Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect …
Jonathan Swift, 1710
On 4 November 2016, the world “learnt” from Mr Putin that St Volodymyr, the grand prince of mediaeval Kyivan Rus’, was a founding father of the Muscovite/Russian state—no matter that history tells a different story. This year, Volodymyr the Great, who ruled Kyiv and in 988 brought Christianity to the Rus’ian lands, was erected in one of Moscow’s squares, towering 16 metres over those beneath it. This history-hijacking moment, much in the spirit of revisionist “statue wars”, signifies something wider, namely Russia’s ongoing effort to fragment and dismantle the Ukrainian state. Discursive warfare—distorting, corrupting and dislocating history and political meaning—plays as much of a strategic role as non-linear operations on the ground.
For instance, on 11 August 2016, the Kremlin’s Federal Security Service (FSB) informed watchers of Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine—frequently framed by the media as the “Ukraine crisis”—that Ukrainian “terrorists” were attempting to “destabilise” Crimea and even managed to “kill” an FSB officer. While absurd, such accusations carry serious dangers, especially when understood as part of a wider strategy by Russia. Whether it is meant to pave the way for further Russian intervention in Ukraine, or to distort Kyiv’s image by smearing it with one of the most feared and repulsive epithets—that of “terrorist”—Russia’s narrative wields both political and temporal effects. These certainly extend beyond Ukraine’s boundaries and beyond Moscow’s attempt to construct Ukrainians as a “co-belligerent” in Crimea—and thus equally culpable for the “crisis”—just as the earlier deployment of a narrative to label Kyiv as a “fascist junta” was utilised to delegitimise the government. And while Ukraine remains the centrepiece of the Kremlin’s operations, Russia’s effort stretches far wider and far deeper, to the dislocation of the Western imaginary. As Moscow knows it cannot match the West’s overwhelming material and ideological capabilities, its efforts are increasingly taking the form of bolshaia spetzoperatsiia, in other words a grand and special operation. Russia has embarked on what might be described as an anti-hegemonic political offensive; and—if left misunderstood—this approach will have profound consequences both for Western political ideology and European countries alike.
What is an Anti-hegemonic Offensive?
In the past, whether it was Catholic Spain versus Protestant England, the Thirteen Colonies against Imperial Britain, revolutionary France versus the European monarchies, Nazi Germany versus Soviet Russia and the Atlantic democracies, the Soviet Union against the Atlantic democracies or Islamism versus Western liberalism, political conflicts have been waged through a primarily counter-hegemonic strategy. As shown in Figure 1, with a counter-hegemonic offensive, one positive world-view meets another and they jostle for power. Politically, the objective is simply to drown out, overwhelm and then replace an opponent’s political ideology, often using material capabilities in support. In the 20th century, the Western liberal imaginary—first established and projected by the United Kingdom and later empowered further by the United States—prevailed against its alternatives. Constitutional government, the continuous and uniform rule of law, multi-party democracy, the market economy, freedom of association, expression and communication, civic nations cooperating through the Euro-Atlantic institutions, and the English language were articulated together, resulting in a hegemonic formation that has proven itself to be of extraordinary traction and durability. Indeed, Western hegemony has become so seductive that it has become coterminous with modernity itself.
Russia knows it cannot destroy this Western ensemble by adopting a traditional counter-hegemonic approach, for two reasons. First, with an economic yield comparable to that of Spain or Australia, Russia lacks the material capabilities to project any positive ideology around the world, certainly to the extent that it would consume or overwhelm its alternatives—especially Western liberalism. The regime of Mr Putin, though revisionist and unpredictable, is a far cry from the overwhelming totalitarian states of Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Second, and more importantly, Moscow does not have a coherent ideology of its own with which to counter the Western formation. Granted, Russian nationalists have made hay in recent years with their attempted reformation of the country as a velikaia derzhava—i.e. a great power (in waiting). But this is based on “trans-ideology”, namely a mishmash of concepts—often contradictory—which have been promulgated together: for example, Leninism has been articulated alongside Orthodox Christianity; the inordinate Soviet campaign against Nazism has been cast alongside a supposed fight against imagined “fascism”, particularly in Ukraine; economic nationalism has been projected alongside the free market; political absolutism has been articulated alongside “managed democracy”; nationalism and pan-Slavism have been merged and Russian nationalism has been blended with Eurasianism, etc. The end result, though, while attractive to some in Russia, especially the neo-nationalist fraternity, is not a potentially universal formation with global mass appeal. It will never seduce swathes of people from countries surrounding Russia, let alone from around the world, to Russia’s cause.
In any case, Putin’s regime is not seeking to promulgate a global ideology; it wants only to sustain its own power and stymie those who have the potential to degrade that power—particularly the West. It is for this reason that a new approach—Russia’s anti-hegemonic “special operation” against the West—has been devised. As a new political technology, an anti-hegemonic offensive is a truly unique innovation in the history of modern political warfare. Far subtler and more insidious than a counter-hegemonic offensive, it seeks to gradually and stealthily dislocate an established hegemonic political formation. As shown in Figure 2, much as—in a science-fiction novel—a swarm of nanites might attack and transform solid matter into grey goo, so Russia is seeking to target systematically and then break apart the connections and nodes of meaning within the Western ideological ensemble, before saturating the resulting vacuum with false and fictitious narratives.
The Kremlin’s “nanites” include an array of public-relations agencies, state-funded media outlets, internet trolls and—of course—“useful idiots” in the West itself. The objective of these nanites is to crush the West by distorting and subverting its agency and legitimacy, diminish its strategic advantages (shared values, unity, economic and military superiority), and delegitimise and defeat it from within. In other words, Russia is trying to instigate disenchantment, propelling Westerners into a state of perpetual confusion and disorientation. The Kremlin wants Westerners, especially Europeans, to lose trust in their own governments and institutions, their own ideas, and even—especially—the self-confidence of Western civilisation, not least the Atlantic[MR3] link. Russia will be satisfied once the West is nothing more than a bruised, broken and helpless void. This will provide Mr Putin’s regime with the space to protect itself, and use Russia’s more limited strategic capabilities to reassert some degree of control over surrounding countries and potentially those inside the Euro-Atlantic structures themselves.
Anti-hegemonic Warfare in Action
The Kremlin has so far been quite successful in its anti-hegemonic offensive against the West, by stoking the development of a temporally and factually distorted perception of reality among Westerners. This has been seen in relation to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, aggression in Ukraine’s east and military adventurism in Syria, as well as its imprint on forced migration from the Middle East to Europe, along with its many other revisionist foreign-policy overtures. Russia’s end-state does not seem to be the conquest of Europe (or the West), but rather its reconstruction as a Europe that is “safe” for (any) Russian claims, “values” and political models. While for some this may prematurely seem like the stuff of conspiracy, the truth is far more alarming: Russia’s anti-hegemonic offensive is not part of a conspiracy or accidental chain of events. While it seizes on opportunistic moments, it is part of a well-orchestrated destructive political endeavour, involving three sequential, but frequently overlapping, steps. These are: (1) attempting to take control of time and the sequence of events for political effect; (2) spoiling Western counter-narratives to mute the adversary; and (3) saturating the resulting political and discursive vacuum with false and fictitious narratives.
First, an anti-hegemonic offensive necessitates—no less than a military offensive—the seizure of the initiative. Time, after all, is politics—just as are narrative, discourse and other forms of non-visible agency in pursuit of state policies. The temporalisation of politics not only allows for the generation of time-specific insights and retrospective understandings, but also enables the pursuit of a future-oriented ideational (re)construction—all sought to generate meanings and legitimise or delegitimise the agency and action in question. As Ingsoc’s slogan proclaims in George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” In conjunction with the anti-hegemonic offensive, the instrumentalisation of “political time” underwrites the politics of falsehood, commonly known as strategic deception. The resulting “fake façade” of reality may of course eventually crumble, but the politically relevant effects it produces would demand considerable effort to reverse.
Thus, constituting a reference point, or “zero hour”, is central to actively shaping or distorting an adversary’s time and event perception. Whether in Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014, Russia framed its action as the starting and ending “moment” of an “untypical” form of otherwise orderly behaviour in the European neighbourhood. Although tactically a turning point in itself, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine’s eastern provinces are anything but a “zero hour”—they are proof of continuity rather than change in its approach towards neighbouring countries. In its relations with the latter, political blackmail, the use of force, assault, coercion and aggression have long been a part of Moscow’s regional toolkit. Distorting perception, by controlling “zero hour”, enables Moscow to set—with smoke and mirrors—the reference point for establishing those to be blamed for the turmoil in Ukraine, but also to justify the flurry of escalatory moves, not least the Kremlin’s own military build-up and frequent as well as massive snap exercises on the Russian border.
Equally important, Moscow’s attempt to establish “zero hour” in numerous contexts has wider implications, insofar as it forces the West onto the back foot. As Russia’s hostile “active measures” unfold in the Euro-Atlantic space, the West finds itself fragmented and having to prevent what has already happened—part of the political war. From stirring up and financing some of the political agencies behind the “Brexit”, “Grexit”, “Frexit” and “Czexit” anti-European Union (EU) campaigns to weaponising forced migration flows to European countries, and staging the “Our Liza” disinformation operation in Germany, the Kremlin finds itself in the embrace of the “Russia understanders” across much of reality-denying and “war-shy” Europe, the West’s tired strategic cockpit. The reaction of the West—both momentary, as proven by the soon-forgotten war against Georgia, and ad hoc, as with the failure to prevent Brexit or the Russian escalation during the invasion of Ukraine—was precisely the response Moscow hoped for.
Second, the success of an anti-hegemonic offensive depends on the absence of strong competing narratives that represent an adversary’s advantage. The shortest way to disarm an adversary’s counter-hegemonic arsenal is to deny it the advantage of (accessing) that arsenal, while simultaneously ensuring friendly unimpeded access—quite reminiscent of what contemporary electronic warfare (EW) represents in strategic terms. An adversary’s strategic silence thus epitomises the outcome and the entire rationale of an anti-hegemonic offensive. Unlike a counter-hegemonic offensive, i.e. constructing a new reality, an anti-hegemonic offensive has the reverse aim: to stun, spoil and then shatter an adversary’s world-view. Both direct and proxy spoiler action operates in this context.
Proxy spoilers take the form of politically marginalised radical right- and left-wing parties but also corrupt and captured business elites and “expert” communities (e.g. Russlandversteher, “Russia understanders”, in Germany, or “anti-Westerners” elsewhere in the Euro-Atlantic area), which help Moscow exploit local discontent and grind down Western resolve from within. Meanwhile, direct spoilers, like “mass trollers”, attempt to drown out considered debate, by swamping Western websites with the politics of populist emotion. The Kremlin’s number one international “information” resource—RT, or Russia Today—serves the same purpose by attempting to sow self-doubt among Westerners. Its motto “Question more” captures its agenda aptly: “nothing is true …” and “everyone lies” could easily be the slogan of Russia’s mass-deception campaign. There is no more illustrative moment in this regard than “Panamagate” in April 2016: a couple of days after the investigative journalists’ report on Mr Putin’s deep-rooted and large-scale corruption was published, another “lucky” favourable moment lent itself to “unsay” the story—the leak of colossal quantities of data on international money-laundering through corporate offshore services, the so-called “Panama Papers”. Surprisingly (or not), the leak of 11.5 million confidential documents revealed “universal corruption”, thus deflecting attention from Mr Putin’s own corruption and facilitating the state of uravnilovka (a sort of moral-political egalitarianism, an effort to devalue the West’s image in order to valorise the Kremlin’s own).
Finally, just as nature abhors a vacuum, Russia’s anti-hegemonic offensive seeks to fill the vacuum with an array of false and fictitious narratives. The West is itself constructed and positioned in such a way as to be as corrupt as Russia (or anywhere else), in an attempt to render such corruption “the new normal”. This opens up for the Kremlin a moment of strategic silence on the West’s part, thus enabling it to indulge in the fantasy that it is a superpower, rather than a spoiler. Russia’s narratives of “NATO expansionism” and, more recently, “EU expansionism” are then constituted in such a way as to convince the West that it—and it alone—has destabilised the European security order. Meanwhile, Moscow compounds this move by claiming that NATO has one primary objective: to destroy Russia, therefore not only facilitating the falsification of the West’s own narrational representation but also undermining surrounding countries’ sovereignty, prompting the West, in turn, to de facto recognise some form of “privileged interest” or spheres of interest on Russia’s part—in fact, legitimising Moscow’s illegitimate and illegal claims on sovereignty. Emphasising appeals to “historical justice” for Russia merely polishes the falsifying effort.
Indeed, by sabotaging Sweden’s current national debate on military partnership with NATO, the Kremlin’s production of false and fictitious narratives has reached new depths. Along with building the conspiracy narrative of an allegedly hypocritical NATO attacking Russia from Swedish soil without the latter government’s approval, or secretly stockpiling nuclear weapons on Swedish territory, the Kremlin masterminded (perhaps by analogy with its own Red Army’s earlier wartime and post-war “practices”) the humiliating narrative of NATO soldiers potentially abusing their immunity from prosecution and raping Swedish women without fear of justice. However far from reality these have (and could have) been, such false and fictitious narratives, through their strong emotional appeal as well as practical outreach measures, nonetheless managed to disorient the public in Sweden and distort the debate on one of the country’s most central contemporary themes. In some respects, the Kremlin’s operations in sowing false and fictitious narratives become a multi-level game, with narrational saturation pursuing both “conventional” defamation of an adversary and simultaneous glorification of Russia itself in various contexts. The juxtaposition of Europe’s alleged lack of competence to deal with crises both in the neighbourhood (Syria, Ukraine) and at home (immigration, terrorism) against the backdrop of Russia’s fictitious problem-solving intent and capacity (fighting Islamic State in Syria or facilitating the Minsk process in Ukraine) presents one of the best examples.
The Kremlin’s stealthy penetration and saturation of Western countries with false narratives and lies is no less perilous than the multiplication of conflicts in the European neighbourhood, either to the east or the south, the exacerbation of the migration crisis, or the stoking of internal conflicts between Muslim migrants and established European populations. By seeking to undermine and dislocate the West’s own narrative and self-representations and replace both with false and fictitious narratives, Russia’s anti-hegemonic offensive has helped to foster a Western policy paralysis that jeopardises Euro-Atlantic hegemony. In a triple strategic-narrational move—controlling the politics of time, paralysing the West’s ability to respond, and spreading false and fictitious narratives—the elements of which frequently overlap, Moscow has managed to compensate for its lack of both ideological framework and material capabilities. The resulting denial of reality on the part of Westerners—and Europeans in particular—merely compounds Moscow’s anti-hegemonic drive against the West. In turn, this further amplifies Russia’s ability to engage in a revisionist geostrategic crusade in the European neighbourhood, while simultaneously challenging the unity, cohesion and very existence of an integrated Euro-Atlantic region in both discursive and geopolitical terms.
The authors write here strictly in a personal capacity.
1 Although both deeply rooted in historical experiences, European and Russian perceptions of war and the use of force in foreign policy differ drastically, with Europe’s taboo approach to the issue and Russia’s explicitly “normal” treatment of war as a continuation of policy, very much in the Clausewitzian sense. In contrast to Russia’s domestic and international discourses that flourish with the theme, European discourses hesitate to use the term “war” even in blatantly obvious circumstances, like Russia’s aggression (political, but also military) in Ukraine.
Dario Andrea Cavegn, Estonian Public Broadcasting English News Editor
It is easy to see, in the German-language press at least, that the media’s post-war dedication to balance and quality work has led to a denial of reality by some in the case of Russian propaganda.
A whole community of intellectuals on the political left cannot understand that the media, and the news, are manipulated to such an extent—because it is unheard of in their reality, and has been for more than 70 years.
Explanations range from the idea that Russian revisionism is an expression of that country’s rediscovering its history after a century of turmoil, to the hysterical insistence that Russia is still a “reasonable” country, run by people with Western-style common sense.
To a Russlandversteher, there is no kleptocracy, no authoritarian state run by a former KGB man and his cronies, but rather an independent country with its own constitutional order, run by a democratically elected president.
Giving it this spin, they can tell themselves that anything Russia does that goes against common sense—and international law and agreements—is based in its own nature, in its own understanding of how things should be done. From that, they can then deduce that it is the West’s lack of understanding and empathy that is behind the current political and military issues in Europe.
Their expert explanations provide the background to and justification for an increasing number of reports rooted in the information put out by news agencies close to the Russian government. This kind of overarching narrative of course justifies treating Russian state sources just as seriously as others.
Russian propaganda can work with that, and the mix this creates of a gathering illusion—that they see explanations that suit them in the increasing mess of manipulated news—and a massive confirmation bias, together with their standing as experts and the resulting refusal to revisit their opinions, has the potential to damage the intellectual sphere of the three German-speaking countries.
The aim is achieved. What counts is no longer facts and their consequences, but a fuzzy interpretation in which anything is possible, because they are convinced that everything they see has a spin, and has been manipulated in one way or another.
Raul Rebane, media expert
The article by James Rogers and Andriy Tyushka is one of many currently trying to analyse the burning issue of “Where has truth disappeared to in the public eye?” It is also one of the few that have found their own, very original point of view.
Juxtaposing leading Western images and ruling principles of the communist myth presents us with important standpoints. Russia does not have the economic strength to spread its ideology across the world and, even more important, its ideology really isn’t sufficiently alluring to draw a larger number of people to it. Russia cannot be the velikaya derzhava (“great state”) that unites people against Ukrainian “Fascism”. The remaining option is the struggle to secure its power and shatter other ideologies with a huge special operation the authors call the anti-hegemonic offensive. This means hiring and creating great infrastructures of PR companies, television channels, everything from internet trolls to local “useful idiots”.
Weakening others to strengthen oneself is an age-old strategy and it may prove fruitful should the West be unable to understand the approach and accept PR narratives as realpolitik. “Nothing is true” and “Everybody lies” as sayings used to describe the modern information space might as well be the slogans of Russia’s current information war.
From Estonia’s point of view, the authors draw attention to an important threat. Using “NATO expansionism” or even “EU expansionism” as Russia’s information strategies may damage the unity of the West and, should an opportune moment arrive, might allow Russia to expect that the West would acknowledge its neighbouring states as Russia’s areas of special interest—essentially its sphere of influence.
Conclusion: ignoring reality and information optimism towards Russia’s current strategy would lead to defeat in the battle of wits, and that would be especially humiliating. For us, it would also prove fatal.
Riina Kaljurand, Research Fellow at ICDS
We pay ever closer attention to Russia’s use of all means of mass communication to transmit its messages, rethinking its history and exploiting the weaknesses of the West as a weapon against the West itself to justify its actions. We are becoming more skilled at creating terms and describing dynamics. We know perfectly well what aim Russia’s actions serve but the Western states have nevertheless not been able to react adequately to this activity.
European institutions and think tanks have created a multitude of working groups tasked with identifying disinformation coming from Russia and sending regular reports to officials and other members of think tanks. All of this is necessary but it is of little use when experts only tell each other that the situation is bad! This does not reach a wider audience. Massive distortion of reality and dissemination of false information skilfully added to all political writings, news, television series or cartoons cannot be fought by simply denying the lies and presenting dry facts. It is also certain that a great lie cannot be fought simply through news channels or serious debates followed by just a fraction of information consumers. In order to spread the message more efficiently, we need to bring in the big guns (to use a military term) and take advantage of the possibilities of media genres that can reach a wider audience.
The EU should not regard its success with “protestant humility” and as something that is self-evident. The EU is a unique entity in world history, the like of which has not been achieved anywhere else. Its expansion on the basis of joint values and legal framework is also unique. We must loudly declare that we love our way of life and that this is why we live the way we do. If we make mistakes, we take responsibility; when a crime or a breach of rights occurs, we have an independent legal system to judge and punish. Unlike Russia, we are working on our social weaknesses and problems. This needs to be brought up again and again; it must be made into films, fairy tales, television series—not just to oppose Russian propaganda but also for our own people, for whom the EU has remained distant and mysterious.