Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rebranding Russia

We have a lot of catching up to do. More than 6 years after 9/11 and we still don't have an IO-political warfare-strategic communication effort going, and that's just for the radical Muslims. So how are we going to deal with the Russians? My argument is that Strategic Citizens should step up and take action, since our government isn't willing or capable of waging the kind of IO campaign that is required. But citizens seem to be even less interested than the bureaucrats. It seems that we are running on fumes, but the Russians appear to be grasping the social netwar/4GW/IO/Strategic Communication/Meme War stuff:

So how is Russia being rebranded? In a February 2006 speech, Vladislav Surkov, Putin's deputy chief of staff and main ideologist, laid out much of the vision.

Addressing activists from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, Surkov said the collapse of communism had led to a "deformed democracy" dominated by a corrupt oligarchy and susceptible to Western efforts to weaken and exploit Russia. Putin's election in 2000, Surkov argued, was the first step toward recovery.

But the West and its sympathizers inside Russia, he continued, are unhappy with this revival -- and intent on overthrowing the Kremlin leadership using methods similar to those of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. Surkov ominously warned about "the soft conquering of Russia" by the West, with the help of "orange technologies" in a time of "decreased national immunity to foreign influence."

In such an environment, Western-style democracy and an open free-market economy would leave Russia unacceptably vulnerable to the machinations of Western governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations. To protect Russia's independence, Surkov argued for a statist and nationalist political system that he called "sovereign democracy" -- with the emphasis clearly on sovereign. "Sovereignty," Surkov said, "is the political synonym of competitiveness."
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Underlying all of this is the message that Russia is a force to be reckoned with after being victimized by the West throughout the 1990s, and -- flush with energy wealth and the influence it buys -- it can and will vigorously defend its interests.

To that end, the Kremlin was quick to hire the Western public relations agency Ketchum in 2006, during Russia's critical tenure at the helm of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized nations.

A Ketchum executive at the time described the firm's mandate as "not changing Russian policy, but helping on the presentational side" -- lifting the veil on Western media techniques, logistics, and web materials. In a year when Russia was dogged by complaints about its aggressive energy policy, its G8 chairmanship emerged as a solid, well-managed highlight.

"The Kremlin's principal intention at this time is to show a resurgent Russia in a multipolar world, a world in which Russia is confident," says Steven Lock, who heads the Russia office for the Mmd public relations firm. The upcoming publicity storm likely to surround the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi is just one example, he notes, adding, "'Brand Russia' will be as sophisticated about promoting itself as Russian companies have become about promoting themselves."
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In shaping this virtual reality, Putin's strategists rely on many traditional tools, like near-total control of the broadcast media, careful management of the news cycle, and strict message discipline among officials.

They also have become adept at using carefully choreographed set pieces -- manufactured conflicts, subterfuge, provocations, and diversions to influence the general climate of opinion at home and abroad and to make it more fertile for the Kremlin's preferred message.

But this is not your father's Soviet propaganda machine. Gone are the presenters in boxy gray suits, the monotone cadences, and poor production value that characterized communist-era news broadcasts. Such an approach would fall flat in today's Russia, where an increasing number of people are plugged into a global media culture. "In the society of the spectacle, your spectacle has to be spectacular," says Andrew Wilson, author of "Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World."
Today's news anchors on Russia's state-controlled television channels are young, their outfits hip, the sets modern, and the production top-rate. Putin's message may be a bit retro, but his medium is big, shiny, and high-tech. Analysts say the Kremlin has become frighteningly good at conjuring up its own version of reality and selling it to the Russian public -- and, to an extent, the outside world -- to serve its own political ends.
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A good example is a prime-time documentary aired on state-controlled Rossiya television on September 30. The report, titled "barkhat.ru" -- or "velvet.ru." -- alleged that the CIA was planning to overthrow the Kremlin elite with an Orange Revolution-style uprising in Russia.

"To the West's great pleasure, velvet revolutions have broken out over the course of the past five years throughout Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet space," journalist Arkady Mamontov said ominously as he introduced the report. "Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan. The next goal -- Moscow."

Mamontov's slickly produced report alleges that the CIA is at the epicenter of a massive conspiracy involving opposition groups like Garry Kasparov's Other Russia, pro-democracy youth organizations like Smena, NGOs like Freedom House, and the Western mass media to overthrow the Kremlin leadership.
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The Kremlin's image-shaping efforts, however, go well beyond the traditional media.

A new generation of pro-Kremlin bloggers, for example, is being cultivated to spread Putin's word online -- and to rapidly disrupt the activities of Russia's opponents, both real and imagined.

When Kasparov's Other Russia held a rally in Moscow on April 14, for example, a group of pro-Kremlin bloggers from the Young Guard youth movement flooded the Internet with reports of a smaller pro-regime demonstration on the same day. In doing so, they crowded out postings about the opposition march on Russia's top web portals -- creating a virtual news blackout in one of the last refuges of free media in the county. Pavel Danilin, the pro-Putin blogger who spearheaded the effort bragged to "The Washington Post" that his team "played it beautifully."

"The authorities are developing pro-presidential websites and they aren't even all that boring," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank. "The basic line is a pro-Putin personality cult and counterpropaganda."
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The Kremlin is also becoming adept at using the blogosphere to manufacture convenient "facts" that they can use to shape their message. The first reference to Albright's comment about Siberia, for example, was posted by a blogger called "Nataly1001" back in 2005. The comments were then picked up by the Kremlin-controlled media -- including the government's own newspaper, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" -- and disseminated as fact.
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In the late 1970s, he and his colleagues at the CIA were deeply concerned about an increasingly confident and assertive Soviet Union which -- for a time -- appeared to be winning the global information war with the West.

"In the late 70s we had a problem," Ermarth said. "The Soviet Union was feeling its oats, believing that the trends...were running in its favor," he said. "The U.S. was in retreat around the world because of Vietnam and related things. The Soviets had reached a new peak in strategic power. They were making money hand over fist with oil and gas."

Ermarth said Moscow sought to "parlay this into political coin" by provoking divisions within the Western alliance, by making inroads into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and by "sanctimonious beating up on Washington in the name of peace."
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Now, he adds, the United States and its allies have to "do battle" with Russia's current rebranding trend, by "poking holes in the narratives where it deserves that. Where the narrative is false. Where the narrative is dangerously pretentious."

But, Ermarth says, in contrast to the Cold War -- when the Soviet Union was at the center of the West's foreign-policy universe -- Washington is currently devoting precious few resources to combating Moscow's information offensive.

"In order to have a coherent policy for dealing with this meta-narrative, you've got to have a comprehensive, coherent understanding [of it]," Ermarth said. "And I would say we haven't invested enough in building that understanding to know how to do this. Just standing up and saying the Russians are bullies on oil and gas, and they're just trying to pull our chain on ballistic missile defense, is not adequate."

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