Putin’s WarMoney, Ideology,Troll Farms & TV Stations
Zarina Zabrisky talks to Russian cyber warfare and security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan about the Kremlin’s evolving information warfare
In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the Davos International Forum for the first time since 2009. In his 40 minute online speech, Putin spoke of many threats to humanity, including hi-tech monopoly, climate change, and a family values crisis, but failed to mention the unprecedented mass demonstrations demanding justice for the jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and the end of corruption, which has rocked 122 Russian cities and set a record with 3,700 arrests.
As Russian authorities raided the offices and residences of Navalny’s team, Putin blamed the worsening global economic situation on Western liberal democracies, lamented world poverty, warned about the possibility of a major world war conflict, and focused on the concepts of the multipolar versus unipolar world – and the Eurasian Union.
I discussed these concepts, their origin, and significance to the Kremlin, with the leading experts on the Kremlin cyber warfare and security Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, the Moscow-based investigative journalists and authors of The Red Web, The New Nobility and Compatriots whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Moscow Times, Washington Post, Le Monde, CNN, and the BBC.
They are co-founders of Agentura.Ru, labelled by the New York Times as “a website that came in from the cold to unveil Russian secrets.”
Zarina Zabrisky: There is a lot written about Putin’s external politics and Kremlin’s goals and motivation. The general consensus is that the short-term goals are the removal of the economic sanctions and the normalisation of Russian aggressive behaviour abroad. Most experts agree that the long-term goal is the shift in the existing political equilibrium. But here is not much clarity when it comes to Putin’s ideology, though (or the lack of the above). I would like to start this interview with a question about the Kremlin’s ideology in order to get more clarity.
Few people in the West realise that Putin was a member of the Communist Party. Some radical-left Russian fans are unaware of the reality of oligarchy. Radical far-right see Putin as the saviour of traditional Christian values. It seems to me that the Kremlin’s ideology is a shape-shifting chameleon, a mix of patriotism, the idea of Russian superiority, Eurasianism, the idea of a multipolar world, and more. Can you talk about the Kremlin’s ideology and ideologues?
The Kremlin does not want a multipolar world. It’s just a gimmick. They want Yalta; they want to divide the world into spheres of influence with the US President.Andrei Soldatov
Andrei Soldatov: Putin always keeps a lot of cards on his desk. Take Crimea, for example. Crimea has never been a high priority on his agenda. There was history, of course, and the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov took a personal interest in this topic at some point. But in 2014, after the Maidan Revolution, when the Ukrainians ousted Putin’s protege Yanukovych, Putin had to take action and he went for the annexation of Crimea. After that military campaign, Putin took a tough Soviet approach to domestic politics.
At the moment, the military structure has a huge influence on the political process in Russia, including ideological areas. The military determines up to 70% of Russia’s ideology.
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Irina Borogan: Eurasianism worked for the Kremlin’s circumstances in 2014. Russia was under sanctions and isolated from Europe and Eurasianism offered ties with China. The theory is also good as it presents Russia as a separate entity from the West from an ideological point of view. However, this concept only works for educated people; it is complicated. The Kremlin coins simple slogans for the masses, akin to the Soviet postulates. The narrative is as follows: “Everyone hates Russia. We must preserve traditional values, ban gay marriage, etc.” This line is much more primitive than the marginal theories from Dugin’s magazine Elements.
Andrei Soldatov: Eurasianism may be in demand, just like other theories. Dugin’s idea of a multipolar world is being used constantly and is really relevant. Russian Government leaders use this terminology all the time. However, in reality, the Kremlin does not want a multipolar world. It’s just a gimmick. They want Yalta; they want to divide the world into spheres of influence with the US President. This idea is not feasible, but they strive for it.
The Diaspora, Dugin and Surkov
Zarina Zabrisky: There is also the idea of “Russian World,” Russky Mir, an agency created by Putin’s decree in 2007, funded by the Kremlin and aimed at forming “a Russian world”, a unity of all Russophones that follow traditional Christian values as opposed to the Western decay and chaos. This agency uses cultural centres to spread “soft” propaganda. How dangerous is this project, in your opinion?
Andrei Soldatov: The idea of Russky Mir has been around for years and has undergone many changes. There is a military textbook that explicitly states that cultural centres should be used for foreign intelligence purposes. Two years ago, there was a scandal when in Washington in 2016 a theatre director was compiling a database of candidates for recruitment – he was arrested by the FBI.
Zarina Zabrisky: In 2016, I received an invitation to the Russian Embassy to meet with fellow students. There is a Russian centre in San Francisco pursuing a pro-Putin policy for the past few years. Americans and members of the Russian-speaking diaspora attend music festivals and eat blinis and do not notice how their views are gradually changing. The battle for the Russian diaspora minds and votes is real but inconspicuous. The Russian-speaking diaspora in the West is used as a Trojan horse.
Andrei Soldatov: Yevgeny Primakov, in the past a decent journalist, is in charge of this project. After his grandfather – full namesake Yevgeny Primakov, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Council of the Minister – died, the grandson took not just the last name, but also the Soviet approach and tactics, such as kompromat.
For the past few years, the Kremlin’s ideologues can’t decide what to do with the Russky Mir concept. Things are not going as planned. In 2016, during the presidential elections in the US, some existing structures were not activated and involved to the full potential. We saw online influence and trolls, but the physical organisations did not interfere with this process. We have a theory that the Russian authorities were afraid of the risk of losing valuable resources if identified because the hackers were caught so quickly.
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Zarina Zabrisky: In the West, there is an opinion that Kremlin’s leading ideologists are an outrageous fascist Alexander Dugin, occasionally nicknamed “Putin’s brain” and somewhat mysterious and pretentious politician Vladislav Surkov who wrote in a 2019 op-ed that Russia meddles not in referendums and elections but in the brains. How influential are they?
Andrei Soldatov: Over the past few years, the Kremlin has retired Dugin, who has been very important in defining ideology before. He made a mistake openly talking about the Kremlin’s invasion in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin does not recognise its military presence in the region. Putin brings him back when in need of a new approach to ideology, and then forgets about him again for several years.
During Vladislav Surkov’s time in the spotlight, Putin invited bloggers, influencers, and used proxy agents, and everything was much more complicated. Surkov represented post-modernism, but now there is no post-modernism. He is currently trying to reinvent his role in this simpler model.
The Triumph of the Troll Farms
Zarina Zabrisky: On the far-right movements in the West – do you think the Kremlin is succeeding in using radical marginalised groups as allies?
Andrei Soldatov: No, this movement is not strong enough to destroy the European Union from within as planned. The right-wing candidates are gaining very few votes in the West. In Austria and France, they failed. And when a plan like this fails, Russian leaders don’t know what to do next. While they are thinking about plans for the future, the groups and parties, created or supported by the Kremlin, are idle, for the most part.
Irina Boroga: They build a large recruiting base and it can be used to create physical unrest in the future. So far it has only been used for propaganda.
The main change is troll factories becoming a part of the warfare campaign. They became much closer to the state.Andrei Soldatov
Zarina Zabrisky: On 7 January, during the storming of the US Capitol, we got a clear sample of how it could work – the ultra-right radicals in the US have been cultivated by the Kremlin for many years. The Kremlin propaganda apparatus is structured like a pyramid. The Kremlin is at the top. The directives come from the top to the state media: RT and Sputnik and all branches that broadcast to the West, on the one hand, and the Russian-language channels that broadcast to the population of Russia, on the other. Oligarchs close to Putin are funding an army of trolls and bots operating on various social media platforms. It is alleged that many troll factories are operated by Putin’s close ally, Evgeny Prigozhin. Can you comment on this activity?
Andrei Soldatov: As for Prigozhin’s trolls, the trend is the same as with ideology. The process changes along with the government. Over the past six years, the situation with the trolls has been developing in unison with the Kremlin regime. Initially, the Kremlin kept its distance from the troll factories.
The idea of using trolls appeared before the annexation of Crimea and was tested at the local level, on the local opposition. Trolls attacked journalists at Live Journal, a popular platform at the time. However, during the 2011-12 protests in Moscow, they worked carelessly and unprofessionally, did not know what to do on Facebook. 2014 became a turning point. Their professionalism grew. They started to hire a different type of people and not only in St. Petersburg, but also abroad, with excellent knowledge of the English language and Western mentality. They are not as easy to catch. Previously, people thought: “A couple of grammar mistakes and a wrong idiom – a troll!”
The main change, however, is troll factories becoming a part of the warfare campaign. They became much closer to the state. The original concept was to conduct the operation through semi-independent actors. The state insisted that this activity had nothing to do with it. This idea and more or less complex model was replaced by a much more primitive mode of operation. The mentality behind this move was something like this: “We are under sanctions, anyway; we shot down a plane, invaded Ukraine, and annexed Crimea, so what’s there to lose? We already have propaganda in our arsenal, and we remember from the Soviet era that if you appoint military officers to run it, it will be more efficient.”
Irina Borogan: People know about trolls operating in the USA, EU, and the UK but this machine was developed first in Russia. Trolls still work for local administrations and use the same methods domestically. They receive official grants and don’t hide. The strategy is considered to be successful. It is clear that trolls are needed to carry out propaganda operations in the West. It might seem to be a paradox: in Russia, the state already owns everything. The regions run their own press. Social media is under the governor. Why do they also need trolls? And yet, there are troll factories.
Andrei Soldatov: There is another scary tendency. In Soviet times, each state agency and department had its own culture. Each department operated at its own level. Diplomats despised the KGB. Intelligence, in turn, despised journalists, and there was a gap between them. Now we see that the Russian Embassy in London is engaged in trolling, via a Twitter account, with diplomats acting like trolls. It was unthinkable for diplomats but now everything is completely different. Prigozhin trolls are actively involved with military intelligence, and all structures are intertwined. All the different Government departments have merged into one aggressive, straightforward unit. This is an unexpected development.
Legitimising RT and Sputnik
Zarina Zabrisky: Kremlin-funded media outlets conduct planned military propaganda operations to demoralise Western society are aimed at different segments of the population. Can you comment on the activities of RT (formerly Russia Today), Sputnik, and other media agencies?
Irina Borogan: The way RT was formed is upsetting. Many Western, professional journalists who previously worked for the BBC and other television channels decided to work for RT, Kremlin’s propaganda channel – for money or for some other reasons. It was terrible because without their assistance, Margarita Simonyan – who had a complete lack of experience and understanding of how the Western media worked – would not have been able to develop such a high-functioning channel. If Simonyan only had her modest means and intellectual capabilities to rely on, RT would have failed. Western journalists gave the Kremlin propaganda a certain recognisable gloss, an attractive package, with excellent pronunciation and language. Several journalists later left, saying that they were forced to engage in propaganda. It’s a matter of ethics and it is very sad.
I think that the harm from RT is exaggerated: not that many people watch them.Irina Borogan
Andrei Soldatov: We were contacted by a few British human rights organisations invited to speak at RT to criticise the US and UK laws and practices. They were not asked to praise the Kremlin but asked to criticise their own Government, which is what they should do normally. They understand that RT is a propaganda channel but they need a platform and CNN or Fox would never give them as much time as RT. And, besides, they did not say that they would defend human rights in Russia. They said they would defend human rights in the West. So there is a moral dilemma. Some refuse, but not all.
A year and a half ago, a new trend emerged. RT began to hire Russian human rights defendants who, for various reasons, despaired and agreed to work for them. The channel began to create its own so-called human rights projects. Thus, RT has ceased to be only a mass media and became a structure directly trying to influence civil society in Russia (or, rather, whatever is left of it). This process has far-reaching implications for the human rights community in the West.
Zarina Zabrisky: Why is it dangerous?
Andrei Soldatov: On the one hand, this is a state-run media outlet engaged in propaganda. On the other hand, a pro-Kremlin “civil” society of its own is being created. It’s called a non-governmental organisation, but it’s actually completely Government-owned. And when civil society will stop existing there will be questions why human rights defenders are declared foreign agents, RT will present its own “human rights defenders” with explanations: “We do have human rights defenders, RT employees, they address family violence.” This is a rather clever strategy.
Irina Borogan: Although, in general, I think that the harm from RT is exaggerated: not that many people watch them.
Andrei Soldatov: They achieve some success, but there were interesting studies by Vasily Gatov, who showed that RT lied even to the Kremlin, manipulating statistics. They recorded all the subscribers of the cable packages as the channel audience.
Zarina Zabrisky: The danger is not just the TV channels, it is their activity on social networks, and especially on YouTube. YouTube shows that the Russian Government sponsors RT. However, the agency has many sub-channels seemingly independent and YouTube does not indicate that they are related to RT. The Western audience trusts these so-called independent channels and, as we have already discussed, ideas that undermine democratic foundations and demoralise society are incepted. These channels grow like mushrooms and when one is closed, a new one opens immediately.
Irina Borogan: In our book Compatriots, we wrote that one cannot fight one propaganda with another propaganda. It’s the Soviet way, the way of totalitarian regimes and not an option for a democratic, free society. The West should not copy dictators and dictatorial tactics. The answer to the propaganda among the Russian-speaking diaspora could be an immigrant TV channel that would broadcast to this community. It used to exist and was called RTVI, under Vladimir Gusinsky’s ownership. Then Gusinsky had to leave the country and ran out of money. He ran into a conflict with the Kremlin and no one helped him – the oligarchs, wealthy Russian-Americans, or Russian based in Europe. Now RTVI is under the new management, thought to be close to the Kremlin, and it was a lost opportunity.
Zarina Zabrisky: I believe that the efforts should not be limited to individual channels or journalists. As we discussed, we are dealing with a one-sided information war. These types of military operations can only be successful if resisted at a state level. The US, EU, UK, and NATO should join forces and form a task force to develop a response strategy. Your books and journalistic research can be excellent materials for developing such measures. Thank you for your work and civic courage.