Op-Ed: The Kremlin’s reputational losses do not mean that the West is winning the information war

Even countries with low pro-Kremlin sentiment

Op-Ed: The Kremlin’s reputational losses do not mean that the West is winning the information war

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Even countries with low pro-Kremlin sentiment can buy into Kremlin disinformation campaigns

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As part of our effort to broaden expertise and understanding of information ecosystems around the world, the DFRLab is publishing this external contribution. The views and assessments in this op-ed do not necessarily represent those of the DFRLab.

In February 2020, the Pew Research Center published a report on the global perception of Russia. “Russia and Putin receive low ratings globally,” the title proclaims. Does this mean that one of the Kremlin’s most dangerous weapons — its hostile propaganda and disinformation — is not dangerous anymore? Can the democratic West celebrate the victory in this information war?

The figures in the Pew report leave small room for discussion: public opinion is not positive towards Russia and its leader. “In 16 of 33 countries surveyed, more people see Russia unfavorably than favorably… Only 18% of Americans and three-in-ten Canadians have a positive opinion of Russia,” the report says. “In Western Europe, a median of only 31% see Russia favorably.” Confidence in Vladimir Putin is shrinking even more: “In 22 of the 33 countries surveyed,” they write, “more express no confidence in Putin than express confidence. A median of 60% across these countries say they have no confidence in Putin.”

Such trends look like a natural outcome of the aggressive policy of the Russian government. However, it would be wishful thinking to claim that democratic resilience against Kremlin propaganda is already strong enough.

Trust in fake news remains significant

“They create [the viruses] to achieve a population decline.”

“They are carrying out experiments on people”.

This is what some Georgians think about secret laboratories that the U.S. allegedly established in their country and nearby. Various conspiracies about those labs appear regularly in local Kremlin-backed, and they get even repeated by Moscow officials. Recent research by NDI demonstrates that 21% of Georgians believe in these fakes. Another conspiracy rummaged by Kremlin proxies in Georgia is that “an agreement has been signed recently and … migrants should arrive in Georgia.” According to NDI, this belief is shared by 18% of Georgians — even though there is no real evidence for that.

In Ukraine, the situation is not much better. A study conducted by KIIS and Detector Media in March 2019 demonstrated that 17% of Ukrainians are convinced that the Ukrainian government and oligarchs started the war in Donbas. In the south of the country, this figure reaches 23 percent, while in the east it rises to 31 percent. This is exactly the interpretation of events of 2014 that had been pushed by the Kremlin ever since the beginning of the war. The share of citizens believing this narrative is high despite that the fact that Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine has been proven by an overwhelming evidence, recognized on the international level, and properly reported by domestic mainstream media.

Furthermore, 16 percent of Ukrainians — 25 percent in the east — are convinced that Russian speakers are prosecuted in Ukraine. This is a popular topic for speculation in Kremlin media; Putin has claimed that it was the protection of Russian speakers that was the main reason for military intervention in Donbas. Still, the only cases of language-conditioned prosecution detected by OSCE within Ukrainian territory were those committed by the Russian government against Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea.

These data show us that no matter what is the perception of Russia in a given society, Russian-originated disinformation can still find some fertile ground — up to one in five people in these countries, and almost one-third in some regions. Both Ukraine and Georgia are both countries in which the level of pro-Kremlin sympathies is low: 47 percent of Georgians believe that relations with Russia damage their country, while 58 percent of Ukrainians have an unfavorable opinion of Russia. And yet, a significant part of domestic audiences believe messages that have no basis in reality at all.

Resilience to pro-Kremlin sentiments has little to do with real resistance to Kremlin disinformation. In other words, we see that it succeeds in influencing also those audiences that are unfavorable towards the Kremlin.

Kremlin narratives are trusted

In cases that are a bit less clear-cut — like questions of values, identity, understanding the world order, etc. — there is not much correlation between pro-Russian or anti-Russian sentiments on one side, and the trust in the pro-Kremlin messaging on the other.

A recent study conducted by IRI in four Balkan countries revealed that even societies with strong Western identity (like Kosovo or, to a lesser extent, Bosnia and Herzigovina) could share a Moscow-spread narrative that Russia has the right to influence by force the decision-making process in Ukraine, and tolerate its aggressive foreign policy. Typical Kremlin narratives about the decaying West and Russia defending true values are much appreciated there.

Thus, in all these countries, 42 percent to 54 percent of the population see Russia as a true defender of European traditional values. In Bosnia and Herzigovina, 68 percent of respondents think that Russia and Putin can be their allies against the West, which is pushing them to abandon their values. In both Kosovo and Serbia, it is 57 percent. Meanwhile, 33 of people in Serbia and 48 percent in Bosnia and Herzigovina consider Ukraine as within Russia’s sphere influence and tolerate Kremlin interference in Ukrainian affairs.

While we see the success of some Kremlin narratives in some of the Central and Eastern European countries, the situation in Western Europe is far less clear — mostly because there are not enough regular opinion polls showing us how successful these Kremlin disinformation campaigns are.

Some incidents show us that they can be successful even in the West. “Internal government polling carried out in the months after the poisoning showed that a significant proportion of the population did not believe the British government’s assertion that Russia was behind the attack, according to an official briefed on the data, with the most skeptical being those aged 18 to 24,” wrote The Atlantic. “A September 2018 government memo, shared with The Atlantic, that distilled the results of polling showed that the ‘perception of Russian culpability’ stood at just 55 percent.”

Russia’s reputation is only a part of the battlefield

Poor public approval is a manifestation of the partial defeat of the Kremlin’s efforts to save face. It is hard to violate international law and conquer territories from their neighbors while staying attractive to the world.

Despite this, the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts go beyond just creating a good image of Russia and its aggressive ways. Different efforts track fake narratives spread by the Kremlin (like those by EUvsDisinfo and Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group) show that a lot of its propaganda is about the West itself: its values, institutions, identity, understanding of politics and economics, historical memory. The Kremlin’s chief propagandists themselves admit that a big part of their messaging is about spreading “alternative news” about the West.

Kremlin disinformation is aimed to deceive and mislead people in many spheres of their lives — from political engagement to vaccines. And as we can see from the opinion polls above, the Kremlin succeeds to persuade significant parts of its target audiences about counter-factual messages.

Disinformation messages about the war in Ukraine or the poisoning of the Skripals wouldn’t be in the information space if it weren’t for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Every single person believing these lies is a success of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda efforts.

Roman Shutov is a Ukrainian researcher, he cooperated with Detector Media think tank (Kyiv), Baltic Centre for Media Excellence (Riga) and European Endowment for Democracy (Brussels). Currently, he is an EaP Network Manager in the Open Information Partnership Project.