Russian Media Targets Estonian Opposition To Nord Stream 2

Russian media’s strong negative reaction to the Estonian foreign minister’s statement that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is not in the European Union’s interest shows just how important the project is to Moscow, and illustrates a fundamental principle of its foreign policy: size and power matters, laws and alliances do not.

In commenting on 2 July on President Trump’s call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop supporting the Nord Stream 2 project – which would bring gas to Germany directly from Russia via the Baltic Sea – Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser said in an interview with Die Welt that putting the brakes on the project would be in the interest of the EU. According to Mikser, Nord Stream 2 serves not only Russia’s economic but also its geopolitical goals and is a tool for Russia to intervene in EU politics.

This statement caused a storm in Russian media. Within one day, fourteen Russian media channels, including TASSRBKIzvestiya, and RIA Novosti, published 26 articles on the subject. Many of the articles reflected the tweet of Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov, the former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which ridiculed Estonia’s right to make any statement concerning EU politics. According to Pushkov, Estonia is too small to make any demands, and no one cares what it has to say.


The tweet by Aleksey Pushkov, Russian Senator and former chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs on 2  July 2018. The tweet translates: “Estonian Foreign Minister demanded (!) that the construction of the Nord Stream 2 must be stopped. Estonia cannot demand anything. No one cares what she has to say, and, more generally, she has nothing to do with this – she is No 16 in the whole story. ”

This is not the first time that Pushkov has reacted strongly to Estonian foreign policy statements. In April, both Pushkov and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin mocked Mikser’s comment on Europe’s need for a strong and unified position on Russia. In May, Pushkov ridiculed Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Estonia’s military exercise, codenamed Hedgehog. In June, he criticized former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ statement on Estonian trust in NATO.

All these reactions have one thing in common: they all are derogatory towards Estonian foreign policy goals and its trust in its allies. The essence of the criticism was captured by the title of an article on the website of the TV channel Zvezda, a nationwide network run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. That article describes the general tone of Pushkov’s statements: Pushkov “put Estonia in its place.”

As to what Estonia’s place might be, according to Moscow’s world view, another set of articles gave some insights. The articles on Pushkov’s tweet were followed by articles quoting Alexander Domrin, a frequent contributor for Sputnik and RT, who was described as an American political scientist and professor at Russia’s Higher School of Economics. Commenting on Mikser’s statement, Domrin, following Pushkov’s line, said to Izvestiya that the Baltics, the “Russophobic Russian periphery” and “sixes“ of Europe, are afraid that Trump and Putin’s meeting in Helsinki could bring about concrete results. But Domrin said no one cares about what Estonia thinks or even knows that Estonia exists. In objecting to Nordstream 2, Estonia acts like a little dog that barks at an elephant. After all, Estonia itself has no resources whatsoever. So, despite what Estonia has to say, the Nord Stream 2 will be built.


The article in Izvestiya on July 2.

Domrin’s statement contains two cultural references that need to be explained to understand their meaning – and, possibly, why their statements gained such attention and positive feedback in Russian media.

The “sixes” of Europe, the expression Domrin uses to refer to the Baltic States, is slang expression used by Russian criminal subcultures. It means “one of the lowest grades in the hierarchy of thieves that perform the functions of servants.” Its origins are card games where the lowest-used cards were sixes. Criminal slang is not uncommon in Russian political culture, and is frequently used both by Kremlin and by Putin. Sometimes this slang finds its way into Russian official statements. (Russian linguist Vasily Gatov has noted a Russian Foreign Ministry briefing saying that “Americans prefer to pull down their allies rather than take their interests into account,” the verb opustit (“to pull down”) referring in Russian criminal argot to homosexual rape. Opustit is also used to describe how tougher inmates make weaker ones their “bitches.”)

“A little dog that barks to an elephant” is a reference to Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov’s fable “The Elephant and the Pug.” In the fable, the pug dares to bark at the elephant only because he knows the elephant pays little attention to it, because it is too small to even notice. The message that Pushkov and Domrin are pushing:  It is not Estonia’s place to say anything concerning international politics; even if it does, Estonia is too insignificant to pay any attention to; and nothing that Estonia says can change the foreign policy of big counties like Russia or the United States.

In addition to the cultural aspect mentioned here, this worldview can be seen in Moscow’s approaches to international law. In 2007, shortly after the so-called Bronze Night that led to massive Russian cyber and disinformation attacks in Estonia, Estonian scholar Lauri Mälksoo said that Russia considered Estonia its vassal state. Even though the Peace of Westphalia from 1648 states that each sovereign state, no matter how large or small, is equal in international law, Russia has always distrusted the idea that smaller neighboring countries could in fact be independent and sovereign. Rather, Russia views these countries as vassal states: they either belong to Russia, or to somebody else. This worldview leads to the belief that smaller countries are never subjects of international relations, but only its objects. Estonia thus is seen in Moscow as having gained its independence because Russia and Germany decided to let it do so. But when Russia and Germany decided otherwise, it was swallowed up.

According to Mälksoo, Putin’s Russia holds the same view on international relations today. Major powers make deals and small countries are still seen as vassal countries, with limited sovereignty and no right to an independent foreign policy. This aspect explains Moscow’s strong reaction to Estonian politicians’ foreign policy statements and the wish to “put Estonia in its place.”

CEPA, July 24, 2018


Estonian Students Discover Kremlin Propaganda

Estonian journalism students who participated in the Uppsala (Sweden) University International Summer School between 10-16 June discovered that their course was actually pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad propaganda, one that praised the Soviet Union for standing for peace and accused the West of promoting war. The university has apologized to its partner universities, but the problem is wider than just one summer program.  Academics who participate in narrative laundering and expose students to Kremlin propaganda justify their approach as providing an alternative to the viewpoint that is provided by Western governments and the mainstream media. But curricula built on demonstrably false “alternative” viewpoints simply give a green light to disinformation and conspiracy theories.

In the course, students from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were presented with conspiracy theories and pro-Assad and pro-Kremlin disinformation by Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger and frequent contributor to Kremlin-owned RT and Sputnik. Estonian students who objected to the course asked Beeley to send them the slides she used for the lecture. Even though some of the slides were removed before they were sent, the remaining 66 give an insight into Beeley’s narrative.

The slides show that Beeley asserts that the Soviet Union and its legal successor, Russia, have stood for world peace, while Western governments have fueled the conflict in Syria and conducted war propaganda. International organizations and the Western mainstream media that claim otherwise are not trustworthy, and are less reliable than the Russian media.

Beeley began her presentation with a slide on Soviet law from 1950 stating that war propaganda is the “gravest crime against humanity,” and that a person who is guilty of war propaganda should be punished for having committed a serious criminal offense.


Slide No. 4 of Vanessa Beeley’s lecture “War Propaganda: A Crime Against Humanity?” given at Uppsala University Summer School “War and Peace Journalism in an Age of Global Instability,” 10-16 June 2018.

Next, Beeley presented a slide showing that the Soviet Union made a proposal to denounce war propaganda at the United Nations General Assembly in 1953, but was blocked by Western states.


Beeley slide No. 5.

Both of these slides – and the title of Beeley’s lecture– refer to Yuri Bobrakov’s article, “War Propaganda: A Serious Crime Against Humanity,” published in the journal Law & Contemporary Problems in 1966. At the time of writing, Bobrakov was a press attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Soviet Union’s proposal to denounce war propaganda was part of its peace campaign during the Cold War, carried out by the World Peace Council. The Council was set up and directed by the Soviet Communist Party to promote the USSR’s foreign policy goals. The main goal of the movement was opposition to NATO, which – as claimed by leading Soviet ideologist Mikhail Suslov at the third meeting of the Council in 1949 – “represents a threat to all progressive mankind.” In 1947, Andrei Zhdanov, a Soviet Communist Party leader and cultural ideologist, postulated the ‘two camp’ thesis: a world irreconcilably divided between the peace-loving progressive forces, championed by the Soviet Union, and the warmongering capitalist countries, spearheaded by the United States. This sharp dichotomy between the peace-loving USSR and the imperialist war advocated by the West was a cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy and provided the context for Bobrakov’s 1966 article. Beeley’s slides followed the same dichotomy. After claiming that the Soviet Union and Russia have always promoted peace, she presented the tactics that, according to her, the U.S. and UK and their apologists employ in advocating war.

Next, Beeley uses Anne Morelli’s “Ten Commandments of Propaganda” to show how propaganda is developed by the U.S., UK, and other NATO member states.


Beeley slide No. 7.

In later slides, Beeley turned to the ongoing war in Syria and the UK government’s Syria Resilience CSSF Programme, which supports the Syria Civil Defence (SCD) organization – the White Helmets – a volunteer organization that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria, rescuing locals trapped by bombing and evacuating civilians from danger areas. According to the Syria Resilience CSSF Programme, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, the White Helmets are the most reliable source for reporting on the war in Syria. But Beeley claimed that neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International are trustworthy and, repeating the statement of Francis Boyle, she called Amnesty International a tool for “the imperialist colonial and genocidal policies of the United States, Britain, and Israel.” Beeley claimed that instead of being a volunteer rescue unit and reliable source, the White Helmets are a propaganda unit and “part of the NATO war machine to justify NATO countries’ war against Syria.”

This false narrative is not new – the Assad regime and Kremlin-linked media have repeatedly targeted the White Helmets with disinformation attacks – and it fitted into Beeley’s larger narrative about peace-loving Russia and aggressive NATO countries.


Beeley slide No. 30.

Another slide deleted from the version of her presentation that Beeley distributed to students alleged that the Human Rights Watch is a fake organization funded by Jews and run by the Washington “elite.” (The Estonian students made a photo of the slide during the lecture.)


Deleted Beeley slide. The photo is taken during the lecture by Estonian students.

After the Estonian journalism students went public with the story and it received coverage in a local Swedish newspaper, Uppsala University said it would apologize to its partner universities. According to the head of the university’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, Claes Levinsson, the institute had no prior knowledge of Beeley’s views and had no reason to believe that organizers would turn the summer program into a pro-Assad and pro-Russian event.

But the program’s organizer, Gregory Simons, assistant professor at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, saw no reason to apologize. According to Simons, Beeley was invited to provide an alternative viewpoint. Simons is a member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a group of academics (mostly British) that has been critical of the West and friendly to Russia. Members of the group appear frequently on Sputnik, and often cite Beeley and Eva Barlett, both frequent contributors for RT.

After the Estonian students’ story broke, on 29 June, Sputnik published an article in which Beeley and the editor-in-chief of RT and Sputnik, Margarita Simonyan, ridiculed the Estonian students, accusing them of being rude, cruel, intolerant, lacking critical thinking skills, and of trying to create divisions between other Estonian and Lithuanian students at the university. Moreover, Beeley and Simonyan accused Estonia of pushing anti-Russian propaganda.

There are four noteworthy aspects of this case.

First, the students’ reaction to Beeley’s lecture shows that Western countries are not as defenseless against disinformation and propaganda as it may seem. By recognizing them, publicizing them, and debunking them, propaganda threats can be resisted.

Second, the reaction of Kremlin media to the incident showed the role that Beeley plays for Sputnik. The fact that the chief editor of RT and Sputnik took a strong stand in defense of their contributor shows that the Kremlin media considers Beeley to be valuable. The techniques used here – ridiculing, personal insults, and whataboutism – are frequently used by Kremlin-aligned media.

Third, Uppsala University’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, Gregory Simons and Vanessa Beeley happened to participate – knowingly or not – in a narrative laundering process that aims to bolster the academic credibility of Kremlin narratives and conspiracy theories in the West. The academics at the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media do the same, and this episode is simply one example of a much wider problem.

Finally and most importantly: the rule of quality journalism and academic debate that requires that opposing viewpoints be presented has started to work against its original meaning. This rule, based on the idea that diverse opinions are unavoidable, necessary, and can help to reveal the truth, is beneficial only so long as the viewpoints meet some basic criteria: they are not deliberately deceptive, and have some basis in fact. Academic freedom and journalistic rules should require the presentation of different viewpoints, but only if they are factually valid. Beeley’s argument are not. The rule of balance, when exploited by propagandists and conspiracy theorists, is a means of deceiving the audience if it does not provide accurate information.

CEPA, July 12, 2018

Kremlin “Humor” Seeks To Divide Estonia

On 30 April and 7 May, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Aleksey Pushkov, the former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, mocked Estonia on Twitter. Pushkov ridiculed Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Estonia’s military exercise, codenamed Hedgehog.  Both Rogozin and Pushkov made fun of Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser’s comment on Europe’s need for strong and unified position on Russia. Humor can be used to unify and it can be used as a weapon to create divisions. The Kremlin’s jokes are aimed at the latter.

On 28 April, the Sydney Morning Herald published an interview with Mikser on hybrid threats, Russian aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the downing of MH17, the Sergei Skripal poisoning, and the Syrian chemical weapons attacks. In the face of these challenges, Mikser says unity is vital: “When you talk to a leader like [Putin], and obviously we need to talk with Russia, then you need to talk from a position of strength and unity and determination. Because any sign of hesitation is interpreted in the Kremlin as weakness to be exploited.”

On April 30, Mikser’s statement was first picked up by Russian media, and then in two twitter posts by Rogozin. In the first, Rogozin compared Russia to a big hound and Estonia to a puppy, with the caption, “The Estonian Mixer is determined to speak with Russia from a position of strength.”


The tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on 30 April. (Source: Twitter)

An hour later, Rogozin posted another tweet, this time mocking Mikser for his name: “Fearless mixer. Now on sale.”


The tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on 30 April. (Source: Twitter)

Rogozin’s tweet was followed by one from Pushkov the same day.  In an ironic Twitter post, Pushkov snidely commented that Mikser’s call for the West to talk to Russia from a position of strength should be seen in light of Estonia’s strength and power.

The 30 April tweet by Aleksey Pushkov, former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee. (Source: Twitter)

These three tweets, together with Mikser’s interview, triggered a massive flow of articles and comments in Russian media. According to the Estonian anti-propaganda website Propastop, the number of articles set a record for the past six months. Some of these comments dusted off a familiar and frequently used narrative: that Estonia is an unreliable partner for other NATO members. Bogdan Bezpalko, a member of the Russian President’s Council for Interethnic Relations, commented on Mikser’s statement, saying that Estonia, like all Baltic States, sees the confrontation between the West and Russia as beneficial.

The second round of the Kremlin’s Twitter jokes on Estonia followed on 7 May, when Pushkov made fun of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Hedgehog, an international military exercise held annually in Estonia.  This year, more than 15,000 troops from 15 countries and the Estonian Defense Forces and Defense League took part in the exercise with NATO and other allies. Describing the exercises, Kaljulaid remarked, “When we are like a Hedgehog, nobody can easily harm us – the attacker will get very hurt and nothing in his mouth.”

Pushkov commented on President Kaljulaid’s statement in a tweet, saying that Estonia does not have to worry: either it is a hedgehog, a grass snake, or a ruffe (a freshwater fish native to the region), so no one would bother to harm it and here no reason to overstate its importance. Russia media took up the theme.

Pushkov’s tweet of 7 May. (Source: Twitter)

Since these two cases are similar, they should be analyzed together. There are three noteworthy aspects of each: choice of topic; the narratives used; and techniques employed. Both cases concern Estonian defense policy, the country’s NATO membership, and the presence of NATO allies in Estonia. NATO is a Kremlin sore point; it sees the Alliance as a threat to Russia and seeks to sow doubt and division among NATO member states. Its method: painting Estonia as an untrustworthy ally that exaggerates both its own importance and the potential Russian threat. At the same time, the Kremlin wants to de-escalate tensions with the West, out of a fear that Russia’s geopolitical isolation could lead to “100 years of solitude,” as Russian presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov described in a recent article, a view presumably shared by some Russian leaders.

In the past few months, the Kremlin has repeatedly referred to the countries along its periphery as “Russophobic neighboring countries” or “Russophobic Baltic states” that oppose Russia’s core interests. Russia seeks to show that the potential for conflict along NATO’s eastern border is merely an Estonian fantasy, beneficial to its government but not quite in line with reality; and further, that Estonia is too small to have a say in the weighty matters confronting NATO and Russia. The Kremlin’s intent is to discredit Estonia in the eyes of its allies.

The techniques in this instance, ridicule and humiliation, are consistent with these goals. Humor can both unite and divide; it can both ease and fuel tension. The Kremlin wields humor to accomplish the latter.

CEPA May 29, 2018

Estonian Defense Forces Neutralize Disinfo Attack

The Estonian Defense Forces prevented a Sputnik disinformation attack on 15 March by informing Estonian media about a possibly false story before it was written. This illustrated one of CEPA’s four steps in fighting information attacks. That such an approach was successful in Estonia shows that the West is not as defenseless against the Kremlin’s asymmetrical disinformation campaigns as it sometimes appears.
On 13 March, Estonian media reported on an incident within the Estonian Defense Forces: a conscript had shot himself in the shoulder, he said, to “get a cool scar.” According to the investigation, as reported by the media, the conscript – who had served as a driver at the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion (a unit of the Estonian Land Forces) – stole a cartridge for his AK4 rifle and, when no one was near, pulled the trigger. According to the medical report, the conscript lost a lot of blood, but no critical organs were injured and he is recovering under medical supervision. Military police discovered no evidence that the shooting was caused by anything other than what the soldier claimed: the conscript was well trained, his relationships with his comrades were good, and he had earlier told his friends that he wanted a bullet scar.
On 15 March, Estonian Sputnik, a branch of the Kremlin-financed media channel, sent an inquiry to the Estonian Defense Forces asking it to confirm the channel’s supposed information that the conscript was a Russian speaker, that he was shot during an escape attempt sparked by tensions on base between Estonians and Russians, and that military doctors deny medical care to conscripts who do not speak Estonian. Instead of answering Sputnik directly, the Force sent the channel’s inquiry to the Estonian media to publicize Sputnik’s attempt to inflame conflict between ethnic Estonians and Russians and to neutralize any disinformation that Sputnik might try to spread. The neutralization was successful; Sputniknever wrote the story. The Kremlin-financed channel did answer with an article claiming that by giving out Sputnik’s questions to journalists, the Estonian Defense Forces was itself spreading disinformation. In Russia, Sputnik’s article on how the Estonian Defense Forces went on the counterattack by giving Sputnik’s questions to Estonian media reached RIA Novosti, the state-operated domestic Russian-language news agency. But because of the Force’s proactive release of Sputnik’s inquiry, Estonians were already informed about the facts and the article did not cause any significant public reaction.
Neutralizing disinformation attacks is the fourth step of CEPA’s strategy on fighting disinformation and propaganda, introduced in testimony about Russian disinformation aims before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 9 March 2017. This strategy calls for a “4D” approach – detect, debunk, defend, and disarm – and is based on the presumption that disinformation should be treated not as an ordinary military threat, but like a “man-created virus.” Disinformation, like a virus, transcends distance and borders and therefore requires specific countermeasures.
The approach is based on two assumptions: first, that Russia itself sees information warfare as a virus-spreading process; and second, that disinformation attacks are asymmetrical in nature. In 1998, Sergey Rastorguev, a Russian expert, wrote Informatsionnaya Voyna (“Information War”), in which he showed how to manipulate the human mind. He claimed that human beings are like computers and can have information “viruses” inserted into their reasoning process.
The second reason that disinformation should be treated not as an ordinary military attack, but rather like a virus, is that information attacks are always asymmetrical: the West cannot emulate the Kremlin and respond with disinformation and propaganda. First, to respond this way would corrupt the concept of the truth and prove Russia’s claim that there is no difference between propaganda and journalism. Second, this response would be useless: disinformation attacks will not work against a country where the majority of the media is state-controlled.
If disinformation is like a virus, it should be treated like a virus, needing diagnosis, cure, education, and a vaccine. In the three Baltic States, CEPA’s 4D approach – detect, debunk, defend, and disarm – has proven successful. Local monitors, local voluntary activists, and local media have successfully used three of the four: detecting disinformation by diagnosing it; curing by debunking it; and defending people by educating them. By neutralizing Sputnik’s disinformation, the Estonian Defense Forces tried the fourth defense, disarming the disinformation. It worked – at least with regard to Estonian society.
With regard to the wider Russian media space, the success of the 4D approach was not so obvious. Sputnik’s article on the Estonian Defense Forces releasing its inquiry to Estonian media reached RIA Novosti, which means that Sputnik at least partly accomplished its mission. In the complex and loosely guided Russian media network, Estonian local Sputnik, together with Baltnews (three Russian-language news sites in Baltic States linked to RIA Novosti and Rossiya Segodnya) and Rubalitic (a Russian-language news site in Baltic States), are part of the Kremlin’s Baltic disinformation machine, described by Latvian security services as “one of the tools of Russian information influence.” They are so-called gathering channels, whose task is not only to present the Kremlin’s perspective to Estonian audiences, but also to identify local news that can be used by the wider Russian and international media to serve the Kremlin’s purposes. Often these stories are meant to discredit Estonia as Russophobic, morally corrupt, and a financial basketcase. The Kremlin’s message that Estonia is Russophobic – a main Kremlin narrative – was in this case successfully delivered.


The reaction by pro-Kremlin media to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s 31 July visit to Estonia was clear: Estonia must stop provoking Russia and trusting the United States because, as with Game of Thrones, every party acts only for its own benefit. Both messages rely on assumptions that may be true in the context of the Hobbesian “war of all against all,” but they are not valid in societies that honor laws and agreements.

While Pence was in Estonia, Kremlin-linked published an article containing five false or questionable narratives.

First, Estonia should not put its trust in the United States, the article argued, because the United States sees international relations as depicted in Game of Thrones—a book written by an American author, and a fantasy drama TV series made by Americans—and acts accordingly. For the United States, agreements have no meaning, and every party stands alone, fighting for its own interests only.

Second, the article claimed Pence’s visit shows there is no real solidarity between the United States and its allies, since real solidarity doesn’t require constant reassurances. It said Washington treats Estonia like a “child who needs convincing that daddy will not leave him.” That kind of “solidarity” does not and cannot have a future, it said.

Third, the article claimed that Estonia does not contribute enough to NATO defense and therefore has good reason to fear being abandoned by the United States.

Fourth, it says Estonia has every reason to be concerned, since for many years Estonia has “spit on Russia,” provoking Russia with its behavior. The article gave no examples to support this claim.

Finally, Estonia—believing Russia to be a threat—suffers from “psychological disorder.” Pence’s visit, therefore, was nothing more than “collective psychotherapy.”

Even though all five narratives are either false or misleading, they are worth analyzing because they offer insight to the Kremlin-liked media’s worldview.

Comparing the visit to a Game of Thrones episode is a prime example. According to this narrative, U.S. allies cannot trust Washington because, as in Game of Thrones—written by an American author—the United States follows an “every man for himself” policy. Estonia should therefore put no trust in the United States.

Three aspects of this narrative are particularly worthy of mention.

First, seeing Game of Thrones—or any other book or film—as a representative of a country’s official policy is too simplistic. We do not measure British foreign politics by Golding’s Lord of the Flies or French foreign policy by de Sade’s Justine.

Second, even more interesting is to look how the narrative on the United States as not trustworthy regarding laws and agreements reflects in Russian juridical discourse and in Russian foreign policy. As Estonian scholar Lauri Mälksoo shows in his book Russian Approaches to International Law, for Russia, the United States and NATO have been systematically violating international law since the end of the Cold War. According to Mälksoo, almost all recent Russian textbooks of international law refer to NATO’s 1999 intervention against Yugoslavia (in favor of Kosovar Albanians) and the 2003 U.S. and British-led invasion of Iraq as crimes of aggression. Moreover, the Russians use this narrative of the United States not being trustworthy to justify Moscow’s deeds. As Mälksoo’s book shows, the Kremlin believes that if NATO can violate international law or make new rules and exceptions for itself, Russia has no choice but to follow its example. Hence, the United States can be forced to take multilateral measures only if Russia first copies the U.S. unilateralist “pattern of behavior.”

And third, “trust no one” hardly describes a worldview common to Western societies. Rather it is characteristic of partial or non-democratic countries, where the benefits of civil society and social contract may not yet be a part of common understanding.

A social contract is a first step in replacing the rule of the strongest with the rule of law. Civil society prevents the rule of law from being turned into the law of the strongest. In political philosophy, this dichotomy between the rule of law and the rule of power is illustrated by the dichotomy between John Locke’s idea of a social contract between citizens and governments—one based on commonly acceptable law or an agreement made by political equals, such as the North Atlantic Treaty—and Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or agreements made by more powerful parties over all others (for example, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).

As noted above, these five false narratives may not be useful in analyzing the actual state of U.S. relations with its allies. But they do offer a glimpse into the Kremlin’s worldview. Unlike Western societies and their social contracts, laws and agreements that are kept for benefit of every party, the pro-Kremlin media represent a Hobbesian world of “state of nature” and “war of all against all” where there is no equality, no trust, no allies, no contracts and no laws.

We can counter this by keeping the trust, allies, contracts and laws that define the actors of liberal democracy. “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in Book Six of Meditations. This not only defines Western values but defends them as well.

CEPA, Aug 25 2017

Does ‘Countering Russian Mischief’ Mean Being Anti-Russian?

On 11 July, a group of senior U.S. and European officials gathered in Washington to launch the transatlantic Alliance for Securing Democracy—an initiative of the German Marshall Fund that aims to “to defend against, deter, and raise the costs on Russian and other state actors’ efforts to undermine democracy and democratic institutions.” The next day, Estonian-language websites and reported that the initiative’s goal is to “counter Russian influence operations”—a reference to the Washington Post’s “countering Russian mischief.” But the Russian-language, Kremlin-linked website changed the phrasing and tone of the GMF announcement, calling the new initiative an “anti-Russian alliance.”

The term “anti-Russian,” a synonym for “Russophobic,” has a long history. It expresses the self-victimizing and enemy-creating sentiments of the Kremlin and Kremlin-linked media. But “countering Russian mischief” has very different meaning than being “anti-Russian.” The first refers to countering something that Russia does; the second, “anti-Russian,” refers to countering something that Russia is—not only as a political agent but also as a whole country with social-cultural-historical aspects.

Kremlin-linked media, in presenting “countering Russian mischief” as the equivalent of “being anti-Russian,” commits two fallacies. First, being pro-West does not mean being anti-Russian, even though Moscow tends to see it that way. This is not the first time the Kremlin perceives other countries’ attempt to stand for the three pillars of liberal democracy—free and fair elections, rule of law, and freedom of expression—as a threat to Russia. In the post-Cold War world, the Kremlin has viewed uprisings in former Soviet republics and the Arab world as the result of efforts by the West, especially the United States, to spread democratic (and therefore anti-Russian) values.
Second, “anti-Russian” and “Russophobic” are terms that the Kremlin and media outlets linked to it use as a rhetorical tool called synecdoche. Synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part of some entity (the Kremlin, Russia as a political agent) is put into the position of the whole (Russia as a vast country with a complex political, historical, social and cultural history). This makes synecdoche a useful tool for propaganda. In their book “At War with Metaphor: Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror” Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills describe how synecdoche has been used to fabricate an enemy: for example, the terrorist comes to stand for all Arabs, or the religious extremist for all Muslims.
Similarly, Kremlin or Kremlin-linked media uses synecdoche for propaganda reasons; when referring to “anti-Russian behavior” or “Russophobia”—both of which use Russia as a political agent standing for Russia as a whole—the Kremlin-linked media sends its readers the message that the West sees the whole country (including the Russian people and Russian culture), as its enemy. It appears that the Kremlin’s attempt to use synecdoche has been fruitful; 72 percent of Russians see the United States as Russia’s main enemy, with that percentage rising rapidly after 2013. Thus, “anti-Russian” and “Russophobia” are terms the Kremlin and Kremlin-linked media use to explain away any Western activity that Russia does not like, or to justify its own deeds and mobilize Russians.
What can the West do to counter this? Since the tool used here is semantic, counter measures should be semantic as well. Using “the Kremlin” instead of “Russia” when criticizing Moscow’s deeds would send a sign to Russia and to Russians that protecting the three pillars of liberal democracy against Kremlin influence and being anti-Russian are two very different things indeed.


stickmanparadoxAccording to a recent survey, 48 percent of Estonia’s Russian-speaking population oppose their country’s membership in NATO. Sociologist Juhan Kivirähk says this is because Estonian Russians still see NATO as an enemy of Russia. How can the West counter this perception? 

The narrative that NATO threatens Russia has been one of the most frequent topics in Russian state media, especially since NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit, when member states approved a plan to rotate additional troops into the Baltic states and Poland to reassure allies in the face of Russia’s aggressive behavior. Since then, Moscow’s media machine has only produced more disinformation portraying Russia as the passive and repressed party, and NATO as aggressive, manipulative and harmful.

To find effective countermeasures to Russian disinformation, we should first ask how sincere Russian state media is in its messaging. Do Kremlin or pro-Kremlin media actually believe their own claims that NATO’s commanders are testing new hybrid warfare techniques on Russian-speakers in Latvia to alter their behavior, or that an American B-52 plane accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb in Lithuania? It is hard to believe that they do.

Do they consider NATO a threat to Russia, and that it is preparing to attack? Probably. If so, why are NATO’s counter-disinformation efforts not more effective?

The answer may lie in the so-called master narrative which forms the basis for other Russian narratives. If the master narrative is that NATO threatens Russia and that Western media aims to diminish this threat perception, then Moscow is simply doing what everyone else, in their view, is guilty of: producing propaganda. Even if the stories pro-Kremlin media tell are not completely true, they justify their lies with the belief that the United States is lying as well. In effect, everything is propaganda.

If so, then two things must be clarified: first, the basis for Russia’s belief that everything is propaganda; and second, the characteristics of the master narrative.

In late May, Elena Cherysheva, editor-in-chief of the Estonian Sputnik news agency, said in an interview that she sees no difference between journalism and propaganda. Since Sputnik is part of the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya—whose head, Dmitry Kiselyov, also expressed a similar viewpoint—these statements are not simply personal views but the general viewpoint of Russian state media.

Here we come to the concept of master narratives. Also known as metanarratives, these were described in 1979 by French sociologist Jean-François Lyotard as narratives that lie behind other, minor narratives which certain cultures use in everyday practice, and which explain and justify these minor narratives. To understand why Moscow uses anti-NATO narratives, we should find the narrative behind them, and use it as a key. And so, what are the Kremlin’s master narratives?

As mentioned above, Moscow seems to have two: the United States and NATO threaten Russia, and everything is propaganda.

So, even if Kremlin media does not believe many of its published disinformation narratives, it still believes that its master narratives are valid. Therefore, it may commit disinformation, but in its own mind, it is lying because it believes that Russia is at war—and in this war, everybody is lying. This is similar to the idea expressed in 2013 by Dmitry Kiselyov, who said: “Objectivity does not exist. There’s not one publication in the world that’s objective. Is CNN objective? No. Is the BBC objective? No. Objectivity is a myth, which they propose to us and impose on us.”

Unfortunately, one of these master narratives is paradoxical. The idea that everyone commits propaganda is generally known as a liar’s paradox: if everybody is lying, then I’m lying as well (and also lying about lying). The problem with paradoxical statements is that rather than provoking critical thinking, the paradox psychologically exhausts its audience. It causes readers to lose interest and trust in media, while weakening civil society in general. A recent Estonian study shows that people who are exposed to multilingual media and do not know who, if anyone, to believe admit being fatigued from certain topics and tried to avoid them altogether.

If “everything is propaganda” is indeed the Kremlin’s master narrative, then it is difficult to fight against other, derivative narratives as these attempts will themselves be perceived as propaganda. Instead, the West should concentrate on analyzing and fighting the master narrative itself. Assuring the audience that not everything is propaganda by regaining the trust of media consumers should be the first step.

CEPA, July 2017