Peter Pomerantsev: “Russia Today is a distraction for more subtle things that Russia does in the sphere of information”
The Ukrainian Week talks to Peter Pomerantsev, British television producer and non-fiction writer who spent nine years in Russia, on Russian state propaganda, new methods of informational war and how Ukraine should defend itself
UW: In your latest article you elaborated the idea of “non-linear war” which the Kremlin is now developing. What is the role of information and informational propaganda in it?
It’s huge. Obviously what is happening in Ukraine now, what is happening in Odesa, Mariupol really feels like something very real, very old-fashioned in a way – guns and bandits, etc., but most things that are going on have been totally unreal and bizarre. It’s all about stories and information. In a way I hope it stays that way. But it’s been absolutely huge.
In general, for the strategy that Putin and Russia are pursuing, they have worked up ways to play the contemporary information game and they do it very cleverly. We all know about Russia Today (Russian English-language TV channel – Ed.), but Russia Today is almost like a distraction for more subtle things that Russia does. Russia is doing kind of a big maneuver to keep everybody busy, but the real influences work much more subtly. All these different think-tanks and experts who work in different roles for the Kremlin, spreading its influence and point of view. This is not a stupid lineal propaganda, like it was with communism. It’s being done by different sources and different people.
UW: You said that those experts transmit pro-Putin propaganda from different angles, so that the propaganda component is not so obvious. But we live in the era of globalization and access to information on the Internet. Why is it then still so effective?
I think it’s very naive to think that Internet equals freedom. For old-school dictatorships, if we think about 20th century dictatorships, they tried to control the society top-down – the Internet is obviously a threat, because it’s a bottom up way of providing information and media. But the post-modern dictatorships in the 21st century, whether you talk about Venezuela, or Russia, or Qatar, are much more sophisticated. They don’t try to crush their opposition. They try to sort of play inside their narratives and to manipulate from inside. That’s what happens in Russia.
In Russia we have much less top down oppression than in the USSR; instead there is a relatively free Internet so far. Over the past three or four years, the Kremlin has been trying to play inside it and manipulate it from inside. The Internet is very easy to manipulate from inside. It might be a dream of spin doctors. You reach down people’s conversation on Facebook and start manipulating the conversation – it’s much better than TV. For all the people who work for [Vladislav] Surkov (Assistant to the Russian President – Ed.), [Gleb] Pavlovskiy (political scientist – Ed.), or Konstantion Rykov (Russian businessman – Ed.) who I think are still working for the Kremlin quite a lot. This is a dream. This is incredible. You reach down into the middle of the conversation and you start manipulating it. I think, it was very naive of us to think that the Internet equals freedom. The Internet is much more like a tool of manipulation.
UW: You are writing a book about Russia in the 21st century. How will the Russian media look in it?
If they do something stupid, they’ll go old-school. There is a real chance that they will try to create a Chinese firewall. If the Kremlin wants to survive and be that clever dictatorship, it will let it function, but will manipulate it from inside. I think what we see so far is a much more aggressive casting of liberals. But it is more emotional than anything else: “Oh, those evil people at Dozhd (arguably the only independent TV, and now online media in Russia – Ed.). Look at them!” If they try to do a sort of 19th century approach: close everybody’s blogs and start arresting people, that will actually be losing the strategy, I think. They will create a lot of resentment. So, it depends on how clever they are, we’ll see whether their cleverness or their paranoia wins.
UW: Western media often spread clichés about Ukraine, there is a lot of pro-Kremlin thinking, such as “Ukraine is in legitimate interests of Russia”. How can Ukraine deal with these clichés in foreign media?
I think disinformation is less of a problem compared to media clichés. You’re quite right. The problem is the narrative. There is a whole bunch of narratives which are engraved in the West and actually support the Russian position. You know there is a big guilt narrative with regard to Russia, and it plays with it very well. “Oh, that happened, because we treated Russia wrong,” the narrative goes.
There is also a neo-imperialist crowd disguising themselves as realists who like to think in terms of big powers. A lot of people in Britain still like to think in that way. Like Russia, we will carve up Europe between each other. This exists, especially in the Foreign Office. It’s a very old kind XIX-century way of thinking about things. This is Yalta conference kind of mentality and that’s very seductive. Let’s sit down with Russia and redraw Europe, because we all are important. That is also feeding the opposite side of emotions in the West – the sense of self-importance. Russia is very good as pressing on that button. The problem of Ukraine is firstly that Ukraine doesn’t have media that broadcasts internationally. Russia has Russia Today, all these different smaller mechanisms. Ukraine doesn’t have mechanisms to express itself internationally. So, I think it needs to set up, not just anti-disinformation which it’s doing a little bit, but more of a public media campaign. Obviously you cannot afford Russia Today, but maybe just on the level of an internet website that would aggressively push the Ukrainian line - and not just the line, the propaganda - but the Ukrainian identity, Ukraine’s right to a geopolitical narrative. That needs investment. Russia has spent hundreds of millions to gain an international voice. Ukraine needs to do something to counter that. So, that’s the most important thing to start developing for Ukraine – its national voice. So far, you say “Ukraine” to most people, and they don’t know what you are talking about.
This question, however, is deeper because there is also a lot of confusion inside of Ukraine as to what its national narrative is. That is probably what should be solved as well. These things come together. I don’t think you can do PR without content.
There needs to be a national narrative inside the country that is clear and coherent. I think these questions are connected: a) Ukraine needs to have mechanisms, but b) it also needs to sort out what its narrative is. Russia has decided what its narrative is. It’s a horrible one, but Russia is pretty open about.
UW: Many people seem to not exactly support Putin in discussions on the situation in Ukraine, yet they still sound like it. These include non-interventionists in the US who think that the US should not deal with the current situation in Ukraine; radical right or radical left forces in Europe, etc. How can Ukraine deal with that?
There are so many such people, some of them are taken very seriously. Look at the latest piece by Anatol Lieven in The New York Review of Books. Lieven is a scholar of empire. You could never accuse him pro-Putin, but he consistently pro-Russian Empire. He thinks that Russia should be big and strong and that’s better for the world and that any solution lies in a conversation between US and Russia. There are people like Rodric Braithwaite. He’s a former ambassador to Russia. I don’t think that he’s paid by anyone. I think he genuinely thinks that great powers need to decide these things and that Ukraine shouldn’t really have much voice. It’s a small country that’s not important. There are a lot of people who think this. I think it is necessary to have discussions with them. I think it’s very interesting to talk to them, they are intelligent and have a worldview. There are others, demagogues, who you should just ignore.
But returning to my article, the research into this has to be institutionalized. Every time a British lawyer (I don’t mean anybody specific) writes a “We should listen to Putin more” opinion piece in The Financial Times, there should be an organization that will point out very quickly and say “Hold on. He’s on the board of Gazprom”. This is happening all the time. We need to change our culture a little bit. And newspapers have to stop publishing pieces on the editorial level whenever someone gives an opinion, if he’s financially connected to Russia.
We need to change our culture a little bit. We need to be much clearer and understand that people are connected. We need to have aggressive institutionalized approach to this - an organization that’s sitting and tracking each politician that makes pro-Kremlin statements and checking what their connections are.
But then there are people who are useful idiots, demagogues, like Peter Hitchens (British journalist and author – Ed.) should just be ignored; they just try to show off. So, everything depends on the type of misinformation: there are serious ones with whom one should debate; I think there is a huge mass that have financial interests - and that has to be revealed, all this should be done institutionally. The idiots should be ignored.
UW: Putin does everything with mirror-effect, including the informational sphere too. How can that be resisted?
I think people understand that. He is a troll. Just keep on writing that it is a false mirror. To be honest, I have stopped letting myself get upset by Russian statements – a lot are designed to provoke and outrage. Again, there should be two components: the institutional one through response articles. You could have people writing to letters to editor, demanding a right of reply who are ready to say that they disagree with this. That’s very important. That has to be a system. You can’t wait for someone to start doing that. And that is worth doing. Each time a pro-Russian person is going on TV, a pro-Ukrainian one goes and says “No, this is untrue”.
But I think these arguments are pretty obvious. I haven’t seen any serious people who believe in that fascists have taken over in Kyiv or some such Russian propaganda. It works inside of Russia, for the Russian audience, because they need to hear that. They need to feel that their country is not evil, but I haven’t seen people in the West who believe in that.
With that kind of staff he’s not kidding anyone. But Russia is fooling Western people with much subtler things.