Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the streets and parking lots of Albuquerque were festooned with cars flying miniature American flags and the Bush 43 administration had been awarded an astronomical approval rating by Americans who supported this country’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq. Not everyone in the city on the Rio Grande, of course, thought that the invasion was a good idea – including most students in my University of New Mexico class on Islam and Politics – people who could easily locate Iraq on the map and knew the difference between Iraq and Iran. They may have been in the minority then, but as the years wore on and reality struck ever closer to home, the uber-patriotism cooled, the war fever subsided, and by 2006, the public mood had flipped and Bush’s approval rating had plummeted.

In far too many respects, the American media had bought into the administration’s invasion propaganda and this buy-in swayed the unthinking and geographically challenged in particular. US media coverage of the sceptics on both sides of the political aisle and the large anti-war demonstrations in Washington and New York, however, were skimpy and generally relegated to C-SPAN if that.

The president’s bully-pulpit, the right wing’s war mongering propaganda that touted the invasion as the “ultimate solution” for all that ailed us in the Middle East coupled with the American military’s public affairs efforts to recruit the troops it needed to fight the two land wars it was suddenly tasked to handle, dominated the airwaves. But then as time wore on, the public opinion balloon deflated as Americans learned through hard experience that the invasion of foreign lands is far easier than occupation.

For those of us old enough to remember the final years of the Cold War, the barrage of propaganda and disinformation emitting from the Kremlin now – like the white smoke that rises from the Vatican chimneys when a new pope is chosen – doesn’t seem all that unusual.  This verbal onslaught may appear more intense but perhaps this is because of the echo chamber effect of the Internet revolution.

Unlike the Vatican, however, the tenor of the Kremlin’s message now is neither one of hope nor of a new beginning.  Rather it is a message of hate and divisiveness designed to arouse the worst form of nationalism as it rallies it supporters, generates enemies and lays doubt to the veracity of the foes it has so assiduously created.

In contrast to the Gorbachev era when the implementation of a softer Communist doctrine was a draw for the pragmatic left and produced the hope of a less xenophobic Soviet leadership for non-communists the world over, today’s messages from Moscow contain nothing aspirational for the non-Russian. The messages are narrowly focused. They are designed to frighten – to spook a smaller neighbor into submission through the age old intimidation techniques of Genghis Khan.     

Twenty some years ago, the Communist doctrine that emanated from inside the Kremlin Walls did hold an attraction for true believers although, in reality, even this tamed ideology failed to resonate with most Eastern Europeans or minorities within the Soviet Union who well understood Russian nationalism packaged in Communist reality at the ground level.  Yet the Russians, then as apparently now, had not an inkling of the depth of hatred those minorities felt for Russia or the draconian system they had imposed on others.  Has Moscow learned nothing since then? Because today, the Kremlin’s message is solely that of Great Russian nationalism run amok which, if anything is far less appealing than the earlier one of Communist ideology.

Russian nationalism was an important message when the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were under siege from Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies and the Russian government truly needed to rally its population to repel the foreign invaders if it were to survive.

But what foreigners today are challenging Kremlin control of the Russian homeland or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin’s hold on power?    

Did anyone invade the Soviet Union in 1991 when that elephantine and ungovernable country imploded under the weight of a disaster of an economy which had floated along far too long on the high price of petroleum on the world market and sunk when that price torpedoed?

If I remember correctly, the US government led by George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker tried to keep Gorbachev in power and humpty-dumpty together – not to dethrone or tear it apart.   Again in 1994, the Clinton administration worked with the Yeltsin government to denuclearize Ukraine and the other two post-Soviet nuclear countries so that Soviet nuclear weapons and fissile materials were kept under tight Russian control.

What is the Kremlin thinking today?  “Has it gone crazy?” as a Russian émigré asked recently?  

What was the problem with Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU?  Doesn’t mean that Ukraine also can’t have good relations with Moscow.   Why the either/or?  

But, wait a minute, I haven’t noticed large pro-Russian demonstrations in the cities of Eastern Ukraine: if they were occurring, the Russian propaganda machine would be covering them assiduously and transmitting the images to the world media in record time.  Instead, the photos depict small bands of menacing black-masked, heavily muscled, armed men in camouflage uniforms – apparently afraid to reveal their faces let alone their identities.  What? Why?  Are they afraid their mothers might recognize them and call them home for dinner?

These toughs illegally seized and now occupy government buildings in several Ukrainian cities. Who knows, they might have been the same unruly ruffians or their kids who set fire to the playground equipment at our Moscow apartment complex in 1980 for no apparent reason.   Such behavior is not exactly a gold star or the red badge of courage of a mighty warrior, now is it?  Who sent them and, I wonder, who is their pay master? 

Certainly not Ukrainians.

Why does “Mother Russia” still think it should control the Soviet Union’s former republics with its bullies-in-arms at the ready?  Isn’t the Russian Federation big enough already?

Attempting to rule a people who want neither your tanks nor your soldiers – in whatever disguise – on their soil is a long term costly endeavor.  Even a swollen treasury can be depleted amazingly rapidly without having its government bonds reclassified by Standard and Poors just one step above junk as happened on April 25 thus forcing the Russian government to raise interest rates – or being subjected to the increasing turns of the economic screw by the US and the EU.

You’d think Moscow would have realized the various costs of all this from its multiple forays into the North Caucasus and its previous adventure into Afghanistan in 1979 that, after all, helped contribute to the Soviet Union’s decline and fall thereafter. 

Any number of observers have pointed out that the word maskirova characterizes Russia’s ham-handed actions in and towards Ukraine.  The word itself means disguise, camouflage, concealment.

If there’s one thing I know about Russia’s leadership is its propensity to think big in a monumental sense.  Look at Moscow’s broad avenues, the gargantuan size of Red Square, or even the Czar’s bell inside the Kremlin Walls so large and heavy it could never ring properly.   Not to mention the oversized cannon that could never be shot.

But sometimes, big is not better.

A propaganda/disinformation blitz is only as effective as the lack of knowledge and gullibility of the intended recipients.  The most effective antidotes are clear, rapid and credible refutation of whatever the content might be and a simple telling of the truth.  Over and over and over again.

I would like to think this is what the US, the UK, Germany and others are doing as they did during the Cold War – but how much of this is happening now and how good is the reception?