BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information to mobilize public opinion about the First World War across all available media, producing tens of thousands of posters and pamphlets and editorials depicting the enemy as a remorseless, soulless monster. After that war ended, the committee was impugned as having oversold the threat. So FDR, his efforts to rally Citizens for the next World War were a had more transparent and a touch less hysterical. There was still censorship and egregious suppression of dissent, but not quite as egregious. I mention this only as a reminder that using domestic propaganda to get a country behind a war is by no means novel, and U.S. hands are by no means clean. But this is about Russia now and how its propaganda has evolved. Molly.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In 1923, the Cheka, which was the Soviet secret police at that time created the first ever office dedicated to disinformation. It's a history that Thomas Rid, professor at Johns Hopkins, SAIS writes about in his book Active Measures.
THOMAS RID The KGB or its predecessor organization, The Cheka, was born deceiving its adversaries almost from day one. That is very different in Western democratically accountable intelligence agencies. Yes, Western intelligence agencies also did engage in psychological operations and deception. But then if we closely trace these operations, we see that they almost completely stopped in the late fifties, early sixties mid-sixties. The Soviets did the opposite.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ They doubled down. The KGB upgraded their disinformation department to an entire service called Service A for active measures.
YURI BEZMENOV Active measures actively repudiated in the language of the KGB.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Yuri Besmenov, a former KGB spy.
YURI BEZMENOV It's a great brainwashing process.
THOMAS RID The goal is to activate an emotional response.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Thomas RId.
THOMAS RID And whether you use information that is factually correct or factually incorrect is of secondary importance.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The crucial tactic was to mix fact and fiction.
THOMAS RID I think some officers in Stasi and elsewhere as well and at KGB sometimes use that 80% true, 20% false mix. Because if you have lie is shielded by truth, then of course it is harder to find the lies.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ An example of this is an operation that people know today as operation infection.
THOMAS RID Designed to enhance the fear of AIDS and to claim that the US government had designed HIV AIDS, which is complete lie, obviously. But it's important again here to appreciate there was genuine actual fear of this new mysterious virus in the early 1980s. There were also disclosures of U.S. government programs that had used medical experimentation on U.S. citizens, and the Soviets deliberately used that real existing doubts that Americans had about actual stories and just connected the dots in a way that was exaggerating and outright forging this information that the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, had created AIDS.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The theory was picked up by the American press.
NEWS CLIP A Soviet military publication claims the virus that causes AIDS leaked from a US army laboratory conducting experiments in biological warfare. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Sometimes the lies and truth became so intertwined that Soviet intelligence agencies actually deceived themselves.
THOMAS RID Active measures take you really into a bit of a constructivist nightmare scenario because the way we describe them is part of how they work. I was terrified when I wrote that book that I would essentially ascribe more effects to these operations than was really there in practice. If I did, I would in a way participate in the active measure.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Sometimes you can never really know if an operation worked, but it's a history that's very relevant today.
THOMAS RID KGB, and we know this from the Archives, was an organization that was very history focused. Putin himself will be familiar with that history. So in that sense, I have little doubt that they still consider active measures as a key component of their tradecraft and are engaging in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thomas Rid is the author of Active Measures. Francis Scarr is a senior digital journalist for BBC Monitoring, where he follows Russian state media essentially disinformation in the here and now. In a piece in the Telegraph, he noted that though Putin's so-called special operation now is waged with the corporeal weapons of war, it really began a little over eight years ago when Ukrainians ousted its pro-Putin leadership. Followed hard upon by Russia's annexing Crimea. And since then, the Russian media have covered Ukraine far, far more than it covers itself.
FRANCIS SCARR These talk shows I watch, they dominate the daily schedules on Russian TV and they almost never talk about what's going on in Russia. Only if Putin's given some big speech or its this annual press conference or something. But they never talk about the reality faced by Russians. It's constantly focused on Ukraine and sometimes the West more broadly. This obsession really with Ukraine, that Ukraine is this bridgehead for the United States to launch some kind of invasion against Russia. It has become an American client state, has been consumed by Russians since 2014. And this kind of thinking starts to seep into the wider consciousness of ordinary Russians. When the tanks cross the border on the 24th of February, when Russia started launching missiles at Ukrainian cities, people accepted it because they'd been told for so long that Ukraine was hostile towards Russia and this confrontation was inevitable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 70% of Russians, you observe, receive their news from state TV. You also made the fascinating point that Russians in general were never all that interested in the news.
FRANCIS SCARR Yes, it's a strange kind of paradox where the average Russian pensioners, the average Russian housewife or a bored security guard sitting in his cabin, they're likely to have state TV on in the corner. It's background noise. These talk shows, they're not designed to be watched. With your powers of reasoning switched on. They're entertaining, there's lots of flashing lights and big displays on studio screens. People have said to me when I put these clips on Twitter of Russian TV, they almost look like game shows. It's designed to play to people's emotions. You turn on and you'll hear some angry so-called experts screaming about Ukrainian fascists or something. Also, it's important to point out that this isn't happening in a vacuum. A lot of Russians see Ukraine in terms of the Russian empire, where it's this sort of far flung borderland. It's not really a sovereign state.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's what Ukraine means. Right? Borderland in Russian.
FRANCIS SCARR Exactly. Even in the 21st century, when we like to think of sovereign states having the right to protect themselves and the right to exist on a fundamental level, it's something that a vast amount of the Russian population disagrees with because of these long running preconceptions. This is something that can happen anywhere, not just in Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From your hours consuming these shows, you've noticed an evolving lexicon in state media for describing the war. At first, the invasion was called a, quote, special operation. But when things weren't going the way that Russia expected, there emerged a new framing, still a predominant one. It is a war, but it's not against Ukraine. It's against Naito.
FRANCIS SCARR Yes, that's exactly right. The first month of this invasion, Russian TV spoke of it in almost surgical terms that they were just removing Ukraine's military potential, its capabilities, but without targeting civilians in any way.
[RUSSIAN SPEAKING MEDIA]
FRANCIS SCARR The idea that the average Russian view I got from this was that Ukraine didn't really exist as a sovereign state and it would soon give in and be controlled by Russia, whatever that might mean politically. Once it became clear that Ukraine was actually putting up a fight, Russia had to try and explain this to its domestic audience.
FRANCIS SCARR Firstly said, Oh, it's because we're not targeting civilians were only targeting military targets, which of course we know not to be true that this is taking us longer than we expected because we don't want to cause unnecessary loss of life. And the other way they did this was to say, well, actually, we're now just fighting a proxy war against the West. The West is sending weapons to Ukraine. They're making our job much harder. As more and more time passed and it became clear that this was something that was going to go on for a long time. They started using terms like World War three.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE Or talking about a clash of civilizations between the West and Russia. But what I've seen in the last few weeks, which I think is quite interesting, is that perhaps this is something we can compare with the West as well, where people say, oh, there's war fatigue, people aren't interested in this story anymore. There's other stories like rising prices, perhaps. In Russia, too. There's also fear from the Kremlin that people might become fatigued with the war. So I started to see other stories creep back into these talk shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What are these stories that seem to be creeping in, interrupting the Ukrainian narrative?
FRANCIS SCARR There's been a lot of coverage of the LGBTQ community in the United States and also across Europe. There was a law going through the German parliament, an amendment to a previous law on the rights of trans people to self-identify. Disgusted by this, as if Western civilization has gone down the drain. And Russia doesn't want to become like this.
[RUSSIAN SPEAKING ON TELEVISION]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Russian TV. A war correspondent, when asked to give the latest from the front, said that the Cossacks told me, we're going to smash those LGBT troops.
FRANCIS SCARR That's the kind of language now quite common on Russian TV. Absurd things, like one presenter saying the other day that people in the UK would simply die out because so many people were gay, that they had just stopped reproducing.
[RUSSIAN MEDIA ]
FRANCIS SCARR Of course, Russia itself has a very, very low birthrate. So that just illustrates this kind of disconnect between them constantly talking about what's going on abroad and never really addressing what's going on in their own country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You are about to mention another storyline that has playing along with the war narrative.
FRANCIS SCARR The energy crisis, particularly in Europe. They will pick up on all kinds of stories from regional websites, for example, that people in Sweden have been shoplifting more and more because they simply can't afford basic necessities. In Germany, how certain cities have had to turn off the hot water because they can't afford the gas anymore. The way they frame it is that this is an immature generation of European politicians who are making decisions not in the interests of their own people, but simply feuding with Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you tell me a little bit about the media stars of these narratives? One of them I know is Olga Skabeyeva, known as The Iron Doll of Putin TV, and also Margarita Simonyan, who's head of the international state broadcaster R.T..
FRANCIS SCARR Olga Spavor together with her husband, Yevgeny Popov, who is also a deputy for Putin's party, United Russia in the Duma. They co-present their show, which is called 60 Minutes, which I believe was named after a show in the US.
FRANCIS SCARR Since the war started, this program is comically now two and a half hours. It's broadcast twice a day in the morning and then in the evening, Olga Skabeyeva is particularly anti-Western. She has been one of the main mouthpieces for the Kremlin in shaping this narrative of Ukraine being a kind of fascist proxy state controlled by the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She's also a big voice in the notion that this is a war against NATO. They need to demilitarize NATO, not just Ukraine.
FRANCIS SCARR Indeed, sometimes I think even the guests on these shows who are all really behind the war effort, you get the impression that they're not on board entirely, because the way she talks about the situation is sometimes as if she actually wants some kind of nuclear war.
[OLGA SKABEYEVA SPEAKING]
FRANCIS SCARR And Margarita Simonyan, the other one who you mentioned. She is a frequent guest on these talk shows. She said a few years ago she saw RT's role as being at the forefront of the information war against hostile entities, which is how she sees the West.
[MARGARITA SIMONYAN SPEAKING]
FRANCIS SCARR Another major figure is Vladimir Solovyov. He has a late night talk show and a morning radio program which lasts for several hours. He's spoken of Ukraine not deserving to exist as a state and is known for his personal attacks on Western politicians as well.
[VLADIMIR SOLOVYOV SPEAKING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We started talking about language framing the war. There's also new language framing Putin himself. On state media, he is called "supreme commander in chief." Do you have any other buzz words like that?
FRANCIS SCARR Yes. The way they describe the Russian soldiers fighting and the Ukrainian soldiers fighting is quite telling. So the Russians, they're called liberators, rescuing people from the suffering they've been subjected to for eight years. They say that they're following in the footsteps of the Red Army, which fought against Nazi Germany in liberated parts of Eastern Europe. On the other side, you've got the Ukrainian army. They're called Nazis. They're called fascists. Sometimes they even call them Satanists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I found it interesting. That the army of Ukraine was referred to as armed groupings of Ukraine, where as the Russian troops were referred to as the United or the allied forces.
FRANCIS SCARR Almost sounds like the Second World War. And on the other hand, you've got this acronym in Russian for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which is VSU. And they started saying VFU on TV, which means, like you said, armed groups, armed formations, which for the average Russian would be reminiscent of the way Russian TV describes rebels in Syria. So what it really does is plant this idea in the viewer's head that the Ukrainian army is not the legitimate army linked to a sovereign state, but some kind of paramilitary force.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay. So we've got as the narrative that the Russian army is liberating Ukraine, that the Russians are forced to use Ukraine as a proxy in its fight against NATO and all the corrupting influences of the West. From the beginning, we've had de-Nazification as a justification. Are there any other ones that have come up? Meduza said that the Kremlin has issued some interesting ideas to Russian state media. Meduza being an independent news service outside the country.
FRANCIS SCARR They said sources in the Kremlin said the Kremlin has issued a kind of recommendation for Russian media to start comparing this war to historic wars that Russia fought in the Middle Ages. If you look at the way Putin talks about historical figures, it's a real hodgepodge. He's very much a man of the Soviet era, but he would talk about the kind of Russian imperial past. He would talk about the Second World War a lot. But then there are the figures like this medieval prince, Alexander Nevsky, before Russia existed as a modern state, of course. Fighting against the Teutonic Knights. Recently it was the anniversary of Peter the Great's birth, and Putin went to an exhibition that had been set up to mark the occasion. He clearly spends a lot of his time thinking about himself in terms of the unfolding of history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The baptism of the Kievan Rus in 988. Meduza says that the Kremlin says state media ought to draw parallels between the current war and that. Do you know what that's about?
FRANCIS SCARR One of the ways in which they talk about the LGBT community in the West is that it's a kind of deviation from Christian values. And the countries in Europe and the US and Canada have turned their backs on their traditions and become essentially depraved. And I think what this is saying is that Russia is staying true to these values from when Kievan Rus This kind of Russian proto state or Ukrainian proto state, you could argue, began this sort of tradition of orthodox Christianity in the eastern Slavic world, drawing these dividing lines between the West and Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it too much to say that it's framed as a battle for the soul of the world?
FRANCIS SCARR Well, it's definitely something that comes up on TV occasionally. People in Russia will say that they are orthodox Christians. But that's very much, I think, because they identify that with being Russian. The narrative beamed out by the state is that Russia needs to protect its values. Whether these values actually exist or not is another question. If you look at the divorce rate in Russia, it's extremely high. The number of abortions as well, things that wouldn't necessarily tie in with the kind of so-called traditional values they're trying to promote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much, Francis.
FRANCIS SCARR Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Francis Scarr is a senior digital journalist for BBC Monitoring, where he focuses on Russian state television.