CHISINAU -- Alexandr Plahotki, a 42-year-old taxi driver in the Moldovan capital who describes himself as "pro-European," says he gets his news from watching both Russian and local television channels. But he is upset about a new law set to take effect this month that will outlaw the retransmission of Russian radio and TV programs.
"It's a mistake for sure," Plahotki told RFE/RL. "A mistake. No civilized countries in the world are banning Russian channels. There are Russian channels in the United States, in Germany. This is simply a provocation for some unknown reason."
Although it's common among Moldovans whose main source of information is Russian state media, Plahotki's perspective is not entirely correct.
Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all banned or severely restricted Russian-state broadcasting on their territories between 2008 and 2014. And Russian-government media have come under close scrutiny and/or have faced censure in many Western countries, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.
More countries are speaking openly of a threat from Russian disinformation tactics and the need to counter them, particularly as evidence mounts that Russia attempted to influence key votes like the 2016 Dutch referendum on Ukraine's EU Association Agreement, the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, among others.
The 'Gerasimov Doctrine'
"Russian authorities are not exactly shy about the goals of this disinformation campaign and disinformation activity," European Union Commissioner for Security Julian King said in Strasbourg on January 17. "In Russia's official military doctrine, as well as statements by top Russian generals, they describe the use of false data and destabilizing propaganda as legitimate tools, and information as another type of armed force."
Russian officials routinely deny interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. However, in 2013, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, published an article that laid out the foundations of the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine, which emphasized "the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals...supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict."
"The experience of military conflicts...confirms that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months or even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war," Gerasimov wrote.
Politically fragile Moldova, with significant Russian-speaking minorities, is particularly vulnerable to such tactics. About 10 percent of its territory composes the breakaway Transdniester region, where Moscow maintains troops and props up a separatist formation. About 15 percent of Moldova's population names Russian as its first or native language.
The pro-Russian Socialist and Communist parties hold 46 of the 101 seats in the Moldovan parliament. Although the government is controlled by a fragile coalition of pro-European parties pursuing membership in the European Union, the presidency is held by the pro-Russian socialist Igor Dodon, who has urged joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
It is the poorest country in Europe and plagued by rampant corruption.
Extremely Aggressive Policy
In recent years, the government says, Russian state media have aggressively pulled at these fault lines. According to an April 2017 report by the Independent Press Association, Russian programming not only constantly portrays Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin in flattering ways, but also "convey[s] the message that the EU is morally degraded and is on the verge of disintegration." The EU and its members are ridiculed and portrayed as tools of the United States without the will or capacity to respond to global crises.
Russian media "broadcast propaganda messages and constantly manipulate public opinion" both in its informational and entertainment programming, the report concluded.
"The Russian Federation has an extremely aggressive policy regarding the media and has practically captured control over people's minds by generously funding hundreds of Internet portals and television operators in the Moldovan information space," Igor Munteanu, head of the Chisinau-based IDIS think tank, told RFE/RL. "And we have no policy regarding this. We quarrel a lot on this subject. We have a lot of misunderstandings of the existing -- not potential -- threats. But we do nothing."
A poll in April 2017 suggested that 43 percent of Moldovans received news and information at least partially from Russian broadcast media and 54 percent trusted those sources. At the same time, 62 percent of Moldovans named Putin as their favorite foreign politician. Support for Moldova's integration with the European Union fell from 67 percent in 2009 to just 38 percent in 2016.
After two years of debate and a fierce standoff between parliament and Dodon, who refused to sign the bill, Moldova last month passed a law that allows only radio and TV broadcasts produced in the United States, Canada, and the 35 countries that have ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television.
Although the law doesn't mention Russia, it clearly targets Russian programming.
Matter Of 'National Security'
It doesn't restrict the right of local producers to produce or distribute content in the Russian language.
But as taxi driver Plahotki's opinions show, the government might need to do a lot more to inform and persuade the public about the new law.
Segiu Sarbu, a parliamentary deputy with the liberal Democratic Party and an author of the new law, told RFE/RL it was a matter of "national security."
"It is important now to ensure the security of our information space from disinformation, manipulation, and fake news, which the authorities are not capable of reacting to in a timely fashion," Sarbu said. "That's why we have been forced to adopt stricter, but absolutely necessary restrictions -- which in the end might be adopted not only by Moldova but by countries of the European Union or by the United States as well."
"The hybrid war [from Russia] has taken a new turn and is becoming more and more aggressive," he said. "We're a small country and we don't have any other tools for counteracting this threat."
In confronting the threat of an aggressive disinformation campaign, Moldova is echoing the experience of Ukraine, which banned Russian broadcasting with Russia-backed separatists fighting central authorities in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and took the further step of banning key Russian social-media sites in 2016.
Kateryna Kruk, a Ukrainian political analyst and journalist, is the author of a December 2017 report for the European Values think tank subtitled What Western Countries Can Learn From Ukrainian Experience Of Combatting Russian Disinformation.
Russian media played dominant roles in both countries -- and throughout the former Soviet space -- because it was much cheaper for local broadcasters to rebroadcast Russian programming than to create their own or to purchase programs in the West, Kruk noted. Over the years, she said, this exposure produced a fairly high level of trust and familiarity with the products of Russian media.
Kyiv's decision to block Russian broadcasts in 2014 was criticized by many activists in Ukrainian civil society and by officials in Western organizations including the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as an infringement of freedom of information.
For Ukrainians, however, the watershed moment came in mid-2014, when Russian media widely reported the entirely false story that Ukrainian soldiers had brutally crucified a 3-year-old boy in the town of Slovyansk. With this episode, Kruk said, Ukrainian civil society realized it was confronting "story-telling," not journalism.
'Not The End of The Story'
Ruslan Deynychenko, founder of the StopFake debunking project in Ukraine, agreed that Kyiv's decision to ban Russian state broadcasting was a "very correct" decision and was necessary to protect citizens and civil society.
Even more importantly, Kyiv in 2016 banned major Russian social-media sites, which had arguably become a more effective disinformation weapon than official broadcasting. Deynychenko credited StopFake and other Ukrainian civil-society organizations with providing the compelling evidence that these sites were being used to distribute disinformation that was crucial in persuading the government to act and society to accept the seemingly radical measure.
"We helped to prove that Russian media is not just media," Deynychenko said. "It is an extension of Russian foreign policy."
Deynychenko said banning Russian state media was "not the end of the story" for Ukraine and will likely not be the end for Moldova either.
When Ukraine initially proposed banning Russian state broadcasting and when Moldova began discussing the same measure in 2015, Western organizations criticized the idea. Now, however, some of those same groups have been victimized by Russian hybrid warfare and are more prepared to work together with front-line countries to address the matter as a national-security issue rather than as a free-speech matter.
'Death By A Thousand Cuts'
As David Canaday wrote in The Concordiam: Journal of European Security and Defense Issues in 2016, the West has realized it must respond as a matter of "avoiding death by a thousand cuts."
In a major 2016 study, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) outlined numerous tactical, strategic, and long-term responses to the Russian disinformation threat. They ranged from an international body similar to the existing Venice Commission to help countries protect their national security while maintaining civil liberties to networking existing media monitoring centers and establishing new ones in countries where they don't yet exist to "reinventing public broadcasting" and educating media consumers and journalists.
The report argues that Moscow's aim is "to use radical changes in the media environment and fissures in society caused by the information revolution to undermine the public space, well-informed debate and trust -- on which democracy depends." As a result, "no silver bullet will solve this problem, and the answers won't be the same in every European country. Governments, concerned citizens, and journalists will have to work together to fashion a response that neither promotes censorship nor hampers intellectual freedom."
It is a tall order, but analyst Kruk said she was encouraged by the rising global awareness of the nature of the problem and by Ukraine's experience of the last three years. She said there was a marked improvement in the level and effectiveness of civil discourse.
Although Russian state media are still available via satellite or Internet, Kruk said very few Ukrainians are watching them.
"People just aren't interested in watching Russian television anymore," she said.