At a glance.
- Positive persuasion and complicated narratives are tougher to pull off than either disruption or simple messages.
- The UN condemns Russia's war as aggression.
- Attempting to pin the blame for nuclear fears on the West.
- Beijing trims its messaging.
This week's interesting stories all concern the difficulties Russia is having in operating a successful campaign of persuasion. In influence operations, it seems, it's easier to increase the opposition's friction than it is to reduce one's own.
"Binary narratives" travel better.
Russian disinformation has in recent years been successful because it was largely negative. That is, it wasn't aimed at convincing people of anything in particular, but rather at increasing fissures in its adversaries' civil societies. Russia has been notably less successful when it's been forced to push positive disinformation. Disruption is easier. It can be opportunistic and simple. It need only inflame passion and darken counsel. It needn't actually bring about any firm conviction to be successful: doubt and suspicion are often enough to do the job.
Consider the way propaganda over the current war against Ukraine has developed. Russian policy has required that it convince the world, or at least a significant part of it, that Russia's war is justified, indeed, defensive. Early attempts to do this sought to brand the Ukrainian government as, first, genocidal, and second, illegitimate. But those proved too implausible.
An op-ed in Izvestia offers some insight into the evolving Russian line about negotiations with Ukraine: the war is very complex, Russia's needs and concerns are very real, and the world should look beyond shallow Ukrainian grandstanding and lazy Internet memes and come to grips with the (again) very complicated realities underlying Russia's security concerns. And a Ukrainian negotiator's deliberate breaches of protocol (he was wearing a t-shirt and a baseball cap, and was photogenically glaring at the Russian side) shouldn't sway a sober and realistic appreciation of those complicated and difficult realities. All of which is one way of framing brutal and unprovoked aggression.
What's particularly interesting is the Russian turn to complexity as a theme, which suggests that there's a growing realization that the line asserting that Ukraine is the aggressor (and is led, to boot, by a neo-nazi junta) isn't finding legs. Contrast that with an assessment of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy's messaging, which has largely succeeded in presenting the war in clear, simple terms, all the more successful for being basically true. The Telegram quotes social media observes as noting that "binary narratives," good versus evil, always do well in social media. The inside baseball of the Minsk Accords and the allegedly recent provenance of an allegedly artificial nation, not so much.
The United Nations condemns Russia's war as "aggression."
The difficulty of carrying off a false narrative of victimization was seen clearly this week after the UN General Assembly voted Wednesday to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In its official statement, the UN wrote: "Deploring in the strongest terms its aggression against Ukraine in violation of the Charter of the United Nations, the Assembly also demanded the Russian Federation immediately and unconditionally reverse its 21 February decision related to the status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine." Thus not only the invasion itself was condemned, but so was the Russian recognition of the independence of the regions it styles the Peoples' Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The resolution of condemnation had been introduced by Ukraine.
After the resolution passed, the Russian ambassador said that the UN had offered Moscow no help in achieving its desire for peaceful resolution of what it continued to characterize as a defensive, albeit complicated, military operation. “This document will not allow us to end military activities. On the contrary, it could embolden Kiev radicals and nationalists to continue to determine the policy of their country at any price.” He also said that Russia had paid and will continue to pay scrupulous attention to protecting noncombatants, and that scenes of civilian dead were either provocations of Ukrainian "nationalists" or else simply "Internet fakes." In either case, the real victim, says Russia, is Russia.
Russia raises its level of nuclear alert, but says it's the Western leaders, actually, who are increasing the chances of nuclear war.
In separate remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated warnings of the consequences of Ukraine's acquisition of nuclear weapons, something no one is seriously proposing, but which has bulked large in Russian messaging over its war. Mr. Lavrov also said that "a third world war" would be nuclear, and devastating. And, needless to say, after raising the prospect of nuclear war, Mr. Lavrov adds that it's the Westerners, not the Russians, who are considering this possibility. "It is clear that World War Three can only be nuclear," Lavrov said (as quoted in the Moscow Times). "I would like to point out that it's in the heads of Western politicians that the idea of a nuclear war is spinning constantly, and not in the heads of Russians. Therefore I assure you that we will not allow any provocations to throw us off balance," Lavrov added.
China trims its messaging.
China, which abstained from the General Assembly's vote, contenting itself with deploring violence and calling for peace, has apparently grown more tepid in its support of Russian ambitions in Ukraine. Bloomberg reports that China is talking directly with Ukraine about the crisis. On balance, an op-ed in the Telegram argues, "a humbled Russia is a win for the [Communist Party of China]." Beijing has been tuning its official line with respect to the war. Formerly, Foreign Policy points out, China's messaging had portrayed President Putin as "the put-upon hero," with NATO and its allies as the "malevolent villains." That's now been moderated to a call for all sides to “address each other’s concerns through peaceful means.” The New York Times reports that China may have had more advanced warning of the Russian invasion than had been appreciated. US intelligence sources believe Beijing asked Moscow to postpone the war until the Olympics closed, which Russia of course did. If that's so, it's a form of advanced warning that amounts almost to complicity.