‘Deny, distract and blame’: how Russia fights propaganda war
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The Twitter account of the Russian embassy in London has been busy over the past two months, offering numerous explanations for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. All hint at a dark and sprawling British conspiracy.
Since the Skripals were found stricken on a park bench, Downing Street has stuck to one version of events. Theresa May says it is “highly likely” Moscow carried out the attack using a Soviet-made nerve agent. Only the Kremlin had the motive to kill its former officer, she argues.
The embassy, and its boss, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have offered alternative scenarios. Lavrov has said a Swiss laboratory used to test the poison identified another toxin called BZ. Russia did not have it. The US, UK and Nato did, he said.
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.
“Much less is known about the novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”
The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
And while the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.
The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.
Moscow has further claimed the Skripals were not poisoned, Yulia has been abducted and hidden, and someone injected her with “chemicals” before tests were carried out. Meanwhile, the British have “destroyed evidence” and refused to abide by international norms, it has alleged.
The embassy has published letters from what it claims are UK citizens expressing sympathy with Vladimir Putin. “Why include to poison his daughter Yulia who is Russian citizen and lives in Moscow?” one “correspondent” asks.
The Skripal case vividly illustrates how the Kremlin has abandoned conventional diplomacy. Its foreign emissaries are now full-time trolls, with the ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, personally approving many tweets. Moscow’s tactics include sarcasm, denial, innuendo and noisy counter-accusation.
Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury on 4 March. Photograph: Internet
David Clark, a former special adviser to the late foreign secretary Robin Cook, said Russia’s strategy is to lead people into “a wilderness of mirrors”. “There is an endless loop of disinformation and half-formed opinions. It gets echoed and replicated artificially, by Russian bots, as well as by genuine means,” he said.
Clark is sceptical that Kremlin propaganda works. He noted that “most people in the world are not on Twitter” and pointed to a recent YouGov poll that found 75% of Britons thought the Russian state was probably behind the poisoning. This included 37% who thought Moscow was “almost certainly” responsible.
Only 5% believed Russia was innocent. On the continent, there were similar suspicions. Almost 60% of Germans, and just over half of French people, believed the UK government’s case. This was also true at an official level. In March, more than 20 western countries expelled dozens of Russian diplomats.
Still, the Kremlin’s protestations have had some impact on UK politics. In the House of Commons, Jeremy Corbyn appeared reluctant to blame Russia. Boris Johnson then claimed the government science facility at Porton Down had identified Russia as the source of the novichok poison.
But it had not: the UK’s case was based on intelligence and analysis of previous Kremlin assassinations, including the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, killed with a radioactive cup of tea.
Emergency services personnel in biohazard suits work in Salisbury. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Nataliia Popovych, the co-founder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, said Russia’s Skripal playbook was previously seen in Ukraine. Dutch investigators found that in 2014, Kremlin-backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Moscow supplied the Buk missile.
Russian state TV offered a series of wildly implausible counter-claims. It said the passengers were already dead, a Ukrainian fighter jet shot the plane down, and the CIA and other western intelligence agencies were in on the plot.
“We monitored all the lies the Russian media were pushing. Their modus operandi is to deny, distract and blame,” Popovych said.
These tactics may have limited impact internationally, but are pretty effective inside Russia, she said. Even critics of Putin seem unpersuaded of Moscow’s guilt.
“It’s about broadcasting thoroughly tailored narratives, which are not even based on the news. This happens on purpose on major TV channels controlled by the Kremlin,” Popovych said.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has offered alternative explanations for the poisoning. Photograph: Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass
Russian broadcasters wage a relentless campaign against Europe, she said, with an average of 18 negative references a day. Europe is depicted as dangerous, decadent, immoral, and home to fascism and revisionism. The EU is falling apart. Germans and Scandinavians routinely take children away from Russian families and give them to “gays”, state TV claims.
The depiction of Britain inside Russia is worse, analysis of more than three years of content suggests. The UK is portrayed as Europe’s most Russophobic country and an insidious and unreliable partner. A report by the Rossiya 1 channel referred to Theresa May’s “pale, tired flesh” and hinted that she had a drinking problem. Only Belarus and Switzerland get positive coverage.
So far, the Foreign Office has taken baby steps to fight back. It has released a mini-film setting out how Moscow spreads fictitious stories. The video identified three “tried and tested” steps. These were “inventing multiple theories to mask the truth”, getting officials to endorse them as credible, and “using bots and fake accounts to amplify fake information”.
None of this, the government says, changes facts. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed novichok was used in Salisbury. Russia’s identification of BZ was false – a “malign” and “craven” attempt to shift the blame elsewhere, according to the EU and OPCW delegates.
The UK’s national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, took the unusual step of releasing classified intelligence. In a letter to the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, Sedwill said Skripal’s former spy agency the GRU had targeted Yulia Skripal’s email account. Over the past decade, Russia had produced small amounts of novichok, he said, and used special units to test the poison on door handles.
Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, speaks during a press conference at the Russian embassy in London. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA
Despite this openness, critics say Downing Street has been slow to respond to cynical Russian attacks. “They haven’t been proactive,” Clark said of the Foreign Office and politicians from all sides. “Despite everything, the British elite is still conflicted about how to deal with Russia. War has been declared, but we’re not fighting a war back.”
The government should enlighten Russian citizens about the Kremlin’s multiple abuses at home, he said. These included “genuine conspiracies” such as the political murders of Kremlin critics, as well as corruption at the highest levels, typically featuring Putin’s friends and billionaire cronies. “I see no evidence so far we are proactively hitting back,” Clark said.
No one can accuse Moscow of a lack of energy. Yakovenko has held multiple press conferences at the Russian embassy in Kensington. On Wednesday, it launched an attack on Sedwill and claimed the Skripals were being “forcibly isolated”. Their poisoning on 4 March was a “staged provocation”, it said.
The UK’s behaviour continues to be obstructive, Yakovenko complained. He blamed British “secret services”, which had misled the government. “They are making an independent and transparent investigation impossible,” he added.