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Weaponising information: Putin, the West and competing strategic narratives of Ukraine

Image credit: Michael Kötter

Image credit: Michael Kötter

The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the need to understand the role of political communication in emerging crises. A notion is gaining ground that Russia’s foreign policy strategy is focused on challenging western narratives of the conflict in Ukraine, and that this demonstrates how strategic narratives influence international affairs. Communication is now framed as part of the armoury of war, a weapon to weaken adversaries and achieve political objectives. In a recent article in the Financial Times, Deputy Assistant General Secretary for Political Affairs of NATO James Appathurai, was quoted as stating that ‘Russia is weaponising information in this crisis…they are reaching deep into our own electorates to affect politics’. Appathurai’s contention is that Russia’s communication strategy is shaping domestic opinion in NATO countries and influencing political decision-making. The weaponisation debate in the press is a proxy for uncertainty among policymakers about how to wield influence. In the face of a diffuse media ecology, policy elites feel they are struggling to cope with the dizzying range of opinions and rapidly changing news, complicating their ability to shape the reception of emerging events in multiple audiences.

There has been a growing awareness of the importance of communication in international affairs for some years. What is unique, however, about current developments is that the media ecology has witnessed several paradigmatic shifts within a decade. Governments may never have had total information control, but policymakers’ sense of control has never been more fragile. Being a part of an interactive, continuous flow of communication undermines their assumptions about the direction power is exerted. In the 1990s policymakers complained about the so-called CNN effect. Back then it was felt that television was forcing policy makers to approve military interventions as a result of pressures emanating from the effects of media organisations transmitting images of crises from across the globe into living rooms everywhere. However, in reality policymakers were acting before TV covered an event. Today, rather than blaming the CNN effect for the contestation surrounding Ukraine, policymakers have now turned to a new buzzphrase – the weaponisation of information. It is now felt that weaponised narratives – and the of the way these circulate on social media – are undermining public support for the West and limiting its influence over unfolding events in Ukraine.

Western policymakers seems blind to the fact that their efforts to project strategic narratives are parallel to those of Russia. In a recent study of Russian information warfare Peter Pomeransev argued that Russia, ‘…reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action’. Pomeransev argues that Russia’s communication is having real impact on politics in the West with potential associated de-stabilising results. When Pomeransev accuses Putin of trying to reinvent reality it is easy, however, to draw parallels with George W. Bush’s unfurling of the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, when the fall-out from the U.S. intervention in Iraq had not become fully apparent.

Russia’s response to the West is actually more sophisticated. By being so blatant about their propaganda efforts, they attempt to lead audiences to distrust all politics and media, thereby neutralising any Western propaganda. The policy jargon associated with this has focused on terms such as information warfare, hybrid warfare and the enduring use of propaganda. Valery Gerasimov’s term, hybrid war, has been particularly prominent in recent months with its explicit connection with Russian tactics in Ukraine and the communication strategy associated with it.

Amid these skirmishes, if we step back and do some strategic narrative analysis, we see a more ingrained, determined pattern emerging by policy makers on all sides.

In the main, political communication in international affairs is largely understood as either soft power and public diplomacy (good) or propaganda (bad). Both are poorly understood. First, analysts struggle to explain the scope political actors have in projecting a compelling strategic narrative. Second, and more importantly, it is very difficult to measure the effects such narratives have. Arguably, policy makers face considerable constraints in their communication. Sanders has argued that ‘… after they take hold, established narratives change how people understand new information and, as a result, typically evolve quite slowly (in the absence of shocking and highly visible events, which can change narratives abruptly). So those seeking to avoid further escalation of the Ukraine crisis and deeper deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations must largely do so within existing narratives.’ There is no way Putin, Merkel or Obama can create a wholly new narrative about Ukraine. Rather, they must work with familiar characterisations of those involved, and fit breaking news events into longer plots that match audience expectations.

Strategic Narratives shape long-term perspectives on international issues, influencing policies, allocation of resources and attitudes. Anne Applebaum has argued recently that the general acceptance in the West of a post-Cold War narrative of Russian decline has masked the emergence of a more authoritarian Russia, evidence of which can be seen in the Ukraine crisis. Applebaum suggests that the acceptance of the narrative of Russian decline has meant that the West has found it difficult to respond to Putin’s more assertive behaviour.

NATO’s Newport summit communiqué indicates a new narrative of Russia’s role in Europe aimed at reassuring Poland and the Baltic states whilst seeking to maintain avenues for future cooperation with Moscow – ‘Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace – The Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia. But we cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which our Alliance and security in Europe and North America rest. NATO is both transparent and predictable, and we are resolved to display endurance and resilience, as we have done since the founding of our Alliance. The nature of the Alliance’s relations with Russia and our aspiration for partnership will be contingent on our seeing a clear, constructive change in Russia’s actions which demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities‘. NATO’s strategic narrative contained in the Newport communiqué says as much about its collective internal sense of its purpose, identity and core values as it does about its relationship to Russia and the challenge of Ukraine.

Narratives exist at the level of audience experience. Neither side knows how audiences really feel towards these narratives; whether they hold true and are unquestioned, or whether they are viewed ironically and in a distanced way. International broadcasters and polling firms do some research on general attitudes, but few conduct the year-by-year qualitative research necessary to get at the narratives ordinary people understand world politics through. Nor is it clear how many people outside Russia are even exposed to Russia’s narrative, or to what extent Western narratives have much traction among the Russian population. Certainly in Ukraine there is evidence that Russian narratives circulate in mainstream media. Beyond Ukraine, however, how many people in NATO countries watch Russia Today or even pay attention to remediations of Putin’s speeches? On Ukraine, the weaponisation of information officials decry appears primarily on the terrain of elites. This weaponised information is not permeating domestic audiences and causing unfolding events to be interpreted in new ways.

The role of strategic narrative can only be explained when we break narratives up into three types: system narratives concerning the past, present and future of the international system as a whole; identity narratives concerning the identity and character of actors in the system; and policy narratives about specific domains such as war, economy, and climate change. In this way we situate strategic narratives within the broader study of international relations. Certainly war and conflict are one domain in which we find strategic narratives.

But putting strategic narrative in this broader context brings a key advantage. By analysing strategic narratives of war alongside system and identity narratives we can identify how incongruence between these narrative types undermines support for war or brings confusion to a state’s identity management when faced with the prospect of intervention or defeat. The identity narratives of the US and USSR stemming from their understanding of a bipolar Cold War system then unipolar post-Cold War system compelled them to narrativise their war efforts in particular ways. The project of studying strategic narratives of war by focusing only on the battlefield, on military communications and on public opinion is a project that will fail on its own terms.

There must be alignment between system, identity and policy narratives for a narrative to be persuasive. Western and Russian narratives do not characterise Ukraine in the same way. For Russia Ukraine is part of it. For the West, Ukraine is an independent state. But does this mean that both Russia and the West are basically aspiring to a state system, just squabbling over where the Ukraine state fits? Or is Russia offering a quasi-state entity (Russian sphere of influence, or mother Russia), which challenges the state system narrative of the West?

Policymakers must combine a clear statement of their understanding of the international system and Ukraine’s place within it. We see in the NATO communiqué an attempt to bring coherence here. But this must be interwoven in their strategic narrative of emerging events for external public consumption and a more realistic, evidence-driven understanding of the difference these narratives make. Until policymakers do this, they will be trapped in a blame game and unable to understand the very processes of influence and communication they are getting so vexed about.

Vol. 6, No. 99 (2014)


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