Moscow’s Synchronized Themes and Techniques

Learning Russia’s strategic communications themes and techniques is indispensable to countering them. Otherwise, our approach to the Kremlin’s narrative will continue to be one of confusion and surprise.

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By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | August 30, 2016

Moscow’s Synchronized

Moscow synchronizes its propaganda themes and techniques. It works through manipulation. Those include: signals, provocation, denial, reciprocity, and analogy. Sometimes those techniques overlap. For a schooled observer they are case studies in predictability. Russia’s messages can be open and crude, or veiled and subtle, indeed deeply hidden.

Signals serve to denote the Kremlin’s possible willingness to talk business. For example, in 1938 the USSR’s mouthpiece Pravda unexpectedly praised Spain’s nationalist radical Falanga, which, at the time, was locked in a life-and-death struggle against the Soviet-led leftist coalition during the civil war. Very few discerned that this was a typical Aesopic hint by the reds which eventually paved the way to the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In a similar vein, albeit much more crudely, deputy speaker of the Duma Vladimir Zhirinovsky offered Poland western Ukraine during the Maidan uprising in 2014, thus inviting Warsaw to partition the country jointly with Moscow.

The Kremlin uses provocation in its strategic communications to create havoc, undermine the enemy’s will to resist, make the opponent twitch, or just denote Moscow’s ability to wreak mischief. Signals generated from Russian propaganda sources can be provocation as evidenced, e.g., in the Columbian Chemicals disaster scare in Centerville, St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, which spread through social media as another 9/11 complete with a cover up by the U.S. government (New York Times Magazine, 6 June 2015). Similarly, social media generated aserious Ebola panic with the pandemic allegedly about to hit the U.S., while Ferguson served as a paradigm for many Fergusons allegedly popping up all over the nation fed by rumors that yet another unarmed black man or woman was killed by the police. All this could be traced to cyber-Kremlin. The message is simple: you are never secure; the United States government fails you most of the time.

And so do other Western governments, who cannot protect their citizens, hence fake Russian news about the migrant crisis in Germany, in particular as far as an epidemic of rapes in Hanover and elsewhere is concerned with at least some of it invented by Moscow. The most notorious was the fake abduction and rape of a 13-year old Russian girl in Berlin that caused quite a stir. This kind of provocation feeds on preexisting fears and the dastardly tendency of mainstream media to avoid covering controversial issues regarding the migrants.

Then there is denial. It is practiced to deflect any accusations from the Kremlin. For example, Katyn never happened; Polish officers fled to Manchuria; and, after their bodies were discovered in the NKVD killing fields, the Kremlin insisted that the Germans had done it. Currently, Moscow indulges in the Holodomor denial. The Terror-Famine in Soviet Ukraine never happened. Or, when that can no longer be sustained, let us be reasonable. Everyone died in the USSR, not just in Ukraine, so there was no genocide of the eastern Ukrainians.

Denial is obvious in Moscow’s narrative on recent wars. Georgia invaded Ossetia, and Russia protected it. This means, of course, that Russia invaded Georgia. Crimea self-liberated and “the little green men” who overwhelmed the disorganized Ukrainians were local people. Translation: Russia attacked Crimea. Denial can be coordinated with counter-denial, or reciprocity. For example, a twitter war broke out between the White House and the Kremlin over who really bombed Aleppo (Siobhán O’Grady, Foreign Policy, 11 February 2016).

Reciprocity is commonly used to show that even though Russia, perhaps, does some questionable thing, that is usually because others are even worse. Sometimes reciprocity can invoke an analogy. For example, in 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev contrived to depict the massacre at Katyn as revenge for the alleged killing of the Bolshevik POWs in 1920. In reality, the former were shot by Stalin, and the latter died of Spanish flu along with their guards and about 19 million civilians in Europe in the wake of the First World War. Incidentally, the surviving Soviet POWs who returned home from Poland were exterminated by the NKVD in the 1930s as alleged “spies” for having been abroad.

Another use and abuse of reciprocity is the comparison of the Gulag to the U.S. prison system. The latter is, naturally, far worse according to Moscow’s propaganda. The repression of dissidents/refuseniks occurred for allegedly understandable political reasons and not because of racism, as was the case with the oppression of black Americans in the United States (“you beat up Negroes!” was a reoccurring theme).

Nowadays, racist America continues to incarcerate people of African descent disproportionately, so nothing has changed. Further, it persecutes freedom fighters such as Edward Snowden. Russia, on the other hand, has only cracked down on agents of foreign powers, who took grant money from Western foundations to the detriment of the Russian people. To suppress such traitors is naturally understandable. Naturally.

And here’s the latest example of reciprocity: A poster appeared in Moscow reading, “Cigarettes kill more people than even Obama.” The poster putatively advertised health but, in fact, it purveyed a not so subliminal, yet didactical, message which feeds off of anti-U.S. propaganda: Russia may be killing people in Ukraine and Syria, but America kills more. Still, let’s keep it all in proportion; it is not such a big deal because cigarettes kill more people even than the Americans do.

And, finally, there is analogy. It is unveiled to invoke a familiar phenomenon (usually with negative attributions) to disparage, denounce, and delegitimize an issue opposed by the Kremlin. For example, in the 1980s the anti-Communist trade union “Solidarity” was equated with Khomeini, Poland was called a second Iran. The West was warned that there would be Iranization of Poland and no democracy, if Solidarity won because the Poles were Catholic fanatics just like the Muslim Shia. Therefore, it would be best if the Communists remained in power. More recently, a Kremlin spokeswoman has averred that Poland is just like ISIS because the Poles demand the removal of Soviet monuments from Polish cities. And, ISIS likewise destroys cemeteries (Gazeta Wyborcza, 10 December 2015). A silly recent Muscovite propaganda analogy bestowed a Russian “Oscar” on Leonardo di Caprio. This way, when di Caprio finally received his Oscar, the Russians could brag of recognizing him first and influencing the vote in Hollywood (Washington Post, 6 February 2016).

Learning Russia’s strategic communications themes and techniques is indispensable to countering them. Otherwise, our approach to the Kremlin’s narrative will continue to be one of confusion and surprise.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis..