Russia’s national coat of arms depicts an eagle with two heads. Russian propaganda, too, is a two-headed beast. A two-faced Janus, it looks in opposing directions, and its contradictory directions show that there is no solid ideological basis for a new Russian project.
Within Russia and for the Russian-speaking audiences in the former Soviet Union, Russia’s key television channels send a profoundly traditionalist message. Russia, as the most important heir to the USSR, is an old civilisation, they say. It smashed Nazism; it has been a stronghold of Eastern Christian culture; it has always had a “special way”, a Russian Sonderweg.
For international audiences, however, Russia presents itself differently. It is part of a “brave new world”, a new multipolar world order that has a profoundly futurist agenda. This new world will displace the global order centred on the declining and old-fashioned West.
This is the profound contradiction of the two-headed eagle of Russian propaganda: to the domestic audience, the Kremlin says that Russia’s strength lies in the past, while to the international audience it says that Russia’s strength is in the future, in the unknown, in a new style of politics, business, and communication.
This new style has nothing to do with the politically correct, with humanism, or with mutual respect. It is more aggressive and more animal-like. It is more zoopolitical.
In the period since the end of the Second World War, the West has been trying to construct itself according to a “win-win” logic. This logic presumes that, in every relationship, all sides should win. The only injustice is in the division of the shares of the pie: some wins are big, while others are modest.
Russia, on the other hand, operates according to a “lose-lose” logic. This framework decrees that, in every relationship, you should not lose more than your opponent. The world is a battlefield, and you are guaranteed to be wounded and to lose blood. So, your primary goal must be to kill, so as not to be killed; to eat, in order not to be eaten.
Russia’s famous return to “geopolitics”, therefore, is in fact a return to zoo politics. This is an understanding of politics as, essentially, a battle between big animals, or animal states, for their survival and for their “living areas”. Putin’s repeated comparison of Russia with a “bear in his taiga” is a metaphor that reveals the hidden logic behind his actions: the imagery of a “struggle for survival” prevails here over rational win-win calculations.
The Kremlin has returned not so much to the Cold War epoch as to the Social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century: people are animals, states are animals too, and states can only survive if they kill or injure other states.
Zoopolitics dominates Russian propaganda in the West. The language at RT, for example, is explicitly brutal, “politically incorrect”. It is aimed directly at the hearts and minds of those who suffer from “civilisation fatigue”, those who consider the West’s political correctness, diplomatic softness, and values of respect and tolerance as expressions of its decadence and weakness. For example, RT is not afraid of giving the floor to anti-Western intellectuals such as Pepe Escobar who suggest dividing Ukraine between Poland and Russia. And there are many instances of messages of this kind.
Importantly, Russia sees its zoopolitical struggle as being global. For the Kremlin, the battle is not just for Crimea, for Ukraine, or even for “Novorossiya”. It is a challenge to the world as a whole, and specifically to the West. Like Hitler’s Nazism, which disguised German petty nationalism within a global narrative of the fight between races, Russia presents its struggle as a fight for the whole planet.
The key difference from the Nazis’ horrible fantasy is that the Kremlin replaces the concept of “race” with the concept of “civilisation”. In order to show that the fight is neither local nor regional, Russia says that it itself is not a state, not a nation, but a “civilisation”. “Russian is not an ethnic […] but a civilisational characteristic”, Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinskii once said. If Russia sees itself not as a country or a nation, but as a specific civilisation, it can present itself as an alternative to Western civilisation.
A BIG ALTERNATIVE
It is often argued that the key method of Russian propaganda is to confuse, to relativise, and to persuade the reader that objective truth does not exist. Peter Pomerantsev says, for example, that the aim of Kremlin propaganda is to “sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehood”.
But another narrative is present in Russia’s information policy. This tactic says that Russia and other “emerging countries” present a “big alternative” to the world, which is now temporarily dominated by the West.
The “big alternative” narrative is present on propaganda channels like RT, aimed at a Western audience. This narrative tells a story not about Russia, but about the world itself, about the planet as a whole. “Telling the untold” (the slogan of Sputnik, a new media brand launched by the Kremlin in 2014) means telling the world the untold “truth” about itself, which until now it has not known.
The first message is that the world is no longer unipolar: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, RT says, are already successfully challenging the dominance of the West. Their competitive advantage consists in their pragmatism and the fact that they pay zero attention to “values”. While the West is stuck in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Ukraine, these emerging powers travel around the world and strike deals.
The alternative model that Russian propaganda is trying to propose to a global audience is not the alternative “social model” promoted by the USSR and communist China in the twentieth century, when they said to the West: “We suggest for you a new society”. The new alternative is the “network”. “We are better at networking”, they say; while the West is focused on traditional problems, the rest are doing business, building new networks in Asia, Africa, and South America. They do not suggest a new society; they suggest new connections between societies. They are not better leaders, but better dealers.
The second message that RT conveys is that the world is dynamic, and that this dynamism is centrifugal rather than centripetal. The new emerging powers are moving away from the West rather than towards it, RT likes to repeat. It plays with stories of these new euro- and America-sceptics: Türkiye, which is shifting away from the European Union; Brazil, which largely ignores the West’s advice (unlike Argentina); the economic powerhouses of China or India, and so on. The message is directed at the West, and it says: “Everybody is running away from you. You too should run away from yourself. Or, at least, you should run from your values.”
RUSSIA AND SUICIDE STATES
The past several years have changed the nature of terrorism. “Traditional” terrorism has transformed into something new – something that Ukrainian writer Tetyana Ogarkova calls “sur-terrorism” (in Ukrainian, siur indicates “surrealist”).
Traditional terrorism was an asystemic attempt to break the system without suggesting any viable alternative. Sur-terrorism suggests something more than protesting. It tries to organise its anti-systemic attack within a systemic form, in the form of a state.
The two forms of contemporary sur-terrorism are Russia and Islamic State, both of which pretend they represent different civilisations to the Western one. Their opposition to Western civilisation is no longer chaotic and network-like: it is an order aimed at bringing disorder, it is an anti-chaotic chaos machine.
Instead of dispersing bombs, Russia scatters “bomb states”. Instead of sending suicide bombers, it launches “suicide states”. The self-proclaimed states of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People’s Republic, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia are the bomb states that Russia throws out, and their only raison d’être is to explode.
As with a terrorist, the Kremlin’s Russia does not know who its enemy really is. It feels that the enemy is everywhere; the enemy has a million faces and, therefore, it is faceless. Russia identifies its enemy vaguely as “the West” or “the system” or “the unipolar world”. It has equal disrespect for liberalism and socialism, Islam and Islamophobes, Jews and anti-Semitism – because it has lost the ability to distinguish between them.
Its information strategy is quasi-terrorist too. The primary aim of channels like RT is to explode, to bring disorder, to harm as many as possible. Kremlin propaganda praises traditional values and flirts with the Front National or other right-wing parties, but it also tries to bring Islamic immigrants to its side by saying that Europe suffers from Islamophobia. It backs leftist groups and seems to have sympathy with their anti-capitalist visions, but it blames “Gay Europe” for its tolerance of homosexuality.
It might seem that the Kremlin is trying to find friends on both the right and the left. But the reality is that it fears its enemies are both on the right and on the left, in the centre too, and, what is more, behind its back.
Russian aggression against Ukraine is often presented in the Western media as the “Ukraine crisis” or the “Ukraine conflict”. This wording leaves Russian aggression out of the picture, creating the impression that the issue is all about Ukraine’s “internal conflict”, “civil war”, or domestic mess.
There is now plenty of evidence that Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil. There is evidence that Russian arms have been supplied to pro-Russian militia. A recent journalistic investigation on the downing of flight MH17 found traces both of the Russian BUK and of the Russian military team who operated it. The chronology of events in Crimea and the Donbas shows that professional and highly competent Russian special forces quickly seized key strategic buildings and arms arsenals. Given these facts, it is short-sighted and cynical to call Russia’s war against Ukraine and its pro-EU choice a “Ukraine crisis”.
Imagine calling Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia a “Czechoslovakia crisis”. Or Hitler and Stalin’s invasion of Poland a “Poland crisis”. Or the Holocaust a “Jewish crisis”. This is exactly what happens with the wording “Ukraine crisis”. Its logic mentions only the victim. It implies that invasion and aggression are the victim’s fault.
BELIEVING IN VALUES
The English political journalist Douglas Hyde wrote a book published in 1950 called I Believed. An “autobiography of a former British Communist”, the book gave an account of the quasi-religious belief in the communist idea held by some leftist activists in the mid-twentieth century.
The belief, even faith, that many Western intellectuals placed in totalitarian ideologies represented one of the biggest challenges for both pre- and post-war European society. To modernise and humanise itself, Europe needed a fresh scepticism, similar to British sceptic philosophies of the eighteenth century. From the 1960s on, this new scepticism brought about a less fanatic and more pluralist view of the world.
However, in the early twenty-first century, mistrust in beliefs or convictions has become ubiquitous. Believing in something has become obsolete and old-fashioned. The spread of this kind of scepticism is no less dangerous than fanaticism: it undermines one of the most important human capacities, the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, and between better and worse. Total scepticism leads to indifference: if I do not believe in anything, then everything must be equally bad.
Russian propaganda throughout the world plays on this mistrust as one of its key traps. Iran might be bad, but the United States is equally bad, it says. Totalitarianism is bad, but democracy is no good either. The annexation of Crimea was bad, but recognising Kosovo was bad too. “We are as bad as you are”, Russia says to the West.
Russia does bad things, but it does bad things because someone else did bad things. The West’s era of critical and sceptical thinking contained one important moral dimension: mistrust was needed so as to become better. The Kremlin reverses all that: mistrust is needed so as to become as bad as all the rest.
I have argued before that Europe today has two faces: the Europe of rules and the Europe of faith. The first Europe, which is too prominent within the EU itself, follows its rules without believing in its mission. The other Europe believes in Europe’s mission without really following European rules. Ukraine is part of this “Europe of faith”. Both Europes have their advantages and disadvantages, but both need each other, since faith without rules is anarchic, and rules without faith are desperate.
Ukraine needs European rules, but Europe equally needs to regain its convictions, its belief in itself. Ukraine’s Euromaidan showed that the European idea is still able to inspire change. The events in Ukraine showed that the European project keeps expanding, even if Europe itself does not know it. European values are expanding faster than the European institutions.
All you need is to believe.
Other articles from this series:
Serhiy Leshchenko: Sunset and/or sunrise of the Ukrainian oligarchs after the Euromaidan revolution?
Volodymyr Yermolenko: Russia, zoopolitics, and information bombs
Anton Shekhovtsov: Spectre of Ukrainian “fascism”: Information wars, political manipulation and reality
Olena Tregub: Do Ukrainians want reform?