Can Europe counter Putin’s propaganda machine?

, by Pavlo Ostapenko

Can Europe counter Putin's propaganda machine?
Kremlin Sunset Photo: John Leach - Flickr Digital Commons (

On March 19, EU leaders reached an agreement to start a communications campaign aimed at battling Russia’s steady flow of propaganda, which is seen as a destabilising force in the Ukraine crisis and as hampering European unity as a whole. The initiative, to be finalised by the end of June by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, will seek to counter Russia’s “disinformation campaigns” and may include efforts to produce and support Russian language broadcasting programs for ethnic Russians in ex-Soviet states.

While the EU’s attempts at fact checking information and promoting Europe’s narrative and values will act as a beneficial tool to counter Russian propaganda abroad, its commitment in terms of funding and personnel will unlikely prove a threatening force to Putin’s own well-oiled PR machine.

Putin’s troll army

Recent reports have emerged of a powerful Russian troll army circling the Internet, promoting the Kremlin’s “parallel universe” and trying to convince Western and Russian audiences abroad of Russia’s own version of events in Ukraine. From their base in a St. Petersburg suburb under the guise of the innocent-sounding Internet Research Agency, hundreds of trolls are expected to post 50 new articles a day, manage 6 Facebook and 10 Twitter accounts, with at least 50 tweets per day. Indeed, a Guardian editor reported that 40,000 comments a day were being posted by an “orchestrated pro-Kremlin campaign” of pro-Russia trolling on stories concerning Ukraine.

Comments, often written in bad English with the use of pseudonyms, have primarily been focused on promoting Russian propaganda and the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, turning to arguments such as the “neo-Nazi militias” fighting patriotic pro-Russian separatists, the CIA’s control of Kiev’s “puppet” government, or the illegitimate and criminal Ukrainian government abusing the fundamental rights of Russians. The Kremlin’s vicious PR team is largely believed to be behind the troll army and have not shied away from supplying the campaign with ample funds. The budget for “participation in the international information space” is said to rise to approximately $250 million over the next 2 years.

The Russian troll army is only one of the ways in which Putin ensures his messages are resonating abroad. Other methods include the creation of forums and websites in ex-Soviet bloc states, establishment of pro-Russian think tanks, bankrolling far-right European parties and financing the pro-Kremlin Russia Today broadcaster, which receives over $300 million a year. In the opposing corner, to tackle Russia’s disinformation campaigns, the EU’s initial spin-team will be composed of roughly a dozen officials with a budget no greater than a few million euros a year - hardly a threat to Russia’s propaganda machine. What’s more, the EU team will be largely composed of the same communications officials that have failed to convince the Union’s own citizens of the benefits of living in a united Europe.

Hence, the EU’s efforts to mount its own “propaganda campaign” seem to be dead on arrival. Rather than throwing money at Russian language broadcasting and TV programmes that will attract low audiences, the EU should push for tangible solutions in Ukraine. After all, communication strategies, no matter how professional, cannot replace actions and policies.

A bulletproof action plan

The Minsk II agreement, brokered by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, sets out a concrete action plan for ending the year-long crisis and securing anew Ukraine’s sovereignty. Both Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists have largely upheld the military side of the agreement, ceasing fighting and withdrawing weapons. But the political component, which calls on Kiev to grant the separatist regions “autonomy”, organise free and fair elections according to Ukrainian law, and restore public financing to the rebel held republics, has largely gone unaddressed.

Furthermore, President Poroshenko has recently argued that this sort of federalisation, a crucial demand of the rebel leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk, is “like an infection, a biological weapon, which is being imposed on Ukraine from abroad” and will ultimately destroy the unity of the country. While giving separatist regions autonomy is a bitter pill for Kiev to swallow, the stalemate needs to be urgently addressed by the EU and Ukraine to avoid the entire collapse of the agreement and a return to fighting. Oleksandr Klymenko, Ukraine’s former Minister of Tax and Revenues has advocated for decentralisation as a way of empowering communities and minorities and securing Ukraine’s stance as a neutral state. Furthermore, he has called for the creation of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for the Donbass to promote the area as an economic and “business hub”. Indeed, Poroshenko too has flirted with the idea of granting Donbass SEZ status, but has stopped short of making any concrete proposals opting instead for a confrontational approach with the separatists.

For its part, the EU needs to shift its focus away from countering propaganda, and rather focus on real solutions that would respect the spirit of the Minsk agreement and scale back Russian aggression. By supporting a real plan such as the Donbass SEZ model, the EU can illustrate to its members that it can do more than just speak the EU jargon and can back up words with concrete actions.

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