching the truth, far and wide

Russian propaganda has been used for three reasons.

First, drawing on its experience in the Georgia conflict, the Kremlin has found it most congenial to pursuing its political and military aims in Ukraine: whether it’s the discrediting of the Euromaidan movement, the sugar-coating of the bogus ‘referendum’ and subsequent annexation of Crimea, or flat-out denials about its military involvement with rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine, Russian media have been able to sow enough doubts in the minds of EU politicians to forestall any forceful response from Brussels.

Secondly, Russian propaganda efforts are also having harmful effects beyond Ukraine. Russian-speaking minorities in countries such as Moldova, Belarus and the Baltic states are being targeted with divisive narratives that aim to destabilise these countries.

In addition, Russian propaganda disseminated by outlets such as RT and Sputnik International is finding receptive audiences in various EU member states.

Thirdly, the impact of propaganda efforts within Russia is hard to overestimate. In a country subject to economic sanctions that finds itself isolated internationally, people are made to believe that Europeans (and Americans) brought a fascist government to power in Kiev and that the EU (and NATO) are out to frustrate Russia’s legitimate ambitions in its own neighbourhood.

As a result, the prospects for re-engaging with Russia appear further away than ever.

What should be done?

Europeans often think they are at a disadvantage in countering this Russian information onslaught, if only because the Russians do not seem to share the same reservations about spewing propaganda and have much better access to our airwaves than vice-versa.

Spending-wise, whereas Russia invested heavily in foreign-language editions of its main media outlets, media organisations in Europe have in fact been cutting down on news coverage in Russian.

Russia understands how important information superiority is, and has made sure that its ‘truth’ receives the widest audience as possible. But in countering this, Europeans should be smart in their approach, and – instead of targeting Russian propaganda head on – should aim at its weak spot.

Practically speaking, this means that instead of setting up a rival TV channel to compete with RT, it is much more effective to work through online and social media: it is cost-efficient, more targeted - in particular when it comes to young people - and easier for obtaining access to those societies that are vulnerable to Russia’s subversive spin.

Furthermore, such media outlets should not be used to disseminate counter-propaganda, but rather to present a narrative based on facts and reflecting shared values between East and West, such as those enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki accords.

For instance, any legitimate concerns Russian-speaking minorities in countries bordering Russia might have should get a fair hearing. At the same time, online and social media are good platforms to address issues of press freedom or corruption.

If the EU were to provide support to media outlets that promote a balanced agenda, it would be much more effective than strategies that amount to Russia-bashing.

Trust, but verify

This approach would pose more questions than Russian outlets claim to do, for the truth of a narrative lies in its credibility. And in the current context of ‘hybrid warfare’ where deniability has become implausible, Russia’s credibility is its weak spot.

When properly exposed, its fabricated truths simply cannot hold up. By promoting an inclusive narrative that emphasises shared values, Europeans can help create a basis for rebuilding relations with Russia in the long term.

Thus, the key to restoring trust between Europe and Russia lies in both sides being able to verify each other’s professed narratives.

In that regard, Russians should remember that Ronald Reagan’s phrase ‘trust, but verify’ (doveryai, no proveryai) was after all a Russian proverb.

Willem Oosterveld, Sijbren de Jong, Katarina Kertysova, Ihor Ilko and Juncal Fernández-Garayzábal González are Strategic Analysts with The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS)

Disclaimer

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

Lithuania bans Russian TV station

Lithuania’s media watchdog has blocked broadcasts by Russian TV channel RTR Planeta on grounds of inciting hatred over Ukraine.

A new Commission for the one percent

We are only baffled by how nakedly Ursula von der Leyen's commission represents the very crisis affecting the EU. These commission nominees can expect their toughest questioning yet, they must be held accountable to those they should be representing.

How EU trains discriminate against the disabled

EU law requires us to give two days' notice to get the assistance we need, even for our daily commutes. We can't travel like everyone else. It is frustrating, annoying and time-consuming. In short, it is unacceptable.

Column

These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission

These developments will largely determine who will be running the world in the coming decades and perhaps generations. If the Europeans can't find an answer over the five years, they will be toast. And we haven't even mentioned climate change.

News in Brief

  1. EU adds €100m to research and Erasmus budgets
  2. Ambassador: UK Poles should 'seriously considering' leaving
  3. Trump's UK ambassador stirs up anti-EU feeling
  4. Brexit chaos is lesson to other EU states, ECB governor says
  5. EU condemns Israel's latest land grab
  6. Scotland to keep some laws aligned with EU after Brexit
  7. Spain to hold fresh election in November
  8. Turkey ups pressure on visa-free entry into EU

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  2. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  6. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  8. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  9. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  10. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  11. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat

Latest News

  1. A new Commission for the one percent
  2. Juncker: No-deal Brexit 'palpable'
  3. Germany adopts blockchain strategy and says no to Libra
  4. Revanchist Russia continues to rewrite European history
  5. How EU trains discriminate against the disabled
  6. These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission
  7. Defending the 'European way of life' name splits MEPs
  8. Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us