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Spinning The Kremlin: Russia's New Agitprop

A Moscow man watches the televised question-and-answer program with President Putin on October 18 (AFP) November 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin loves to play the tough guy -- especially when he's on television. And during a recent nationally televised chat with carefully vetted ordinary citizens, the Russian president got his chance.

An engineer from Novosibirsk claimed that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had once said Siberia's vast natural resources were too important to the world for Russia to "unfairly control" on its own. What, the engineer, wondered, did the president think about that?

Putin professed to be surprised by the query. But his answer, when it came, seemed far from spontaneous. "Such ideas are a sort of political erotica," the president said coolly. "Perhaps they give somebody pleasure, but they are unlikely to lead to anything positive." He elaborated, accusing unnamed outsiders of scheming "in their fevered brains" about how to lay claim to Russia's natural wealth.

Driving the point home, he derided the U.S. military campaign in Iraq as a "pointless" effort to seize that country's oil reserves, and solemnly assured his compatriots that they would avoid a similar fate. "Russia has the strength and means it needs to defend itself and its interests, both on its own territory and in other parts of the world," he said.

It was a virtuoso performance for the media-savvy Kremlin leader. Never mind that there is no apparent record of Albright ever making such a comment. Far more important was the opportunity for Putin to drive home one of his favorite messages to millions of viewers: We are surrounded by diabolical enemies who would steal our riches and do us harm. But as long as my team is in charge, you have nothing to fear.

Such carefully choreographed "impromptu" exchanges are but one part of a sophisticated Kremlin marketing strategy aimed at rebranding Russia as a resurgent world power that has risen from the chaos and humiliation of the 1990s. To promote this new grand narrative -- and embed it in the minds of friend and foe, both at home and abroad -- Kremlin image gurus have relied on a potent cocktail that is equal parts truth, illusion, subterfuge, spin, and outright falsehood.

"There is this mosaic of claims or pretenses about restoring Russia as a great power. Restoring the Russian political culture," says Fritz Ermarth, who spent 25 years as a CIA specialist in Soviet and Russian affairs. "There is a lot of fakery -- deliberate, contrived fabrication. There is also a lot of illusion. That is, they believe in it; they are sincere about it."

New And Improved

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."

Under such a regime, government control of the media -- particularly the broadcast media, which is almost entirely in the hands of the Kremlin -- is acceptable because otherwise it would fall into the hands of oligarchs who would use control of the airwaves to weaken the state. Cracking down on NGOs and opposition activists is desirable because they are tools of the West and would, therefore, undermine Russia's sovereignty. A strong executive is necessary to protect the country from foreign and domestic enemies.

Putin has appeared in increasingly macho publicity photos recently (epa)

Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who is part of the defense team for jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the author of a popular and respected blog on Russian affairs, summarized the Kremlin's domestic message: "We are the best and the brightest, and we are surrounded."

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."

In addition to promoting its selling points, the Kremlin is also sending a second message loud and clear: Russia has no qualms about playing rough with NATO, the European Union, and the United States when it suits its needs. And it feels no obligation to conform to Western standards of democracy and human rights. Recently, Russia even tried to turn the tables on the West with a proposal to establish an "Institute for Freedom and Democracy In Europe" to monitor human rights in the EU.

"Don't measure us. Don't condemn us. Take your European Court and your OSCE and stop judging us. We define our own reality," Amsterdam summarized the Kremlin's rebranding strategy abroad.

Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who now lives in the United States, says the majority of Russians are receptive to such nationalistic appeals. "Putin and the current generation [of leaders] exploit [this] mercilessly. They understand what they are doing," Kalugin said.

Not Your Father's Propaganda Machine

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.

"They have gotten slicker at it. You have a couple of new generations that have come to the fore who have learned, if you will, Western ways," Ermarth says.

A good example is a prime-time documentary aired on state-controlled Rossiya television on September 30. The report, titled "" -- or "" -- alleged that the CIA was planning to overthrow the Kremlin elite with an Orange Revolution-style uprising in Russia.

Russia Today, Moscow's response to CNN (ITAR TASS)

"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.

The report aired on the eve of Putin's surprise October 1 announcement that he would lead the Unified Russia candidate list in December's parliamentary elections, and would consider becoming prime minister if the pro-Kremlin party scored a resounding victory at the polls. It was the clearest indication yet that Putin intends to keep power after his presidential term expires.

Commenting on Mamontov's documentary in the newspaper "Vremya novostei," television critic Kseniya Larina noted that as elections approach, a trend toward "brainwashing" by the state-controlled Russian media was "gaining speed."

Manufacturing Drama

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."

Pribylovsky, who runs an opposition website called, adds that the personality cult on the web is "even cruder than on television or in the print media."

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.

But one of the most effective elements in the Kremlin's rebranding arsenal is the use of dramaturgy. Wilson, the author of "Virtual Politics," describes this technique as "politics as set piece," in which the Kremlin's preferred message is transmitted via a full-blown virtual drama.

An example of this technique on the domestic front was Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003.

According to Wilson, Putin used the idea of an "antioligarch" operation to reset the narrative of Putin's presidency. It created a clean break in the public mind from the crony capitalism of the 1990s, provided a new bogeyman to frame Putin's upcoming reelection campaign, and reminded remaining members of the Boris Yeltsin-era business elite that was in charge.

"The anti-oligarch 'dramaturgiya' proved to be the perfect virtual object, an enormously powerful lodestone realigning all parts of the political system," Wilson wrote in "Virtual Politics." Putin, he says, used Khodorkovsky's highly publicized arrest to "stamp his authority on the elite."

Internationally, Wilson says Russia's furious reaction to Estonia's decision to move a Soviet-era World War II monument from central Tallinn was classic dramaturgy. The move sparked rioting in the streets by ethnic Russians in Tallinn, noisy and menacing demonstrations by pro-Kremlin youth at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and a cyberattack on Estonian government websites.

Wilson said that at one level, Moscow's response was aimed at preserving Russia's cherished narrative of World War II -- that the Red Army liberated Eastern Europe from the Nazis -- rather than the emerging consensus that the Soviet Union merely replaced one totalitarian occupying power with another. "Winning back their traditional narrative of World War II is important," Wilson says.

But he adds that there was a deeper message aimed at new EU members from the old Soviet bloc. "It was a warning to the other small fries," Wilson says. "'You may be in the EU, but we are still the regional big power.' Clearly it is part of a bigger picture of great-power aggrandizement in the region."

Some Kremlin-watchers like Ermarth also see more than a bit of dramaturgy in the November 2006 poisoning death in London of former security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. The Kremlin strongly denied accusations that it was involved in the killing.

"You've got a lot of bodies in Moscow. Nobody cares anymore," Ermarth says. "Now you've got one in London. This is a demonstration that Russia is back as a great power, when its political hits take place in foreign capitals."

Back To The Future?

Ermarth has seen this movie before. 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."

At the time, Kremlin ideologists argued that the global "correlation of forces" were on their side -- and Moscow acted accordingly, with an aggressive foreign policy.

A decade later, of course, the pretense was exposed as an illusion. Energy prices dropped sharply, exposing deep structural flaws in a Soviet command economy that was unable to meet basic consumer needs. Soviet citizens lost any semblance of faith in the moribund communist ideology. And the United States recovered from its post-Vietnam funk.

"We had programs of various kinds to grapple with that, and it wasn't hard. Mostly because so much of the audience we were talking to in Western and Eastern Europe was on our side anyway," Ermarth says.

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."

Rising Russian Nationalism

Rising Russian Nationalism
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Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
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