The Kremlin’s public messaging is an effective tool for informing Western officials how to counteract Russian disinformation. When Kremlin officials make statements, either through a press release or when quoted in Russian media, they spin global events in a way that portrays Russia favorably. At Novetta, we have compiled a database containing more than 237,000 quotations of Russian officials that appeared in Russian traditional media articles since July 2016. Using pattern analysis, we were able to outline Russia’s communication strategies and uncover insights into the Kremlin’s playbook which can inform the propaganda value of future events.
Russia often plays the ironic trickster, a common character in folktales who cleverly sidesteps rules to get away with wily behavior, particularly when they stand to benefit in the situation. In the political sphere, Russia takes pride in “fooling” the West with few serious consequences, rarely acknowledging any lines were crossed. In contrast, they often feign the righteous victim in response to the West. Russian officials salvage a potentially damaging event by producing propaganda with the narrative that the West is “aggressive,” “Russophobic,” and potentially dangerous.
However, not everything has propaganda value; Russia studiously avoids being seen as the physical victim or failed protector. If a situation reveals them to be weak, especially militarily, officials will not speak as often on the matter. Similarly, messaging declines when Russia is forced to play the harmless neighbor. If it must assure the international community that it will take responsibility for its actions instead of pulling one over on its adversaries, Russia does not have as much to say. In each case, Russian official statements reveal the relative propaganda value of the event and can serve as an early warning mechanism to give Western officials the information they need to counteract the Kremlin’s disinformation.
1.1 High Propaganda Value: The Ironic Trickster
The quintessential example of the ironic trickster occurred with the coverage on the attempted murder of Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England. The former Russian military intelligence agent and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade substance known as novichok (developed in the Soviet Union). Evidence pointed so strongly to Russian culpability that then Prime Minister Theresa May made a public statement to denounce Russia. Video evidence of two military intelligence agents in Salisbury at the time of the crime only deepened suspicions that the Russian state coordinated the poisonings at a high level. Media quoted Putin most on this topic in late May (see graph above) when he wished the Skripals well after they were released from the hospital, a wink in their direction as if to say, “we still know your every move and can take your lives if we so choose.”
Communications surrounding this event were aimed to deter any current or former Russian intelligence officer from defecting, and to show the world that Russia is willing to operate on foreign soil, if necessary, to seek revenge. In this messaging pattern, a variety of speakers – 87 unique Russian speakers, which included both individuals and official statements from state entities, such as embassies – discuss the event in the news cycle long after it occurred, indicating that it has high propaganda value and that Russian officials are united on the issue. UK officials, however, were quoted at a significantly lower rate, and rarely equaled or surpassed Russian officials’ voiceshare. The most prominent example occurred in early September 2018, when the UK formally accused the suspected Russian military agents caught on camera in Salisbury and the Russian government for the attack.
This same pattern, in which there is a long train of intermittent messaging from a variety of speakers, can be seen in the 2017 referendum for the independence of Catalonia from Spain. Spanish authorities accused Russia of meddling in the Catalan referendum through an online disinformation campaign.
Putin used this as an opportunity to criticize the EU, the U.S., the UN, and the UK while maintaining a neutral position on both Catalonia and Spain. He criticized foreign powers and international organizations for setting a precedent with Kosovo’s independence for separatist movements in Europe and supported Spain’s right to handle its own domestic affairs. The irony is that Russia’s actions, rather than its words, encouraged Catalan independence and the disintegration of European countries. This disintegration was to Russia’s advantage, as it gave Russia justification for declaring that Crimea has the right to “self-determination” in joining Russia. The most telling part of Russia’s propaganda effort was the fact that Russian officials continued to bring it up long after Spain and Catalan officials were quoted in the media on the issue.
1.2 High Propaganda Value: The Righteous Victim
Western economic sanctions on Russia produce a similar pattern, in which several Russian officials speak over an extended period of time. Even when there are no major announcements of sanctions, officials use the topic of sanctions as a scapegoat for a failing Russian economy. The main difference is the content, in which officials position Russia as the righteous victim of unjust Western policies meant to weaken Russia, rather than as a punitive measure for Russia’s actions. Putin speaks at critical moments that suggest genuine stress on the Russian economy. For example, though U.S. speakers were quoted at a high rate when U.S. sanctions were imposed on Russia (in June 2017 for Russia’s incursion in Ukraine and in August 2018 for the poisoning of the Skripals), Russian officials continued to beat the drum after these events at a steady level, albeit a reduced one.
Similar to sanctions, Russian officials played the role of the righteous victim of the U.S. in 2019 with the official end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This agreement was originally signed by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. The volume at which both Russian and U.S. officials peaked in February 2019 when the U.S. announced intentions to withdraw from the treaty due to Russian violations, and in August 2019 when the U.S. officially withdrew. Throughout the year, however, Russian officials continued to beat the drum, criticizing the U.S. for its actions even when no new developments had taken place.
2.1 Low Propaganda Value: The Failed Protector
In contrast to the messaging pattern with a long tail, a messaging pattern with a precipitous drop reveals the event had little propaganda value. Russia avoids messaging when they are seen as the failed protector. The most salient examples of this occurred in April 2017 and April 2018, when Russia failed to stop U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
After the coalition strike on the Syrian Shayrat Air Base in April 2017, Putin spoke rarely and let Russian Military Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov dominate voiceshare. In April 2018, however, these roles reversed; Putin spoke more than any other Russian officials commenting on the coalition strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities in the few days after the strike. The increase in Putin’s voiceshare and his call for a meeting of the UN Security Council show how seriously Russia took the 2018 instance of air strikes in Syria. In both instances, Russian officials stopped speaking about the strikes relatively quickly, which suggests that they saw little propaganda value in the event and little reason to continue commenting on it.
2.2 Low Propaganda Value: The Harmless Neighbor
The data in the preceding section raises the question: Are there other instances in which the propaganda value of an event is low and leads to the same drop in coverage? The final examples show Russia in the image of a harmless neighbor, in which Russia holds itself accountable to the international community.
Interestingly, the messaging pattern that resembles the one above is most attributable to military exercises, events that should be advantageous to Russia’s desire to show strength. Coverage is high during the event, but then drops off relatively quickly in the examples of the Russian military exercises Kavkaz 2016 and Zapad 2017.
Russia’s propaganda machine lacks a strong engine in these examples. Russia cannot play the role of the trickster. The poisoning of the Skripals, for example, is a topic that Russian officials can discuss in inflammatory ways as a covert warning against any would-be defectors from the Russian security services. In the case of military exercises, however, Russia would gain little from alarming its neighbors and stoking fear of an invasion. Russia also must assure the international community that its exercises are purely defensive in nature and not preparation for an attack on another country. Putin speaks little, allowing his foreign ministers and military officers to bring the mundane news that nothing unexpected will happen. Although Russian political officials (both elected and appointed) were quoted more in media in Zapad 2017 than Kavkaz 2016, perhaps as a result of the exercise’s location near the borders of NATO nations, their voiceshare was still significantly smaller than the measured statements of Russian military officials, who reassured the public of each exercise’s defensive nature.
This data reveals a key clue: Russian officials and Russian media commit to narratives of disinformation for years, beating the drum steadily in hopes of changing the perception of the event or, at least, muddling the facts. For this reason, Western messengers should steadily commit to truth in the face of disinformation — even if it means repeating the facts years later.
This research created a useful framework for categorizing statements from Russian officials. It suggests that statements from each of these categories require different responses from Western messengers, even if that response means no response at all. For example, in the case of the failed protector, the action that led to the response speaks louder than anything Western officials might say. At other times, such as when Russian officials play the role of the harmless neighbor, there is an opportunity to praise positive Russian actions without appearing weak or subordinate to Russian narratives. The question of how to counteract the roles of the trickster or the righteous victim are more difficult to answer and could perhaps be the subject of another analysis altogether.
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The author would like to express special gratitude for the contributions of Rick Bennet, Justin Chapman, and Sam Skove to the development of the ideas in this analysis.