Putin’s Use of Political Disinformation Techniques to Maintain Power

2022 / 06 / 29

Nino Imedashvili, Ilia State University

Even authoritarian regimes do not openly dare to reject democracy, fearful of indirectly validating the preconception of its high level of legitimacy as a model for state governance. With authoritarian regimes striving to maintain their grip on power for as long as possible, they have thus devised various interpretations of democracy and alternative narratives that serve to legitimize their governance style in law and shield it from internal and external criticism.

As examples, among the terms devised for Putin’s authoritarian governance style are “Sovereign Democracy” and “Governed Democracy”. In 2005, Putin’s chief propagandist Surkov defined the term “Sovereign” as “defense of Russia’s sovereignty from the ‘incompetent’ and ‘unacquainted’ West, which ‘seeks to destabilize Russia’.”

In order to strengthen the authoritarian status quo, Putin has used a number of disinformation political technologies that have proven to be effective so far, including:


The Russian “Rules of the Game”

Campaign for Demonization of the West

The Status of “Foreign Agents” for Critics

Creation of Expert Groups Supporting Putin’s Policies

Creation of “Street” Groups/Gangs Supporting Putin


The Russian “Rules of the Game”

Criticism from the collective West (European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, United States of America) is considered by the Kremlin as a violation of Russia’s sovereign rights. As a consequence of this perception, the Kremlin aggressively seeks to undermine those individuals and/or organizations (Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc.) that oppose the regime. In response to criticism of the failures of democracy in Russia, the Kremlin actively encourages the Russian people to hate the West because, according to their propaganda, the West is actively seeking to bring about a coup d’état and instability in Russia.

The Kremlin’s propaganda challenges Western criticism of Russian authoritarianism with terms such as “sovereign democracy” in order to alter the meaning of authoritarianism. This term was chosen in order to respond to voters’ demands for democracy in Russia - by adding the term “sovereign” to “democracy,” the idea was to imitate democracy-building efforts in Russia. The main propaganda message was that Putin is building democracy in Russia with his own “rules of the game” and without Western interference.

Surkov, whose name is associated with the introduction of this concept in 2005, at a discussion with business representatives, announced that Russia acts according to its independent “rules of the game” as opposed to acting in accordance with the Western dictates. According to Surkov, acting independently will strengthen Russia’s sovereignty, whereas external interventions and western suggestions on how to govern will result in destabilization. Consequently, according to Surkov, the only way to maintain stability is to unite around Putin.

One year after the introduction of the concept of "sovereign democracy," in 2006, Freedom House evaluated Russia as a completely authoritarian state.

In the following years, the Kremlin replaced the above-mentioned concept with other models, among them “Eurasionism” and “Orthodox Conservatism”. These concepts are also united around similar messaging – to maintain stability in Russia and seed hatred of the West.

The main focus of the concept behind “Euroasianism” (2010-2013), was, due to Russia’s geostrategic location and size, to promote Russia as an attractive economic center, as it was in the Soviet Union. Russia wanted to use the Soviet Union to finally isolate itself and its satellite neighboring states from the West.

In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has also been used to play a role in maintaining the stability of Putin’s authoritarian regime. According to the concept of “Orthodox Conservatism,” which is also actively proliferated by the clergy, Putin adopted the image of a leader defending traditional and Christian values to fight democratic principles and human rights.

In addition to the above-mentioned concepts, the Kremlin propaganda machine offers constituents a choice between the stability offered by the Putin regime or the economic and criminal chaos associated with the Yeltsin period. This rhetoric was also used in response to international criticism of Russia. In 2006, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to U.S Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticism of Putin’s regime with regards to freedom, by trying to undermine achievements made in Yeltsin’s time, suggesting that Russia had a choice between the stable government offered by Putin and a country on the brink of collapse. This message was actively repeated by most of the Russian members of parliament – if Putin is absent, there will be the kind of chaos associated with Yeltsin’s governance.


Campaign for Demonization of the West

In order to weaken the effect of the influence and spread of Western criticism, the Kremlin has sought to discredit the West. Its anti-West campaign has three main messages:

  1. The West promotes homosexuality, which is incompatible with Russian traditional values and Orthodox Christianity. The Russian Church is at the forefront of the proliferation of such propaganda messaging.
  2. The West has double standards. It criticizes human rights violations in Russia and remains quiet on the rights of Russian citizens in EU member states. In this way, Russia attacked Estonia, where the rights of Russians living there were allegedly violated.
  3. The West wants to overthrow Russia’s strong national ruler and replace him with a foreign manager. In this regard, the language of Western criticism coincides with the language of Putin's internal opponents (opposition and non-governmental organizations), which the Kremlin refers to by one common term - "the fifth column".


The Status of “Foreign Agent” for Critics

Among the most pressing threats to the regime's stability are the critical reports and surveys released by non-governmental organizations that expose government corruption, misappropriation of funds from the budget, and the methods used to repress media and the opposition.

Government propaganda has thus simultaneously challenged independent organizations with discreditation campaigns, legislative restrictions, and through the opposing positions/narratives of alternative organizations.

The discreditation campaign includes allegations of "foreign agency," betrayal of the Russian people, interference in the country’s sovereignty, and attempted destabilization.

In his annual address to the Russian Duma in May 2004, Putin accused non-governmental organizations of betrayal of the Russian people. He announced that they served the interests of their sponsors and not the interests of Russian citizens.

In July 2005, Putin announced that restrictions would be imposed on organizations that receive foreign funding, because they were "foreign agents." The revival of this familiar term from the times of Soviet propaganda was done in order to finally discredit these organizations and destroy trust in them.

The Kremlin also accused non-governmental organizations of working to create a negative perception of the country in the West.

In January 2006, Putin signed a bill that significantly hampered the functioning of non-governmental organizations.

According to the law, non-governmental organizations could not be registered if their goals and objectives endangered: 1) Russian sovereignty, 2) political independence, 3) territorial integrity, 4) national unity, 5) unique character, 6) cultural heritage, or 7) national interests.

The first three provisions are more or less standard, while the last four are very subjective, and the Russian government uses them to ban virtually any group that opposes the Kremlin.

Since 2012, non-governmental organizations have been required to register as “foreign agents,” which means unrestricted government auditing, and requirements on the organizations to obtain prior permission from the government for all activities.

This law forced one of the first non-governmental organizations the Russian Research Center for Human Rights to close in 2006 and suspend funding of various democratic organizations, such as the Moscow Helsinki Group. Since then, many liberal non-governmental organizations have either been suspended, explicitly banned, or denied registration for a variety of reasons. Of course, many other targeted influential international organizations were also affected, namely:  Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI).


Creation of Expert Groups Supporting Putin’s Policies

The Kremlin has used benevolent alternative "expert" organizations that support the regime’s policies to challenge liberal non-governmental organizations.

Their main function was to spread information that would oppose reality. In particular, if independent organizations exposed the authoritarian regime in Russia, alternative expert groups would justify the Kremlin's policies or divert attention to other non-political issues. They were also tasked with creating a positive political image of Putin’s regime in the international arena.

In 2005, one of the largest such civic organizations, the Public Chamber, was established on Putin's orders, with Putin himself appointing one-third of its 126 members. The selected members of the Kremlin were from the field of culture. The Kremlin instructed actors, TV anchors and well-known athletes to monitor state decisions, analyze bills, and present conclusions. It was obvious that the Kremlin was creating the illusion of a civil society, opposing the findings and research of independent non-governmental organizations. In addition, controlled media outlets suppressed the voices of Kremlin opponents by widely covering the views of those controlled “civil society” groups.

The combination of the Kremlin's actions against independent organizations, the discreditation campaigns, the adoption of the law restricting registration and operation, and the creation of alternative groups of "experts," weakened independent non-governmental organizations and significantly reduced their influence on society.


Creation of “Street” Groups/Gangs Supporting Putin

Although the Kremlin was in control of the main political power vertical, namely the executive, legislative, judicial, electoral, and mass communication channels, the streets needed to be equally controlled.

The color revolutions (in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine) demonstrated to Putin that young people are a considerable challenge in anti-regime rallies. It was youth that ousted authoritarian regimes in countries neighboring Russia through street demonstrations.

To overcome this challenge and take control of the streets, the Kremlin set up pro-Putin youth organizations in 2005 to prevent protests during the 2007 and 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections. Prevention also included counter-protests and street confrontations with youth opposing Putin’s regime.

Dozens of such pro-Putin organizations were formed (Nashi, Vmarshuem Vmeste, Vmestne, Giorgievski, Maladia Guardia), which fully shared the concept of "sovereign democracy" shielding Russian sovereignty from Western criticism.

Pro-Putin organizations call themselves anti-fascists because Putin's opponents were referred to by the Kremlin propaganda as fascists. This familiar way of Soviet propaganda against opponents - the use of these terms – was also aimed at voters. This not only sought to marginalize them, but also to suggest or highlight their connection with the collective West and the threat posed by it.

Representatives of these organizations also created demeaning caricatures of rival politicians and non-governmental organization leaders in the form of prostitutes holding dollars, as if they were being sold for American money.

The counter-protests of pro-Putin organizations were able to neutralize large anti-government rallies over the rigged parliamentary elections in 2011. On the third day of the protests, a pro-Putin counter-protest group challenged peaceful youths taking to the streets, leading to a physical confrontation.

These organizations also held rallies demanding the criminalization of gay propaganda, where the flags of Western countries were burned.

Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s disinformation policy, used to maintain power, has been successfully copied and is now being executed in multiple countries neighboring Russia.

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