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  Neither ISIS, Nor Climate Change: The World’s Main Security Issue Today Is the Russian People’s Poisoned Public Opinion (2)

By Andreas Umland
2015 10 01

The Russian Federation is currently and will remain, for the foreseeable future, the country that possess the second largest number of nuclear warheads. This highly armed state has, like the Soviet Union before it and the US today, an overkill capacity. As their communist predecessors in the Kremlin, the political leaders of post-Soviet Russia command enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy humankind several times. Russia’s current rulers, moreover, act within a political system in which parliamentary control of the armed forces, checks and balances between branches of power, civil society monitoring of officials, or investigative journalism on top politicians are either absent or underdeveloped. Russia’s political system represents a form of electoral authoritarianism in which power holders are only dependent on the integrity of their command chain, and of their public support constantly regenerated by the government’s information policies.

In view of these circumstances, Russia's more and more neurotic collective mind represents a critical challenge to the integrity of the European and even world security system. Russian electronic mass media has turned from a platform of relative pluralism of interpretation and opinion, in the 1990s, into a dangerous propaganda and manipulation instrument. Over the last 15 years, Russia’s major TV channels, radio stations and newspaper have been resolutely re-designed to prolong as long as possible the rule of the kleptocratic clique around Vladimir Putin. Kremlin-controlled mass media achieves this aim through purposeful inception and radicalization of a fortress mentality among the Russian population. The Russian people are told, on a daily basis, that Russia is under a deadly attack from the US and its underlings across the world, ranging from far-away Australia and Canada to neighboring Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine. The propaganda machine’s constant repetition that NATO, the EU and their allies are after Russia’s lands and resources has made, for many Russians, the idea that they have to stick together for securing the physical survival of their nation a common place beyond dispute.

So far, the West has largely failed to address the core issue in its confrontation with Moscow – the deeply poisoned Russian public opinion. It does not systematically counter-act the constant spread of Manichean, conspirological and rabidly anti-Western misrepresentations of international affairs, by the skillful manipulators of Kremlin-controlled mass media. For instance, the English-language RT (Russia Today) state TV channel has, since 2005, been allowed to become a noteworthy factor in the formation of North American as well as West European public opinion, on the Wests contemporary domestic and foreign affairs. RT’s largely unchallenged pseudo-pacifist stance has only started to loose cloud, even among political radicals, with the start of the all-to-obvious Russian "hybrid war" against Ukraine. Especially, the downing of Malyasian flight MH17, by a Russian rocket on 17 July 2014, has dealt a blow to RT’s and various other Russian outlet’s international propaganda campaign strategies designed to muddle the waters of Western public opinion on the escalation in the Donets Basin. The Kremlin’s project to subvert the integrity of the West from within has largely failed.

Yet, a far more consequential and complicated challenge remains unmet – the ever stronger anti-Western infection of public opinion, inside Russia, by state-directed domestic television. Ordinary Russians are bombarded, around the clock, with half-truths, conspiracy theories, defamatory allegations, and plain lies via the news programs, historic documentaries and political talks shows of the large TV channels ORT, RTR and NTV. These lavishly funded and peculiarly professional “myth engines” are misinforming, agitating and stirring up the Russian public, on a scale and with vengeance difficult to imagine for somebody not understanding Russian language and watching these shows. The Kremlin’s pseudo-journalists use rhetorical and psychological methods far more crude than RT's leftish attacks on certain pathologies of Western capitalism and liberal democracy. Instead of the human rights and universal justice rhetoric employed by RT, Russian domestic broadcasting is manifestly anti-liberal and, sometimes, radically right-wing. It uses an eclectic mix of ideas and arguments drawn from Christian-Orthodox fundamentalism, 19th-century European conservatism, 20th-century Russian émigré nationalism, integral traditionalism, Bolshevik dualism, and post-war Soviet triumphalism, to pursue a re-archaization of the Russian collective mind.

As a result of this grave psychological transformation, the population of one of the world’s most deadly armed country is currently suffering from collective neurosis. Russia’s thinking about the West and especially the US has become dominated by feelings of existential fear, deep resentment, manifest insecurity and profound mistrust. Most Russians today understand the world as consisting mainly of intransigent enemies of Russia who are engaged, at best, in a zero-sum games or, at worst, in a hidden war against their motherland the only protection of with its patriotic political leadership in the Kremlin. Russia’s present state of national paranoia means that humanity may have, without realizing it, entered one of the most dangerous moments in its history.

Given its irrational, if not psychopathological aspects, this challenge can neither be overcome by better diplomatic engagement with the Kremlin, nor be met through an increase of Western military capacity vis-à-vis the Russian army. Neither the West’s foreign or defense ministries, nor its security organizations like NATO or the OSCE are designed to solve problems like the above. Instead of engaging in ever more diplomatic activism and higher arms spending, the leaders and thinkers of the West should think more deeply about how and what to communicate to the Russian people living both in- and outside Russia. Which opportunities do we have to reach as many as possible Russians, and which message should we send them? How can we tell them, and how can we make them believe us, that we are not their enemies? Where should we put our money and direct our energy to tackle not the symptoms, but the root of our problem with Russia? Finding clear answers and workable instruments to tackle these issues will make the Earth not only a better, but – more importantly – a safer place, for all of us.

Andreas Umland, Dr. phil., Ph. D., is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and General Editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society“ published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart. A somewhat different version of this text was published before in the “New Atlanticist” blog series of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

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