Total Control: Anatomy of Russian Media Influence
Following the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War on the Donbas, the theme of Russian propaganda as an element of the Russian hybrid aggression against other countries has become particularly popular. Scientific and journalistic articles are written about Russian propaganda; political and military leaders mention it in their speeches; international and national centers and institutes are being set up to counteract it.
It is difficult to disagree with the fact that in recent years, the Russian information influence on the population of other countries has become proportional or even larger than that carried out by the USSR during the Cold War. At the same time, even in expert discussions, there is a lack of understanding of both the nature of this influence and its tools. Observers’ attention is mostly focused on so-called “fake news” and on official rumors of Russian propaganda, such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency.
Such an approach greatly narrows the field of view of the researchers, restricting it to just an outright lie, which spreads through Kremlin’s well-known media. As a result, the proposed countermeasures are reduced to the rapid refutation of inaccurate information and limitations to broadcast official Russian mass media in one or another country. It ignores the fact that the most effective influence should be realized through channels that are not associated with Russia. This is especially true of the impact on the audience, which is negative about Russia.
Ukraine, unfortunately, did not become an exception with the West and was deprived of the strategy of countering Russian information warfare. In August 2014, six months after the occupation and annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea and on top of the Ukrainian-Russian military confrontation in eastern Ukraine, the government decided to ban 14 Russian TV channels for “propaganda of war.” The decision was obviously belated and inadequate, since it concerned only channels registered in Russia, not those controlled by Russia, and restricted the activities of only those media that directly called for war with Ukraine.
However, the Kremlin’s ability to influence Ukrainians was not limited by these TV channels. Russia has built up its communication tools and influence long and vigorously not only for marginal pro-Russian audiences, but also for quite patriotic pro-Western citizens of Ukraine, giving it much more time and resources.
It’s hard to believe, but the most popular Ukrainian TV channel Inter, covering 97 percent of the entire territory, was founded in 1996 by Russian state television. Later, Inter was sold to Dmitry Firtash, a pro-Kremlin oligarch, who had close ties t0 Vladimir Putin, Gazprom, and the leader of Russian organized crime, Seva Mogilevich. Now Firtash is in Vienna, where he expects to be extradited to the United States, where a criminal case has been launched against him.
Another media group, UMH, which brings together more than 50 brands with leading positions on the radio (7 popular radio stations), the Internet and the press (including the Ukrainian franchise Forbes and Vogue), is still controlled by the family of ex-President Yanukovych, who is in exile in Moscow. The leadership of the group is carried out by a close associate of Viktor Yanukovych, a former MP from his party, Elena Bondarenko. Bondarenko publicly denies Russian aggression against Ukraine, called the shooting of participants of the anti-Russian Revolution of Dignity not tight enough and actively participates in the Russian campaign to worsen Ukrainian-Polish relations. Taking into account the situation of Yanukovych, whose fate depends directly on the Kremlin, it is difficult to believe that there is any independence of this group.
Despite being constructed in advance channels of Russian communication and propaganda in the Ukraine, preparation for hybrid aggression required additional media capacity. On the eve of the war an active creation of new media began. In 2013, Multimedia Invest Group, which brings together 4 popular radio stations, 2 TV channels, an Internet portal, a magazine and a newspaper, was created in Ukraine. Media experts say that the group’s protagonist is also part of Yanukovych’s entourage.
The newspaper, Vesti, which is part of this group, first came out in print in May 2014, in the midst of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newspaper has repeatedly been accused of having its messages coincide with the main narratives of Russian propaganda which is reduced to the inevitability of an anti-government revolution in Ukraine and the collapse of the country being blamed solely on the West, NATO and the United States.
Radio Vesti, despite being part of the same group began broadcasting in March 2014 and chose another position. The radio claimed to be impartial and underlined (sometimes excessively and grotesquely) Ukrainian patriotism and anti-Russian propaganda. At the same time, the station repeatedly provided the opportunity to speak to representatives of pro-Russian terrorist organizations, Russian politicians, observers and it manipulated telephone polls.
The list of Ukrainian media controlled by Russia or its local allies also includes the most popular information channels 112 and NewsOne, as well as Channel 17.
Despite the generally accepted view, social media and networks, at least in Ukraine, are also not deprived of influence from Russia. In 2015, the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, appealed to Mark Zuckerberg to create a separate Facebook office for the administration of the Ukrainian segment of the network, which, according to many experts, is administrated from Moscow, which leads to interference in the process of information exchange, including the removal of some Facebook posts. Zuckerberg refused to assist Poroshenko, denying the existence of the Russian office.
This information is undoubtedly worth checking out, but it is absolutely irrefutable that the first large private investor in Facebook with an investment of $200 million was the Kremlin oligarch, Alisher Usmanov, who currently controls the Mail.ru group, which includes Vkontakte and other popular services.
With the growing number of media outlets, the importance of public opinion leaders who can interpret information from different sources is growing. Popular journalists, political scientists, television and radio hosts usually become leaders on the national level. And Ukraine is not an exception.
From 2010 to 2015, the most influential leaders of public opinion in Ukraine were popular TV and radio hosts, Evgeniy Kiselyov and Savik Shuster. Despite the generally acknowledged image of democratic journalists and fighters for liberal values, there are certain points in the biographies of these individuals which provides an entirely opposite view.
For example, Eugene Kiselyov began his professional career as a military interpreter for the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and was a member of the first group of officers of the GRU (about 60 people) who appeared in Afghanistan in 1979 on the eve of the Soviet invasion. Subsequently, Kiselyov was a professor at the KGB High School and worked in the Soviet propaganda system. A Russian citizen, he decided to move to Ukraine in 2009, where he immediately began collaborating with the Inter channel, whose ties with the Kremlin are described above, and the One News television channel which is similar in nature.
The host of the most popular political talk show in Ukraine, Savik Shuster, was also in Afghanistan, although, unlike Khiselyov, among the Mujahideen. A former Soviet citizen who emigrated to Canada with his family, Shuster, despite having a medical education, decided to become a journalist in 1979.
In 2005, he moved to Ukraine where he began his own television talk show. He interacted with TV channels Inter, 112 and Radio Vesti. It should be noted that the notorious Russian promoter Dmitry Kisyelov, whose TV show on Russian television was defined by The Economist as Orwell’s two minutes’ hate, stretched to more than 30 minutes and focused on mobilizing Russian society to agitation, hatred and fear. From 2000 to 2006 he also worked in the Ukraine. Here Kisyelov headed the information service of the ICTV TV channel. Kisyelov gained popularity in the West after his public statement that Russia can transform the US into radioactive ash.
Particular attention should be paid to Russian media managers in Ukrainian media, the number of which has increased significantly in recent years. For example, Mariya Stolyarova, a creative producer of the latest news on Inter TV channel, was deported from Ukraine in February 2016. In Ukraine, the Russian citizen Stolyarova arrived in 2014. Prior to that, she worked as a military correspondent for the Russian TV channel REN-TV, which is associated with Vladimir Putin. As a representative of REN-TV, Stolyarova managed to cover the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in the Donbass, where she did not conceal her sympathy for the Russian backed separatists. While working on the Inter TV Channel, Stolyarova continued to coordinate the activities of other Russian correspondents who worked in Ukraine, and participated in the parliamentary elections that took place in Ukraine in 2014 as a political and media consultant. She consulted a number of politicians including those who declared pro-Ukrainian and pro-Western positions.
Another manager of the TV channel Inter and also a citizen of Russia, Igor Shuvalov, was deported from Ukraine in 2017. Igor Shuvalov, alumni of the FSB Academy, arrived in Ukraine in 1999 and since then was one of the key political technologists working with the most odious pro-Russian politicians, including Viktor Medvedchuk, Viktor Yanukovych and Serhiy Lyovochkin.
Russian citizens, Dmitry Solopov and Aleksey Vorobiev, became the directors of the aforementioned radio Vesti and arrived for this purpose in Ukraine in 2014. Before that, both worked in Russia in the management of the radio station Echo of Moscow, which, despite its supposedly liberal position, is part of the media holding company, Gazprom-Media. It is noteworthy that Solopov and Vorobiev are co-owners of the Hidalgo advertising agency, whose clients include Gazprom, amongst others.
Igor Guzhva, a key person in the media holding Vesti, the News-One TV channel and the Internet magazine Strana.ua, was born in Ukraine and still has Ukrainian citizenship. Nonetheless, since 2001, Guzhva has been working in Moscow in media and political consulting. One of his jobs was the position of editor-in-chief of the newspaper Daily Moscow News which during the years of the USSR was a cover for the work of the Soviet Foreign Intelligence Service.
Realizing Russia’s influence on Ukrainian media, Western powers are trying to promote the development of independent media in Ukraine, spending tens of millions of dollars annually. However, little progress has been made in this area. This is largely due to the fact that Russia successfully penetrates these new entities, neutralizing them or even uses them for its own goals.
Taking into account the emphasis in the new military doctrine of Russia, adopted in December 2014, on the use of the protest potential of the population of the enemy state, it is difficult to underestimate the role of media resources in the modern war. To date, unfortunately, the West has not been able to develop an effective strategy to protect its own information space from Russian penetration, and, moreover, to develop effective instruments of its own influence. It is obvious that without the return to the Cold War information policy, as well as the introduction of sanctions on the creation and possession of Western media by subjects affiliated with Russia, the Kremlin will only increase its own capabilities, which will inevitably be used for political sabotage, discrediting national governments and bringing the power of Russian influence to Western countries.