Russian spider spins its web

Putin’s propagandists are running rings round the West, aided by naive and ignorant media outlets

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George Soros: Accused of overthrowing governments, according to both the “Telegraph” and Russian propaganda (©WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM CC BY-SA 2.0)

Russian propagandists now have their own Western radio and television stations, and work across the web to influence the results of elections and referendums. And it seems as if nothing has changed. Just as the old Soviet Union funded Communist propaganda, so Russia now funds Putin propaganda. Just as the old Soviet Union funded the Communist parties of Europe, so Putin’s Russia provides money for Europe’s new far-right parties.

As in Soviet times, the success of propaganda is not judged by the tiny audience for stations such as RT and Sputnik, but by how far it spreads into the wider culture. The Telegraph is not the modern equivalent of the Communist  Daily Worker. To the best of my knowledge it does not receive Moscow gold. But when it tore into George Soros for donating to a pro-Brexit campaign group by saying that Soros “has been accused of toppling governments in Georgia and Ukraine”, Moscow would have been delighted. Authoritarian governments across the old Soviet empire have fed the idea that the promotion of human rights and democracy are incitements to rebellion. And now a mainstream British newspaper without any connection to Moscow is repeating their allegations with a straight face, as if they were  charges serious people should take seriously.

Advertisers say they know a product has status when rival companies use it as a prop in their commercials. The same applies to fake news. Propaganda only truly triumphs when propagandists no longer need to spread it. And yet the differences between then and now could not be greater. Soviet propaganda promoted the USSR as a utopia, a workers’ paradise that all who had the best interests of the human race at heart should support. Today’s Russian propagandists in the West do not even try to make their audience believe that it is somehow “progressive” to wish Moscow well. Beyond cheesy pieces of “the prettiest Russians athletes at the Winter Olympics” variety, there are few attempts to sell even a false picture of Russia on the RT or Sputnik sites. 

The reticence is understandable. Communism, like radical Islam, is a universal creed. Thousands of Muslims from all over the word went to murder, rape and die for the Islamic State in the hope of bringing their version of paradise — the caliphate — to earth. No foreigner would volunteer to fight for Putin’s Russia. By definition, the appeal of Russian nationalism is limited to Russians. Julian Assange and a few Western journalists have moved from opposing Western imperialism to supporting Russian imperialism. But although the journey is surprisingly easy to make, there is too much hypocrisy along the way for any decent person to stomach.

Russia uses RT and Sputnik to settle scores and blacken the name of reputable critics. When the independent digital consultancy 89up.org published a report a few weeks ago tracking the vast Russian effort on Twitter to promote anti-EU propaganda in the referendum campaign, RT responded at once. It damned the company for “passionately defending” George Soros, whose sinister Jewish fingers must be in every pie. Anyone now searching for the report on the web will now find the smears alongside the impartial research.

A child could understand the game Russia is playing. But Russia is also spinning a line that is harder to expose: we may be a corrupt, authoritarian gangster state, it implies, but you are no better. You have no right to look down on us or insist we follow your liberal standards. If we are trash, so are you.

Russian propaganda, of course, never talks openly about the criminals who run the country. But its question — “what right have you to criticise?” — is always present. The picture of Western countries that emerges is of lands where corporations have captured politicians, where media freedom is a sham, and everything you hear from official channels is a lie. This is not the whole truth about the West, but it is a part of the truth about parts of the West for part of the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the present. Politicians have been corrupt. The neo-liberal banking system did collapse. Detainees were tortured at Guantanamo Bay. To paraphrase what George Orwell said in the 1930s (about the Telegraph, funnily enough), this all happened and it did not happen any the less just because the Kremlin’s prostitute journalists suddenly found out about it.

Morally, it is no good to run around screaming “The Russians are coming” unless you are prepared to accept and remedy the genuine faults in your society. Practically, you need to understand what Putin wants. Many have written with astonishment and more than a little disgust about how far Left and Right have united in their admiration of Putin. How, we wondered, can Corbyn’s chief strategist Seumas Milne and sections of the British Left join with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump in doffing the cap to the Russian autocrat. The answer, if there is one beyond power worship, lies in their common hatred of liberalism.

The more interesting question is what Russia hopes to gain. It certainly isn’t looking for ideological obedience from its adherents, as the old Communists once did and Islamic State does today. Rather, it wants to undermine the credibility of Western democracy. Whatever you think of the merits of Brexit, no one can deny it has diminished Britain as a European power. Strategically, it made sense for Russia to back Brexit and, before that, Scottish independence. In the zero-sum game of Kremlin foreign policy what weakens Britain strengthens Russia. You only have to imagine what Britain would be like with Corbyn or Farage as prime minister or France with Marine Le Pen as president to know how much further the weakening process could go.

Indeed, you do not need to imagine. America under Donald Trump no longer poses a threat to Putin. The greatest threat was always ideological rather than military or diplomatic. Whatever their many and glaring failings, the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama at least paid lip service to the universal human right to self-government and the protection of basic freedoms. Trump does not. He has far more time for autocrats that he has for democrats. If Russians rise up against Putin, they will neither expect nor receive support from his America.

Russia’s propaganda in the West does not just aim to influence Westerners but Russians. Its message to them is: there is no hope.