Since 2013 when the crisis in Ukraine broke out, the notion of information warfare has been widely used in Russia, in the West and of course in Ukraine. However, the term itself provides little, if any, insight into what is happening in the information space, and is as broad and vague as “hybrid warfare.” It is striking to see how relative information flows are is perceived in a similar fashion. In fact, both Russia and the Western countries, let alone Ukraine, view themselves as victims of information warfare. Each party insists that it is on the defensive in terms of information policy, seeking merely to counter hostile information distribution.
Since 2013 when the crisis in Ukraine broke out, the notion of information warfare has been widely used in Russia, in the West and of course in Ukraine. However, the term itself provides little, if any, insight into what is happening in the information space, and is as broad and vague as “hybrid warfare.”
By definition, war is mainly characterized by targeted hostile action carried out by centralized groups. While it is true that information flows may include substantial amounts of hostile content intentionally produced by professionals, the problem is that today’s media can hardly match the centralization criteria. Even for state-owned media the relationship between a directive to promote a specific hostile agenda and the content is factitious. Adding the explosive development of social media to the equation where every user can operate as a media outlet in each user’s own right, the link between the assumed general quarters and the assumed soldiers in information warfare becomes even less obvious.
So why are independent media and blogs often much more aggressive than state-owned networks? Why are people eager to spread propaganda at their own free will without any coercion, producing a multiplier effect?
To answer this question, we should look deep into our collective consciousness, so deep that it goes beyond the ongoing political developments. The inner self we need to look at can be linked to what Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm and later David Riesman called “conscience” – a mental set shaped by culture and education, as if some kind of public subconscious planted specific value systems into an individual subconscious. Individuals view these values as their own. The success for a propaganda specialist lies in the ability to identify these mental sets and target them with a relevant media message. If the target is hit, it only strengthens the pre-existing mindset. Politicians saw their role change from manipulating public perception to that of being its hostage. They find it extremely challenging to change their message, and have to adapt it to the existing coral reef, especially considering that this “reef” has a very long history.
It is striking to see how relative information flows are is perceived in a similar fashion. In fact, both Russia and the Western countries, let alone Ukraine, view themselves as victims of information warfare. Each party insists that it is on the defensive in terms of information policy, seeking merely to counter hostile information distribution. All sides tend to significantly overstate the possibilities of their neighbors in terms of information warfare and its outcome. They all try to make a political issue out of developments with no apparent political dimension or to dramatize them.
Of course, this has to be examined from a broader perspective as a combination of intentional efforts to promote a political agenda and a manifestation of a collective subconscious. As far as politics is concerned, the things to keep in mind are unresolved issues of Russia and the West in the post-Soviet space. This relationship is still marked by competition, a zero-sum game and a security dilemma. The developments in the information space are reminiscent of the issues related to European security architecture. As for the collective subconscious, it is important to be mindful of the serious shocks sustained by Russia and its neighbors in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as in the post-Soviet space.
In the case of Eastern and Central Europe, almost all countries in one way or another sustained shocks in their relationship with Russia or the Soviet Union. The fact that local political elite is trying to manipulate these experiences, reinvigorate and mythologize them does not mean that they do not exist. This further complicates the EU’s communication policy, where Western Europe’s responsible approach coexists with the sensitive and fragile identities of the Central and Eastern European countries. In addition, a victim mentality has spilled over into Georgia and Ukraine.
It is even more important to understand that Russia too has had shocks or experiences that were also painful, if not more so. With respect to its Eastern European neighbors, this is about being a victim in the grand scheme by the major players, in which Eastern Europe’s role was confined to serving as a buffer zone separating the West from Russia. In the post-Soviet period this notion was aptly transformed into a driver of national consolidation within these countries.
Russia’s pain is of a different nature. First, it is related to the deep scars left by repression and other instances of crippling overreach by the state. This resulted in a deep-rooted feeling of mistrust toward the state system in Russia itself mixed with an almost sacred fear and ritual submission to it. The second point is the downfall of the leviathan and nostalgia for its greatness, along with the loss of any intelligible reference points and attempts to find them again. It all blends with an instinct that urges people to love their motherland, portraying it as some kind of an ideal that goes far beyond the institutional dimension of the state and makes Russia’s recovery from the hardest blows possible. However, there is still a long way to go before the pain from these two traumas goes away, and it will surely be felt in the future. In fact, the information impulses coming from within Russia and from abroad can lead to the most unpredictable consequences.
Against this background, it is interesting to consider the general structure of the message coming from Russia and from what could be called “Europe”. The notion of information warfare implies that this structure should be similar - the parties to the conflict exchange cohesive ideological messages aimed at winning the support of as many people as possible. But this is not the case. The messages coming from what could be called the “Russian” message and what could be called the “West European” message are very different in terms of their structure.
The Western message has not changed much since the Cold War: democracy and a full nation state, the market, the rule of law, freedom as equality before law, etc. Tolerance and trans-border mobility have recently been added to this mix. Overall, this is an ideology of emancipation. The countries of Eastern and Central Europe have been showing much more zeal in promoting this vision than the US and Old Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War. This message sounds different in every country. In practice, emancipation coexists with less individual freedom and stronger surveillance on the part of a state. This vision has been a major factor for the post-Soviet space.
Interestingly, Russia, unlike the USSR, does not offer an alternative (and on closer examination, the Soviet experiment was also intrinsically Western, since it promoted emancipation and enlightenment). In fact, Russia lacks a mature democratic tradition, since well-established rule of law is a prerequisite for developing a market economy. And Russia has not disavowed a single Western-inspired value. Even patriotism that is now officially regarded as a bedrock of Russian identity is a Western value rooted in the Western idea of a nation state and a nation as a political, not ethnic, community.
The Russian message seems to revolve around the notion of the West playing unfairly by spreading chaos while calling for order. This idea permeates the debate on the Ukrainian and the Syrian crises. Just as the Soviet Union once did, Russia accuses the West of acting in bad faith without, however, posing an existential threat to the West.
On the other hand, a force has emerged that is able to offer an alternative that is radically different from the Western project and openly challenges it. Radical Islam promotes a different vision of justice, state, freedom and other fundamental values. The tragedy for Russia and the collective West is that they continue to fight the wars of the past against one another, while underestimating the ideological strength of radical Islam.
This struggle between Russia and the West is a phantom that leads nowhere. But phantoms can have a serious impact on real politics. The “Russian threat” is likely to remain a consolidating force for Ukraine, Georgia and many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe for years to come. And Russia will continue to view them as marionettes of a certain Western “core” or “center” where anti-Russian conspiracies originate. All this is ensuring more votes for politicians and larger audiences with higher ratings for the media.
By the way, another paradox of the current interaction on the informational front is that it is capitalist by nature. Even state-owned media are motivated not so much by political orders or directives coming from above, as they are by the eagerness to strike a chord with the political elite and a larger audience. Changes in terms of supply and demand could put an end to this “Phony War” of information. They could also spell the end of capitalism. It is clear that neither Russia, nor the West want that.
Ivan Timofeev leads the program “Contemporary State” at Valdai Discussion Club. Also he has been a Director of Programs at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
First published in Valdai Discussion Club