Russia’s growing presence in Syria involves a parallel war of information, with the Kremlin dead-set on controlling an increasingly unwieldy narrative.
Here are seven strategies that show up time and time again in releases by Russian officials and state-sponsored news organizations.
1. Blatant Denial
For about three weeks, Russia did not comment on the evidence, available from satellite images and social media, that its military was moving toward a combat stance in Syria. Instead, it insisted that all its hardware appearing in Syria was part of a defensive pact with President Bashar Assad. (RELATED: Selfies And Spies Prove That Russian Troops Are Fighting In Syria)
Unfortunately for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the cat was soon out of the bag — and by the time Russian planes launched airstrikes, the public version of the story had already changed.
2. Overt Generalization
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Thursday at the United Nations that Russia is bombing Islamic State, al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and “other terrorist groups.” He characterized the targets with charming simplicity: “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist. Right?” (RELATED: Russia’s First Strikes In Syria Prove They’re Not Fighting ISIS)
It’s easy to imagine that any group rebelling against Assad in Syria is automatically a terrorist group. But in fact, the first round of airstrikes included damage to the Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the CIA. Lavrov has said on behalf of Moscow that “we don’t consider Free Syrian Army a terrorist group.”
3. Changing The Subject
After rumors emerged that Russia’s first airstrikes struck civilian residential areas, some Russians and Kremlin apologists asked about news that U.S. bombs killed patients in a Doctors Without Borders hospital outside Afghanistan. The difference, of course, is that the White House has expressed condolences for the incident, and the Pentagon has admitted error, while Russia refuses to acknowledge that civilians have been hurt and killed.
So-called “whataboutism” is a strategy with a long, proud pedigree — dating back to the Soviet Union highlighting Jim Crow-era racism to obscure its own human rights abuses. Not only does it distract from Russia’s own misdeeds, but it taints its opponents with a subtle note of hypocrisy.
4. Hyping Your Client
Bashar Assad has committed countless atrocities against civilians, gone out of his way to avoid fighting Islamic State and drawn repeated international criticism over the four and a half years of the Syrian civil war. For years, the U.S. and its allies declared that Assad is no longer the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. (RELATED: Syrian Regime Bombing Kills 100 Civilians In Suburban Market)
But the Kremlin continues to repeatedly refer to Assad’s regime as a “legitimate government” (so does Iran). It’s a rhetorical device that it also uses to defend the election that empowered the now-deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whom it supports. For good measure, speaking at the U.N. last week, Putin made repeated allusion to the U.N. as a “legitimate” international body.
Russian opposition activist and politician Alexei Navalny wrote Monday that there’s a crucial difference between legitimacy and legality. Officials, he pointed out, “can pass any foolish laws they want and block anyone they don’t like from running for office.” Because they’re supported by a corrupt electoral system rather than a truly popular vote, “it’s formally legal, but completely illegitimate.”
5. Pandering To The Optimists
While defending Assad’s legitimacy and sovereignty at the U.N., Putin also called for a “genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism.” And after meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the General Assembly, he told the press that “there is still a way we can work together on the problems we all face” despite differences.
It echoes 2013, when Russia took seriously an offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. would not intervene if Syria disposed of its chemical weapons. By embracing an opportunity to play the role of mediator, and helping destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stash, Russia shored up its image as a neutral party capable of dealing equitably with both sides. (RELATED: US Rejected A Russian Offer For Peace In Syria 3 YEARS AGO)
Assad, however, still has chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, that is not covered by the Russian-brokered agreement.
Just like the insistence on respecting Assad’s legitimacy, Putin’s repeated appeals to mutual cooperation are an attempt to appear more open-minded and reasonable than his international rivals.
6. Pulling A Donald Trump On Your Rivals
By the same token, at crucial moments it can be useful to vilify opponents as unreasonable and rigidly ideological. At the same U.N. press conference where he said “if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist,” Lavrov criticized the chaos ensuing from U.S.-led regime change in Iraq and Libya as a dangerous example for Syria. He also said the American assumption that Islamic State could be defeated after removing Assad was “not very serious.”
Likewise, earlier this summer Lavrov dismissed a Pentagon official’s warnings about Russian threats to U.S. security as contributing to “an artificial atmosphere of hostility.”
Kremlin messaging has both a dark side and a light side. Sometimes, despite the pleasantries, you just have to dismiss your challengers as unserious — Lavrov might just as well have called the U.S. a bunch of losers.
7. Old-Fashioned Suppression
Russia’s relationship with unwelcome news sources is well-known. While Kremlin-friendly business moguls have helped shrink the market for independent print and broadcast media, Putin sometimes has to resort to heavier-handed strategies to deal with the Internet. (RELATED: How Internet Sleuths Tracked Putin Spokesman’s $426,000 Yacht Ride)
Ruslan Leviev is an investigative journalist who has used online sources to fact-check the Kremlin’s claims about involvement in Ukraine and Syria. He received a summons Monday from the military’s prosecutor-general, presumably in reference to his coverage of Ukraine. While Leviev may not face a criminal inquiry, other journalists have faced threats and even been killed after revealing unsavory facts about a polygamous Muslim police chief and the war in Ukraine.
Media outreach and public diplomacy are tools that all governments use in promoting and defending their policies. But Russia uses this small handful of strategies to an impressive extent, both at home and abroad. As its participation in the Syrian conflict continues, it’s worth keeping an eye on how the Kremlin tries to advance its side of the story.
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