After years of low awareness and fragmented approaches, the West is finally coming to grips with Russia’s hybrid warfare in Eastern Europe. The next steps will require focus, engagement, and new thinking.
Since 2014’s surprise military intervention in Crimea — which then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove dubbed ”the most amazing blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare” — a wealth of Western studies have documented the strategies used to undermine the democratic foundations and values of the EU and their promotion in Western Balkans and the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Tactical, strategic, and long-term priorities have been put forward to educate the populace. Policy- and decision-makers can refer to the Center for European Policy Analysis’s 2016 report on winning the information war and the European Parliament’s 2016 analysis on strategic communication to counter propaganda. There are even bodies to coordinate the West’s response: the EU’s East StratCom task force and NATO’s StratCom Center of Excellence.
However, too little effort has been put into identifying precisely which citizens in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine) are most likely to believe the Russian narrative about the West. (That malign narrative in a nutshell: the West is aggressive and expansionist; the EU will collapse under economic stagnation and refugee waves; Europe is a morally decadent civilization turning its back on Christian values; the candidate countries have no chance of real integration unless they accept gay marriage, compromise their values, and sell their resources for peanuts; etc.)
Online users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization. Simply combatting disinformation through engaging in fact-checking will not be enough, as social identities could lead to biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumours and mistrust. Different tests have shown that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among targeted groups; some even backfire and increase misperceptions. The power of conspiracy theories is not limited to the politically naïve; they can affect even the highly engaged or ideological segments of the population: what counts are personal predispositions and the simple and clear structure of conspiracy theories.
All of this means, as a recent Rand Corporation analysis acknowledged, that traditional counter-propaganda techniques are decreasingly effective. So what will work? Building trust between elected officials and citizens, promoting a more responsive approach to government, tailoring messages towards communities at risk and embracing personalized communication. But all of these will require conceptual innovations and long-term focus.
How should the West react?
Russia has continued to hone its use of propaganda tools, as seen during the Brexit campaign and the 2016 U.S. elections. But there are reasons for cautious optimism in the western Balkans and in Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, where four broad strategies could undermine the Russian narrative and reduce the destructive potential of the Kremlin’s engagement strategies.
Deliver an unambiguous, empowering, and positive message. Western credibility is undermined by the current ambiguity about the limits and ambitions of EU and NATO. But Brussels is starting to tell the Western Balkans that there is a future for the worthy, and the Eastern Partnership counties also deserve a strategic promise and a credible commitment. The West should never underestimate the power of a positive message, appropriate investment schemes, and a clear timetable, even if the challenges to the Western integration of these countries are massive.
Speak to the people with confidence and modesty. Avoid a superior tone that clashes with national dignity. And history matters; any lack of awareness of main national narratives will serve Russia’s effort to portray an out-of-touch, imperialistic, and unsympathetic West. Therefore, more caution should be exhibited by officials in their statements, more consideration for local sensitivities should drive the political engagement strategy. The goal: alienating as few key political, economic, and social players as possible, while building Western consensus. Speak softly and help concretely with carrots, while carrying the big conditionality stick.
Offer tangible benefits and build societal leverage. In their discussion on what brought about democracy (or competitive authoritarianism) in Eastern Europe, Levitsky and Way distinguish between the power of leverage (the degree to which the governments are vulnerable to external pressure) and linkage (the density of ties and cross-border flows with the West). When competing geopolitical projects exists, the leverage will be reduced and what will matter will be the propaganda immunity built through linkage, through offering concrete ideational and material benefits.
First, the West should go beyond engaging with the local elites and design programs that directly target specific segments of the population, like local entrepreneurs for example—successful programs that led to European integration should be exported and localised in these communities. Invest in local civil society and media in smart way, in a manner that is likely to produce sustainable transformations. The West needs a local base as well, not just elite support who may vary depending on interests and election years.
Second, Western entry mechanisms in these countries should be refined to address better the local conditions. For example, projects and programs conducted through international or regional financial institutions should properly tackle not only underdevelopment, corruption, and the likes, but also the increasing levels of inequality and youth frustration. Inequality is associated with increasing polarization and with resentment, which could easily be speculated to damage societal solidarity and the West’s soft power.
Expose the truth about life in Russia. Russian propaganda focuses on the hypocrisy and failures of the West, but it does not present an alternative. In fact, this alternative does not exist: the Russian model is not a successful, exportable one. (Let us not forget the USSR “turned off the light” due to economic, not ideological, bankruptcy.) These days, Russia survives through megalomaniac events (with lavish spending beyond the necessities of good organization, such as the case of the Winter Olympics, World Cup or the May 9 parade), but this is like putting too much make-up on a wrinkled face: instead of hiding, it reveals even more. A comparative approach is highly detrimental to Russia. The citizens of the “targeted” countries by the West’s “charm and truth awareness offensive” should be exposed more to and made aware of these realities (by using documentaries, media reports, investigative journalism).
These are not short-term fixes; they require focus and engagement. Yet the western Balkans and Eastern Partnership could become a model for dealing with state-driven propaganda.
Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant. He has advised the prime ministers of Romania and Moldova.