Our main task is to develop effective information campaigns wherever Russia’s interests face real challenges by maintaining a broad public consensus on the course of Russian foreign policy.
/Russian Foreign Policy Review, 2007/
The aforementioned quotation reveals the main objective of implementation of Russian information instruments – securing the public’s support for Russian foreign policy initiatives. Disregarding the authoritarian tendencies among Russian authorities, even the centralized Russian power needs support during the period of intense foreign policy initiatives. The unprecedented flow of propaganda in the leading Russian TV channels beginning with summer 2013 until this moment has repeatedly drawn the attention of researchers from a number of countries to Russia and its foreign policy.
Russia’s innovative approach while conducting military operation in the Crimea only as an additional element to the information operations is worth of studying in military, political and communications research spheres. In early this summer, the Riga-based Centre for East European Policy Studies (CEEPS) completed the research “Russian Information Campaign against Ukraine: from Vilnius Summit till the Crimea Referendum” ordered by NATO Center of Excellence for Strategic Communication. In the course of the research, it was studied how, in order to achieve particular political and later on also military objectives, Russian leading television channels were disseminating one-sided information and misinformation during the time period between November 2013 (when EU Eastern Partnership Summit was held in Vilnius) till the so called Crimea referendum held in March 2014. The information campaign, aimed at discrediting Ukraine and European Union, as well as legitimize annexation of the Crimea, would be impossible without the Kremlin’s control of the leading Russian media and popularizing the concrete messages towards Ukraine in major Russian media over the period of several years.
To maintain control as much as possible!
Within the aforementioned research, the CEEPS researchers were analyzing not only the use of strategic narratives and thematic frames while presenting a specific interpretation of the events in Ukraine, but also the ways how Russian authorities maintained practical control of content of the mass media. Even during the period of the first V.Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin initiated the intentional taking control of the leading Russian television channels. During the third presidency, the habitual control of the media sphere was strengthened in the direction of Internet media. In the course of a number of years, Russian authorities were learning from the communication mistakes made both in the Chechnya wars and terrorist crises (Beslan, theatre “Nord-Ost”, etc.). The communication synchronization problems, once allowed at the time of sinking of the submarine “Kursk”, were resolved by implementing the mechanism of regular control of the leading television channels. Presently such control is realized, holding weekly meetings with representatives of the three major TV channels – First Channel (ORT), Rossiya and NTV – in the premises of Presidential Administration. Each of the mentioned channels is represented at the meetings either by a general manager or a deputy general manager. Presidential Administration is represented by its Deputy Head Alexei Gromov, or on separate occasions by Domestic Policy Directorate officials. A.Gromov also maintains regular telephone communications with the television channels’ leadership, sometimes advising to withdraw one or the other story from broadcasting. Concrete “theme directions” (Russian term – “temniki”) in the written form on the news content, the necessary way of presentation and advisable persons – commentators are sent only to the mass media which are the members of the state-owned media holding VGTRK.
Information campaigns are usually supplemented by comments on the part of the most popular members of the party-in-power “United Russia”. A special role in the communications campaigns, organized by Russian authorities, is allocated to political scientists close to the power, presenting “correct” interpretation of political events in Russia and abroad. The group of political scientists and political commentators communicating with Presidential Administration, includes the following persons: Sergei Markov, Dmitri Orlov, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Sergei Kurginyan, Mikhail Leontyev, Alexei Pushkov, etc.
Control of presenting of a single message in the media is conducted also by the V.Putin supporter Yuri Kovalchuk. Y.Kovalchuk owns decisive portfolios of stocks in the First Channel and STS TV, as well as controlling stake in NTV, Ren-TV, Fifth Channel and the newspaper “Izvestiya”, and portal “Life News”. Along with the aforementioned, Kovalchuk owns the company “Video International” supplying commercials to the leading Russian television channels. Activities of the First Channel are influenced also by one more Putin’s friend – Arkadi Rotenberg, the owner of the company “Krasniy Kvadrat”, developing programs for the First Channel. The media control mechanisms include allocating of advertisement budget to the mass media on the part of major state-owned enterprises. The precondition for that – no negative stories about the state companies.
Although Internet environment in Russia is much more independent than television, nevertheless the authorities are trying to influence also the processes in the global network. According to the Russian analytical portal “The Insider”, Russian Presidential Administration Domestic Policy Directorate maintains control of activities of the so called trolls and bloggers fulfilling three tasks: 1) publicizing and spreading of ordered materials; 2) creation or fake accounts in social networks spreading ordered information; 3) spam spreading, persecuting the opponents in Internet. These activities are organized by several persons, and Yevgeni Prikhozhin, the head of the holing “Konkord”, who knows personally V.Putin, can be mentioned as one of the most influential among them. Y.Prikhozhin has his own propaganda offices also in Ukraine, for example, “Kharkov News Agency”.
While maintaining control of television channels, Russian authorities impact also the agenda of the other media, for many television video clips are publicized also by, for instance, social networks and Internet media. The communication expert Georgi Pocheptsov indicates that directing the flow of information is however only a tactical instrument which is less effective compared with the strategic instrument – control of narratives.
Narratives and Thematic Frames as Manipulation Instruments
By the media agenda setting, it is rather possible to influence what the people are thinking “about”, not “what” they are thinking. In their turn, narratives orient people, offering them to assess events in a specific context, through the prism of particular values and myths. Narratives usually propose clear division between friendly ones and adversaries. Within control of narratives, it is possible to “insert” some political, public or military leader, some country government or a whole country in a more positive or negative context. The control of narratives can be regarded as the influential tool, for an information receiver denies the stories not meeting his/her “basic narrative”. If the media agenda setting can be used for spreading the necessary information, the objective of control of narrative is to create the specific filters denying one kind of information and drawing (“letting through”) the other kind.
If narrative can be understood as a story where a message is stated in a sequential way, the communications research needs a smaller analysis unit – thematic frame. The frame means fixing the characteristics of an object (person, event, phenomenon) from a particular perspective. If narrative can be conditionally compared with a small video record, then thematic frame could be compared with a photograph where the main character of the picture can be observed from a particular angle. Thematic frame may be applied to individual (while speaking about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, to mention that he is the “Chocolate King”), a group of persons (the citizens of Western Ukraine – “Bandera followers and neo-Nazi”), process, event or place (Maidan – “chaos”).
For a long period Russia has based its information campaign against Ukraine on spreading the narratives and frames on the “Western Ukraine as fascist infection”, the “Crimea as the land taken unjustly from Russia”, “Ukraine as the part and particle of “Russian World”. In 2013 – 2014, only spreading intensity and emotional saturation of these myths changed.
Fear and Lies
Russian journalists, while reporting on the Ukrainian events, systematically manipulate the video materials. Staging, editing effects, amateur video materials are often used when creating visual setting of the news. The use of such methods of communication has considerably increased the possibility to reach the main task of Russian news – radicalizing the political opposition and discrediting the Western countries (the US, EU). In the light of Ukrainian events, Russian media have permanently cultivated the sense of fear and insecurity, methodically addressed to the Ukrainian public, to be more precise, to the Russian speaking part of this public. If at the beginning of the campaign (summer 2013) fear was cultivated regarding eventual negative consequences of the EU – Ukraine Association Treaty in Ukrainian economics, then later on the public was frightened by “Bandera followers” who were seemingly going to attack the Crimea citizens disallowing them to speak Russian…
To better understand the activities of Russian authorities in the media space, it should be considered through the prism of way of thinking of Russian elite. In such perception, manipulation, as strong as possible control of the choice of stories and event interpretations are the categories to be turned to. In democratic countries, while planning strategic communication initiatives, the media freedom and journalists’ ethical norms are taken into account, but Russian authorities operate without such limitations. Even if Russian propaganda has no considerable impact on the Western countries’ public, it should be born in mind that majority of Russian population and a part of Russian speaking audience in the Russia neighbouring countries (including the Baltic states) are subject to direct influence of the Kremlin’s lies.
 At the moment the Research is available only in the Latvian language: hhtp://appc.lv/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Krievijas_Info_Kamp.compressed.pdf.