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  • David Colon, associate professor of history at Sciences Po Paris and specialist in propaganda, returns to 20 Minutes on the rooting of the doctrine of disinformation in the history of the country.

A year after the start of the "special operation" in Ukraine, the Russian invasion has also highlighted Moscow's disinformation strategy. David Colon, associate professor of history at the IEP in Paris and a specialist in propaganda, returns to 20 Minutes on the roots of this doctrine in the history of the country.

In times of war, what is propaganda for?

All belligerents resort to propaganda to persuade the adversary of their forces and to address public opinion and mobilize them in their favour, these are the two main motivations. There are different types of tactics. It can be strategic communication: explaining why we are at war, presenting the adversary as the origin of the conflict, violating the laws of war, etc. These may be information operations aimed at intoxicating the adversary for tactical purposes. And it can be psychological warfare to weaken the resilience of the adversary or its population in the context of war.

Can we put Russian and Ukrainian propaganda on the same level?

No, absolutely not, because Russian propaganda has been characterized for decades, at least a century, by the systematic use of what the Russians call maskirovka, military disinformation, and what they have called since 1948 desinformatsiya, that is, disinformation. It is characterized by the use of false information or conspiracy theories to sometimes sow trouble or chaos in the adversary, sometimes to confuse the minds and this, to his advantage.

In other words, disinformation is part of Russia's information warfare doctrine, whereas Ukraine has so far had no need to resort systematically to disinformation as long as it only needs to draw the attention of world public opinion to the fate that has befallen it. When two countries accuse each other of invading, only one is telling the truth.

What are the main narratives of Russian disinformation?

The Ukrainians are Nazis, Russia has been attacked by NATO, NATO has secret laboratories in Ukraine, etc. Russia also encourages mistrust within democratic societies by encouraging skepticism in all its forms, by amplifying all protest movements, without marked political preference, and this leads Russia to multiply the themes of disinformation in its propaganda. It has relays of influence that are all the more important in France since our country, on the one hand, has been subjected to Russian interference for nearly 150 years and, on the other hand, has been characterized for more than a century by the strength of its anti-Americanism.

In one year of war, how have messages evolved?

They have not evolved, they are identical to the type of propaganda that Russia has been using for a century, that is to say that it is primarily a strategic communication that aims to dissuade Western countries from coming to the aid of Ukraine, in particular by highlighting the theme of the risk of nuclear escalation. And this strategic communication worked remarkably well in 2014. It continues to produce these effects today.

Russia has long implemented a communication strategy that relies on the perfect blurring of the boundary between the state of war and the state of peace. And from this point of view, it has no interest in getting out of the uncertainty that it has itself initiated and exploited. It is this uncertainty that allowed him to conquer Crimea in 2014 without Western countries reacting. It is this uncertainty that allows it today to deploy its propaganda in Western countries and, beyond, in Africa, Latin America, Asia with some success.

What are the relays of Russian propaganda?

Russia uses, as it has done for at least a century, different vectors. Most of Russia's propaganda and disinformation is done in the open in a transparent manner, this is commonly referred to as white propaganda. Russian public diplomacy relays the Kremlin's strategic communication at the same time as its psychological warfare operations, and that's very original. And, if you take the case of the France, the news agencies first, then the media, systematically repeat the statements of Vladimir Putin, Sergei Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russian diplomats.

As a result, Russia does not need to resort to particularly complex operations to influence public debate in France. Russian propaganda is then relayed by its international media which, while banned from broadcasting in France, remain accessible on the Internet under certain conditions. There is also a manipulation of information on digital social media, whether it is fake media websites, fake NGOs, discussion forums, content platforms, social networks (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok) and encrypted messaging systems such as Telegram. And finally, Russia has many agents of influence in France: networks of experts, military, former spies, journalists, politicians.

Vladimir Putin designated the West as the enemy that wants to "finish off Russia" in his speech on February 21, 2023. Is it the new adversary after Ukraine and the "Ukronazis"?

This formula is nothing new. In 2022, he declared in his speech that the West had tried after 1990 "to sink us, to finish us off and to destroy us for good." The term Ukronazis was already used in 2014. It must be understood that Vladimir Putin is a KGB man. He spent most of his career before the collapse of the USSR in counterintelligence. He continues to apply to the letter and consistently the propaganda principles taught to him by the KGB, of which he was an officer, and the FSB, of which he was the director.

From my point of view, there is no form of innovation. Innovations are on our side: they are the digital social platforms, their advertising targeting tools that Russia has used to disseminate its disinformation campaigns on a large scale. And, therefore, we have served Russia on a platter the tools it uses to turn them against us.

Can we say that Russia has won the information war?

To determine whether or not to win a war, one must consider what the war aims are. The original war goal was the overthrow of the Ukrainian government within 72 hours and replaced it with a pro-Russian government. It was a coup, which failed. Now, what is Russia's war goal? Is it really to take over the whole of Ukraine? I don't believe it. Is it, on the other hand, to weaken one's opponents by a frozen conflict and to count on the passage of time to change public opinion against aid to Ukraine? That, I believe.

OUR DOSSIER ON THE WAR IN UKRAINE

Polls published on 15th February in the USA show that public support for arms and ammunition transfers to Ukraine has fallen below 50%. If we look at the outcome of some elections since the outbreak of the war, Turkey's attitude towards Sweden's accession to NATO, we constantly see signs of small victories for Russia on the informational level.

This is an extremely important point, because when you are not able to win the war on the ground, you are left with a field, that of information on which you can win. And what Russia is waging today is the battle of world opinion.

  • War in Ukraine
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  • Russia
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  • Vladimir Poutine
  • Volodymyr Zelensky