Russia’s “Weaponization” of Information

Testimony Presented to the House Foreign Affairs Committee

April 15, 2015

Helle C. Dale

My name is Helle Dale. I am Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. The views I express in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

Audiences within reach of Russia’s growing media empire are increasingly subjected to manipulation and rampant anti-Americanism.[1] This trend has intensified since the Russian annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Through its global network, Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin broadcasts globally in five major languages, including on cable TV stations in the United States. Free Western media has no comparable presence in Russia.

Russian propaganda is corrosive to the image of the United States and to our values. Or as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland described it before this committee on March 4, “the Kremlin’s pervasive propaganda campaign, where is truth is no obstacle.” And Russian propaganda is being spread aggressively around the world as we have not seen it since Soviet days. This is not just in Central Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe, but even here in the West. The daily content and commentary from RT and others is often polished and slickly produced. And it’s not like old-fashioned propaganda, aimed solely at making Putin and Russia look good. It’s a new kind of propaganda, aimed at sowing doubt about anything having to do with the U.S. and the West, and in a number of countries, unsophisticated audiences are eating it up.

The unfortunate fact is that the United States government became complacent in the battle for “hearts and minds” in Russia and its neighboring countries after the end of the Cold War. For instance, the administration’s budget request for 2016 is $751,436 million for U.S. International Broadcasting.[2] Reportedly, RT has a budget of $400 million for its Washington bureau alone.

Today, the U.S. government is scrambling to increase capacity to counter Russian disinformation. The relevant U.S. government agencies in this information war are primarily the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG, which oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting) and to some extent the State Department and the Department of Defense. The administration has requested for 2016 $693 million for democracy promotion and public diplomacy for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to help them withstand pressure from Russia, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it to this committee.[3]

  • Let me first describe the position we find ourselves in today.
  • Then current efforts by the U.S. government to catch up to the Russians.
  • And finally present my recommendations, important among them, the need to reform the BBG.

Where We Are Today

BBG abandons broadcasting to Russia

Motivated by budget constraints and the desire to recalibrate U.S. international broadcasting towards Internet and satellite television, the BBG has over the past decade shut down language services and radio transmissions, which today turn out to be critically important. This has turned out to be a huge strategic mistake.

Following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, which shocked the world, the decision was not reversed, though a 30-minute news broadcast to Russia was salvaged by a persistent BBG member.[ 4] Remaining were rebroadcasts of English-language programs through highly precarious contracts with Russian FM and AM stations, including the Kremlin’s own Voice of Russia.

At present there is no Voice of America broadcasting to Russia, shortwave, AM or FM. Nor are there any television broadcasts to Russia. Shortwave radio was abandoned first after which, AM or FM broadcasts had to be negotiated with Russian local stations. These arrangements came with strings attached. The Russian government finally shut down any VOA broadcasting in 2014.

It has to be recalled that as the Kremlin put the chokehold on U.S. broadcasting, the United States has allowed Russian media to flourish within our own borders in the name of freedom of expression. Russia Today has impressive television studios right here in the nation’s capital and broadcasts on cable channels throughout the United States.

The conditions attached to Russian rebroadcasting of VOA material were heavy-handed. In one case I personally recall, I had been invited to participate in a VOA foreign policy discussion on an English language program. The program has a global audience and is not aimed specifically at Russian listeners. But it was contracted to be rebroadcast in Russia by Voice of Russia, a state-owned service. It was right before the Russian presidential election in March 2012, and the election would have been an obvious topic for discussion. However, in a particularly shocking example of self-censorship as a consequence of foreign pressure, employees of Voice of America were told by VOA managers to cancel plans for coverage of the Russian presidential election on the day prior to and the day of the Russian vote. The reason? Voice of Russia was threatening to tear up its rebroadcasting agreement with the BBG unless the U.S. government’s broadcasters complied with limitations on election coverage imposed by Russian legislation. Russian demands were meekly accepted by the same VOA management that fiercely resists any interference from the U.S. government in the name of editorial independence.

So is there anything left of VOA’s Russian presence at a time when Russia is surging in its propaganda war against the United States?

Russian propaganda has gone into overdrive in Central and Eastern Europe as well, while Voice of America shut down every language in the region in the early years of the 21st century – Czech, Polish, Croatian, Slovakian, Serbian. The assumption was that the Cold War being over, these were relics of the past and that as members of the EU or aspiring to be that, these countries already have a free press.[6]

Full article: Russia’s “Weaponization” of Information (The Heritage Foundation)

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