The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money

November 22, 2014

The Interpreter and the Institute of Modern Russia present a special report by Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: the Surreal Heart of the New Russia, and our editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, on the Kremlin’s weaponization of information, culture and money to achieve foreign policy goals and undermine opponents.

In recent years, the Kremlin has made much use of information warfare, gaining support in the West from nostalgic communist fellow travelers, the rising far-right and conspiracy theorists. The rebranding today of the international branches of Russia’s state-owned Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) news group as Sputnik International speaks of the Kremlin’s intent to influence and manipulate opinion abroad. Russian state-owned or state-controlled media also serve to distribute disinformation, including outright lies, as best exemplified by fabricated reports of the crucifixion of a child by Ukrainian forces.

The Kremlin has also utilized cultural campaigns, exploiting religious sympathies amongst both fellow Orthodox populations, and religious conservatives in Europe and the USA, who align themselves with Putin’s message of traditional values and homophobia.

Russia’s financial resources have meanwhile enabled the Kremlin to co-opt not only European business centers, such as the City of London, but also politicians, such as the former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who took up position as head of the shareholders’ committee of Gazprom’s Nordstream AG venture shortly after leaving office.

This report examines the means by which the Kremlin uses these weapons, and what effect they are having on international politics as Russia pursues an openly aggressive stance against the West and embarks on war in Ukraine.

This report proposes means by which Western governments and journalists can hope to counteract this tripartite onslaught.

Download the full pdf here.



I am a journalist. Like most people in my profession, and indeed most who value liberal democracy, I consider freedom of speech and freedom of information to be sacred. More debate, more polyphony, will eventually lead to new ideas and generate progress. The story of the 20th century was also the story of the battle against censorship. But what happens when a powerful actor systematically abuses freedom of information to spread disinformation? Uses freedom of speech in such a way as to subvert the very possibility of a debate? And does so not merely inside a country, as part of vicious election campaigns, but as part of a transnational military campaign? Since at least 2008, Kremlin military and intelligence thinkers have been talking about information not in the familiar terms of “persuasion,” “public diplomacy” or even “propaganda,” but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.

Like freedom of information, free dialogue between cultures is key to the liberal vision of globalization. The more cultural exchange we have, the more harmony we will have. But what should we do when the Kremlin begins to use the Russian Orthodox Church and compatriot organizations abroad as elements of a belligerent foreign policy that aims to subvert other countries? And things get even more complex when we come to the idea of financial interdependence. The globalization of markets, the theory goes, will lead to the sublimation of conflict into peaceful commerce. But rather than seeing globalization as a chance for all to rise together, the Kremlin sees it as a mechanism for enabling aggression and an opportunity to divide and rule.

The challenges the Kremlin is posing are distinctly 21st-century ones. Feeling itself relatively weak, the Kremlin has systematically learnt to use the principles of liberal democracies against them in what we call here “the weaponization of information, culture and money,” vital parts of the Kremlin’s concept of “non-linear” war. The danger is that these methods will be copied by other countries or strong, malevolent non-state actors. New ideas and tools are needed to deal with this. Such is the purpose of this paper.

–Peter Pomerantsev


One of the stranger aspects of 21st-century geopolitics has been the West’s denial that it has an adversary or enemy in Vladimir Putin.

Whether out of wishful thinking, naiveté, or cynicism, a useful myth was cultivated over the last fourteen years: namely, that the United States and Europe had an honest partner or ally in the Kremlin, no matter how often the latter behaved as if the opposite were true. This myth blanketed everything, from counterterrorism to nuclear de-proliferation to energy security to global finance. And in spite of rather naked periods of disruption—the pro-democracy “color revolutions” in Europe and the Caucasus in 2004–2005, the gas wars with Ukraine in 2005–2006, the Russian-Georgian War in 2008—the myth endured and was actually expanded upon with the advent of the US-Russian “reset” in 2009. “Let me tell you that no one wishes the re-election of Barack Obama as US president as I do,” the placeholder president Dmitry Medvedev told the Financial Times as recently as 2011; today, Prime Minister Medvedev wonders if Obama suffers from an “aberration in the brain.”

If the ongoing catastrophe in Syria and the Edward Snowden affair weakened the myth that Russia desired true partnership or alliance with the West, then Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his invasion of eastern Ukraine destroyed it. Now the United States and Europe have been forced to face the reality of a revanchist and militarily revitalized Russia with imperial ambitions. International treaties that were meant to govern the post–Cold War order have been torn up. Land that was not so long ago the cynosure of the worst atrocities of modernity has once again become an active war zone, above which commercial airliners filled with hundreds of foreign-born innocents are blown out of the sky with impunity. A former KGB lieutenant-colonel, rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe, stands an excellent chance of outstripping Josef Stalin’s tenure in power and now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries. As if to demonstrate the seriousness of his threat, he dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers into their airspaces on a near weekly basis.

Putin is many things, but he is no fool. The inviolability of NATO’s Article V is now being debated or questioned in major NATO capitals with the underlying assumption being that one day, this supposedly sacred covenant might be torn up at the pleasure of an unpredictable and inscrutable authoritarian leader. Meanwhile, those same capitals, having queasily acceded to sanctions against Russian state institutions and officials over Crimea and the Donbas are now signaling their desire to help the Russian president save himself from further misadventures so as to return to business as usual, as quickly as possible. Where Lenin once spoke of capitalists selling him the rope by which he’d hang them, Putin sees them happily fastening the noose around their own necks.

This paper has one aim: to help those in government, civil society and journalism assess the nature of a powerful adversary in anticipation of future conflicts with him. There is no better place to start than in understanding how Putin seeks to win friends and influence people worldwide, but most especially in the West.

Russia has hybridized not only its actual warfare but also its informational warfare. Much of the epistemology democratic nations thought they had permanently retired after the Cold War needs to be re-learned and adapted to even cleverer forms of propaganda and disinformation.

The wisdom of Orwell must be combined with the savvy of Don Draper.

Russia combines Soviet-era “whataboutism” and Chekist “active measures” with a wised-up, post-modern smirk that says that everything is a sham. Where the Soviets once co-opted and repurposed concepts such as “democracy,” “human rights” and “sovereignty” to mask their opposites, the Putinists use them playfully to suggest that not even the West really believes in them. Gitmo, Iraq, Ferguson, BP, Jobbik, Schröder — all liberalism is cant, and anyone can be bought.

A mafia state as conceived by an advertising executive is arguably more dangerous than a communist superpower because ideology is no longer the wardrobe of politics but rather an interchangeable and contradictory set of accessories. “Let your words speak not through their meanings,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz in his poem “Child of Europe”, “But through them against whom they are used.”

How does one fight a system that embraces Tupac and Instagram but compares Obama to a monkey and deems the Internet a CIA invention? That censors online information but provides a happy platform to the founder of WikiLeaks, a self-styled purveyor of total “transparency”? That purports to disdain corporate greed and celebrates Occupy Wall Street while presiding over an economy as corrupt as Nigeria’s? That casts an Anschluss of a neighboring country using the grammar of both blood-and-soil nationalism and anti-fascism? This is why American social reactionaries, Australian anarchists, British anti-imperialists and Hungarian neo-Nazis all find so much to favor in the application of Putinism, at home and abroad. Putinism is whatever they want it to be.

What follows is an overview of the challenges this system presents to the West, and a set of modest recommendations for how best to confront them.

–Michael Weiss 


Executive Summary

The Kremlin Tool Kit

• The Kremlin exploits the idea of freedom of information to inject disinformation into society. The effect is not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility but to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods.

• The West’s acquiescence to sheltering corrupt Russian money demoralizes the Russian opposition while making the West more dependent on the Kremlin.

• Unlike in the Cold War, when Soviets largely supported leftist groups, a fluid approach to ideology now allows the Kremlin to simultaneously back far-left and far-right movements, greens, anti-globalists and financial elites. The aim is to exacerbate divides and create an echo chamber of Kremlin support.

• The Kremlin exploits the openness of liberal democracies to use the Orthodox Church and expatriate NGOs to further aggressive foreign policy goals.

• There is an attempt to co-opt parts of the expert community in the West via such bodies as the Valdai Forum, which critics accuse of swapping access for acquiescence. Other senior Western experts are given positions in Russian companies and become de facto communications representatives of the Kremlin.

• Financial PR firms and hired influencers help the Kremlin’s cause by arguing that “finance and politics should be kept separate.” But whereas the liberal idea of globalization sees money as politically neutral, with global commerce leading to peace and interdependence, the Kremlin uses the openness of global markets as an opportunity to employ money, commerce and energy as foreign policy weapons.

• The Kremlin is increasing its “information war” budget. RT, which includes multilingual rolling news, a wire service and radio channels, has an estimated budget of over $300 million, set to increase by 41% to include German- and French- language channels. There is increasing use of social media to spread disinformation and trolls to attack publications and personalities.

• The weaponization of information, culture and money is a vital part of the Kremlin’s hybrid, or non-linear, war, which combines the above elements with covert and small-scale military operations. The conflict in Ukraine saw non-linear war in action. Other rising authoritarian states will look to copy Moscow’s model of hybrid war—and the West has no institutional or analytical tools to deal with it.

Defining Western Weak Spots

• The Kremlin applies different approaches to different regions across the world, using local rivalries and resentments to divide and conquer.

• The Kremlin exploits systemic weak spots in the Western system, providing a sort of X-ray of the underbelly of liberal democracy.

• Offshore zones and opaque shell companies help sustain Kremlin corruption and aid its influence. For journalists, the threat of libel means few publications are ready to take on Kremlin-connected figures.

• Lack of transparency in funding and the blurring of distinctions between think tanks and lobbying helps the Kremlin push its agendas forward without due scrutiny.



For the Weaponization of Information

• A Transparency International for Disinformation: The creation of an NGO that would create an internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation and provide analytical tools with which to define forms of communication.

• A “Disinformation Charter” for Media and Bloggers: Top-down censorship should be avoided. But rival media, from Al-Jazeera to the BBC, Fox and beyond, need to get together to create a charter of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Vigorous debate and disagreement is of course to be encouraged—but media organizations that practice conscious deception should be excluded from the community. A similar code can be accepted by bloggers and other online influencers.

• Target: Offshore: A network of stringers in off-shore jurisdictions is needed to carry out deep research into the financial holdings of Russian oligarchs and officials.

• Counter-Disinformation Editors: Many newspapers now employ “public editors,” or ombudsmen, who question their outlet’s reporting or op-ed selections and address matters of public controversy that these might entail. “Counter-propaganda editors” would pick apart what might be called all the news unfit to print by traditional journalists. A handful of analysts armed with YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, or foreign company registration websites can generate headlines.

• Tracking Kremlin Networks: We must ensure that Kremlin-supported spokesmen, officials and intellectuals are held to account. Employees of think tanks, pundits or policy consultants with vested financial interests in the countries they cover need to disclose their affiliations in public statements.

• Public Information Campaigns: Stopping all disinformation at all times is impossible. Public information campaigns are needed to show how disinformation works and shift the public’s behavior towards being more critical of messages that are being “buzzed” at them.

• Targeted Online Work: Audiences exposed to systemic and intensive disinformation campaigns, such as the Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic states, need to be worked with through targeted online campaigns that include the equivalent of person-to-person online social work.

For the Weaponization of Money

• Strategic Corruption Research and a Journalists’ Libel Fund: Financial and institutional support needs to be made available so that deep research can be carried out in the sensitive area where politics, security and corruption meet; this needs to be backed up by a fund for journalists who face potential libel litigation for the offense of doing their jobs. A non-profit organization, based in Western capitals, modeled on Lawyers Without Borders but dedicated exclusively to defending journalists, is long overdue.

• Target: Offshore: A network of stringers in off- shore jurisdictions is needed to carry out deep research into the financial holdings of Russian oligarchs and officials.

• Crowd-sourced Investigations: It is in the interest of NGOs to enlist experienced bloggers, citizen journalists or adept social media users to collaborate on specific events or news stories that adhere to the same standards of empirical rigor used by traditional journalists. A handful of analysts armed with YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, or foreign company registration websites can generate headlines.

For the Weaponization of Culture and Ideas

• Re-establishing Transparency and Integrity in the Expert Community: Self-disclosure of funding by think tanks and a charter identifying clear lines between funders and research would be a first step in helping the sector regulate itself and re-establish faith in its output.

• The Valdai Alternative: A broad gathering should be convened to bring together think tanks, experts and policymakers to focus on:
– addressing fears around the erosion of tradition, religion and national sovereignty;
– mainstreaming Russia’s neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia in the debate about Russian policy; and
– engaging with “swing states” such as the BRICs and others in the Middle East, Asia and South America that are being courted by the Kremlin to join its anti-Western Internationale.

Overall, the struggle against disinformation, strategic corruption and the need to reinvigorate the global case for liberal democracy are not merely Russia-specific issues: today’s Kremlin might perhaps be best viewed as an avant-garde of malevolent globalization. The methods it pursues will be taken up by others, and these counter-measures could and should be adopted worldwide.