Following Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine since March 2014, it is clear that Russia has returned to great power rivalry and its behaviour became more and more violent with clear aim to undermine the cooperation among NATO and EU member states. However, Russia’s aggressive policy is aimed also on Nordic countries, South Caucasus region and Ukraine. Russian aggressive intentions can be traced back to 2007, where Vladimir Putin said “Russia should play an increasingly active role in world affairs” (The Washington Post, 2007), or the suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Russian “peacekeeping mission” in Abkhazia followed by the Russian intervention to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, large military exercises on Russia’s western borders near Georgia and Ukraine, or multiple incursions against the air sovereignty of many NATO member states, which continues to this day at high rates (Čižik, 2016). Russia uses combination of conventional and unconventional measures, which can be characterized as hybrid warfare. It is composed of use of special forces, information warfare, psychological operations and cyber-attacks. For purposes of this paper author will focus on Russian information warfare in V4 countries.
Since March 2014 Visegrad countries is experiencing massive Russian propaganda flowing to their territories and it seems to be very effective. Recent Russian propaganda differs from propaganda from Soviet times. “In Soviet times the concept of truth was important” (Pomerantsev and Weiss, 2014), but nowadays main goal of Russian disinformation campaign is to create chaos, undermine trust of citizens to democratic institutions and to invoke fear among citizens. Propaganda is spread by so called alternative media and social networks, but what is more disturbing, it is also spread by high level politicians such as Czech President Miloš Zeman, Slovak Prime Minister Róbert Fico or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It is alarming that political leaders of V4 countries are contributing to creation of chaos and state institutions are not taking counter-measures.
But what makes Russian information warfare so dangerous and why it has to be perceived as a security threat for Visegrad countries? It is mainly the asymmetric nature of possibilities in information domain, Russian ability to use democracy against democracies, the freedom of information to inject disinformation into various target groups under the label of freedom of speech. Information warfare blurs the border between peace and war and between fact and fiction. People feel betrayed by the West, by the EU and it seems that first generation that doubts democracy as a viable political system arises in Europe. On the other hand nationalism found its way back into European states.
According to latest report by Globsec Policy Institute (2016) “support for a pro-Russian (Eastern) orientation is marginal, just above 12% […], the pro-West camp is relatively weak, with only 23% of support”. In Czech Republic, 30% of citizens prefer pro-western orientation and only 4% an eastward orientation. In Hungary, 32% of citizens prefer pro-western orientation and only 6% an eastward orientation. Support for NATO membership is also decreasing in comparison with the year of their accession to NATO. Currently, 30% of Slovaks, 44% of Czechs and 47% of Hungarian citizens think that NATO is a good thing, while support for NATO accession was following (Hungary 85%, Czech Republic 57% both in 1998 and Slovakia 51% in 2004) (IVO 2005, EU Commission Archives 2004, Dvorský 2007).
Even more disturbing than decreasing support of pro-Western orientation of V4 countries is fact that still more and more young people believe in alternative media. Alternative media contribute to spread of disinformation and chaos by narrative that Russia is threatened by NATO’s enlargement and moving military hardware towards Russian borders, EU is supporting LGBT community and force member states to apply same-sex policies, ISIS is supported by United States and many others. Most of these alternative media just taking over news prepared by Russian news agencies like RT, Sputnik News or Ria Novosti. The biggest Russian news agencies, such as RT, Ria Novosti and Sputnik News do have a dedicated considerable operating budget (Defence Matters, 2016). A case in point, the budget for the RT agency (formerly Russia Today) in the period 2007-2015 was approximately 120 million USD, reaching its height over 2013-2014 with 400 million USD. Sputnik News in conjunction with Ria Novosti have a combined operating budget of 200 million USD per year, not to mention the local media involved in the spreading of propaganda (DELFI, 2015). As an example of how young people are manipulated by propaganda can be mentioned Slovak political party Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko (National Party Our Slovakia), which in parliamentary election in March 2016 obtained 8% of votes. According to (Koník, 2016) many of this votes was given by first-voters and young people.
Russia’s massive investments into information warfare allow to prepare propaganda for each region or state in its national language, so news can be easily accessible for anyone. Solely investments into disinformation campaigns will be not enough to influence people minds, but in combination with insufficient education and lack of media literacy makes citizens and young people very vulnerable. Educational system in Visegrad countries is insufficient and reforms need to be undertaken. It is important to teach citizens how propaganda works, how media works, how to look for reliable sources of information and how to think critically.
Moreover, statements of high level politicians like Slovak Prime Minister Róbert Fico that sanctions against Russia are ineffective and harms only Slovak economy, or building fences on borders to prevent migrants to enter Hungary, or even visits of high level politicians of Russia and negotiations with Vladimir Putin shed a negative light on V4 region. All four countries are part of European Union and NATO, so our actions on domestic or international level should be coherent with other member states.
There are many possibilities how states can make its citizens more resilient against Russian propaganda. First of all, states should educate young people how to think critically and how to select and acquire information. Educated young generation will become stable cornerstone of society and will be more resilient towards disinformation, hoaxes or conspiracy theories. States should also invest into quality investigative journalism. Journalists can hugely contribute into fight with propaganda. Simple fact checking information can differentiate classic media from alternative one. States should also develop comprehensive and coherent communication strategies to promote our shared values and visions. Common approach to counter-propaganda will contribute also to renewal of trust into democracy and democratic institutions. States should also develop our own positive narrative that will show that we still live in democratic world, much better than communist was. Very important is also debunking disinformation coming from Russia. States should also show to their citizens how propaganda in Russia works, such knowledge can be eye-opening for many of them. At last, but not least, states should take threat of information warfare seriously and create institution that will be able to protect their citizens against disinformation campaigns. Only states have resources and possibilities to successfully counter propaganda and make their citizens more resistant towards any element of information warfare.
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Author: Tomáš Čižik – Director, Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA)
Tomáš Čižik received his Master degree in European Studies at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences at the Comenius University in Bratislava. Research during studies: Future security development of Aghfanistan based on Regional security complex theory, Defensive vs. offensive realism of second Gulf war – Iraq 2003. In his master thesis “Comparative analysis of Soviet and American presence in Afghanistan”, he wrote about the limits of hegemonic power in asymmetric warfare. Tomáš Čižik is a student of Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at the Matej Bel University enrolled in the combined study mode in following doctoral degree programme: Theory of Politics. His dissertation is focused on the information warfare.
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