Russians may not have invented disinformation, however, they have certainly perfected it.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky (1853-1910) and his agent Matvei Vassilyevich Golvinski (1865-1920), both working for Okhrana, the Imperial Russian secret service, cooked up an anti-Semitic tract called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a purported blueprint for a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. It was first published in Russia in 1903 by the Black Hundreds, an extremist, autocratic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and ultra-nationalist movement. Even though the book was debunked as a forgery in 1921 by Philip Graves writing for The Times, it continued to be accepted as authentic by the likes of Henry Ford (who printed 500,000 copies in the USA in the 1920's) and Adolf Hitler (who used it a major justification for initiating the Holocaust). Indeed, to this day it continues to circulate as an "authentic" document amongst feeble-minded extremists.
The Bolsheviks drew on this imperial expertise, as well as learning that Marxist dialectics could easily be redeployed as a subtle instrument of deception. Where this lead was brilliantly depicted by George Orwell in his dystopian novel (based on the Soviet Union), 1984. Mastering doublethink allows one to understand how the Ministry of Peace is in charge of war and atrocity, the Ministry of Love is in charge of torture and brainwashing, the Ministry of Plenty deals with rationing and starvation, and the Ministry of Truth oversees lying, propaganda, and historical revisionism. It's all very simple if you doublethink about it.
Canadians have even played a role in the development doublethink. As former Conservative party strategist Tom Flanagan once remarked, "It doesn't have to be true; it just has to be plausible," an excellent encapsulation of how disinformation works.
Disinformation became a vital important component of the Soviet approach to governance, generating plausible falsehoods could serve (at least transiently) to obscure the truth. This was aided and abetted by a category of stooges that the Soviets called useful idiots. These were mouthpieces for disinformation. In contrast to agents, paid to do such work, or zealots, genuinely convinced of the cause, useful idiots were simply cynically manipulated and, willingly or unwittingly, broadcast falsehoods as directed. Soviet authorities discovered, somewhat to their amazement, that there were no shortage of such useful idiots and that they were highly effective requiring no payment, inducement, or coercion. They swallowed the party line, hook, line, and sinker.
The utility of this approach has not been lost upon Vladimir Putin, who spent the first 16 years of his career as KGB officer working in counter-intelligence, monitoring foreigners and consular officials, and in illegal intelligence gathering, working both in the Soviet Union and East Germany where he was a KGB liaison to the Stasi.
And so we arrive at the crisis in Ukraine. In a previous article, Ukraine on the brink, I examine the historical backdrop to the present conflict. Russian state disinformation from Kremlin-controlled media such as RT - Russia Today is, as in Soviet times, a key element of the current conflict, muddying the waters to portray the Ukrainian government as illegitimate, as consisting of xenophobic, fascist elements, and representing the popular uprising that deposed and then impeached former president Victor Yanukovich, as a CIA-directed plot. Let's examine these claims.
Victor Yanukovich and the Ukrainian government
Ex-president Viktor Yanukovych was impeached by a unanimous vote of 328-0, by 73 per cent of the deputies of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (parliament), including the members of his own party, the Party of Regions, which has subsequently disowned him stating that, "we strongly condemn the criminal orders that led to human victims, an empty state treasury, huge debts, shame before the eyes of the Ukrainian people and the entire world."
Ukrainian constitutional guidelines do indicate that 338 deputies (i.e., ten more than were present) should have been present for the vote. Yanukovych also peremptorily abandoned trade and association talks with the European Union, a policy which been at the centre of his electoral platform, and which therefore constituted the basis of his democratic legitimacy. Security forces under his control opened fire on the people gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square resulting in the death of 77 people. Even prior to the most recent events, 71 per cent of Ukrainian citizens disapproved of the Yanukovich regime and only 19 per cent approved it. It would require great credulity to believe that Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia) has any remaining legitimacy as president, repudiated by his own party and unanimously rejected by 73 per cent of the country's deputies.
Yanukovych's deposition was a de facto revolution. These don't meticulously observe constitutionality, something the Russian Bolsheviks know well having taken power in a completely un-constitutional October Revolution, overthrowing a Provisional Government lead by Alexander Kerensky and composed of Mensheviks, Kadets, and Social Revolutionaries in which they had no representation.
Ukraine now has a new prime minister, a new president, a new cabinet, a stable majority coalition in the parliament, international recognition, and support from a large swath of Ukrainian society. Everyone save Russia recognizes it as the legitimate government of Ukraine. New presidential elections are slated for 25 May 2014.
The present Ukrainian parliament is composed of five groups: 88 deputies from the Batkivshchyna or Fatherland bloc; 42 deputies from the United Democratic Alliance for Reform bloc of Vitaly Klitschko; 36 deputies from the All Ukrainian Freedom Union party, Svoboda; 33 deputies from the Economic Development group of Anatoliy Kinakh (which split from Yanukovych's Party of Regions faction) and 51 non-affiliated deputies. The opposition consists of 127 deputies from the Party of Regions bloc; 32 deputies from the Communist Party of the Ukraine, and 40 non-affiliated deputies.
There are legitimate questions concerning Svoboda ("Freedom"), a political grouping that as I earlier wrote displays some, "xenophobic, anti-Semitic, nationalistic, anti-Russian, and quasi-fascist inclinations." How deep these current run amongst the membership of Svoboda is unclear to me. Of greater concern is Pravij Sektor (the "Right Sektor"), a far-right, paramilitary, neo-fascist grouping. That said, Pravij Sektor has no parliamentary representation -- indeed it is not even a party but a loose collective of several right wing and paramilitary groups. Svoboda holds 33 of the 449 (i.e., 7.3 per cent) of the seats in the Verkhovna Rada, and according to the recent polling is supported by 8.1 per cent of the population.
In France, the similarly right-wing National Front polled 13.6 per cent in the last national election and has 118 deputies (6.3 per cent) in France's regional councils. There are extreme right wing and/or fascist parties in many European countries. The Jobbik Party in Hungary has 43 deputies (11.1 per cent) in the Hungarian National Assembly. In Greece, Golden Dawn is a nationalist, anti-immigration, neo-Nazi, fascist party with 6.9 per cent popular support and 18 seats (6 per cent) in the Greek parliament. There are many other examples. Should we regard France as crypto-fascist because of the existence of the National Front? Should we condemn the Hungarian or Greek governments because there are minority parliamentary representations of right-wing extremists? Not in my view. The existence of such groups is regrettable, but the fact is that the vast majority of the populace does not support them. This is as true of Ukraine as it is of most European countries.
The CIA luring in the shadows
Russian state disinformation channels have promulgated a conspiracy theory that the Ukrainian revolution is an American-engineered plot. The Kremlin-controlled RT - Russia Today is a unique example on the global stage of a media outlet that, as analyst Oliver Bullough (author of the acclaimed book, The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation) reported on the CBC's Day 6, "has given up any pretense of telling the truth," broadcasting, "relentless falsehoods that are verifiably untrue." RT has become as reliable a source of information on the Ukraine as KCTV, the North Korean state television broadcaster, is on events in the Korean peninsula -- or anywhere else for that matter.
Funded annually by the Kremlin to the tune of $300 million a year (with financing guaranteed by Putin himself) RT is (in Bullough's characterization) "the in-house television station for the world's crazies" (of the "911-was-an-inside-job" variety) combining extreme libertarian ideas with the emerging neo-Soviet vision of Vladimir Putin. So egregious have RT's relentless falsehoods become, that RT news anchor Abby Martin denounced the network on air saying:
"What Russia did is wrong. Military intervention is never the answer, and I will not sit here and apologize or defend military aggression."
"I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of (Vladimir) Putin. I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I am resigning."
Disinformation generated by RT is then endlessly and uncritically recycled by other shadowy entities like "SCG News", which masquerades as a news outlet but is simply a shell without even a home page, registered in France with fake contacts to a freelance computer programmer purportedly working for a graphic design firm in India. These are transparent entities created to serve as echo chambers for Kremlin-funded propaganda.
Working hand-in-glove with RT are state entities such as the Russian security services FSB (the successor of the KGB) who, for example, bugged a conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the American Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. They were discussing whom they would like to see at the helm of the Ukrainian government. This FSB wiretap was then released by RT as 'evidence' that the American government was controlling the Euromaidan movement. In fact the conversation is precisely what might be expected of American, indeed diplomatic personnel of any country, discussing the developing political situation in Ukraine, who they feel might be most adept at steering the government, and how they should reach out to those figures. Listen yourself and judge.
The FSB also tapped a conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in which Paet relates that Olga Bogomolets (a dermatologist, cosmetologist, and folk singer) had blamed snipers "from the opposition" as shooting at demonstrators in Kyiv.
This was reported by RT as 'evidence' that the Ukrainian opposition had hired snipers to kill its own supporters to provide a pretext for deposing Yanukovich, and that this was further evidence of behind-the-scenes American manipulation. This is an illustration of how rumour and innuendo replace critical thinking, independent corroboration, fact checking, confirmation of sources and other investigative techniques used to determine reliable information.
The identity of the snipers is a contentious issue, currently the subject of an investigation (see the Christian Science Monitor's Kiev snipers: Who was behind them? for a good summary) and such is the fog of war that this may never be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. Some of the snipers were identified as members of the Berkut special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (then controlled by the Yanukovych government). There may have been others.
Interviewed by reporters in Tallin, Paet said he was merely repeating what he had been told by Bogomolets and has no way of verifying any claims. Interviewed by the British newspaper, The Telegraph, Bogomolets said she doesn't know if police and protestors were killed by the same bullets and that, "I hope international experts and Ukrainian investigators will make a determination of what type of weapons, who was involved in the killings and how it was done. I have no data to prove anything."
The larger point is that even if rogue elements (such as Pravij Sektor) decided to use the opportunity to shoot at police and protestors alike (a possible scenario) such extremists are not controlled by the mainstream Ukrainian opposition, nor does this provide any evidence of American machinations.
These are only a couple of illustrations of recent RT-generated disinformation. While no one of consequence takes this seriously (least of all the Kremlin) it is, however, is an enormous disservice to the many hundreds of thousands (perhaps 800,000 in Kyiv alone) of Ukrainian protestors at Euromaidan gatherings in many (at least 33) Ukrainian cities and towns across the length and breadth of the country, who protested the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych for months on end during the winter, and some of whom died in Kyiv upholding their beliefs.
None of this, of course, means that the United States doesn't have its own assets, operatives, and interests in Ukraine -- as it presumably has everywhere else. That doesn't, however, imply that the United States is a puppet-master directing all global affairs. Nor are the Russians; nor is anyone else. These notions are bogus as the claim that there is a hidden Jewish cabal running the world as promulgated by the fallacious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The wormholes of conspiracy theory are not history. They don't contribute to knowledge or deepen understanding; they simply feed psychoses and paranoia.
Many governments have learned the techniques of disinformation, and the Americans have certainly been no slouches. George W. Bush and Tony Blair's "War on Terror" in Iraq was constructed on patently fraudulent claims about the existence of "weapons of mass destruction" that had no factual basis. Closer to home, in Canada, the Harper Conservatives have made contempt for science, knowledge, fact, reason, truth, logic, and evidence a central component of their political vision. The further we depart from these, the easier it is to pull the wool over the eyes of the citizenry.
There's no pleasure or honour in being a stooge of American propaganda, however being duped by Russian propaganda is no better. Manipulation is manipulation, no matter who the manipulator is. Useful idiots are held in contempt and cynically exploited by their masters. They believe you can be fooled all of the time. Critical thinking, independent corroboration, fact checking, confirmation of sources, trusted and reliable sources, determining plausibility, thorough background information, first-hand experience, evidence-based reasoning all are techniques to fight back.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.