Soft Propaganda: an Invisible and Invasive Threat

Many analysts of the current Russian regime are only focused on the hard propaganda of the Kremlin and its relays in the West, especially on the extreme right of the political spectrum or among politicians who are notoriously self-interested. They do not pay enough attention to the “soft propaganda”, sometimes unintentional, which aims at dissuading the free world from acting against the threat and crimes of the Kremlin. This is much more invasive and dangerous, especially since it is relayed, sometimes unwittingly, by non-extremist figures who may have the ear of Western governments. Making it visible is essential in the fight against information manipulation.

Russia’s war of information does not often make the headlines. From interference in American and European elections to the use of social media to spread lies and destabilize the Western world, not to mention the hacking of information systems of official agencies, the information war is acquiring a high intensity. In this multifaceted war, the harshest techniques are most often mentioned. The financing of extreme right-wing and sometimes radical left-wing groups and political parties or organizations hostile to the EU is part of this overall strategy.

Those who are aware of the threat focus on the hard-line propaganda of the official propaganda channels and on support for a kind of illiberal Internationale. They denounce the many trolls who aim to corrupt social media and spread the same kinds of misleading statements about chemical attacks in Syria, Russian soldiers in Ukraine, the domination of “Nazis” in Kyiv or the alleged planned attack on Lukashenko.

The description of their main discursive technique, which is based on a mixture of lies and truth, so that people do not believe in anything, is a classic. They also hope by this means to discredit the media and academics, and to fuel distrust of governments and institutions. This is an old technique of subversion and destabilization of the main sources of truth and verified information. At the same time, they do not necessarily attempt to directly promote the Kremlin’s agenda. Giving misleading information about Russia’s actions is only a limited part of their game. For this propaganda to work, they need to create an enabling environment, hence their conspiracy stories about migrants, vaccines, police repression and “dictatorship” in Western democracies, or rumors about the private lives of some Western leaders.

These attempts to destabilize Western democracies are now better documented, but most of the services responsible for countering Russian propaganda do not pay enough attention to what I call “soft propaganda”. While hard propaganda is visible to those who are aware of this type of threat, soft propaganda is most often left unaddressed. It is rarely deciphered. It is also disseminated — voluntarily or not — by members of Western governments, senior officials commenting on government pronouncements, well-known journalists and sometimes think-tank leaders and academics. Most of them are certainly not active FSB agents or Kremlin-sponsored, nor are they sympathizers of authoritarian regimes, but they express more or less influential positions that will ultimately help Vladimir Putin achieve his goals.

Underestimating the war

In order to properly combat this soft propaganda, it is necessary to bear in mind the real basis of Russia’s war with the West. Underestimating the specifics of the ongoing war — this non-linear warfare according to Russian terminology — is in itself one of the Kremlin’s key objectives.

First of all, the Kremlin is in a kind of Kulturkampf, not just a strategy-oriented propaganda struggle or a war of interests. This struggle requires an intellectual rearmament. It cannot consist of invalidating not only the lies of its own propaganda, but also its apparently light-hearted narratives that aim to hide or minimize the ideological dimension of the struggle.

Second, when it comes to foreign policy, the classical narratives are irrelevant. Putin’s Russia is anything but a normal power; his game has nothing to do with a classical diplomatic game; the very principles of the Kremlin’s strategy are not based on classical “national interests”. We therefore need a better assessment of what this regime is. The vicious circle of soft propaganda is to do everything to keep these old beliefs dominant in the minds of the government and the general public. We need to pay attention to the narratives that are ready to anchor the perception of a normalcy of the current Russian system even more in the common opinions about Russia. To let them dominate would make it even more difficult to wake up the opinion from the sleep of reason. Therefore, Putin would have won.

Finally, resistance to the Kremlin’s primarily negative and destructive discourse also requires a coherent and positive discourse, based on truth and values, whose significance cannot be minimized. This is the fundamental difference between democracies and dictatorships, whereas Putin is trying to propagate the idea of a continuum between the two. There must be more advocacy of the attractiveness of our liberal and democratic model. We must not only respond to Russia’s propaganda, but set the rules and define the terms and use of words. Letting Russia determine the methods and narratives of information warfare gives it a major tactical advantage.

We need to better assess the main objectives the Kremlin pursues through its propaganda and have a clear vision of who the propagandists are, who are not always agents of influence or people acting out of greed. We need to understand the basis of these “soft” narratives that we need to be aware of in order to rectify some of the expressions, even harmless and unintentional, that democratic leaders may use. Then comes the counter-strategy, the most urgent issue for democratic governments, if it is not already too late.

The seven main objectives of the Russian regime

The Kremlin has many objectives that form a continuum in deterring any attempt to resist its destructive operations. They begin with the elimination of resistance and end with explicit support. But even if people simply think that one of the following propositions is correct, they would be contributing to one of Putin’s goals, weakening any capacity for resistance, both intellectually and practically.

The regime’s first objective is to destroy any attempt to respond to Russia’s threats. Its propagandists will therefore argue either that it would be inappropriate, since the regime is not, in their view, a threat, or that it would be illegitimate, since the Kremlin is, in their view, within its rights, or that it would be too risky, since Moscow could respond disproportionately to Western “aggression”.

The second goal is to make the majority believe that Putin’s regime is a normal power, not necessarily “friendly”, but which would not do anything “more evil” than the West.

The third goal of the Kremlin’s propaganda is to make people believe that the present Russia would be a force for stability, at least in some areas (e.g. the fight against terrorism), even if it does not behave according to our standards.

Fourthly, the Kremlin intends to erode the feeling of a difference between Russia as a country and a people, and Russia as a regime. Its goal is certainly to make people believe that it is Russia, that there is no other, and even that its positions have a form of historical legitimacy. This gives rise to the frequent and ridiculous discourse speech according to which any critical comment towards Putin’s regime is russophobic, even though questioning a regime
has nothing to do with the denigration of a country. In fact, it is evenin the name of respect for Russia and the Russian people that we must denounce the crimes of the Kremlin.

The fifth aim of the regime is, again in order to normalize the regime, to create the illusion that Russia has strategic interests like any other country and that what the Kremlin is doing is nothing more than advancing its interests, as the United States and other democracies do. It aims to hinder any discussion of these objectives, their dubious correspondence with the interests of the Russian people and the kleptocratic character of the regime.

Its sixth objective is to lead the democracies to minimize the ideological war that the Kremlin is waging. The aim is first to cast doubt on liberal values, then to define illiberal values, and finally to create a system of “thought” based on a closed society, conservatism and nationalism. This offensive against liberal values is more dangerous than Mahathir’s or Lee Kuan Yew’s softer stance on Asian values. It is more violent and more pervasive in the new global context marked by the polarization of these principles and the power of social networks to relay this type of discourse. This discourse is in accordance with with the general trend of regression of human rights in the world and the rise of groups advocating illiberalism.

Its seventh goal is not the least: it is to destroy common sense, that is to say, to accept relativism, reinforcing the tendency to whataboutism, i.e. the propensity to refer the one who denounces a serious crime to others that his country may have committed, most often by mixing everything. Finally, this technique aims to create indifference to the crime, and basically its acceptance, always to create the idea that Russia behaves like other powers.

This soft propaganda aims to turn the world upside down, to create a world where there are no more references and solid ground to stand on, and to erase the distance between the light of the day and the darker side of the night, conducive to nightmare. Putin’s Russia is doing everything to annihilate even the intellectual capacity and political will of the West to resist its game. Not only does it delegitimize the West, the liberal or rule-based order, but it manages to destroy the will of the Western peoples to defend and promote this very order and principles. In other words, it portrays liberals as members of a “gay, emasculated Western world,” but does everything to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: people are afraid to defend the West and confront Russia, somehow confirming the accusation that Westerners are cowards.

Propagandists: a typology

Putin’s propagandists, voluntary or not, can be divided into seven main categories. There are overlaps between them, and propagandists can belong to several categories at the same time.

The best known are those who are easy to label as agents of the Russian regime. Sometimes difficult to label with complete certainty, these are people who repeat the Kremlin’s narratives. Apart from a part of the extreme right and some “intellectuals” known for their regular provocations, they are not the most vocal outside the “conspiracy-sphere”. They have little access to the mainstream media.

A second category includes what could be called the friends of the regime, in other words, people who, without belonging to ideological circles that take up all the narratives of Putin’s regime, have never shown the slightest opposition to it, and have often supported its theses, for example the lifting of sanctions. The former French Prime Minister, François Fillon, is an emblematic figure.

The third category, which is quite composite, includes those who are classically called “useful idiots”, often actually consenting, who hold positions that are compatible with the positions of the Kremlin on Ukraine, Syria or Belarus. They regularly make soothing or lenient statements in the political arena, academia or the media.

A fourth group includes the so-called “realists” who, inclined to prioritize European security, believe that the West would have no choice but to recognize Moscow’s territorial gains as faits accomplis and pretend to see it as a necessary partner.

A fifth trend is that of the naive. They still believe that we could negotiate to control the situation, that Russia is too big to be confronted, that we must hope in the virtue of dialogue with everyone (otherwise we would not talk to anyone), or even that Russia could help in the fight against terrorism.

A sixth variant is that of the “good guys” who will not necessarily consider Russia in a specific way, but who, in everything, will always seek appeasement rather than confrontation. They are in a way the heirs of the pacifists of the Soviet era, sincere for some, more interested for others.

The “moderates” and the “always balanced” are a seventh variant. They claim that, by nature, failures are shared by both sides, that we should consider the perception of Russia’s “humiliation” and that the West has not treated it well.

All of these propagandists conform to the Kremlin’s two primary objectives. Firstly, to guard against a firm demand from Western opinion to stop Moscow’s aggressive external actions and oppressive internal policy. Secondly, the ultimate goal is to dismantle Europe and bring about division on almost all issues. The Divide et impera strategy is found at the level of governments as well as at the level of societies and, directly or indirectly, all these categories of propagandists contribute to it.

The fourteen basic narratives of soft propaganda

None of these narratives is exclusive of the others. More often than not, they are combined and intended to reinforce each other.

One of the most frequent themes is that of humiliation. According to this discourse, the frustration of Russians due to the collapse of the Soviet empire should be understood. This is a trauma that we should understand, especially since the West betrayed Moscow by expanding NATO to the east. Since the fall of the Wall, Russia would have never stopped losing and would be entitled to take its revenge. Such a discourse is first of all based on the idea that the empire would have a kind of eternal legitimacy and would be like a right, which is questionable to say the least. The very idea of zones of influence is, moreover, contrary to the United Nations Charter. As for the allusion made by the supporters of this position to an alleged “promise” by the West not to extend NATO’s guarantee, it is factually incorrect.

The second narrative, correlative to the first, states that we should “understand” Russia, an idea that was vindicated in the editorial of our first letter. There is also the same naturalistic and culturalist component: “What would you think and do if you had lost an empire and the claim to universality that the Soviet Union had? So please, soften your position.” In fact, the reproach is not the lack of understanding of Russia, but our refusal to accept the revisionist position of the current Russian power.

A third rhetorical peg in this narrative is to invoke the baseness of others. The propagandists thus resort to the whataboutism already mentioned. They will evoke the United States (Vietnam War, Second Iraq War), France (colonial period and intervention in Syria), Saudi Arabia (Yemen), the United Kingdom, etc. They will also recall the crimes of the United States and the United Kingdom. They will also recall the crimes of the Coalition in Iraq and Syria in its fight against ISIS. While no one can accept the “double standards”, what Russia is doing is different. First, these war crimes have been committed over a long period of time, specifically since the second Chechen war in 1999-2000. Secondly, the memory of past crimes haunts democracies, which carry out a work of historical truth that the regime does not accomplish for its own crimes (see the rehabilitation of Stalin). Finally, with regard to the war crimes committed in Syria, those of the Coalition were collateral damage, which should not prevent us from condemning them, especially since they could have been at least partially avoided, whereas those of Russia and the Assad regime are deliberate and voluntary.

Another element of the story fits directly into the Kremlin’s game of intimidation. It consists in warning the West: “You are preparing the third world war. Your warmongering is dangerous.” This speech, while not intending to respond to the Kremlin’s immediate aggression against the free world, takes its long-term threats seriously, but with the idea that they should not be retaliated against. It aims to reverse the responsibilities: the war-maker would no longer be Moscow, despite its wars in Georgia and Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, its war crimes in Syria, its desire to keep Belarus in its sphere of influence and its sending of private militias to Africa as well, but the West. We can see all too clearly the Kremlin’s game: nip in the bud any hint of intervention.

A fifth variable in this narrative makes questionable use of the concept of realism. It consists in making us believe that we have no choice but to accept the fait accompli. Someone like the former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Hubert Védrine is familiar with this narrative, especially when he writes that we must “take our losses on certain issues (sic) like Crimea and Syria.” This self-proclaimed realism, which Raymond Aron already denounced, does not take into account the essential threats and aims to provide no response to them.

Another narrative trick leads to the same minimization. It is based on the rhetoric of “yes, but”. According to this narrative, it is asserted that no one can legitimize, for example, Putin and Assad, whose crimes are sometimes even acknowledged. However, it is also a question of adding that we know them, that others could be even worse, that their removal from power could lead to chaos, etc. Such a narrative sometimes follows with the recommendation: “If you isolate Russia by sanctions, it would be worse.” One can always imagine worse, but in some cases, for example Assad, it would take a lot of imagination…

A seventh rhetorical bias, which sounds like a dark facetiousness, asserts that Russia would be a major factor of stability in the world. This rhetoric somehow proclaims: “You may not like Russia, but without it, the world would be less stable.” This rhetoric has two variations. One, which is now widely accepted, is that we need Moscow to contain Beijing. Illusory in substance — one need only consider the respective power of the two and the way in which they stand together — this idea would give way to the absurd proposition that consideration of a long-term threat should obviate a potentially lethal short-term threat.

Added to this fanciful narrative is the claim that not only is the main danger in the world the rise of Islamism — a discourse that is in itself questionable, even though no one can minimize Islamist terrorism — but, above all, that Russia is one of the most important and credible bulwarks against it. The propaganda thus aims to instill the idea that Putin’s regime would be a very secondary threat, whereas it would be necessary to form a common front against the real thing. This discourse, very present on the extreme right, goes beyond this circle. It does not mention the Islamism of the regime of Kadyrov, Putin’s protégé, who did not hesitate to make extremely violent remarks against Charlie Hebdo, and the actions of the Assad regime, kept in power by Putin, even though it had freed jihadists from the regime’s jails, allowed the great mufti of Damascus to utter incitements to the destruction of the West, and managed to fight Daech.

To the relativism already mentioned is added a ninth propagandistic device. Putin’s regime pretends to praise diversity and dialogue between civilizations — the Institute of Vladimir Yakunin, an intimate of Putin, bears this name. This supposed diversity legitimizes regimes based on oppression. The message propagated in this way is that the West should not impose its own values and defend dissidents fighting for freedom, and that this would be imperialism, even colonialism.

The tenth idea that the soft propaganda aims to instill plays on a form of rose-colored romanticism in the appreciation of Russia today. It would be a country of great culture (name some great Russian writers, musicians or painters), of great history (refer to Peter the Great or to the Great Catherine) and of great religion (the splendor of the Orthodox religion, its magnificent icons). It doesn’t matter that all this has nothing to do with the Russian regime and that the Moscow Patriarchate is subservient to the Russian regime and covers up its atrocities. It seems to work for some people to forget what Russia is like here and now.

If that is not enough, then you can resort to another argument: Russia is a continent and we cannot oppose a continent. Add a few quotes about the importance of geography in international relations, emphatically state that Russia is a world of its own, and your interlocutors will be impressed by the vastness of this territory that no one can resist. The message is also clear here: don’t talk about the regime, but make a reductio ad geographiam.

You can of course resort to a twelfth argument in desperation: “You Westerners, don’t forget your economic interests!” Never mind the figures that say something different about our dependence on Russia; never mind the losses that many Western groups have suffered there; never mind the bankruptcy of the Russian economy and its vulnerability; never mind that European farmers have redirected their exports after the sanctions and that their losses have been effectively zero or very limited. You will have one more argument.

Finally, continue to argue with theories about the soul of peoples and determinism, and affirm with the czarist regime and Soviet communism that the Russian people are not ready for democracy, that it is not in their history, not even in their DNA (as if a people had it). Add, after having said that Russia was European, that it remains impregnated with Asian culture (i.e. a culture supposedly rooted in tyranny) and make a couplet about the illiteracy of the people. It doesn’t matter that all this is as indigent as it is absurd, but you will have a golden argument to show how futile is the struggle of the Russian people for their freedom.

There remains a fourteenth argument from the little book of propaganda. Mention the theory of development, or rather developmentalism. It does not matter that all this is contradicted by the naturalism and culturalism that inspired what you said a few minutes ago, and especially that it has hardly been demonstrated empirically. Assert very sententiously that if you help Russia to modernize, it will eventually bring democracy — which means in plain English: stop the sanctions, do business, trade with Moscow! All in all, you will have reinforced the Kremlin’s constant demand to abandon sanctions.

Of course, the arguments of this soft propaganda are intellectually weak, historically false and often contradictory. They are like bar-room talk and do everything to deny any distinction between the country, the people and the regime. Yet they are common, even in some leading circles, and they discredit any action in advance. We must not only counter this discourse, but also provide the public and governments with opposite discourses based on facts—which is also the objective of Desk Russia.

A clear strategy for action

For the past 21 years, what the West has lacked is first and foremost the will to act against the threat posed by the Russian regime. Every day that passes makes this action potentially more difficult and more costly. But what has also been lacking is our capacity to name things as they are, including war crimes, but also our will to identify both the themes of this propaganda and the interests of some who relay it. We can mention here seven concrete actions.

The first is to rectify and demystify. Those who must do this must appear as neutral as possible. However, all analysts of conspiracies have known for a long time that the truth is not enough and that a lie is much more likely to be believed.

Second, we must reject the discourse of understanding and humiliation. We must recall the history that says something different and recall the facts, including the reality of the Russian “empire” and the dark pages of its history. We must obviously help those dissidents who point out these truths and stand firm on our principles, which run counter to any possible acceptance of war crimes and violation of international and humanitarian law. Finally, it is important to recall that both NATO and the European Union have always tried, until the last moment when it was still possible, to adopt a cooperative behavior with Moscow. These organizations did not fail, but the Russian regime finally refused the hand that was extended to it after having seemed to accept it. There was indeed a turning point for the Putin regime, which realized that any cooperation was in contradiction with its own external objectives and kleptocratic behavior.

Thirdly, we should not minimize the war of principles and values and their concrete consequences in terms of internal terror and external aggression of the Russian regime. This requires from European and American leaders not only a positive discourse on our principles, but also an exemplary attitude. Russian propaganda knows perfectly well how to exploit the slightest weakness on our side, as well as European fatigue and any temptation to isolationism. This obligation of irreproachability may seem unfair, but in the context of an information war, the aggressed country in particular must always do more to prove that it is right than the aggressor—and this applies in particular to Ukraine—and the most democratic country must show that it is all the more so that dictatorships will try to challenge this qualification. In sum, the propaganda game is such that nothing will be forgiven to a free country, as it will be to the aggressor, because the expectations against the latter are low.

Fourth, we in the West must respond to our adversaries. Leaders must be much more engaged in this war than they are today. They must speak with clarity and seek to reach the public, not just international experts. Indeed, the battle will be won in and by society. This also implies having the means and the will to track down those citizens of democratic countries who relay these narratives in an interested manner. It is fortunate that Western leaders are now telling Russia more clearly what it is, but complacency remains, as demonstrated both by Nordstream 2 and the exemption of Austrian banks from the application of European sanctions regulations, and by the continuation of certain contracts in the very sensitive areas of energy and raw materials.

Fifth, we must show that there can be no tolerance in Europe for governments or groups that undermine our values. When some European countries adopt some of the narratives of the Putin regime on migrants, human rights, LGBT rights, etc., it becomes impossible to give full credit to their security analyses. Security is intimately linked to values because the struggle is global.

We also need to make it clear that Putin is not Russia, and vice versa. This also implies that our diplomatic discourse should try as much as possible not to mix the regime and the country, let alone the people. Giving voice, as much as possible, to this other Russia that exists, even if it is more and more brutally repressed, is fundamental, not only for this one, but in our necessary work to counter the propaganda. Long before the recent demonstrations following the FSB poisoning of Navalny and his detention, some Russians were demonstrating not only for freedom, but also in support of the invaded Ukraine. Some took to the streets with signs “Free Savchenko”, “Free Sentsov” or “Pardon, Ukraine”. Some demonstrated with the Ukrainian flag while crying for Nemtsov. Others demonstrated for freedom in Russia and against oppression in Belarus. These voices must be heard and defended. Russia, in other words, is not our enemy. Putin’s regime is, but it is first and foremost the enemy of its people. The choice is between two Russia, and we must openly choose the side of the free Russia.

The seventh rule is general: we must not give in to Russian propaganda and it is essential that Western leaders, who do not have time to read everything, pay more attention to their stories and surround themselves with recognized specialists. They should also avoid statements such as: “there is only one threat, the terrorist threat”. Secondly, the body language of the leaders when they meet with Russian leaders should immediately give the right indications: one does not smile with Putin and one does not joke with him. In the same way, in the future, they should avoid congratulating him on any event. They should also be careful not to suggest that the fight against Russian aggression can be detached from economic or even cultural links with the regime (which does not mean, on the contrary, that they should deny the need to establish a strong link with civil society). The term negotiation is itself inappropriate.

The tools for fighting soft propaganda are well known and there are many others. Some Western leaders do not seem to know them or to want to pay attention to them, and this is perhaps already a sign of the effects of this same propaganda. Will they have the will to wean themselves off it?

International and security affairs analyst, former head of department at the General Planning Commission, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, author of three official reports to the government and 22 books, including Quand la France disparaît du monde (Grasset, 2008), Le Monde à l'horizon 2030. La règle et le désordre (Perrin, 2011) and, with R. Jahanbegloo, Resisting Despair in Confrontational Times (Har-Anand, 2019)

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