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Pomerantsev: Russia’s asymmetric warfare

Peter Pomerantsev

One way to look at the Kremlin today is not as an isolated entity, but as the advance guard of a malevolent globalization, one that employs asymmetric warfare, using information, culture and money as weapons, says Peter Pomerantsev a London-based TV producer and nonfiction writer.

Pomerantsev is an award-winning contributor to the London Review of Books, the Financial Times,, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and other major publications. He is the author of a forthcoming study on Russia's weaponization of information, culture, and money, and a forthcoming book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, about working inside Vladimir Putin’s postmodern dictatorship. He recently visited RFE/RL; here is his interview with Gordana Knezevic.

RFE/RL: What are some of the most obvious ways in which Putin’s propaganda has an effect on English public opinion?

Pomerantsev: Well, there are very visible things like the launch of Russia Today (RT), which is the Kremlin's TV and radio channel … To be honest it's very hard to gauge the extent of influence on English public opinion - English media are quite robust. They [RT] give themselves very high figures on the internet, [but] it's as yet unproven whether those high figures are justified, though we can see how some disinformation has seeped through from online into the mainstream English media. But overall in England - specifically in England, because the Kremlin has a different strategy for different countries-- most of the influences work through the financial sector, the City of London, which is very important to Britain's economy, and Britain's idea of itself. So Russian companies, which are state companies, push the line, "Let's ignore the politics, let's just do business as normal, why should politics and business mix…" Which is, of course, a complete con, because in Russia business and politics are extensions of each other. … Much of the [Russian] influence [is focused on the] elite, or what we know in England as "Lords on the boards", various British high ranking public officials who find themselves for some reason opposing sanctions against Russia while it happens that they're on the boards of lots of Russian companies. So the Russian approach in England is [to the] elite, and through the City of London, much more than through public opinion.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the media’s shifting focus back to traditional investigative journalism and political commentary may be one way of recovering faith in mainstream media?

Pomerantsev: Yes. Putin's propaganda, and media manipulations and opinion manipulations are very much built on a lack of transparency, so that we don't know that these various spokespeople are actually working for the Kremlin. And it's also built on an overall crisis in media, [in] that [the media] just doesn't have the resources to fact-check, and to do in-depth journalism. So, [exposure of] corruption is of course one of the Kremlin's many Achilles’ heels, and if we had for example a large journalistic fund that would support anti-corruption investigations, I think that would be very, very useful.

RFE/RL: Well informed and well educated people [in the West] are sometimes trapped by Moscow's lies and deceptions, particularly related to Ukrainian crisis - sometimes out of a natural and healthy tendency in a democratic society toward self-criticism. Do you see this as a problem?

Pomerantsev: What did you call them? Well-informed? Well-intentioned? Natural, and healthy [tendency]?… I think they're the worst type of informed; they are half-informed. These people usually, they're not healthy or well-intentioned. I think it's a form of egotism, it's this: "We are so important that it's our fault that Putin became this way." I actually think it's very unhealthy, psychologically, I think it's intellectually unrigorous, I think it's utterly narcissistic to constantly think that, "Oh my God, we can change Russia because we're so important…" No, Russia is a very, very strong, deep culture that you have to respect, and once you start respecting it you realize exactly how dangerous it is. This is a very unhealthy tendency in Western intellectual circles, to think that they are the center of the universe. They’re not.

RFE/RL: Is it possible for western governments and politicians to act in ways that would encourage greater trust in Western sources, and would leave less room for Russian inventions that exploit any ambivalence in Western policy.

Pomerantsev: Well… we do have a question of trust, so why is the Kremlin so successful right at the moment? It's not just because of its own brilliance, it's also because, as you rightly say, there is a crisis of trust in institutions. This is partly the result of globalization, the growth of the EU, the erosion of the power of national governments. Populations feel themselves powerless, therefore they stop trusting their usual sources, and so forth… There is a rise in conspiracy theories in a whole number of European countries. There’s a rise in right-wing parties, which peddle conspiracy theories… These are all signs of reality-based and truth-based discussion breaking down. There's actually been quite a lot of study [of] how you treat that… You can't treat that by saying, "This is the truth"… You have to rebuild trust in institutions. This is a process that has in many ways nothing to do with Russia; this is a systemic process. If we just limit ourselves to Europe, in how power is governed in Europe … the real prerogative is getting rid of the democratic deficit in the EU, and reestablishing faith in institutions. You're quite right, that's an inside-Europe problem.

RFE/RL: Putin is able to focus exclusively on his war with the West, while the West’s attention is divided among different crises - not only Ukraine, but also the Middle East, ISIS, Iran, as well as a necessary focus on domestic politics, which is unavoidable in any liberal democracy. Is there anything that can be done to reduce this disadvantage?

Pomerantsev: I think we have to formulate exactly what Putin is up to, because there is this illusion that Putin is only interested in regional conflict … like Georgia and Ukraine, because Russia is a medium-sized country. This is completely misleading as to what the Kremlin and Putin are doing. The Kremlin and Putin know that they're a medium-sized power, and therefore they've been developing what they call "asymmetric war", a sort of guerilla war of international relations, where they think how they can use their relative weakness in a clever way to subvert the USA. Their aim is not Georgia or Ukraine, their aim is to discredit Washington [D.C.]. They're not going to start a war with Washington. They want to show the world that NATO's Article 5 is impossible to practice. They want to show the world that America's promises don't mean anything, [and] they want to turn the EU to mush. These are challenges to Brussels and D.C. As long as Brussels and D.C. think Ukraine is a regional problem, they've completely misread the situation. So if Russia can discredit Article 5, this is a blow for American credibility throughout the world. It means America's word doesn't mean anything, which completely and utterly creates a different playing field in the world. So this is information war at a very, very sophisticated level. It's not the Cold War, it's more like the American show 'House of Cards'. It’s using a very shifting, and very subtle playing field, almost like a hall of mirrors. They're shining their light on Ukraine, but, believe me, they're trying to blind D.C. with this, and there seems to be a reluctance on the part of Washington to understand that it's dealing with a canny enemy that has it in its sights, not Donetsk. No one cares about Donetsk in the Kremlin.

RFE/RL: Do you think that Putin’s Russia is more dangerous than the former Soviet Union because it appears as ideologically neutral?

Pomerantsev: I have no idea. How do you measure that…? The Soviet Union might have launched nuclear weapons, so I guess that makes it far more dangerous. I can't measure that; I don't have any of the analytical tools… Probably, if you created an index of danger, the Soviet Union was more dangerous, but that's not really the point. We live in the 21st Century, which is more chaotic -- you have lots of very different subversive forces [at work]. One way to look at the Kremlin is not as a separate problem, but really as the advance guard of a malevolent globalization, with this asymmetric warfare, with the use of information as a weapon, culture as a weapon, money as a weapon… Imagine if everybody starts doing this. Imagine if Turkey starts doing this more, if China starts doing it in Asia, which it kind of already is. We live in a very, very dangerous world, and if we don't set the rules for the 21st Century, it's going to be as awful as the 20th Century.