Apocalyptic predictions have become a familiar feature of news and analysis because often only the most extreme views have a chance of breaking through the media fog. But not only do such immoderate narratives distort reality, they can also obfuscate what actions may be needed to actually cope with the situation (Mnews.world, January 29). This apocalypticism is frequently exemplified in Western coverage of the supposedly unchallenged success of Russia’s information wars against other countries; however, it is worthwhile to follow discussions among Russian experts who are convinced that Moscow is actually losing the current information war.
In a recent article for Svobodnaya Pressa bluntly entitled “The Information War: Why We Are Losing to the West,” Yury Piskulov, who has worked on trade between Russia and Finland for 15 years, says that whatever successes Moscow has had in the information competition with the West, it has suffered far more losses and must address its shortcomings because “the fourth estate” is an ever more important player in international competitions. He suggests that Russian media officials have been aware of the imbalance against Russia for some time and hopes that the new Russian government will address it lest their country pay a high price for failing to do so (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 1).
About eight years ago, Piskulov writes, he attended a media conference in Moscow at which Margarita Simonyan of RT conceded that “we are losing to the Western media in ‘the information war.’ ” She apparently gave two reasons for this failure: “the lack of attention by our higher bureaucracy to this problem” and the absence of financial support to existing and potential channels. Since then, the Russian commentator notes, Moscow has corrected some but not all of these problems. The Kremlin does pay more attention to media usage than it did in 2012, and it has provided more money for its media outlets and Internet campaigns. But that does not mean, Piskulov insists, that Moscow is winning across the board. In many places, it is, in fact, losing.
The Svobodnaya Pressa commentator highlights this problem by considering the situation in Finland, especially with regard to Finnish-Russian trade relations, the area of his longstanding professional responsibility. There, he continues, myths from the time of the Cold War remain strong thanks to the Finnish media and academia. Finns still accept the notion that “Finland is the advanced post of the West in relations with Russia” and that “Finland is the chief Western expert on Russia”; it is a country others in the West should listen to.
Some Finnish scholars tried to challenge such ideas in the past. According to Piskulov, Professor Rita Kosonen has argued that “Russia must not be analyzed as ‘a deviation from the norm’ ” but rather seen as “a country with centuries-old traditions,” good and bad. The latter, the Finnish expert contended, includes corruption, which reflects “the chronic distrust between official organs and business” rather than some conspiracy. But what is worrisome, the Russian analyst writes, is that the debate in Finland has not moved much beyond that. Even specialists like Kosonen are today discussing Russia using matrices from the past. If Russian media were doing its job, that would have changed; but it has not.
Piskulov asserts that Moscow’s media efforts abroad have been especially weak with regard to universities, where many of the ideas of other societies are formed and then passed on to the media and the political sphere. He cites a 2018 article in Mezhdunarodnaya Ekonomika (Cyberleninka.ru, accessed February 4, 2020) that details the way this process works in Western countries and especially the way that academia has contributed to discussions of it calls “the new normal” of a post-truth world, something that can work against Russia as well as against the West (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 1).
Natalya Meden, the editor of the Vestnik MGIMO-Universitet, told Piskulov that “a fatal blow against the objectivity of scientific analysis was inflicted in the 20th century by ideological contests.” And that, in turn, means that the academic community cannot play the role of critic of its own government decisions or predictor of the future. Piskulov, for his part, extends that to say that “not only our scholarship but that abroad has not shown itself [to be] a reliable source of predictions.” Instead, it is dismissed as one more voice in a cacophony that most ignore (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 1).
In short, he concludes, Russia needs a better and larger media effort to avoid losing to the West on this most important front because “qualified and objective analysis, including statistics, predictions of trends, and the implementation of expert conclusions in social-economic, defense and foreign policy is of first-order importance.” Moscow may appear to be winning at a superficial level, he says; but it is losing on this much more important one.
In reading such analysis, three things must be kept in mind. First, Piskulov’s is an opinion not supported by any statistical data, and accepting it unchallenged could cause some in the West to relax and open the way for more Russian victories. Second, it is not impossible that this Svobodnaya Pressa column was specifically intended to mislead, again to cause some in the West to drop their guard. And third, perhaps most importantly, it is obviously a call for the Russian government to invest more money in this sector—something Piskulov may believe is important but that he would also clearly benefit from.