WASHINGTON — Fed up with the Russian government’s false claims early in the Ukraine crisis, the State Department issued an unusual, point-by-point takedown along with a cheeky note that said not since 19th-century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had the world seen such “startling Russian fiction.”
The jab didn’t seem to hurt in Moscow. A pro-Kremlin newspaper columnist mocked the Obama administration’s “excellent knowledge of Russian literature.” And an undeterred President Vladimir Putin spent the next several weeks polishing his narrative of a strong Russia standing up to Western imperialism in order to protect a vulnerable ethnic Russian population from an illegitimate, Nazi-infiltrated new Ukrainian leadership.
In retaliation, the State Department fired off a second literary-themed fact sheet: “Russian Fiction the Sequel: 10 More False Claims about Ukraine.”
Such calculated repartee is familiar to historians and analysts of the Cold War, who’ve noticed a resurgence of that era’s disinformation and propaganda tactics in Russia’s showdown with the United States and Europe over its military activities in and near neighboring Ukraine.
The issue came into even sharper focus this week, when tens of thousands of Russians packed Moscow’s Red Square for a May Day parade — the first since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a cannily timed revival that went well beyond celebrating workers’ rights and included slogans approving of Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region over the objections of the United States and its allies.
“From the Russian side, propaganda-wise, you see a lot of talking about the West as a monolithic body. It’s ‘us versus the West,’ very much in the way the Cold War was,” said Vince Houghton, a scholar of Soviet-era foreign policy and in-house historian at the International Spy Museum, a privately operated museum in downtown Washington that exhibits Cold War spy ware and propaganda artifacts.
Unlike in those days, however, the U.S. government’s response to Russia’s spiel appears far more muted. In part, that’s in keeping with the Obama administration’s efforts to avoid foreign entanglement unless there’s a direct threat to U.S. interests.
But, say critics, it’s also a reflection of how Washington turned its gaze away from Moscow’s information campaigns after the Soviet Union dissolved, and has downsized or dismantled the U.S. agencies that were tasked with countering such propaganda.
John Lenczowski, who was Ronald Reagan’s principal Soviet affairs adviser and is now the president of the Institute of World Politics, touched on that topic at a recent event called “Propaganda, Disinformation and Dirty Tricks: the Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare,” sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington.
The United States used to have a working group dedicated to combating Russian “active measures,” a term of art that encompasses disinformation, forgeries and other propaganda-style activities. Lenczowski said the U.S. monitors picked up intelligence, analyzed it, declassified it and then sent it out to foreign governments and editorial boards to build awareness of Soviet activities.
At the end of the Cold War, Lenczowski said, the Russian agencies in charge of active measures were simply reshuffled but never truly reformed, and many of the practitioners, including former KGB spy Putin, remain in government. That wasn’t the case in the United States, where those functions largely disappeared.
“There’s a tremendous institutional memory within Russia today about how this was done during Soviet days,” Lenczowski said. “Unfortunately, we have stopped tracking these kinds of things in the U.S. government.”
The U.S. side is invoking the old tactic of juxtaposing repression in Russia with freedoms in the West, warning that Putin’s worldview is outdated and puts his nation at risk of becoming a pariah state — a refrain that comes up each time Washington defends the effectiveness of sanctions it’s slapped on Russian businesses and business leaders.
And those recent State Department releases quoting a beloved Russian novelist?
“It’s not something brand-new. It’s very reminiscent of the ‘Dr. Zhivago’ operation,” said Houghton, the spy museum historian.
He was referring to a covert CIA operation that during the Cold War smuggled Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel behind the Iron Curtain and into the hands of thousands of Russian readers. The Soviet government had banned “Dr. Zhivago” for its critique of communist rule. An internal CIA memo from the time noted its “great propaganda value”; the agency even funded the publication of a lightweight paperback edition that could be easily concealed in a jacket pocket.
The Zhivago stunt came to light only last month, when the CIA declassified nearly 100 documents related to the operation. The timing, Houghton said, was no coincidence.
Russian actions, however, are outpacing the U.S. response, with bolder and more provocative statements from the Kremlin each day, according to analysts who watch Moscow’s messaging.
One battle in this information war is waged 140 characters at a time, with the State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry squaring off on Twitter over the hashtag UnitedForUkraine.
Initially conceived in the United States as a label to promote Ukraine’s upcoming elections and highlight the country’s democratic progress, the hashtag was hijacked by Russia to smear the Kiev politicians. This week, the Russian Foreign Ministry used UnitedForUkraine in a tweet that said, “Kiev authorities making situation in Ukraine catastrophic.”
Richard Stengel, a former Time magazine editor who’s now the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, used a State Department blog this week to rattle off evidence that Moscow is subjecting “the rest of the world to an intense campaign of disinformation that tries to paint a dangerous and false picture of Ukraine’s legitimate government.”
Stengel noted how Russia’s RT network, which Kerry described last month as a “propaganda bullhorn,” manipulated a leaked telephone call to suggest that a former Ukrainian prime minister was advocating violence against Russia. He also noted the “ludicrous assertion” that the United States has invested $5 billion to foment regime change in Ukraine.
“These are not facts, and they are not opinions,” Stengel wrote. “They are false claims, and when propaganda poses as news it creates real dangers and gives a green light to violence.”
Meanwhile, Putin continues to deny that his forces are behind unrest in separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. He’s made other statements that range from bizarre, such as claiming the Internet is a “CIA project,” to brazen, such as referring to areas of eastern Ukraine as “Novorussia,” or New Russia.
Still, message control isn’t what it used to be in the Cold War. With the ubiquity of social media and online news portals, it’s much easier and faster today to fact-check official lines, seek alternative viewpoints and chat directly with ordinary citizens nearly 5,000 miles away. That can lead to more nuance and independence in popular opinion.
Take Anastasia Vikhoreva, a 17-year-old Russian exchange student from St. Petersburg who on a recent morning said she had conflicting emotions while visiting the Red Terror exhibit in the Spy Museum with some American friends. She posed for a picture in front of a portrait of the founder of the KGB, the legendary Soviet spy agency where Putin was a colonel, and admitted that the Russian martial music playing in the room gave her nationalist stirrings.
“When I hear this, songs about war and stuff, I’m, like, ‘Yes!’ ” she said.
Vikhoreva wasn’t moved enough, however, to support a wider operation in Ukraine, and she said she feared that growing international isolation might leave Russia with just China as an ally. So does she buy Putin’s line about standing up to the West and defending ethnic Russians in and around Ukraine?
“It might be a not very patriotic thing, but, honestly, I do not, because Vladimir Putin is not the best person, not the best president that we can have,” Vikhoreva said.
Perhaps wary of running afoul of the Kremlin after such an unflattering description, the Russian teen gave a little laugh and quickly added a conciliatory aside to her president: “Sorry, sir!”