Bildet viser et tv-studio his den russiske TV-kanalen RT Photograph: NTB Scanpix

CHALLENGING: Russia’s use of communicative tools to promote the country’s strategic objectives in the aftermath of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine has posed a new strategic challenge to the Western policy-making community.

How to understand and deal with Russian strategic communication in Europe?

Published: 16 Mar 2018

What role does media play in Russian foreign policy?

With global proliferation of Internet access, the Internet has become a platform for countries’ foreign policies. Since the establishment of Russia Today (now known as RT) in 2005 Russia has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its public diplomacy and other strategic communication measures. This includes the two large news outlets RT and Sputnik News, but also lesser known social media based sites such as In the Now!, Russian Kitchen, and Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Challenging the Western narrative

These government media investments are made to challenge the (perceived) hegemony of the Western liberal narrative in global media, but also to support Russian foreign policy objectives more widely. These objectives chiefly include defense of the country and the regime; influence in the near abroad; a vision of Russia as a great power; non-interference in domestic affairs; and political and economic cooperation on equal terms with other great powers.

In our analysis of RT’s, Sputnik News’, and RIA Novosti’s coverage of key political events taking place in Europe in 2016, we find that the US, NATO and/or EU policy is portrayed as the main source of instability in the region, and their policies and actions as unprecedented and aggressive. Furthermore, the portrayal of the US as dictating European policy, emphasis on public discontent and disagreements among political leaders in Europe, can be seen as attempts at undermining trust – between countries as well as between people and elite within countries.

Attempt or effect?

To a large extent this coverage conveys genuinely held Russian beliefs about the world and international affairs, and disagreements in and of themselves are not something to fear. Nonetheless, these narratives can also be seen as attempts to weaken the European alliances vis-à-vis Russia in the global competition for influence. However, attempt does not necessarily translate into any actual effect in influencing foreign audiences.

There are reasons to believe that Russia has not been very successful in achieving its objectives in this sphere. That “Russian propaganda” is being so widely discussed in Western public debate is one such indicator. Countermeasures taken at European and national levels, such as the EU vs. Disinfo service, and not least, the current state of current Russian-Western relations, are indicators of the poor track record overt Russian strategic communication efforts have had in realization of Russian foreign policy.

What does this mean in policy terms? Despite our cautioning of hyperbole, the Russian use of active communicative measures in the aftermath of the crisis in Ukraine in 2014 has forced Western policy-makers to pay more attention to this aspect of Russian policy and its potential subversive effects on Western societies.

Should increase resilience

Fringe groups that are attracted to the Russian model can accept the Russian message, but the mainstream groups will most probably be far more reluctant to internalize the Russian message and to change their political preferences.

The most efficient way to counter this Russian communicative challenge is to increase the resilience of Western societies by addressing burning societal issues that could be exploited by Russia to sow discord and boost existing or potential conflicts.