On the fifth episode of Russia Rising, we’ll explore the growing information war between Russia and the West. Whether it’s a chemical weapons attack in Syria, the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England or the war in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin often promotes a much different version of events from the one being presented by western governments.
And in an age of fake news, social media and countless alternative online news sources, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction and know who to trust.
In this context, Russia analyst Julian Lindley-French warns that the Kremlin has deployed an effective propaganda strategy known as “maskirovka.” The word, in Russian, literally means “masking,” as in to cover something with a mask, to disguise or camouflage. Essentially, it’s the Russian art of deception.
“It’s designed, quite simply, to keep adversaries permanently off balance,” Lindley-French explains.
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Maskirovka began as a Russian military doctrine 600 years ago. During the Second World War, the Soviet Red Army was famous for its surprise attacks, even sending fake inflatable tanks in false directions to confuse the Nazis.
“What I’ve observed is a culture of deception, which is traditionally used by Russia on the battlefield, now being applied across its statecraft,” he says. “It stretches across the entire engagement with fake news, hybrid warfare, cyber warfare and also military engagement. It’s a very clever use of misinformation in the pursuit of national strategic objectives.”
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Rasmus Nilsson is an expert in Russian politics and foreign policy at University College London. He points to the example of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, in which heavily armed soldiers started arriving on the Black Sea peninsula, seemingly out of nowhere, dressed in unmarked military uniforms and claiming to be patriotic volunteers who wanted Crimea to separate from Ukraine.
The so-called “little green men” quickly took control of Crimea’s parliament and its borders. At first, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the soldiers were Russian forces, though he would later admit that Russian troops had indeed been deployed to Ukraine.
“That was a perfect example of maskirovka,” says Nilsson. “Keeping these surrounding countries in doubt as to what was going on until the point where the military operation had been completed.”
Each time the West accuses of Moscow of behaving badly, Nilsson says, the Kremlin responds not only with denials but also by promoting numerous different theories and possible explanations.
For example, Nilsson points to Flight MH17, the commercial passenger plane that was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people. A team of international investigators concluded that the weapon responsible was a Russian-made Buk missile, supplied by the country’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in the Russian city of Kursk.
But not only did Russia fiercely deny those accusations, a number of Russian leaders, officials and broadcasters responded by offering dozens of different alternative explanations, “including quite outlandish theories,” says Nilsson.
“For instance, that an airplane would’ve been loaded with already dead people and that Ukrainian airplanes would then have shot it down to make it look like Russia was shooting down passenger airplanes,” he explains.
“There were tons of these stories going around, quite a few of them coming from official Russian sources. And they were not meant to be taken seriously. They were simply supposed to occupy the attention span of the world for a while, to the extent that everyone would lose track of the original explanation, which turned out to be quite the right one.”
“The main thing is to distract,” says Edward Lucas, a Russia expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Spread as many different conspiracy theories and alternative explanations as possible so people think: ‘We don’t really know what’s going on, and who’s to know what the facts are?’”
And spreading those alternative theories has never been easier, thanks to the internet and social media. We’ll speak via Skype with Lukas Andriukaitis, an analyst with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks fake news online.
He points to a chemical weapons attack in Syria in April 2017 that killed dozens of civilians, including children. An investigation by the United Nations and the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, blamed that attack on the Russian-backed Syrian government.
But social media was busy telling a much different story. The hashtag #SyriaHoax became a worldwide Twitter trend, used hundreds of thousands of times to promote the Kremlin’s theory that the attack was faked.
“A lot of articles generated by pro-Kremlin media took this hashtag and ran with it,” Andriukaitis says. “If they see a hashtag that is telling the narrative they want to see, they focus a lot of media effort and bot effort and even troll effort to push it forward.”
Andriukaitis says that narrative is then repeated by Russian officials and on Russian TV networks, including RT.
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Formerly known as Russia Today, RT is a Kremlin-funded TV channel that’s broadcast outside of Russia to more than 100 countries, including Canada. The United States has accused RT of being a propaganda weapon for the Kremlin, and its American subsidiary was forced to register as a “foreign agent.”
We’ll take a tour behind the scenes of RT’s studios in Moscow and speak with the network’s deputy editor, Anna Belkina.
“We’re showing a different picture of the world, the one that sometimes very much contradicts what they’re used to seeing,” she says.
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RT offers programming in several languages and is the most popular global news network on YouTube. While audience numbers for many traditional TV networks have been shrinking for years, RT’s TV audience has grown by a third in just two years. Belkina says that audience growth reflects a growing appetite for a different perspective and a distrust in traditional mainstream networks.
“The Russians are pushing at an open door,” says Lindley-French. “People in western Europe and elsewhere in the West trust their own governments less than they, perhaps, once did. And again, that opens an opportunity for people skilled in the dark arts of maskirovka to ply their trade.”
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Julian Lindley-French, Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Rasmus Nilsson, University College London
Edward Lucas, Center for European Policy Analysis
Lukas Andriukaitis, Digital Forensic Research Lab
Anna Belkina, Deputy Editor of RT