The Menace of Unreality: Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century

The Menace of Unreality: Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century

Anne Applebaum, Director of the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum, moderated a discussion with Geoffrey Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, Oleksander Scherba, Ambassador at Large at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Michael Weiss, Editor-in-Chief of The Interpreter, and Peter Pomerantsev, journalist and documentary producer. 

An event hosted by the Archive programme.

Published 30 Oct 2014

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This livestreamed panel examined how Russia’s extensive disinformation campaign undermines Western democracy.

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Anne Applebaum, Director of the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum, moderated a discussion with Geoffrey Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, Oleksander Scherba, Ambassador at Large at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Michael Weiss, Editor-in-Chief of The Interpreter, and Peter Pomerantsev, journalist and documentary producer. John Herbst, Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Centre at the Atlantic Council and partner for this event, gave introductory remarks.

The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine includes not just covert military action, but deception and confusion- a new vision of how to conduct warfare in the 21st century. To fight Russian disinformation we must first define it.

Peter Pomerantsev opened the discussion by quoting a ‘pearl of wisdom’ from Russian media ‘guru’ Vasily Gatov: “In the 20th century, the great battle was for freedom of information. In the 21st century the battle will be over the abuse of freedom of information by various maligned state and non-state actors”.

Since 2008, Pomerantsev argued, the Kremlin and military in Russia have adopted a body of thinking where information can be used as a tool to “confuse, demoralise, divide and conquer” and thus be used as a weapon. This comes from the Kremlin’s recognition that it cannot take on the West in a traditional military fashion and expect to win. Rather, over the years, Putin has talked about needing to be cleverer than the other side.

One of the Kremlin’s main strategies is to destroy people’s faith in journalism and the possibility of debate in media.  Michael Weiss noted that this disinformation is most problematic when it is picked up by mainstream media organisations and circulated in the spirit of objectivity. The Putin regime, Weiss claimed, understands that Western institutions valuing transparency and objectivity can be exploited. “Even if you read through and see that a story is nonsense, the headline will still begin to penetrate”, he said.

He posited that as money was the main motivation of the Putin “virtual Mafia state”, journalists and governments should look into corruption, extortion and bribery on an international scale to find links with Putin’s party of “Crooks and Thieves” (as it came to be known in the 2011 Duma protests). Weiss also called for more support for investigative journalism, to uncover dubious Kremlin links. Inevitably “the investigations would lead back to the West”, he warned, “We need to get our own house in order.

“We need to fundamentally change the debate about Russia”, Weiss argued. At the moment the West, and particularly the USA is unsure whether Russia is a partner or an adversary.

Turning to the example of Ukraine, Oleksander Scherba noted the three ideological misconceptions upon which the Russian propaganda feeds: first, the notion of Ukraine as a failed state. The second is accusing anyone who disagrees with the Kremlin or pro-Russian groups of being ‘fascist’. Third, that Russia is legitimately attempting to regain the former power of its historical empires.

Ambassador Pyatt emphasised the importance of recognising that the battle for the information space is just one layer of Russian strategy to exercise influence over the Ukrainian people. In Slovyansk, the first thing soldiers did was switch TV and radio stations over to Russian content. To this day the separatist areas only stream Russian broadcasting channels full of disinformation; this helps cultivate an environment of fear that works in tandem with Russia’s advanced weapons systems in the Donbass.

“The best way to deal with this campaign of misdirection is the truth”, Pyatt stated, using the successful parliamentary elections on Sunday 26 October 2014, which were independently judged to be free and fair, with an unambiguous mandate for further reform working towards greater European integration.

The panel was preceded by a workshop that brought together a range of European and American experts to identify what constitutes Russia’s disinformation campaign, the theory and motivating factors behind its international project, and ways to find common solutions. As part of this workshop, the partner organisations conducted a series of short videos and podcasts with participants to discuss the impact of Russian disinformation on Europe and the rest of the world.

Interview with Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director, European Endowment for Democracy

Interview with Marieluise Beck, Member of the Bundestag, Germany

Interview with Sarmīte Ēlerte, Board Chair of the Baltic to Back Sea Alliance; Member of the Riga City Council

Interview with Dunja Mijatovic, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE

Podcast with Boris Reitschuster and Joerg Eigendorf

Podcast with Michael Weiss and Janis Karklins
Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century – An Introduction

About the Speakers

Geoffrey Pyatt became the United States ambassador to Ukraine in August 2013. He spent 24 years in the US State Department and held numerous positions including Principal Deputy, Assistant Secretary of the South and Central Asia Affairs Bureau (2010-2013) and Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Mission to International Organizations in Vienna (2007-2010). Prior to this, he served at the US Embassy in New Delhi and at the American Consulates in Hong Kong and Lahore.

Oleksander Scherba is Ambassador-at-Large for the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously, he was involved in Ukrainian politics and was the foreign policy advisor to Arseniy Yatseniuk during his presidential campaign in 2009-2010. He has held various positions in the diplomatic service, including first secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, counsellor to the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States, and third secretary to the Ukrainian Embassy in Germany.

Michael Weiss is the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, and columnist for Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon. He has broken several news stories for Foreign Policy, including how Iran has given virtually free oil to the Assad regime in Syria; how Angola’s energy sector works closely with a Swiss commodities trader and how Russia fired Grad missiles into eastern Ukraine. He founded The Interpreter as a news and translation service in May 2013.

Peter Pomerantsev is a British author and documentary producer. His writing on Russia features regularly in the London Review of BooksNewsweek/Daily BeastFinancial Times and The New Yorker. He has also worked as a consultant on EU and World Bank development projects in the former USSR. His book about working at the heart of Putin’s post-modern dictatorship, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, will be published in November 2014. He is also author of the Legatum Institute report Revolutionary Tactics: Insights from Police and Justice Reform in Georgia.

John Herbst is the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. He served for thirty-one years as a Foreign Service officer in the US Department of State and was the US Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and Ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2000 to 2003. He previously served as US Consul General in Jerusalem; Principal Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for the Newly Independent States and the Director of the Office of Independent States and Commonwealth Affairs.

Anne Applebaum leads the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum. She is also a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Her most recent book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1946, won the 2013 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature and was nominated for a national book award in the US.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.