Sacha Bepoldin: “If we want to confront Russia, we need to take their information strategy very seriously.”

How should the European Union respond to Russia’s hybrid warfare? Is there a European strategy to counter disinformation and instrumentalization of truths and contextual realities by the Russian media – and the government? What prospects does the EU have in regards to its general relations with Russia and its “near neighborhood”? Sacha Bepoldin, Business Development Officer at the PMCG and former Sciences Po graduate, gives us his take on the issue.

Q: Do you think there is a European response to the hybrid warfare action from Russia? Do you think it is successful? Is this response different from one member state to the other?

A: Everyone is aware of the problem. The EU has a Stress Comm Unit, which was designed to check out Russian newspapers and the  information they broadcast. The publications are in English, available for everybody, with country specific targeting. They do fact checking, and explain what the truth really is. But it is a small EU unit overwhelmed by the massive Russian propaganda (mostly newspapers held by the government or private companies with strong ties with the government, such as Sputnik and Russia Today). These newspapers are aimed for the European public opinion to make the case of Russian policies and practices.

Are EU elites not responsive enough?

If we really want to confront Russia, we should take this problem very seriously. Russia takes lots of effort to translate everything in foreign languages (French, English, in the Baltic countries…) to make their information available for everybody, which can pose serious threats especially when some of this information happens to be inaccurate or even untrue, as it is sometimes the case in Sputnik. These tools are information threats, especially on the Ukrainian crisis where lies were basically being told and broadly diffused.

Do you believe that Russian media have an impact on policy and decision-making?

It does not directly affect European decision-making, but it certainly has some indirect impact. When politicians decide to adopt more Russian friendly policies, the public doesn’t protest because of the prevailing argument that Russia is not well understood by the West. Italy for instance decided to sign up for the construction of a new pipeline through the Balkan States from Russia. It is a bilateral pipeline between Russia and Germany that was agreed upon without any sign of resistance on the part of other European states. It’s a way for Russia and European countries to bypass Ukraine.

Does Russia target a specific country in Europe, in terms of information strategy?

They are very much involved in Germany, because of historically good relations.

The case of France is interesting as it has been mostly neutral about Russia. Whether or not Russia manages to influence French opinion would provide a good hint on the effectiveness and strength of the Russian media’s influential power. We ought to look at the future influence of the implantation of Sputnik and Russia today in France as a key to assess how real the threat actually is.

In regards to Greece, it has recently developed a friendly relation with Russia so it could become like Italy a preferred target.

With Georgia, it’s complicated. It was under a Russian embargo on trade until 2012, and before that diplomatic links were nonexistent between the two countries for several years. After the change of government, Georgia’s leadership became more “Russian friendly”. Also, Russia Today is now available in Georgia on TV for free, which is the main source of information – 90% of the Georgian people watch TV, against  around 7% who claim that internet is their main source of information. The message conveyed by the Russian media in Georgia reaches out principally to minorities: as Armenians speak Russian but not Georgian, they are much more likely to watch Russian-speaking TV channels, such as, of course, Russia Today. The Russians have obviously an interest in this: ethnic minorities, because of the language barrier in Georgia wish to get a job in Russia, which the latter evidently allows. This raises worrying concerns for Georgia, recalling the time when Russia started distributing passports in South Abkhazia and Ossetia. There is a fear that the same might happen in South Georgia, where it shares a border with Armenia. Furthermore, more and more Georgians are disappointed by the lack of interest the EU is showing towards them as the stalling visa liberalization process showed us. This change in public opinion represents a real opportunity for those who wish the country would get closer to Russia rather than the West.

The context of Nargorno Karabakh is different. Armenia and Azerbaijan have the exact opposite say on each and every fact, and everyone on both sides, regardless of the level of education, is caught in a heated WWI-like propaganda. There already is a total war of words in newspapers. Russia doesn’t need to push more; both sides already are in a serious state of enmity towards each other.

Would you consider, due to the conflict and the relation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, that Russia’s disinformation strategy would be more successful in Georgia than in the two former?

Russian media don’t need to influence the Armenian public opinion as it already is mainly pro-Russian, because Russia is providing them with security, trade, energy…

It is different in Azerbaidjan. They want to be independent in the region. Russia is only providing weapons and has thus less leverage, apart from the dispute over the Caspian Sea and the economic competition on the gas market.

Georgia is clearly Russia’s favorite target for information warfare. Russia wants to avoid at all costs that Georgia joins the EU and NATO. The strategy of the Russians was very effective: they tried to find out what the Georgians disliked the most about Europeans and use it as a leverage. As Russian NGOs and media focus on Georgian traditions, they used this moral ground to spread the word that if Georgia joins the EU, everyone will become “gay”, hence instrumentalizing the important orthodox belief among the population. As a result, the proportion of Georgian people thinking that Europe is a threat to their traditions increased from 5 to 20% over a period of 6 years. Russian influence in the country seems to be growing each year: since 2012, 44% of the population claims that Russia  won influence in Georgia (against 17% for the EU for example). This growing influence is also due to the opening of the market to Georgia goods and especially Georgian wine, which sales increased by 40%. This opening of the market gives great leverage to Russia over Georgia, because it could decide unpredictably to close it at any time. The construction of a new highway from Dagestan to Georgia represents another kind of problem: the media sells it as a great infrastructure for wine exportation. But the new highway could also be used for army convoy. Per se, the project is a good thing, but Russia’s behavior towards Gerogia is too unstable to be trusted. Even though Russia should be the natural partner of Georgia, Georgia should not base its economy on Russia, because they are not trustworthy. The embargo of 2006 can serve as good example and as warning in that matter. Georgia successfully managed to diversify their exportations as a result, with 85% of their gas now coming from Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, callnges remain. In November 2015, Azerbaijan could not provide the gas needed for a Georgian rising consumption and Georgia started considering Gthat Gazprom to provide it more gas compensate. But although Gazprom does indeed have the proper infrastructure and in fact also needs Georgia as it is through the country that gas can go to Armenia, unfortunately the past has proven this option to be risky: we cannot forget that Gazprom is also a political weapon for the Russian government, and could be used as such by cutting the gas in the case of disagreement on foreign policy issues. Georgia finally came to an agreement with Azerbaijan for more gas, but the talks were quite heated; there is even the assumption that the Prime Minister had to step out of the government, because he was not defending the Gazprom option. Even though the Georgian leadership was pretty much favorable to a deal with them, they could not act on it because of a strong popular resistance to the handing of a new influence tool for Russia to be used in the country. This shows the limits of Russian propaganda: favorable to trade, but refusal of any increased influence of Russia.

So Russia seems to have an integrated hybrid approach with Georgia (pipeline diplomacy, wine wars), would you say that Russia as a similar integrated hybrid approach toward Europe?

In my opinion, Russia’s objective is to generate a dispute amongst member states and partners in Europe. It has the same strategy in the Caucasus, by selling weapons to Armenia and Azerbaijan, playing on traditions, occupying 20% of Georgia… There is not always a driving incentive to condemn Russia’s behavior: Georgian Prime Minister stopped trying to condemn the annexation of Crimea, because the relationship with Russia is too profitable. The same pattern reproduces in Europe. It is for instance clear why a Kremlin-close bank is financing the Front National, which is a fiercely anti-European party: the biggest threat for Russian interests is a unified Europe, with common policies (foreign, energy) and especially a consensus on sanctions. Past experience showed that Europe could greatly disturb Russia by imposing sanctions that already revealed to be very damaging for the Russian economy. The best card Russia can play with European countries is the energy one and is most effective in Italy and Germany, as well as in some Balkan countries. For example, Germany is in the middle of a dispute with the Commission over the controverted North Stream II pipeline. A unilateral German decision could be very dangerous, as it poses the question of national interest VS European unity, and creates a divide among member states on the issue. In the Baltic states, there are minorities with which the Russian secret weapon card can also be used; Estonia has not yet a border treaty with Russia… Part of the strategy in information warfare is precisely to use rumors and underlying threats to divert the attention away from burning issues and to disperse it into things that don’t really matter. The case of Mistral was also an instance of such information warfare. It was massively instrumentalized in the media, who managed to shift the debate from Russia’s violation of borders to the question of France reliability in the military trade.

You mentioned earlier the influence of this narrative that Russia is not well understood in the West being one of the main reason behind this confrontation. Do you think this should be addressed at the European level, and if so, how?

For now, we have to talk with Russia, it would be absurd not to. We have to enter in talks with the Russian government, and also with the civil society – if indeed this can be done. The Russian government has for now eliminated this option by limiting the number of civil society organizations, passing a legislation against NGOs being foreign agents if they obtain grants or other forms of financing from the West for example. Unfortunately, there is the assumption in Moscow that NGOs were the puppeteers behind the color revolutions. Also, prominent Russian NGOs (such as Russkiy Mir) in Europe don’t promote dialogue only, they also promote Russian political views. The real problem is that, because Russian internal policy is not working anymore, and because the economy is degrading, they are now looking for an external enemy and they have found it in the West. As long as this remains Russia’s dominant position, I don’t think we will have much chance of talking to them. The solution would be to invest in the economy and provide advice if allowed to do so. Shifting the debate towards economic development would refocus their attention on internal policies rather than issues of foreign policy. Their foreign policy is aggressive and neighboring countries have suffered from it, as the only successes Russia has promoted in this area is either land grabbing or a war of influence against the US. For instance, there is a concern that if Russia was to succeed in its attempt to bring peace in Nagorno Karabarkh, this achievement would be incorporated within a narrative advocating how NATO, the OSCE and the US failed where Russia succeeded. Such concern should not exist if there is a chance for peace.

Photocredit: Russia Television via pixabay (license)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *