“Russia has launched an information war against the West—and we are losing,” said Peter Pomeranzev, a London-based propaganda expert who is a former journalist born in the old Soviet Union.
“They see this as the war of the 21st century, namely breaking countries without sending troops there,” said Pomeranzev. “This is a new idea of war. This is information-psychological war with endless subversion.”
Pomeranzev and Elizabeth Wahl, an American and former TV anchor for Russian television, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a session titled, “Confronting Russia’s Weaponization of Information.”
The session appeared to unite both the Republican majority and Democratic minority in concern over what some within the State Department fretfully concede is an effective “peaceful war” waged by Russia.
It’s one that aims to sow dissension elsewhere and badmouth the West without relying on military means.
In part, it relies on “an information army inside television, radio and newspapers throughout Europe,” said Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Ca.) and “obscures the truth by spreading conspiracies that the CIA is responsible for everything from 9/11 to the downing of Malaysia Flight MH17 over Ukraine.”
Those thoughts were essentially echoed by New York congressman Eliot Engel, the leading Democrat on the committee, who asked witnesses to detail examples worldwide of the Russian success.
Wahl quit her D.C. job last year with the Russian government-funded RT network after seeing “firsthand how this was orchestrated.”
In the case of Ukraine, “When protests erupted in Maiden Square, it was made to look not like a popular uprising, but a coup comprised mostly of bloodthirsty neo-Nazis and fascists. Through suggestive and misleading language, RT pinned the blame on the West for fomenting unrest.”
When Russia invaded Crimea, its media “looked the other way,” Wahl said, playing into the Kremlin’s denials. Those were given credence not only in Russian-funded media, but “western media organizations that indirectly gave strength to Russia’s lies for the sake of balance.”
The invasion entailed what U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, called at the time “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”
But Pomeranzev underscored how what played out in Crimea was simply the culmination of a process dating to Russian military theorists years ago “preparing to fight what they call ‘information-psychological war,’ a mix of media, psychological, economic and cultural warfare.”
As for a much earlier example, he cited Russia’s manipulation of Estonia in 2007.
There, Russian media “went into a frenzy” when the government moved a Soviet war memorial from the center of the city, accusing it of fascism. Premeditatedly, pro-Russian vigilantes started riots and a Russian-run cyber attack crippled the government and banking sectors.
“Moscow was sending a message: despite its membership in NATO and the EU [European Union], Estonia was still vulnerable,” said Pomeranzev.
The real aim, however, was not merely humiliation but to make the point that “Western, and specifically American, promises of security are empty.”
“And once the NATO alliance has been undermined and Americans influences weakened, then the Kremlin will have a stronger hand to play–economically, politically, culturally–in Europe and around the world.”
There were a variety of recommendations made at the hearing. Several involved the U.S. supporting quality journalism overseas at a time when there is growing evidence that U.S. government broadcasting is in disarray, including recent departures of several top news executives.
The U.S. may have erred by ceasing many efforts at media development in Eastern Europe in the years after the Cold War ended. There are nations, Pomeranzev said, where decent journalism simply doesn’t exist, media are controlled by politicians and oligarchs and an often naïve public proves gullible.
And while there seems to be a rough consensus that the Kremlin’s media operations are adroit, he suggested they have one Achilles’ heel.
“Russian news media virtually ignores ‘local news,’ preferring to distract viewers with the war in Ukraine. This leaves a gap.”
He argued the gap is not just for local news but “for shows akin to [NPR’s] ‘This American Life’ or investigations like ‘Serial,’ engaging the Russian language viewer by seeing the world through their eyes.”
And in a line that might have inadvertently summed up the thrust of the entire morning-long hearing, he said, “The Kremlin wants a PR war. What it is bad at is media that deals with reality.”