By Radu Magdin
Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in Eastern and Southeastern Europe thrive on West's (i.e. EU and the US) unclear strategic objectives, on poorly designed plans and insufficient capacity to expose what is actually the profile of its geopolitical foe. I argue that there are reasons for optimism in dealing with the Russian information wars in Western Balkans and in the leading countries of the Eastern Partnership (Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia), provided that a swift change in the overall approach is embraced and more coordination within the West (even at a time of heightened transatlantic tensions) follows.Thus, I show that four broad tactics could decisively undermine the Russian narrative, seriously undermining the destructive potential of the Kremlin's engagement strategies in these countries.
Deliver a clear, empowering, and positive message
The West should make proper use of the lessons drawn from the last wave of enlargement and employ wisely its conditionality power. In this context, the EU should clarify its terms of engagement in Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries (especially Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia) and design flexible institutional frameworks able to promote its values and interests. 2018 has been a partial blessing, Brussels is starting to move, saying to the Western Balkans countries that there is a future for the worthy. But the Eastern Partnership also deserves a strategic promise and a credible future, and the other way around. The current ambiguity that exists in relation to the limits and ambitions of future EU and NATO enlargement and the fact that countries with Western aspirations are considered together with countries with allegedly "no European prospects" (as is currently the case with the EaP) are undermining Western credibility and transform some countries in privileged and easy targets for Russian propaganda. The West should never underestimate the power of a positive message and of a clear timetable, even if the challenges to the Western integration of these countries are massive.
If the EU/ NATO accession is really off the table for the foreseeable future, then strong and smart investment schemes can be devised to tilt the balance towards the West in key identified countries. Ambiguity and the lowest common denominator should be abandoned; as concerns the EU debates, it is somehow ironic that the discussion about multi-speed Europe has made progress within the EU institutions and some key capitals, but the same determination is lacking in relation to the Neighbourhood Policy. A Speedier Gonzalez approach helps when sending geopolitical signals.
Speak to the people humbly
The political equilibrium is often unstable in these countries and any inadequate Western political gestures and positions could further distrust and lack of cooperation. Any superiority tone clashing with national dignity should be avoided, some bow but then resent in silence. Moreover, history matters and any lack of awareness of main national narrative will only feed into what Russia is seeking to portray as the out-of-touch, imperialistic, and unsympathetic West. Therefore, more caution should be exhibited by officials in their statements, more consideration for local sensitivities should drive the political engagement strategy. You can "carrot and stick" people, but style is also important, remember the golden rule: criticism is general, praise is individual. The goal: alienating as few key political, economic, and social players as possible/building consensus around key Western objectives. Speak softly and help concretely, while carrying the big conditionality stick.
Offer tangible benefits and build societal leverage
In their discussion on brought about democracy (or competitive authoritarianism) in Eastern Europe, Levitsky and Way distinguish between the power of leverage (the degree to which the governments are vulnerable to external pressure) and linkage (the density of economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organisational ties and cross-border flows with the West). When competing geopolitical projects exists (as is the case in Western Balkans and EaP countries with the Russian offensive), the leverage will be reduced and what will matter will be the propaganda immunity built through linkage, through offering concrete ideational and material benefits to the concerned countries.
First, the West should go beyond engaging with the local elites and design programs that directly target specific segments of the population, like local entrepreneurs for example - successful programs that led to European integration should be exported and localised in these communities. The broader goal - build societal resilience, more trust, more contacts with the West, and social capital. Invest in local civil society and media in smart way, in a manner that is not only likely to produce sustainable transformations, but is also able to foster true partnerships and not client-patron dynamics. Grassroots, like in political campaigns, remains key, the West needs a local base as well, not just elite support who may vary depending on interests and election years. In the meantime, remember that competition is already on the move: the West should be aware that journalist and influencer visitor programs are also a new found passion of their geopolitical competitors and should take note in its renewed needed charm offensive.
Second, Western entry mechanisms in these countries should be refined to address better the local conditions. For example, projects and programs conducted through international institutions (IMF, WB, EU funding etc.) should properly tackle not only underdevelopment, corruption, and the likes, but also the increasing levels of inequality and youth frustration. It should be acknowledged that inequality is associated with increasing polarisation and with resentment, which could easily be speculated by the Russian propaganda to damage societal solidarity and hurt the West's soft power. If before 2008 the West was perceived as doing nice and peachy, the perception of crisis, propagated via channels of malign influence, lowered trust in the West.
Expose the truth about life in Russia
Russian propaganda lacks a comparative dimension: it exclusively focuses on the hypocrisy and failures of the West, but it does not present an alternative. In fact, this alternative does not exist: the Russian model is not a successful, exportable one - usually, in contrast to promoting democracy, the explicit attempts to promote authoritarianism are not an established practice. In terms of soft power, these days Russia survives through megalomaniac events (such as the Winter Olympics, World Cup or the yearly 9 May Parade), but this is like putting too much make-up on a wrinkled face: instead of hiding, it reveals even more. A comparative approach is highly detrimental to Russia, as its structural weaknesses are highly visible to any informed observer of Russian realities: OK, the Kremlin building looks impressive on grand occasions, but the average Russian does not leave there, he or she lives in the poorer world of devalued rubles. The citizens of the "targeted" countries by the West's "charm and truth awareness offensive" should be exposed more to and made aware of these realities, especially through the use of documentaries, media reports, investigations, and other similar approaches and tactics. Europeans and Americans should learn more about Russian realities (as well as the realities of other geopolitical competitors who brag abroad, but lack results at home), and so should WB and EAP countries. Faced with a coordinated strategy, it should be no surprise that the Russian propaganda will crumble at the first strike.
Fake news and propaganda have been presented as one of the inescapable pathologies of our interconnected age. But even in inauspicious contexts, the truth could be reestablished and prevail; obviously, it will take time and hard work and, most importantly, the determination not to lose ground against revisionist powers by deploying state of the art counterstrategies. Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries could become a landmark case on how to deal with the deleterious effect of state-driven propaganda.
Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.
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