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When Peter Pomerantsev was working as a documentary producer in Russia, he observed how Vladimir Putin employed propaganda to spread such deep doubt and division that meaningful political debate became impossible. Since then, he has written two books on the subject– Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, which chronicled Putin’s strategy and tactics; and This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, which looked at similar phenomena employed by despots, ideologues and grifters around the world.
Now, Pomerantzev is a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of Arena, a research project that explores how media can reach polarized and antagonistic audiences, using insights from on-the-ground research in countries including Ukraine, Italy, Hungary, Germany and Sweden. I spoke to him on Tuesday, February 15th, 2022, about his observations on the role of the dynamics in the information ecosystem in the current conflict on the Ukraine-Russia border.
You’ve been studying Russian propaganda, disinformation, and information warfare for some time. What have you observed in this particular conflict with Ukraine and Russia, at this moment, that you regard as new?
Most of what Russia is doing is actually quite familiar. There might be new narrative lines, but it’s very similar to what they did in 2008 around Georgia, and 2014 in Ukraine– moving your soldiers into position while saying you only want peace, and that Putin is the peacemaker. And “it’s the awful West with its aggressions and the genocidal Georgians and Ukrainians, and they’re to blame.” And then, looking for false flag excuses to invade. Part of that is obviously an informational component.
So, maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see anything spectacularly new. I see them pretty much working through a template that was very successful for them in the past. You could say they’re bluffing and moving the troops to get attention– but again, that’s a very old playbook as well. Look at Kim Jong-Un, or look at the Cuban missile crisis. Again, that’s a very classic brinkmanship tactic. So, none of those are spectacularly new. That doesn’t make them un-dangerous, because they worked very well for Russia in 2008 and 2014. So, if it’s worked well– if you are used to the West being in complete disarray, if you’re used to getting away with these pseudo-masked, ambiguous operations, and Germany and France do nothing basically– then you are pretty spoiled. You haven’t had any limits set on your behavior. So why wouldn’t they try it again?
The real change is what the U.S. and UK are up to. So clearly, in 2008, 2014, we knew what the Russians were up to, and didn’t say anything, and we let this ambiguity and this murk sort of flourish. Putin likes to be in the murk. He likes to be in this ambiguous space where you can’t really tell what’s going on. And that makes it very hard for NATO and allies to get their act together. They’re very slow bureaucracies. They have something called a OODA Loop, which is kind of the information analysis loop, and if there’s any confusion in it that allows an Italy or a Hungary to go, “Well, we don’t really know who’s at fault in this war.”
That sounds ridiculous to us, but in the world of bureaucracy, any kind of frazzling of that process gives the Kremlin a chance to act. They go in, then usually a French president goes and throws themselves at Putin’s feet. And he says, “Okay, I’ll pull my forces back.” And the sanctions are late and they’re vague and it’s over and et cetera, et cetera.
So this time, the Americans and the Brits have decided, “No, we’re not letting you get away with that. We’re switching on all the lights, we’re going to scream to high heavens about what you might be about to do.” It’s like somebody’s stalking you and following you down the street and keeps on saying, “I’m not following you. I’m not following you.” And you start screaming, “This guy’s going to attack me. This guy’s going to rape me,” and you start screaming about it and you look to deter them that way.
It might not work. Putin might not care, but it’s raised the costs. It’s made clear that there’s going to be sanctions, which is, I think he really cares about, and obviously, we’ve been giving the Ukrainians some weapons. He can still probably defeat the Ukrainians quite fast, but again, it’s all about raising the costs and getting rid of ambiguity.
And then, it’s kind of his choice. Does he still want to be this overtly aggressive leader, or is he going to do something else? So, that’s not unwise, and I think it’s probably the first time we’ve decided to take the initiative.
There are, however, some negative side effects of that. The primary one being what people in Ukraine feel. They’re the ones we are meant to be helping. Their attitudes are different, but I talk to officials a lot, and I talk to various kinds of analysts and think tankers and journalists and writers. And it’s ambiguous. On the one hand, obviously they’re very glad that people care, and they’re very glad for the support. And they’re very glad of the sanctions threats. On the other hand, we have multiple conflicts happening at the same time. There’s also an economic warfare and a political warfare dimension to this. In a way, our reactions are also helping– as a negative side effect– to sort of bury the Ukrainians alive.
Their sea is cut off by the Russians. Their air has been cut off due to concern from the insurers of airplanes and so on and so forth. Plus their economy is hit. We don’t really think about that. We haven’t really thought about the full-spectrum consequences of what we do.
So, we’ve started to get involved in these kinds of much more contemporary forms of competition where kinetic conflict and political warfare and economic warfare are all happening at the same time, but we haven’t really learned how to play this game properly yet. The Russian and the Chinese governments do it all the time. They’re doing army stuff, they’re doing their troll farms, they’re doing their TV channels, and they’re thinking about different audiences. So already, Putin is pivoting: “The West have cried foul. They said it’s war. We never said it was war.”
And at the same time, there’s a really strong campaign from all sorts of forces in Ukraine saying, “Oh look, it’s the Westerners who are damaging your economy, not us.” And that’s being pushed at all sorts of levels by all sorts of players. So, that’s happening all the time. We’re just kind of slow and clunky, and we don’t have the institutional capability to respond to that. And we don’t really have the strategic foresight to think about that. We do some press briefings and then we run away and then we think that’s enough. And it’s not.
Now, before what I say gets taken out of context– I’m not at all advocating that we should have troll farms and RT (Russia Today) and all this ugly stuff that the Russian and the Chinese governments have. But we do need to think about what is the diplomatic, democratic version of that. So, it means thinking about, what is public diplomacy for the 21st century? What is our long term dialogue that we’re trying to have with the Russian people about Russia’s role in the world? What is our communication to specific audiences in Ukraine to explain what we’re doing? All that needs to be happening. It really means having a kind of communication statecraft policy and institutional capacity for the 21st century.
We haven’t started thinking that through. We really haven’t. That’s a really understandable and healthy reaction– “Isn’t that like a Ministry of Information?” That’s Orwellian!”– and I completely get that. We certainly don’t want to do what the Russian or Chinese governments are doing, and neither do we need to do that, frankly. But, we do need to be thinking about this, because this is just the world we live in.
The Russian and the Chinese governments will be dialing up, dialing down. Swiveling, turning left, turning, right. The Chinese already do this in the South China Sea all the time. And we just have to understand this is the 21st Century. We’re a little bit stuck in the 20th Century thinking– that you can solve this all with some military muscle and a couple of sanctions. It is about communication. It is about perception. It is about dialogue. And we need to just step up to the plate a little bit.
Are there any particular investments that you have seen the West make– I’m thinking about the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, or similar types of activities in the UK that have been tasked with dealing with countering disinformation and countering state propaganda– that you think have made any impact in this current situation?
I think that there might be individual good projects for all I know. The State Department sometimes put out statements talking about various websites across the world saying, “Look, these are Russian assets. They’re not independent websites. These are funded and controlled by the Russian state.” That can be useful.
Really a lot of the focus of the Global Engagement Center was much more around the Middle East. And while there might be individual, good projects and that’s great, we’re talking about something which is stable, which is integrated and which is strategic. That clearly hasn’t happened. In the cold war, that did exist. There was a real coordination really from the presidential administration, thinking about information, right from the top through every level of government.
So, I don’t see anything strategic. I don’t see any kind of long-term planning. I don’t see any coordinated, institutional capacity. There are really brilliant people working in the GEC but usually, the stories that you hear coming out of that is inter-agency conflict. The Pentagon wants the money, they take it away from the GEC. The GEC wants to do something, but they can’t do anything fast because higher-ups in the state department don’t let them.
There’s nobody, I think, in the National Security Council (NSC) thinking about this. From what I can tell, they’ve got people thinking about cyber and internet regulation, which is related to this, but kind of apart. And then you have the China-focused people, the Russia-focused people. Who’s thinking about information statecraft as a day-to-day reality of what we do? I don’t think anybody’s doing that. I certainly haven’t found anyone who does that. I’ve only got to DC a couple of months ago- maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. But, I don’t even say many think-tank papers about this.
Even before we get to the institutional bits, there’s the values bit, because it can’t be like the Russian one. Again, I want to repeat– I am not saying we should do what the Russians do. I’m saying, what is the day democratic version of this?
So, one of the things that I’m always interested in, with regard to that question is, what are the tactics that are okay, in the context of an information war? Are those tactics different in a kind of hot context when you’re actually in a real conflict, a kinetic conflict, versus where we’re at, at the moment? What’s allowable? What’s okay?
Let’s talk about stuff which is obviously kinetic– that’s something different. I think there are psy-ops, which are done by the military. I’m sure the Pentagon did information operations when they needed to take Mosul. I’m sure there were a million information operations to undermine trust in ISIS, and I think that’s a completely legitimate function of war. That’s as old as the Trojan horse. Let the army guys do that. That’s always been legitimate, because if you can save lives through a deception operation, then do the deception operation. I don’t think that’s even a question. If you can take an ISIS city without bombing the population through a deception operation, do it. I don’t think that’s even a question. Sadly, we didn’t and thousands of people perished.
What Russia has been very good at doing is blurring the lines between war and peace. We’re in this political warfare space, this endless “phase zero” operation. And that’s not the Pentagon’s space, and we can’t let that space be securitized because that means we just live in this kind of very Russian world where everything is endless manipulation.
So what does it mean? It means, firstly, shoring up the information space so you’re often providing more good media and good information and trusted sources. If the Russian thing is to divide and spread confusion, we have to think about how you do the opposite of that. So, it’s talking about the values game. I think there’s a very, very different set of aims, but it’s very simple stuff as well. And it’s not just communication in the sense of messaging. It’s also like, we’re doing this… we’re being very strong to Russia. We’re saying, “Look, we see what you’re doing. We’re going to put sanctions on you.” But then, we also say and do, “Look, in any kind of economic warfare you do against Ukraine, we’ve got the Ukrainian’s back, too. We’re going to defend the hryvnia if you try that stuff. We’re actually backing the Ukrainians on that, as well.
The Ukrainians feel little bit like, “We get the military operation.” Obviously, they’re very concerned about that, but there is economic warfare going on, as well. And they need support for that. I understand their point of view.
So, it’s just about saying– we get all those angles. It’s also about talking to the Ukrainian people and saying, “Look, this is our strategy. This is why we’re doing it.” We haven’t been talking to the Ukrainian people very much. And talking to them and saying, “And yes, there’s going to be some consequences, but this is why we’re doing it.”
It’s not just us. I mean, the Ukrainians have got this delicate, balancing act. I bloody well hope that their military’s firming up the border, but they don’t want to tell the Russians what they’re doing. So, they’re playing it calm, I assume, taking all the reasonable steps that any military would if you have a huge army on your border. But they’ve got to do it in a way that keeps the country calm, and that’s a balance to them.
I think they’re actually responding now. I think, from yesterday, their military leaders started giving a lot more presentations saying, “Don’t worry. Obviously, we’re thinking of all eventualities.” That’s not what militaries want to do. Militaries want to keep their activities very, very secret in a way. But again, it just means a lot more public engagement, also for institutions that would usually prefer not doing that because they’re military and special services.
It just means doing it all the time, at all levels– the values piece is very important, but also having the institutional capacity to do this. At the moment, it might be left to a poor press-spokesman in an embassy. That’s not enough. That really is not enough. That’s the discussion we need to be having.
It sounds to me like one of the key things you think is necessary is a kind of fidelity to the truth.
I think that kind of goes without question, because credibility is important for us, while it isn’t for the Russian government. They’ve long gone for soft credibility. We’re still different. Credibility is still important for us, but a lot of this isn’t about truth or non-truth. A lot of this is about reassurance and understanding and listening and creating context where facts matter.
Look, we are in an ambiguous space. We don’t know if Russia will invade. We are in a very fluid context. So it’s about communication. It’s about trust. It’s about reassurance. It’s about thinking through the consequences of what you say and do, and also, this is actually not just the responsibility of the government.
There’s also a big responsibility for media. Some of the click bait headlines were probably unhelpful. Jake Sullivan says we have information the Russians can invade on the 16th, it becomes “the Russians are invading on the 16th.” There’s a click-bait seduction– which is understandable because newspapers need to sell ad revenue– but I think journalists have to understand that they’re not mirrors to this situation. They’re not just reflecting and commenting on what’s going on. They are the thing through which action happens.
If we are in a war of information of perceptions and nerves and emotions, then the way you talk about it is key. We know this from ISIS. There’s always this problem, if we report on ISIS’ horrible crimes, are we making ISIS stronger? And we had it with Trump. Every time we report on Trump in a certain way, do we make him stronger?
So, we have to be very careful that the way we report doesn’t actually strengthen what the Russians– or what the Americans– are doing. So there’s a lot of responsibility for journalists as well. We’re all actors now in these information dramas, where we might want to think we’re in the audience and observing, but we’re not. We’re not just critics sitting on the edge observing and writing our articles. We’re actually on the stage. Every journalist is part of the action. Every time you tweet something or you write something that actually contributes to the process– and there’s a lot of self-examination that needs to happen, as well. And look, we’ve got it wrong over and over again. There’s a strong case to make that the way Trump or ISIS were reported on was the wrong way.
Would you take those ideas to include the technology platforms as well? And how do you think about them at this moment?
So at the moment, things aren’t really being driven by them, frankly. If 2014 and 2016 were very social media driven, I think at the moment, we’re kind of in our “feature presentation,” and it’s really been driven so much by the big players– by what Putin says and Macron says. For instance, Macron says something about Finlandization of Ukraine, and that’s misreported. We get this huge– for Ukrainians, a very distressing agenda that “France is pushing us into surrendering sovereignty.” Finlandization in the Cold War meant the Soviets had a veto over ministerial posts in Finland. To Finlandize Ukraine is to suggest that the Kremlin will decide who’s the Minister of Interior and the Minister and the Head of the Secret Service. So, it’s a veto on government positions. Did Macron just say that? No, he didn’t say that, but it’s gone into this cycle straight away. That’s not social media campaigns, really; that’s really heads of state making statements, and somewhere between them saying something and it being a headline on the news, something has slightly gone wrong. So, we can’t just blame this on bots and trolls, I’m afraid.
I’m not suggesting we can. That’s not what I meant. I was thinking more about either the broader incentives on the platforms that are shaping the way those media– who you just said are in fact actors– are behaving, the extent to which you think about that as part of the context. And then, I would just add: we have seen some of the social media platforms in recent conflicts in the world– I’m thinking particularly of Israel and Palestine– go so far as to set up special operations centers for how to deal with disinformation in a time of conflict, how to deal with polarizing comments from either side. It’s to potentially limit incitement to violence. I don’t know if you think any of those types of things are or may be necessary in this conflict.
I don’t know if you’re tracking the latest in the Russian propaganda, but they’ve now turned on the sort of Ukrainians are committing genocide in Eastern Ukraine against ethnic Russians. And I don’t know if you just saw the conversation between Putin and Schultz, where Scholz, the Chancellor of Germany, actually pushed back against Putin, unlike Macron. So Putin always likes to say “NATO evil, NATO invaded Serbia.” Macron stood there and took that, and Scholz pushed back. He said, “Actually, intervention in Yugoslavia was about stopping Milosevic’s mass murder.” To which, Putin replied, “Oh, we think what Ukraine is doing in the east of the country is mass murder,” which is kind of… that’s actually very scary.
If Putin is saying that, that’s a real signal that there might be some very, very hot conflicts ahead, and Russian commentators on TV are also saying that. Very senior ones are also saying that. So, that is using the language of genocide in order to probably make possible an excuse for invasion.
We saw that happen in Georgia in 2008. The Russian media started screaming, “The Georgians are committing a genocide against the Ossetians. We have to intervene,” kind of parroting the language around Rwanda or around Kosovo. So, I wonder if there is a sort of responsibility there for platforms, if that message starts repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating– that is clearly sort of like reverse hate speech. It’s saying the other side is doing hate speech, therefore we should invade. So that is war propaganda. Very clearly. We do have rules around war propaganda, in the sense… I mean, war propaganda is bloody hard to define, but there are norms around war propaganda.
Maybe norms among states, but are you aware of any of the platforms having any rules around for propaganda? I’m not.
Well, they do like to say, the platforms, that they want their platforms to be in line with human rights values and things. So, what does that mean? I don’t think we ever know what that means. Usually it’s like “Hey, freedom of expression rules,” but actually, there’s more there. Even the OSCE norms– the war propaganda thing– it’s a very complicated one. I don’t think America or the UK ever signed up to any pledges around it, because they want to keep their options open. But again, at least we’re inside something that exists as a concept. Disinformation doesn’t really exist as much of a concept. Disinformation is a really hard one. War propaganda, dehumanizing language, all that kind of stuff, at least we can have a conversation about that, and you can have your task force. And you can have your committee of… I don’t know, the UN rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the former OSCE Head of Freedom of Expression going, “Okay, what do we mean by war propaganda? Is this that? And therefore, should we do something about it?”
The Latvians have rules around it. The Latvians once banned, for a short time, Russian state TV for war propaganda. They were saying the stuff that’s on Russian TV is creating a fake cassus belli against Ukraine. That doesn’t fit in our laws, and the EU didn’t say anything. The EU, which is very strict on these things, says, “Okay, we agree this fits inside a legal definition of speech that’s beyond the bounds of what can be broadcast.”
So, that’s a conversation we can have, but as you know, and you’re incredibly educated listeners know, it’s a bloody hard one. It’s not easy, and it’s all in shades of gray.
I wonder if we’ll be having that conversation if not over Russia, Ukraine, at some point, when a conflict does necessitate it.
Syria was as devastating as anything that we’ve seen since the second World War, in terms of the mass slaughter of civilians. It was a very weird situation where we had more evidence than ever before of war crimes filmed in real time– the mass purposeful, double-tap bombing of civilians, not kind of the accidental hits, but purposeful attacks on civilians– stuff that we really thought we’d got beyond. We had evidence of it in real time on social media.
That evidence was attacked on social media as well, and maybe that should have been protected a lot more. And the Assad and Russian smear campaigns– I don’t know how effective they were, but they were very, very out there. I suppose that’ll be a big thing. If there’s this huge false flag operation to launch a war like Gleiwitz incident, but on Facebook, what is Facebook’s responsibility?
That’s a huge question. And then, as evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity mount, what is the line between that and action happening? That’s not just the responsibility of the platforms, but rather what’s the responsibility of taking action on that? We have the evidence of war crimes. What are you doing about it? Syria, we didn’t do jack-shit, which was led to a lot of despair, I think.
I think we just have to wake up to this new world. Our metaphors are so Western. We keep on thinking about what’s going on now as something with a beginning, a middle, a climax– either a war or a deescalation, and then it ends. Or we use terms like “off ramp” for Putin. It’s not about an off ramp. It’s an Escher staircase. It’s going to go round and round and escalating and de-escalating and on and on and on and on. And for them, this is permanence. And I think it’s the same for the Chinese government. They just see this as a new world.
I think we’re always looking for the new normal, and we’ll land somewhere. This is going to be the new balance of power, and these will be the new norms. Flux and information and perception are critical in that. And that really means thinking about the regulatory piece that we’ve been talking about– I think that’s a huge part of it. What is regulation that’s going to be as meaningful for supporting peace and democracy as possible, but also, what’s the role of media in this? What’s the role of journalists? Do we need a new type of media that covers this? And what’s the role for public diplomacy and strategic communications, or whatever you want to term government communications around this?
I think we just need a lot of new thinking on it, and a lot of new strategies and a lot of new core principles. But then I would say that because I work on it.
Or we’ll expect some of that thinking from you. So Peter, thank you very much.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.