Learning Russia’s strategic communications themes and techniques is indispensable to countering them. Otherwise, our approach to the Kremlin’s narrative will continue to be one of confusion and surprise.
Moscow synchronizes its propaganda themes and techniques. It works through manipulation. Those include: signals, provocation, denial, reciprocity, and analogy. Sometimes those techniques overlap. For a schooled observer they are case studies in predictability. Russia’s messages can be open and crude, or veiled and subtle, indeed deeply hidden.
Signals serve to denote the Kremlin’s possible willingness to talk business. For example, in 1938 the USSR’s mouthpiece Pravda unexpectedly praised Spain’s nationalist radical Falanga, which, at the time, was locked in a life-and-death struggle against the Soviet-led leftist coalition during the civil war. Very few discerned that this was a typical Aesopic hint by the reds which eventually paved the way to the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In a similar vein, albeit much more crudely, deputy speaker of the Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, offered Poland western Ukraine during the Maidan uprising in 2014, thus inviting Warsaw to partition the country jointly with Moscow.
The Kremlin uses provocation in its strategic communications to create havoc, undermine the enemy’s will to resist, make the opponent twitch, or just denote Moscow’s ability to wreak mischief. Signals generated from Russian propaganda sources can be provocation as evidenced, e.g., in the Columbian Chemicals disaster scare in Centerville, St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, which spread through social media as another 9/11 complete with a cover up by the U.S. government (New York Times Magazine, 6 June 2015). Similarly, social media generated aserious Ebola panic with the pandemic allegedly about to hit the U.S., while Ferguson served as a paradigm for many Fergusons allegedly popping up all over the nation fed by rumors that yet another unarmed black man or woman was killed by the police. All this could be traced to cyber-Kremlin. The message is simple: you are never secure; the United States government fails you most of the time.