October 4, 2018  |  Updated June 11, 2019

Dispelling a New Cold War: NATO is Working to Combat Russian Disinformation

By Robert Pszczel

This article is part of the DisinfoPortal’s #StratComDC article series. You can watch #StratComDC here.

Over the years, I have been collecting various examples of Soviet anti-NATO propaganda. The most famous ones include vitriolic cartoons by a gifted trio of Soviet graphics signing themselves as Kukryniksy. These cartoons were artistically creative, even if their propaganda messages were not. Traditionally they depicted the Alliance as totally dominated by the US. For Moscow there was no other option – they assumed (wrongly) that NATO was a mirror copy of the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union.

In the 1950s, a popular theme was a caricature of a German revanchist gladly joining a militaristic organization. As time went by new images were offered. In 1970s and ‘80s NATO and Allied countries were portrayed as aggressive capitalists, plotting against peace, bent on world domination, determined to play down mythical successes of the Soviet bloc while disunited internally. This campaign went on relentlessly until the dissolution of the USSR.

Fast forward to today and you will find that Russia (a legal successor to the USSR) is repeating many of the old clichés against NATO. Granted – Moscow no longer moans about capitalism, which is not surprising bearing in mind enormous capitalist riches accumulated by Russian oligarchs and those with access to power.

Nevertheless, Moscow still loves the myth of Washington taking all decisions in NATO against docile Allies. It pushes out a myth that NATO enlargement is not a process driven by sovereign wishes of aspirant countries but a threat to Russia and peace (including by the recent admission of Montenegro).Even the UN meetings are used to claim that for example our mission to stabilize Afghanistan (compare that to the Soviet invasion a few decades ago…) is somehow a cover for influence in the region.

The list is long. When confronted with facts Russian disinformation managers offer either nonsensical and/or contradictory denials (video narrative on MH17 or “Russian tourists” in Salisbury) or try to bury the news in a fog of alleged Russophobia.

The goal of Russian disinformation has remained the same. “Russia doesn’t like NATO…they would regard it as a great success if they were able to divide us” as the Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said on 26 September in New York. This is a sad conclusion we have reached after two decades of hard work in trying to establish partnership with Russia.

While the goal is the same, three things have however changed since Stalin or Brezhnev.

One: there is little attempt to invest in soft power. You do not see much – if any – publicity to entice foreign tourists to Russia, nor any effort to advertise the strength of the Russian economy. Weak hand I guess…

Second – disinformation is now even more firmly part and parcel of a whole range of hybrid tools. The tools are available and used with gusto. This includes the use of huge military exercises and other shows of military muscle flexing to attempt to frighten and intimidate neighbours and other countries, including members of NATO.

Then there are the so-called “little green men” who apparently led the annexation of Crimea with arms bought in the supermarket. There is extensive use of cyber hacking to gain information used to smear political opponents. And no qualms to utilize monetary incentives to create political opposition to various projects abroad.

Russia is generous with its effort – it tries to reach a huge variety of target audiences, is ready to offer its disinformation products in different languages. Moreover, it does not mind if messages are contradictory or blatantly false: sowing confusion and undermining democratic debate as a goal in and of itself.

Finally, third – Moscow has adopted new technologies and new internet information sphere with gusto. Internet troll farms, bogus portals, and bots are employed on daily basis – for example to undermine Allied small defensive deployments in our eastern flank or to amplify calls against an internal referendum in a small Balkan country on a solution to an international dispute. No expense is spared to present RT and Sputnik as genuine media outlets – even though they are essentially government departments.

Our response to disinformation rests on several principles.

We remain ourselves – as the hashtag used in our communications campaign #WeAreNATO says. That means we do not resort to propaganda, we stick to facts and open debate. Our internet portal “Setting the Record Straight” only presents pure facts and arguments to rebut Russian myths about NATO.

In the short run lies get better visibility – but they also damage your credibility. Further evidenced by a majority of international polls, which show a low level of trust in Russian policy across the world

We stay calm but proactive and open to debate. NATO believes in dialogue. That is why we routinely invite Russian journalists to ministerial meetings, summits, and military exercises. We do not tell them what to write or broadcast. Instead, we do offer them opportunities to find out for themselves whether NATO eats children for breakfast (as the message from Moscow suggests….)

We also believe in transparency – unlike Russia we have nothing to hide when it comes our military exercises. NATO’s leadership and officials are always ready to engage with Russian media or expert/civil society groups. We try to offer more content about NATO in Russian language as well – from translated stories, videos, infographics, and posts on social media. This year I even started a weekly video blog in Russian, which openly discusses agenda.

We are not alone in this effort. Allied and partner governments have done a lot to raise awareness of the disinformation challenge and to build resilience against it. Parliamentarians (including in the European Parliament and NATO Parliamentary Assembly) are tackling the problem head on. The EU’s dedicated team has become a respected brand in exposing false narratives and fake stories.

And last but not least, there is a growing body of amazing NGOs, fact checking and rebuttal outlets standing up to disinformation. Digital Sherlocks of the USAC, Bellingcat, Stop Fake, or Lithuanian elves are just some of the most well-known initiatives. NATO’s own CoE on STRATCOM in Riga is doing some pioneering research in the field too.

There is more work required as the Russian and other disinformation industries are still enjoying a boom. Everything must be done to make it unprofitable. I have no doubts that thanks to Allied unity and the power of true facts we will prevail.

Robert Pszczel is the former director of NATO Information Office in Moscow. Visit Setting the Record Straight to find out more.

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