Putin’s Information Operations Spread Discordant Ideologies Abroad

Russia doesn’t really have a distinct ideology, instead appealing to base human feelings and instincts to evoke an emotional reaction and control the masses. Sound familiar?

This piece was originally published in The Kyiv Post & subsequently in DemWritePress

By Kseniya Kirillova

When speaking about modern Russian ideology, most experts agree that it, as such, simply does not exist. I have already noted more than once that Russian propaganda does not rely on a rational system of beliefs but creates a mass of images and sensations that these images evoke. Russian television creates not an ideology, but a perception of reality – by appealing directly to feelings, to instincts, reflexes and passions, the totality of which pushes people to not only accept but also fully support the policy of the Kremlin. This perception of reality can be based on an idealized past, fears, hatreds, illusory and often contradictory constructions, and so on.

Moscow’s “information operations” abroad are in many respects similar to its tactics inside the country. They consist of lies, slander, a mishmash of facts, creation of conspiracy theories and a multitude of contradictory versions of reality designed to destroy the notion of truth as such, as well as exploiting the slightest contradictions within Western societies. However, in order to work with certain groups of people abroad (whether part of the Russian diaspora or not), the Kremlin creates special mini-ideologies – individual worldview systems aimed at specific social groups. We can single out only a few creeds developed or supported by Moscow.

  1. Ideology based on religious or “traditional” foundation, primarily aimed at the extreme right groups abroad. This ideology is characterized by aggressive imperialism, an emphasis on “traditional values,” coupled with a vehement rejection of Western values, often a pseudo-religious justification for the superiority of the “white race” or individual nations (sometimes with elements of blatant nazism), an emphasis on the messianic nature of the activities of its supporters, creating an illusion of the “war of the civilizations”, “holy war”, fear of immigrants, etc.

Very often, Western researchers make the mistake of believing that this religious-fascist ideology reflects the worldview of modern Russians. However, it is important to understand that the percentage of religious radicals in Russia is relatively small, and the ROC’s ideology is perceived by the majority like the Communist Party was perceived in the late Soviet era – as something that is necessary and “irreplaceable”, but not something that evokes fanatical faith. In the eyes of the “Putin majority”, the church is associated with the necessary means of protecting national identity rather than, in fact, with religion. When such people are told about the threat to the Orthodox shrines abroad, they perceive it as more of a blow to a certain state element, to the symbol of Russia’s presence on the territory of other countries.

However, the perception of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad is very different. For example, many supporters of the separatists in the Eastern Ukraine readily accept the theses of the Moscow Patriarchate about the sanctification of Russia’s supreme authority and its foreign policy, including the wars unleashed by the Kremlin. The situation with the Serbian radicals is very similar and, for them, participating in Russia’s operations (including the planned coup in Montenegro) is often perceived as the “sacred duty” in “defense of our faith.” The same applies to the extreme right-wing groups in the United States. Thus, the image of Russia as a “stronghold of traditional values” and its religious-nationalist component are often perceived in the West as being much deeper and more sincere than they’re perceived inside the country.

Montenegrin police officers escort men for questioning in Podgorica
  1. One of the most popular forms of the ultra-right ideology “for export” is the “Eurasianism” of Alexander Dugin, an ideologist who, once again, is more famous abroad than in Russia itself. Major American publications have, more than once, described ties between local “white supremacists” and Russia, in particular, Dugin’s followers. Equally strong is Moscow’s support for the extreme right in Europe, especially in the Balkans, where “authoritarian” passages about the revival of “Greater Serbia” appeal to hearts and minds of local nationalists. At the same time, while most Russians, even Putin supporters, often see their country’s shortcomings and are afraid of the regime changes only because “it will get worse”, foreign admirers of Russia may sincerely believe in the idea of ​​Moscow as the Third Rome and the last outpost in “protecting Christianity from the liberal realm of Antichrist.
  2. A special case of the extreme right ideology is a system of views developed specifically for the descendants of white emigrants abroad(primarily in the US), who categorically reject the Soviet past. In addition to purely Russian attributes, such as a pronounced imperial ideology, the sanctification of the last Emperor Nicholas II, and the categorical rejection of any manifestation of national self-consciousness by the peoples inhabiting the former Russian Empire, it also contains some very bizarre constructions.

For example, despite all the historical facts, these manifestations of national identity, as well as the pro-Western aspirations of the post-Soviet countries, are being presented as the product of Soviet communism, and not at all as a means of resisting it, as it was in reality. According to the ideology of the Russian United-Military Union, it was the Bolsheviks who conducted the “forcible Ukrainization of Ukraine,” and it is the Americans today who “are promoting the red project in Novorossia.” The absurdity of such constructions is obvious without additional comments, but they are effective enough to support the anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian sentiments of today’s “monarchists”.

  1. The Soviet-communist ideology is, perhaps, the most organic of the worldviews listed above, and the one that conforms the most to the belief system within Russia itself. In general, it is based, for the most part, not on a certain worldview, but on the exploitation of the feelings of nostalgia for the idealized Soviet past. The rational component is introduced here only when the myths and images from the past are used to justify today’s growth of militarism and the aggressive policy of the Kremlin. This includes sponsoring “Immortal Regiments” and other versions of the romanticized Soviet version of history, exploiting the Cold War experience and, of course, proclaiming the goal of “restoring the USSR” as the basis of Russian foreign policy. Liberal values, unlike the previous ideology, are now declared as a “product” not of communism, but, on the contrary, the creation of its enemies – “damned imperialists.” The fact that economic policy within Russia itself, to put it mildly, is far from a “social state”, in this case is tactfully hushed up.

Within Russia itself, “communist” and “monarchist” patriots often get along well with each other, but because a certain segment of diaspora and their descendants reject everything connected with the USSR, numerous government and state organizations that “work with compatriots” have to isolate these groups and work with each of them separately.

  1. Support of the Western “extreme left”, primarily anarchists and communists. While anarchists are declared terrorists within Russia and are subjected to harassment and torture, Moscow is certainly interested in supporting the radical left forces abroad. People of such views specifically reject the state as such, and, accordingly, reject all existing institutions of power – law enforcement above all. It was they who, even under the previous US administration, burned American flags and organized street riots. Some of them are openly sympathetic toward Russia and are fans of RT. On the extreme leftist sites in the US, one can find statements that the United States, as a country, “has no right to exist“, which, of course, is beneficial to the Kremlin.

However, the defining aspect of this group is that Russia does not have a ready-made “ideology for export” to interact with such leftists. Therefore, Moscow’s interaction with the leftist radicals is carried out mainly through fake accounts – with the goal of creating chaos and getting the right “picture” for greater radicalization of the right spectrum. The most famous attempt by the Kremlin to directly take control of this part of the leftist movement was the activity of the leader of the “Yes California” movement, which seeks secession of California from the US, Louis Marinelli, who has close ties with Moscow. Unfortunately for him, Marinelli, who previously had a reputation as an ultra-conservative and had to immediately “reinvent” himself into the liberal for his new role, was eventually rejected by his fellow compatriots, after which this admirer of Russia had to move to Yekaterinburg, where he became a permanent resident.

Russian-backed #CalExit leader Louis Marinelli after filing paperwork for the California Self-Determination Referendum Act.

Nevertheless, the American extreme right clearly represents a greater priority for the Kremlin than the left, primarily because of its specifics. Unlike the leftist radicals, who adhere to anarchist views, and therefore are not represented in power and do not participate in political battles while remaining a rather marginal “street” movement, the ultra-right try to actively influence political life. They emphasize patriotic rhetoric, which is able to attract more followers, and they are state-minded and prefer not a utopian communist anarchy, but a nationalist dictatorship.

To summarize, it can be said that the radical behavior and anti-government rhetoric of the ultra-Left is, of course, used by the Kremlin, but it has difficulty connecting with this movement. At the same time, Moscow quite openly maintains direct contacts with the right-wing extremists, which adds to its levers of influence over the rightists (considering that the structures of the extreme right are organized better in principle than the ones on the left). At the same time, not all American moderate liberals have sympathy for Russia, unlike, say, many European “leftists.”

It is easy to see that many of these ideologies are inherently contradictory, and almost all of them do contradict each other. However, they have a number of common features and methods of construction, which allows them to successfully attract followers in the West.

  1. The Kremlin propaganda machine has mastered the key principle of creating any illusory reality: ideology does not have to be logical and irrefutable. It has to be is pleasant, in line with people’s views and expectations, in tune with their passions and appealing to their vanity. It is against such an ideology that facts, truth, the most ironclad evidence and a trail of blatant misdeeds are all useless. It is adopted voluntarily, without any repression, and in the conditions of absolute information freedom. Unlike the Soviet Union, whose propaganda only acted on people of pro-communist views, each of the ideologies listed above ideally suits their target group.
  2. Each of these ideologies presents an image of an enemy. Moreover, this “enemy” is in the category that the specific target group is already hostile to and which gives rise to their greatest phobias. For the American extreme left, the state is declared the source of all ills, for nationalists – the “Jewish conspiracy”, for religious fanatics it’s the image of the “liberal Antichrist”, and so on. As mentioned earlier, accusing a selected group of causing real or illusory troubles, more often than not, has nothing to do with reality, but it appeals to the sense of identity of certain groups so much that they will adhere to this comfortable worldview until their last breath.

By the way, these exact same technologies are used within Russia itself. Many Russians resent Ukrainians because these “younger brothers” chose another path, independent of Russia, preferring to orient themselves toward the West and, in Russians’ eyes, “betraying” Moscow. The hatred for Americans has been preserved in Russians, one might say, “genetically”, since the Cold War, and nowadays compensates for their sense of inferiority in the face of the obvious American superiority in the development of technology, science, cinema and living standards. Sexual and religious minorities, anarchists and other movements, as well as the intelligentsia in Russia, have always been few and on the margins, and therefore do not engender sympathy among the broad masses.

  1. The most important, concluding moment in the formation of an illusory reality is the connection that the Kremlin makes between the phenomena and processes that it dislikes and the above-mentioned enemies and phobias. Within Russia itself, we see that it is the minorities (Muslims, Crimean Tatars, oppositionists, etc.) who are accused of terrorism, Ukrainians – of committing “sabotage” in the occupied Crimea, Americans, in particular the CIA – of paying people to take part in protest rallies, etc.

This technology is used by Donald Trump and his supporters in the US, which creates a strange harmony between them and Moscow. For Trump fans, the most powerful phobias are, most often, the fear of immigrants, the advancement of women’s emancipation, and for the older generation – the fear of the Communists who are the most “desired” enemies for this category of people. That is why for the “advanced” part of the electorate, conspiracy theories are emerging one after another claiming that the investigation by the FBI and the special prosecutor Muller and any rejection of Trump are nothing but a part of a “Communist conspiracy” designed to “destroy America.”

But as a matter of fact, first, the extreme left wing is quite small, even within the Democratic Party. Second, it’s wrong to reduce anti-Trump attitudes strictly to political differences. The behavior of the incumbent US president is perceived as unacceptable by people of different views, primarily by national security experts, who, because of their work, most often have no political affiliation. Moreover, a significant part of the Republican Party strongly rejects Trump.

2016 Independent Presidential candidate Evan McMullin

Suffice it to say that this is the reason why some formerly loyal Republicans broke away from the party and created an alternative conservative movement, acting strictly out of the sense of patriotism. The leader of this “Stand Up Republic” movement is the former CIA officer Evan McMullin. Thus, it is obvious that majority of Americans have very moderate, centrist views. The main problem of the United States is that such sentiments have not yet found their place in the highest echelons of American politics.

The bottom line: reality simply cannot win in a competition with illusion, since many people believe what they want to believe. The virtual world seeks to replace the real one not just for the individual marginal groups, but for the governments of entire countries. And the antidote to this destructive phenomenon has not yet been created.