Russia’s Deception and Denial Machine

The main narrative of post-Communism is that the Russian Federation is unique and, therefore, its system is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead, it is sui generis: a “sovereign democracy,” which in reality is a cover for the post-Communist dictatorship of Vladimir Putin, that deploys all the tools of statecraft, including strategic communications. It seems like a mighty machine which we must learn to map to be able to face it down.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | October 10, 2016


Although the precise structure of the Muscovite deception and denial machine remains mostly obscure, we can construct a fairly convincing outline of it based on available information assisted by historical analogies and deductive reasoning.

Let us look at ideologies, institutions, and operations in the Russian system of strategic messaging. How are they organized? In Tsarist Russia, the cornerstones of state ideology were “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.” Fine points of this platform obtained from the so-called State School (gosudarstvennaya shkola) of Russian historiography. It was a proto-Mussolinesque intellectual endeavor serving the Tsars by glorifying his state in congruence with the Hegelian Weltanschauung. The principal institutions for strategic communications of the messages of the State School were the Holy Synod (which supervised religious and educational matters), Okhrana (which was the secret police), and diplomacy (which served as an intelligence and propaganda arm of Russia abroad). Targeting both native and foreign publics, these institutions ran influence operations to perpetuate the Tsar in power. They included coopting the elite by feeding official narratives into preexisting prejudice and thought patterns, bribing the press and officials, infiltrating opposition groups, and staging provocations.

In Bolshevik Russia Marxism-Leninism was the reigning millenarian ideology which, while promising paradise on Earth, operated according to morally relativistic dialectics to keep the Communists in power in perpetuity. The main institutions tasked by the general secretary of the Bolshevik party and his Politburo with spreading the red news was the Komintern (or, more precisely, the Information Bureau of the Communist International), which was synchronized with the Propaganda Department of Central Committee of the party. Naturally, the Information Bureau underwent several transformations for deception’s sake, including its submersion into the Foreign Department of the CC CPSU. All the while, the Communist secret police played a paramount role in running the deception and denial organization and by the early 1930s the Soviet terror apparatus completely took over all functions of the Komintern, subordinating it to intelligence and counterintelligence priorities. And, thus, we should credit the Communist police with success in a bevy of influence operations, tasked and scripted by the Kremlin, refined by evil geniuses like Willi Münzenberg, and implemented by agents of influence and droves of useful idiots. We know all this for certain because of decades studying Communism and a treasure trove of records released after 1991 from the Soviet archives.

Unfortunately, our grasp of the ideology, institutions, and operations of the Russian Federation is less than firm. However, available evidence allows us to propose the following. Post-Communism is the current ideology of Moscow. Post-Communism is Communism transformed and devoid of its quasi-religious, chiliastic zeal. It still retains its dialectical modus operandi, institutions, and personnel from Communism. Like its Marxist-Leninist parent, post-Communism is both pragmatic and dogmatic and, thus, able to utilize a variety of ideological creeds and intellectual propositions and discard them as soon as they have lost their utility. For example, from the point of view of geopolitics, neo-imperalism and Euroasianism are currently in vogue. The former promises to reintegrate the old Soviet empire once again under Moscow’s rule. Euroasianism is a trend that claims that Russia straddles both continents but its proper mission is in Asia as Russians are less European than Asian. However, the main narrative of post-Communism is that the Russian Federation is unique and, therefore, its system is neither of the West nor of the East. Instead, it is sui generis: a “sovereign democracy,” which in reality is a cover for the post-Communist dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.

To justify, apologize, and protect his power, Putin deploys all the tools of statecraft, including strategic communications. We extrapolate that there is a hidden Kremlin center for strategic communications. Let’s call it “Stratcom stavka”. By deduction, there must be one. Not only is there continuity from Soviet times, but also Russia stands on centralization. Ultimately, Putin calls the shots but there must be a bureaucratic, centralized entity that coordinates strategic messaging. We believe that “Stratcom stavka” operates a conveyer belt down to state and private task hubs. The former are public bureaucratic entities; the latter are individual oligarchs.

We can safely assume that to continue to enjoy their ill-gotten gains and to continue to participate in crony capitalist ventures enabled by the Russian state, the kleptocrats simply do the Kremlin’s bidding. That includes synchronizing their private media platforms (newspapers, TV, radio, Internet) with the government’s propaganda line. One could argue that there is no coordination between official propaganda and private media and that the latter simply emulate the former in congruence with the Pavlovian dog paradigm. But that would leave too much to voluntary cooperation. The Kremlin never leaves anything to chance. There must be a secret arrangement to synchronize the private and official propaganda narratives. They are too identical to be generated independently.

As far as state bureaucracy, there are important sub-centers subordinated to the “Stratcom stavka” (one at the Ministry of Defense & another one at the GRU). There is further a sub-center of strategic communications at the Federal Information and Communication Agency (FAPSI). Another one functions at the FSB with the Academy of Cryptography, Communication, and Information Science of the FSB as its feeder school. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs runs two sub-centers, one for “the near abroad” and one for the rest of the world; its feeder schools include the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Federation.

In addition, there is an educational level to the strategic communications endeavor. Cyber training takes place at the Department of Military Information and Foreign Languages of the Military Institute of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation; and also at the mysterious Institute for Information Wars (which is most likely GRU) (See Joanna Darczewska, “Anatomia rosyjskiej wojny informacyjnej: Operacja Krymska – Studium Przypadku,” Punkt Widzenia, nr. 41 (May 2014)).

Various other strategic communications training institutions (or outfits with strategic communications instructions component) include, most prominently, the Institute for the Questions of Information Security at the Lomonosov University of Moscow (its leading lights are former FAPSI director Vladislav Sherstiuk and Professor A.P. Kovalenko of the FSB Cryptographic Academy); the Federal Service Protection Academy (in Orel); the State Scientific-Research Institute for the Questions of Technical Protection of Information with the Federal Service of Technical Control and Exports; the Voronezh Institute for Government Communications with branches in Rostov on the Don and elsewhere.

It seems like a mighty machine which we must learn to map to be able to face it down.

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.