Sergei Shoigu Claims Russia is Victim in Information War

Russian-language media widely reported today on Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu’s interview on the state-funded Zvezda network’s television program Military Acceptance where he claimed that Russia was in “an information war on all fronts”, and had “no right to lose in this war”. [1]

Shoigu’s call to arms makes up a relatively small proportion of the hour-long television episode which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Department of Information and Mass Communications of the Russian Defense Ministry.

The full program is here, and can be viewed with auto-translated English subtitles:

Despite being targeted to a domestic audience and apparently crafted to promote a sense of pride and patriotism in the Russian “information support” services, the Military Acceptance program as a whole (to include Shoigu’s claims of victimhood) can be contextually analyzed within the broader geopolitical context of the aggressive Russian information warfare agenda.

While this TV program only makes historical reference to negative foreign media appraisals of Russia since the time of Peter the Great (Peter I), as I reviewed various sources commenting on the episode, it became apparent that Shoigu’s portrayal of Russia-as-victim of information war was symbolically similar to the prior research I have done on Russian nationalist ideological portrayals of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) as the victim of alleged 16th century Western information wars. Specifically, these narratives have emphasized Russia’s deficiencies in military printing capabilities relative to contemporary Western competitors [2].

(Russian security council head Nikolai Patrushev recently wielded a similar form of this argument [3].)

In reporting on Shoigu’s comments, the right wing news site Regnum provided a concise postscript summary of the Russian position on information war as a Western, Russophobic phenomenon with historically revisionist undertones :

“Information war is a complex of propaganda measures aimed at demoralizing the population, armed forces and leadership of the enemy country.

Success in an information war allows you to sow distrust in yourself and the correctness of your position, distrust of the population in your leadership, and make you agree with the ideological principles of the enemy. As a result, it will be easier to break the defense of the enemy army, force the leadership of the target country to act inadequately and erroneously, and, as a result, as in any war, to impose their will on the enemy.

Information warfare is not something new, it has always been fought, but only as an auxiliary direction. The main method was direct forceful action. With the development of information technology, the spread of universal literacy and greater openness of the information space, information warfare has become the main means of influencing the enemy. It is carried out constantly, regardless of whether the rival states are in a state of war or peace.

The main direction of the information war of the West against Russia is the promotion of Russophobic ideas. According to this line of reasoning, the West is taken as a standard, and the conclusion is drawn that Russia is some kind of initially “wrong” country. In this regard, the demonization of Russian history plays an important role – the creation and dissemination of “black” myths about all periods of Russian history.

Another important topic is the propaganda of ethnic strife and regionalism. Within the framework of this concept, the differences between the population of different parts of Russia are exaggerated in every possible way, up to conclusions about “different nations”. Also, enmity is kindled towards people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Muslims, Jews, and so on.

Another important area is discrediting the authorities at all levels. Unfortunately, representatives of the authorities often give reasons for this. There are calls for the “overthrow of tyranny”, the idea of ​​”fighting corruption” is given a total dimension.

The general background of the information war against Russia is the creation of a negative perception of the surrounding reality by people. For those who have fallen under the influence of propaganda “chernukha” no achievements and positive aspects of life are visible.

Unfortunately, since the destruction of the USSR, the West has in Russia a fairly large number of both paid and voluntary “fighters” of the information war, including those with high positions in society and the state.” [4]

In addition, it seems apparent that Shoigu’s narrative of Russian victimhood in information war is a rhetorical pattern which often surrounds Russian disinformation narratives about poisoning and chemical weapons attacks in both the context of Ivan IV and the Syrian Civil War as well, and deflects from known or suspected Russian culpability in those incidents.

In the case of Ivan IV narratives about information war and poisoning, the Russian nationalists have alleged historical 16th century plots to poison Ivan IV and his family without providing any evidence. They then related those imagined 16th century events to both the cases of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, alleging they were not poisoned by Russia, but rather by the West which seeks to discredit Russia [5].

The Litvinenko and Skripal instances are clear forensically-confirmed examples where Russian security-linked actors planned assassination using chemical weapons on British soil, and then Russia attempted to portray itself as the victim. (One might also point at the Navalny case here as well as a Russian-sponsored chemical weapons attack which it has distorted through its strategic communications.)

But the chemical weapons context also clearly includes Shoigu’s recent comments on Western chemical weapons being deployed in Ukraine which mirror Russian disinformation about the White Helmets in Syria, and Russia’s overall pattern of providing information cover for chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime [6].

In this context, some Russian news outlets in commenting on Shoigu’s information warfare claims noted his own recent involvement in the above obvious “information operations” modeled on Syria and disputed by the US Department of Defense [7].

In fact, Shoigu’s recent information war-motivated allegations of Western chemical weapons in Ukraine comes contemporaneously to increased pressure being placed on Russia for its defiance of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its use of disinformation in these matters in the Syrian context [8].

Russian military spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov, who is chief of the Department of Media Affairs and Information of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense also makes a number of appearances on the Military Acceptance program.  Despite his affable presentation on this program – much like Shoigu – he has been specifically noted for promoting Russian state disinformation about chemical weapons.

In Konashenkov’s case, in 2018 he made baseless allegations that the chemical weapons attack in Douma Syria had been carried out by the UK armed forces, when all evidence pointed at the Syrian regime [9].

In this sense, while the Military Acceptance show provides interesting insight into the technological workings and organization of the Russian security services information support apparatus – as well as some of their recent successes such as in Italy during coronavirus – it provides only a one-sided picture for public relations purposes.

The repeated use of the kind of information warfare victimhood narrative employed by Shoigu here and its consistent proximity to chemical weapons activities facilitated by Russian security services shows just how untrue this one-sided allegation of information warfare against Russia is.

Russia is projecting its own bad behavior onto everyone else like usual. Syria is not a victory as portrayed in this video, it is a tragedy and travesty. Russia is the aggressor which requires resistance to overcome. It is not the victim. They would be wise to remember that sometimes bullies lose the fights they start.

References

[1] “«Это – большая война»: Шойгу заявил о значимости победы в «битве за информацию» “ (“This is a big war”: Shoigu declared the importance of winning the “battle for information“”), Military Acceptance, Jan 9 2022, https://tvzvezda.ru/news/202219846-htwov.html

[2] Michael Hotchkiss, “Ivan the Terrible as Pivotal Figure in the Ideology of Information Warfare”, Proceedings of the International Conference on Cyber Warfare and Security (ICCWS), 2021, https://n01r.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/2021-Ivan-the-Terrible-as-a-Pivotal-Figure-in-the-Ideology-of-Information-Warfare.pdf

[3] Vitaly Tseplyaev,  “«Верим делам, а не словам». Николай Патрушев — о перспективах диалога с США” (““We believe in deeds, not words. Nikolai Patrushev – on the prospects for dialogue with the United States”), Argumenty I Fakti, April 30 2021, https://aif.ru/politics/world/verim_delam_a_ne_slovam_nikolay_patrushev_o_perspektivah_dialoga_s_ssha

[4] “Шойгу заявил об информационной войне во всём мире” (“Shoigu said about the information war around the world”), Regnum, Jan 9 2022,  https://regnum.ru/news/3470974.html

[5] Michael Hotchkiss, “Princess Diana Conspiracy Theories: Russian Disinformation and Active Measures?“, August 24 2021, n01r.com,  https://n01r.com/princess-diana-conspiracy-theories-russian-disinformation-and-active-measures/

[6] Albert L., “Russia Rehashes Syrian Chemical Warfare Disinformation Against Ukraine”, Overt Defense, Dec 22 2021, https://www.overtdefense.com/2021/12/22/russia-rehashes-syrian-chemical-warfare-disinformation-ukraine/

[7]  “Шойгу заявил об отсутствии права на поражение в «информационной войне»” (“Shoigu said there is no right to defeat in the “information war“), RBC, Jan 9 2022, https://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/61dab0449a7947596bffdcda

[8] Edith Lederer, “West: Syria must answer 20 questions on its chemical weapons”, Associated Press, Jan 5 2022, https://apnews.com/article/business-middle-east-russia-france-syria-e88ff67968e4ac1462a6cba84a500d10

[9] Nafeez Ahmed, “State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines”, An INSURGE Intelligence Investigation, 2018, http://statecrime.org/data/2018/07/Nafeez-Ahmed-State-Propaganda-in-Syria-ISCI-Report-July-2018.pdf

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