Western Societies Shouldn't Buy Into the Russia Hype

Vladimir Putin in 2015. Kremlin.ru

Growing fears about Russia's capabilities are making it easy for the Kremlin to exploit the divided West.

A lot has been said and written down lately on Russia’s capability to alter Western narratives about the international security system. Proponents of this information warfare genre refer to “hybrid warfare,” “false narratives,” “troll armies,” “fake news” and “the weaponization of information.” It has been purported that Russia today—like never before—is able to change Western narratives or to create new ones, and that Western states have few effective tools to counter these malign influence attempts. From this perspective the West is facing enormous problems in dealing with and countering the false Russian narratives on Ukraine, Syria, NATO and a whole set of other topics.

Alternatively, it has been argued that even if Russia is not capable of changing Western narratives, it is able to corrode the domestic politics of Western states and sow distrust in Western societies. This, it is argued, makes it easy for Russia to exploit the divided West and allows the Kremlin to achieve its political goals—at the expense of Washington, DC and many European capitals.

I argue that the West is much more resilient to Russia’s “narrative manipulation” and its attempts to create havoc within the domestic politics of Western states than the proponents of Russia’s narrative power posit. Most of the weaponization of information discourse within the West is analytically limited—and maybe even politically motivated. This discourse is also facilitating Russia with new ‘tools’ as Western states—together with Western media outlets—have created an overall media hysteria, which is based on buzzwords and slogans instead of prudent judgement and rational analysis. European states should be much more concerned with the low level of military capability at their disposal rather than the inflated threat of false narratives.

Yes, Russia has acted aggressively for many years, most notably against Georgia and Ukraine, but also in Syria, Libya, the Balkans, the Baltics and a lot of other places. And yes, Russia has used a wide variety of means—political, military, economic and others (including information) to get what it wants. But, what else should one expect from a revisionist great-power feeling disillusioned by the development of its status in the post-Cold War international security order and faced with the prospects of future loss of prestige and power due to enormous societal problems, including demographic problems and economic decline? Add this with a regime that feels insecure—not only against external threats (including NATO enlargement and the loss of many post-Soviet states to the West) but also domestically—and the recipe for massive threat inflation, grandstanding and aggressive behavior is ready.

It must be noted that Russia has proved to be surprisingly successful in many arenas during the last three years. Western “eastward expansion” is halted, Ukraine and Georgia are subdued, Syria’s future cannot be negotiated without Russia holding the pole position, and the return of violence to the Balkans is only a matter of time—if Russia so chooses. In addition, Russia has strengthened its relationship with the other revisionist great power in the world—China. Also, Russia’s role in Libya is increasing—potentially having its stranglehold on Europe in matters of migration and the spread of terrorism.

But if there is one domain where Russia’s actions have not been successful, it is the information domain. Despite the multitude of propositions concerning Russia’s information warfare capabilities, it needs to be asked: which Western narratives has Russia been able to change after it annexed the Crimean Peninsula and started a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine? After all, the West has united against Russia after 2014. Not even the sitting president of the United States has the power to mend relations with Russia as objections within the U.S. domestic political circles prohibit a warming—or relations—between the Trump administration and Putin’s Russia. So strong is the prevailing Western narrative on Russia.