Boris Kamčev: Disinformation and News Fabrication Are the Main Levers of the Regime and the Reason for Putin’s Long Rule
Boris Kamčev is a foreign policy journalist and commentator who is currently engaged as a reporter for the Macedonian Information Agency (MIA) in Washington and is a regular contributor to LNG Publishing, an American publishing house in Washington, where he writes about Russia’s oil derivatives industry, USSR and the countries of the Eastern European region. Kamčev previously worked as a correspondent from Russia for several Macedonian daily and weekly publications, he was also hired as a business affairs associate in the editorial office of The St. Petersburg Times, and collaborated with Russia Profile, the English online edition of RIA Novosti.
Boris is the author of two books on Russia: “Putin’s Russia” and “Autocracy and Verticals”, published in Skopje in 2013 and 2020. In an interview with Truthmeter, we asked him about current topics related to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, the state of disinformation, propaganda and hybrid threats coming from Russia, the closure of independent media in Russia, and the impact of Kremlin propaganda on Western Balkan countries, as well as the dispute that the country is waging with Bulgaria
Author: Simona Atanasova
What is the current internal situation in the Russian Federation in terms of disinformation? How did the invasion of Ukraine affect their production and dissemination? Is there an increase or is their level stable given the opinions of some analysts that the Kremlin has been preparing the public in the country for such a war for years, at least since 2014?
Control of Russia’s main sources of information has been a priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin since 2000 when he took over the presidency from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
Biased reporting, disinformation and news fabrications are one of the main levers for maintaining the regime and the reason for Putin’s long rule. In Russia, they come in many forms – from slander and intimidation of critics, opposition politicians and critical journalists or rhetoric with extreme conservative attitudes towards the LGBT community, to leaking of compromising materials to remove officials who have fallen into ruthlessness of the governing structures, above all, the so-called “Siloviki”, the powerful representatives of the ministries of force and coercion, or of Putin himself.
I would not say that disinformation reduced before the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and then increased. As an effective tool of government, propaganda in Russia has existed since the invention of the print media, except during the brief period of democratization in the 1990s. To be more precise, with the advent of Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric and the demands for a revision of the global order made by Russian diplomacy since 2007, disinformation has been internationalized by adding components such as anti-Americanism, anti-Ukrainianism, or descriptions of Europe’s alleged decadence.
The crowning achievement of this geopolitical conflict with the West, and above all with the United States, as we know it, was the Kremlin’s involvement in the 2016 US presidential election (and many other elections across Europe) and the election of Donald Trump, who won with the help of sophisticated Russian propaganda and the amount and effectiveness of disinformation delivered in the American domain on the social networks Facebook and Twitter. Not coincidentally, in 2011, Putin said, “the global Internet is a tool of the CIA and should be curbed” with a tacit threat that “we will give you your own medicine.”
Russian society is currently in unprecedented apathy and hopelessness. Propaganda, at least at home, is a tricky machine, as always. With absolute control over the media and the judiciary, control of a totalitarian system, and the few remaining progressive Russians, there is little that can be done about change.
The propaganda and disinformation surrounding the Kremlin’s decision to launch and conduct military aggression against Ukraine, or the “war of aggression” as described in the West, is only a natural sequel to the situation that has lasted since 2000. The most striking example was the lies of Russian politicians and diplomats that the accumulation of troops on the border with Ukraine was “our internal affair” and that an attack on the neighboring country was not being prepared. However, after that happened, they declared that it was a “military operation” (the correct term according to military censorship in Russia) that will be “lightning fast” and short-lived.
How negatively did the closure of the few remaining independent media in Russia reflect with the start of the war, as well as the abolition of access to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? Did these media and social networks play a major role in informing the public in Russia, or was their role limited?
It was quite predictable that with the war in Ukraine and the tightening of the noose in Russian society with draconian penalties for peaceful protest and free expression, as well as the newly introduced military censorship, the few remaining independent media outlets such as Rain TV or Moscow Echo Radio would suffer. Undoubtedly, the role of these media was significant in informing the public.
In addition, the abolition of Facebook and Instagram has cut off the revenue of thousands of popular Russian journalists, show business and ordinary entrepreneurs, who have broadcast their shows, talk shows or commercials on these platforms, which numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Many of them, like the journalists from the above outlets, have gone abroad, one might say in exile, seeking other means of subsistence, or reporting from neighboring democracies such as Estonia, Latvia or Georgia.
What is the role and power of the Kremlin-funded media intended for foreign audiences such as RT (Russia Today), Sputnik and others? Moreover, some of them have stopped working in certain countries, and a warning appears on some social networks before accessing a portal owned by the Russian state.
With the military aggression against Ukraine, the power of the Russian state media in the West has been completely degraded in many countries. Although in countries like Serbia, N. Macedonia or Bulgaria, where Putin traditionally has some support, they still somehow influence public opinion, but not to such an extent as before the invasion. In many countries, such as Germany or the United Kingdom, they are banned and marked on social media that these media are sponsored by the Russian state, which negatively affects their popularity, which is reduced to critical comments or slander by Western audiences.
What is the situation with hybrid threats and Kremlin propaganda at the international level, in Western countries and in the Western Balkans region compared to the pre-war period in Ukraine? Can it be said that with the beginning of the use of weapons, the Kremlin propaganda is now of secondary importance, or do you think that it still plays a very important role despite the fact that Western countries are united in condemning the war in Ukraine, and when it comes to policies towards the Russian Federation?
In this context, a few days ago, the US and British ambassadors to the UN accused Russia of spreading disinformation and intimidating and detaining journalists who tell the truth about Ukraine. These condemnations are one of a series similar to those in the past, after the start of the war.
Kremlin propaganda in the West has been dealt a decisive blow and is now more important at home than abroad. Hybrid threats now come down to blackmail or bluffing over the alleged use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or overflights by strategic bombers. Hybrid threats on social networks and through traditional media do not have the power they had before the war.
The propaganda and disinformation surrounding the Kremlin’s decision to launch and conduct military aggression against Ukraine, or the “war of aggression” as described in the West, is only a natural sequel to the situation that has lasted since 2000. Among them, the most glaring example was the lies of Russian politicians and diplomats that the accumulation of troops on the border with Ukraine is “our internal affair” and that an attack on the neighboring country is not being prepared
Is Russia aware of the potential damage to the country and its citizens from international sanctions if they continue to persist in the medium or long term? Does Kremlin propaganda succeed in suppressing information about the potential dangers and harms of sanctions against its own citizens and the Russian economy?
Russian society is currently in unprecedented apathy and hopelessness. Propaganda, at least at home, is a tricky machine, as always. With absolute government control over the media and the judiciary, control of a totalitarian system, and the few remaining progressive Russians, little can be done about change.
The current situation in Russia can best be described in the words of the famous Russian dissident, author and thinker, Valeria Novodvorskaya, who wrote in a 1994 essay:
Since the 16th century, we have existed according to the laws of manic-depressive psychosis, which only after 100 years became a national feature.
Овој опис најмногу одговора за сегашна Русија. Апсолутно никој не знае до какви тектонски длабочини ќе падне земјата по воената агресија врз Украина и меѓународните обвиненија до Путин и генералите за направени воени злосторства. И колку таа ќе биде изолирана и по евентуалното потпишување мировен договор околу Украина. Има гласови на отпор внатре во власта, кај нејзиниот мал либерален дел и кај некои прорежимски олигарси, но тие се мали и нерешителни за една поопширна акција за создавање услови за внатрешен пуч и смена на власта, сеедно дали на мирен начин или преку насилна револуција.
What was the role of Kremlin propaganda in relation to N. Macedonia in the period after the country’s entry into NATO, until today? It can not be expected that a significant part of the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts will be directed against N. Macedonia, but has anything changed in terms of propaganda since the country joined NATO?
In my opinion, N. Macedonia is part of the Balkan region where Russia has significant influence, along with Serbia, the Serbian part of Bosnia and Bulgaria. Of course, the current dispute imposed by Bulgaria is a good chance for disinformation. Russian influence works by exploiting the vulnerabilities of Western societies and trying to intensify them in order to achieve a schism of geopolitical proportions and social disintegration and to use it for its own narrow-minded interests.
The current situation in Russia can best be described in the words of the famous Russian dissident, author and thinker, Valeria Novodvorskaya, who wrote in a 1994 essay: Since the 16th century, we have existed according to the laws of manic-depressive psychosis, which only after 100 years became a national feature. This description is most relevant to present-day Russia
What is your view on the Kremlin propaganda when it comes to the exploitation of the dispute between N. Macedonia and Bulgaria? The Kremlin has very often, in the past 18 months, sided with N. Macedonia in this dispute on social networks, especially on Twitter through the tweets of their embassies in Skopje, and to some extent in Sofia. Does the Kremlin have the capacity to negatively influence the aggravation of this dispute through its propaganda and even through hybrid actions?
I do not follow the Twitter accounts of the Russian embassies in Skopje and Sofia so much, but what you say confirms the narrative that when it comes to the importance of the issue of accession of N. Macedonia in the EU. On the Bulgarian domestic political scene, Moscow is supporting one side, instead of calling for finding a mutually acceptable solution, as the EU and the US do.
Given that you are currently in Washington and following this side of the conflict, what is the impact of Kremlin disinformation seen in both Europe and the United States? Have any significant measures been taken to combat Kremlin disinformation? For example, is there anti-disinformation activity in the latest US $ 40 billion packages of support for Ukraine?
The impact of this disinformation has been met with fierce sanctions against Russian entities and individuals from 2017 onwards, following Russia’s involvement in the US presidential and congressional elections. From 2016 onwards, Russia became an internal political topic for both the current government and national media such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
In contrast to the EU response to Russian propaganda, which is more concentrated on measures to violate privacy against technology companies and in 2015, an operational group was formed to combat it – the East StratCom task force in the European External Action Service (combined Ministry of Foreign Affairs and EU defense), the Biden administration is taking other types of initiatives. In the fight against Russian propaganda, it relies more on the same technology companies as Google, Twitter and Facebook. There is also a department in the State Department called the Global Engagement Center that shares information with several security agencies and foreign governments about Russian disinformation on social media, in the media, and on Russian proxy websites.
This war, not only the war in Ukraine but also the Kremlin’s hybrid propaganda war against the West, is not a choice of the United States and NATO allies in Europe
Do you think that the unity and solidarity of the democratic world in the fight against the Kremlin has the potential to be maintained in the long run, that is, as long as it takes for the war to end with an outcome that would satisfy both Ukrainians and NATO allies? How enthusiastic is the United States to get the job done?
This war, not only the war in Ukraine but also the Kremlin’s hybrid propaganda war against the West, is not a choice of the United States and NATO allies in Europe.
As part of efforts to end the hot phase of the conflict as soon as possible, they are being forced to arm Ukrainians for more effective resistance to Russian aggression. The more successful the Western media coverage of the truly enormous and unprecedented unity in response to Russian aggression – with extensive and effective armaments, unprecedented restrictive sanctions, bans and boycotts – the sooner Moscow will realize that its efforts are failing and must sit down at the table for peace talks and an end to the war.
Of course, the United States is at the forefront of the enthusiasm that exists in Europe to end the war as soon as possible.