Russian propaganda is not the stuff of romanticised spy movies; it is serious business treated accordingly by the Kremlin. If the West wants to counter the pernicious effects of this disinformation, it should up its game and consider the full spectrum of forms this propaganda takes, as well as its structural conditions and tactical adaptations. While the EU has documented at least 3,800 examples of disinformation in recent years, four very targeted narratives employed in Moldova and Romania offer clear illustrations of how the Russian propaganda apparatus functions. To tackle narratives such as these, the West must go beyond the usual fact-checking and elite coordination to address the sources of social polarisation.
1. EU, the ‘gay dictatorship’
In Romania, one of the most pro-EU countries of the continent, conspiracy websites are seeking to exploit the increasingly prominent divide between the progressives and the more conservative segments of the population. Echoing the official discourse of the Kremlin, the EU is presented as a source of "gay dictatorship"; as a transnational project aimed at undermining the Christian legacy of Europe. In this context, becoming a true European is equated with the active promotion of LGBTQ+ rights. The conservative propensities of Eastern European populations are exploited by reinforcing the narrative that the EU demands that gay marriage be legalised and religious practices abandoned. Obviously, this narrative is misleading and blatantly false, making use of people's insecurities to associate the EU with the sentiment of fear.
It is interesting how well these propaganda efforts are adapted to the local conditions and realities: in the last couple of years, conservative groups have gathered around 3 million signatures with the goal of modifying Romania’s Constitution and introducing an amendment that explicitly defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. One cannot say that the initiative is dictated from or funded by Moscow - some of its leaders are respectable local figures. But it is amplified as such and shows how Russia is drawing a wedge by taking advantage of a very sensitive topic, by pitting one group against another, and, in the end, by making the connection to the EU, identified as the "source of evil". One can doubt that the Russians really care about the substance of the topic - and anyway, a vast majority of Romanians favour a conservative family, so it’s a fake social debate - as long as the seeds of division bear fruits, their job is done.
2. George Soros, the villain
Other topics are treated in a similar manner and targeted at those with whom the message is most likely to resonate. George Soros and his liberal initiatives, including support for EU integration of refugees, are introduced in the context of the migration debate. Given that Soros has become a scapegoat for many Central and Eastern European governments, Russian propaganda is using his persona to fuel fear of Muslim immigrants, or Middle Eastern or African migrants in general.
3. The West as coloniser
A third subject which has been exploited relates to the story of Romania presented as a colony at the mercy of powerful EU or US interests. The EU, for example, is described as implying the total lack of sovereignty, for instance, in the judicial legislation debate, or in imperialistic terms. While not yet a message in mainstream media, it builds upon the growing political frustration of some of the main parties in Parliament - some of their spokespeople do not shy away from the topic. Of course, this is further magnified by the Russian outlet Sputnik and others. For many, these attempts from Russia could seem rudimentary, but what should worry us is their persistence and the ongoing bid to refine the targeting of this strategy and to increase its efficiency.
4. East vs. West
In neighbouring Moldova, if one analyses only the major propaganda narratives promoted this year, the hybrid communication warfare even more intense than in Romania. The fact that Moldovans have a history of being exposed to Russian channels and propaganda helps such messaging. Since its independence and especially after 2009, Moldova has become a geopolitical battleground, with every round of elections representing a fight between the East and the West. Things are, of course, complex and the pro-Europeans, both in power and opposition, ever more divided, and rightfully after the annulment of the recent mayoral elections in Chisinau. In response to attempts by pro-European forces to embrace European integration, Russian-influenced propaganda sources are pushing stories that announce the end of the visa-free regime for Moldovans, thus suggesting that the EU is rejecting Moldovan aspirations for accession. Obviously, nothing is mentioned about how - after the Russian sanctions, the EU has become the main export market for Moldovan products. Other stories claim, falsely, that the process of granting Romanian citizenship to Moldovans has practically stopped, or that the US is preparing Moldova for a hybrid war with Russia, betting once again on the fear card and seeking to leverage the neutral position many Moldovans endorse.
EU: 3,800 cases of fake news since 2015
Beyond these examples, the EU vs. Disinformation campaign is an excellent source for gauging the scope of the phenomenon. Run by the East Stratcom Task Force of the EU’s diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the campaign has documented more than 3,800 disinformation cases dating back to 2015, in which Russia is, if not always the main source, at least the main beneficiary of the false information disseminated by various media or online outlets. The summary of cases holds informative insights that could aid the EU as it formulates its future strategy to combat disinformation.
An effective, coordinated response to propaganda
The EU is working towards an action plan to tackle disinformation and is set to present its concrete proposals in December. Th vision of this plan should be sophisticated and its communications and implementation flexible, while taking into account that coordination with national and local experts and institutions will be vital for any approach to be effective.
As highlighted by the European Council on 28 June, monitoring and counter-propaganda tasks are currently performed by a very small, yet very talented and passionate, strategic communications team at the EEAS. We should welcome the increased attention European institutions are paying to the topic. It is an admission that the very future of the European project depends on the answers offered to Russia’s systematic undermining of the trust and solidarity that are the foundations of the EU.
As could be seen from the examples from Romania and Moldova, and from a recent analysis by the EU vs. Disinformation campaign, disinformation is not linear or predictable. It is characterised by the creativity of the stories and their accumulation rather than by their sophistication. It makes use of targeted messages and strategies, and, very importantly, is often built around an element of truth, tapping into real tensions and polarisation within society. All these tactics stem from a common objective: to undermine support for the European Union and for the West, and to insist on the drawbacks of Western membership. This stands in contrast to the feeble efforts to promote the advantages of a Russian-backed regional order, if there are any - a vulnerability of the Russian narrative that offers a good opening for European counter-propaganda strategies.
In the short-term, the West has to understand the extent of this escalation in Russian propaganda directed at the foundations of the Western order. Any credible solution will require greater integration of local knowledge and counter-narratives. In the medium- to long-term, the sources of polarisation in Eastern European countries, especially the ones that are already EU members, require sound analysis: why has the consensus over European integration collapsed or starting to collapse so quickly? What are the initiatives around which a minimum of consensus could be rebuilt, with the goal of maintaining the health of these immature democracies? European leaders and thinkers will be very much needed when taking on this herculean task. Let the journey begin; December's action plan should be well-prepared, pragmatic and hands on. Action beats reaction.
Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.
Opinions expressed in View articles are not those of euronews.