Russian Information Ops: Up Close and Personal


2015-11-23 By Richard Weitz

Second Line of Defense had the opportunity to attend this year’s 12th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, where more than one hundred foreign and Russian participants heard President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials and various international experts discussed recent international developments.

Some of the prominent foreign guests included Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, and several ex-Western ambassadors to Russia.

Unsurprisingly, the other Russian government speakers at this week-long conference in late October did not substantially differ in their remarks from those of President Putin, In turn, Putin’s comments this year did not vary in theme from those the Russian president delivered in previous years, though some details were new to address the Russian military intervention in Syria and other recent developments.

Revealingly, Putin described “The global information space” as a battlefield in which views and interpretations are “aggressively imposed on people [and] certain facts are either concealed or manipulated” with enemy imagery common.

Alluding to Western governments, Putin said that, “The authorities in countries that seemed to have always appealed to such values as freedom of speech and the free dissemination of information … are now trying to prevent the spreading of objective information and any opinion that differs from their own.”

In this light, Putin and other Russian government officials use the Valdai Conference and other fora to engage in this information battle.

According to Putin, history shows that peace requires “securing and maintaining” a balance of power, whereas striving for “unilateral domination” lead to international conflict, arms races, and war.

Speakers at Valdai International Discussion Club October 2015.
Speakers at Valdai International Discussion Club October 2015.

In Moscow’s view, the current international system is unbalanced due to the superior power of the United States, which allegedly has sought to exploit the Soviet Union’s collapse and other developments to expand U.S. power and influence throughout the world in partnership with a few favored allies.

In this characterization, U.S. policies have tried to maintain this favorable balance by preventing the rise of potentially balancing power blocs and forcing foreign governments to follow Washington’s leadership or suffer U.S. efforts to replace them with more pliable regimes.

Putin sees this supposed U.S. strategy as unsuccessful.

He and other Russian government representatives say that U.S. leaders exaggerated their post-Cold War preeminence and, though able to undermining existing global institutions, have proven unable to erect effective security architecture in its place.

Though they tried to remake the world by imposing global rules more favorable to Washington, U.S. policies have mostly produced disorder and instability, to everyone’s detriment, including that of the United States.

Washington will allegedly “use force on any pretext, even just to remind the world who is boss here, without giving a thought about the legitimacy of the use of force and its consequences [and] without solving problems, but only multiplying them.”

At Sochi, Putin reaffirmed his controversial view that the Soviet Union’s collapse represented one of the world’s great tragedies because the disintegration forced millions of Russians to live in a foreign country without their consent (“the Russian people became the world’s biggest divided nation”) and by degrading their socioeconomic and geopolitical status. He also indicated that another regrettable consequence was that the collapse opened the former Soviet states to Western interference in their internal affairs.

Putin blamed the West, especially the United States, for the resulting crises in the region, most recently in Ukraine, which the Russian president saw as a U.S.-led “coup d’état”, Western bankrolling of the regime’s opponents, and the disregard for the country’s constitution and legitimate government as spurring a popular revolt in eastern Ukraine against the new government.

Recalling some of his derogatory remarks about Kazakhstan, Putin warned that further Western interference would be “completely unacceptable in the post-Soviet region, where, to be frank, many former Soviet republics do not yet have traditions of statehood and have not yet developed stable political systems.”

President Putin Addresses the Valdai International Discussion Club in October 2015.
President Putin Addresses the Valdai International Discussion Club in October 2015.

Putin was explicit in including Russian in this category.

“The United States has a law [whose] goal is democratisation of the Russian Federation. Just imagine if we were to write into Russian law that our goal is to democratise the United States, though in principle we could do this,” citing cases when the winner of the most popular votes in a U.S. presidential election failed to capture enough electoral votes to gain a majority in the electoral college, due to what Putin termed a defect in the U.S. Constitution.

According to Putin, the United States cannot succeed in promoting its version of liberal democracy since it has features unique to the American experience.

U.S. visions and values may appeal to Americans, but trying to impose them on other civilizations heedless of national traditions or the right of national sovereignty invariably produces a counter reaction, sometimes a militaristic one in the form of terrorism.

Rather than acknowledge their country’s many defects and show more humility in their actions and modesty in their goals, U.S. leaders, according to Putin, simply adopt a “double standard” that skirts around the defects of the United States and the regimes Washington controls but highlights the faults of Russia and other regimes that Washington dislikes.

Putin attempted to exploit what he saw as gaps between the opinions and values of Americans and those of foreign audiences. This line of argument has made some progress in the case of China and in some developing countries, but now the focus of the Russian information campaign has shifted towards Europe.

For example, Putin expressed understanding for those Europeans alarmed by foreign immigration by enumerating the burdens of the refugees on the receiving countries, including the financial costs of integrating them, and how their presence can provoke “a massive uncontrolled shocking clash of different lifestyles… growing nationalism and intolerance… [and] a permanent conflict in society.”

As several recent Second Line of Defense  articles have shown, the Russian line of argument has gained some support in the European media and some social sectors.

The growing convergence in the Russia and French perspectives regarding Syria is especially noteworthy.

Editor’s Note: What follows is a response by President Putin to a question about Syria.

Question: Mr President, how can you be sure that Russia’s military operation in Syria will not worsen the situation? What is your personal vision of the peaceful process and peaceful settlement in this country? Will Russia accept Syria’s partition? Do you think President Assad should resign?

Vladimir Putin: How effective will our operations in Syria be?

How can I give a certain answer to such questions? The only thing that is certain is an insurance policy.

We are acting in accordance with our convictions and with the norms of international law. We hope that coordinated action between our strike aircraft and the other military systems being used, coordinated with the Syrian army’s offensive, will produce positive results. I believe and our military also think that results have already been achieved.

Is this enough to be able to say that we have defeated terrorism in Syria? No, big efforts are still needed before we will be able to make such an assertion. A lot of work is still needed, and let me stress that this must be joint work.

We do not want to start finger-pointing now, but let me say nonetheless that over the nearly 18 months that a US-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes, with more than 11 countries taking part and more than 500 strikes against various targets, there is no result yet, and this is a clear fact.

What result can we speak of if the terrorists have reinforced their presence in Syria and Iraq, dug in deeper in the territory they had already taken, and expanded their presence? In this sense, it seems to me that our colleagues have not achieved any effective results as yet.

The first operations between our armed forces and the Syrian armed forces have produced results, but this is not enough. It would be wonderful if we united forces, everyone who genuinely wants to fight terrorism, if all the region’s countries and the outside powers, including the United States, came together on this. In essence, this is just what we proposed.

We proposed that a military delegation come to Moscow first, and then I said that we were ready to send a high-level political delegation headed by Russia’s Prime Minister to discuss political questions. But our proposal was given a refusal.

True, our American colleagues did then provide explanations at the ministerial level, saying that there had been some misunderstanding and that the road is open, that we can take this road and should think about how to unite our efforts.

Now, the foreign ministers of the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will meet. I think that other countries in the region should join this process too, countries whose involvement is essential if we want to settle this issue. I am thinking of Iran, primarily. We have already said this many times before.

But it is a start at this stage to have the foreign ministers meet to discuss things.

As for our Iranian partners, we are in close contact with them on this matter, and Iran makes its own significant contribution to a settlement.

On the question of Syria’s partition, I think this would be the worst-case scenario. It is an unacceptable option because it would not help to resolve the conflict but would instead only serve to increase and prolong it. This would become a permanent conflict. If Syria were partitioned into separate territories, they would inevitably fight between themselves without end and nothing positive would come out of this.

On the matter of whether al-Assad should go or not,

I have said many times already that I think it wrong to even ask this question. How can we ask and decide from outside whether this or that country’s leader should stay or go.

This is a matter for the Syrian people to decide. Let me add though that we must be certain that government is formed on the basis of transparent democratic procedures.

We can talk of having some kind of international monitoring of these procedures, including election procedures, but this must be objective monitoring, and most importantly, it must not have a bias in favour of any one country or group of countries.

Finally, on how we see the political process, let me give a general outline now, but let me say at the same time that it is the Syrians themselves who must formulate this process, its principles and final goals, what they want and how they will achieve it.

By the Syrians themselves, I am referring to the lawful government and the opposition forces.

Of course, we take the view that the root causes of the conflict in Syria are not just the fight against terrorism and terrorist attacks, though terrorist aggression is clear and the terrorists are simply taking advantage of Syria’s internal difficulties.

We need to separate the terrorist threat from the internal political problems.

Certainly, the Syrian government must establish working contact with those opposition forces that are ready for dialogue. I understood from my meeting with President al-Assad the day before that he is ready for such dialogue.