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Soft power as a threat to a hard power

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2012 was fruitful for Russian legislators and painful for the NGOs. That year marked the series of laws threatening the fragile civil society in the country: penalties for violation of the law on assembly were toughened, defamation criminalized, and NGOs receiving foreign funding forced to register as “foreign agents”.

Later on the State Duma passed another law expanding the notions of “espionage” and “treason” as crimes that include “any financial, technical, advisory and other assistance to a foreign state or an international organization, as part of any activities directed against the security of Russian Federation”.

The NGO law: theory

The law states that Russian nonprofits that receive “funding or material support from foreign states, international and foreign organizations” and engaged in “political activities” are endowed with the status of a “foreign agent”. Also, any materials published or distributed by those organizations, even online, should be marked as “published by the organization performing functions of a foreign agent”. In case if an NGO refuse to register or provide any information on its finances, it may face a considerable fine and its representative could be imprisoned. The law significantly complicates the procedure of financial reporting and also gives grounds for unscheduled inspections.

The essential drawback of the law is that the definition of “political activity” is rather blurry. According to the lawmakers it includes any “political action or influence on public opinion aiming to change a policy”. Russian legislation does not provide a clear definition of these concepts and thus gives the freedom of interpretation to the authorities. However, activities in the field of science and education, culture, health, environment, social protection of citizens are exempt from the law as they are not “political”.

FARA: Is the US Russia’s role model?

In response to criticism of the law Russian officials contend that the same law exists in the United States, which proves that this kind of legislative act may be adopted in a democratic state. Indeed, the Russian NGO law seems to be “copied” from the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – it contemplates almost the same terminology and concepts and provides similar penalties for its violation. Both American FARA and the Russian NGO claim to “increase transparency”. A law, however, cannot be evaluated outside the context of its implementation practices.

FARA was adopted in 1938 and aimed to protect the Americans from foreign propaganda during the war. It required that the “agents” representing interests of foreign powers in the US politics have to disclose their ties with foreign governments and information on funding. Since then the law was several times amended, concepts specified, and the burden of proof elaborated. It has become so complicated that actually just a few criminal prosecution cases made it through the end. However, the most substantial distinction of FARA is that it primarily aims to disclose the foreign lobby that promotes its political interests in Congress and not any organization receiving funding from abroad.

The NGO law: practice

As the law came into force more than a thousand NGOs have been subjected to unscheduled inspections and searches, many of them got “warnings” that their activity is “political” and should be changed. Some organizations have been charged with administrative offences and fines, and their leaders prosecuted as they refused to enter the roster of Foreign Agents at the Ministry of Justice. The first organization to be recognized as a “foreign agent” was the Golos Association (“voice” or “vote”), Russia’s biggest organization protecting electoral rights. It had to pay a big fine and suspend work for several months but eventually they managed to win the court case.

Many Russian non-profits obtain funding through foreign grants and even though in many cases it is only a few percent of a budget, the government sees it as a reason to suggest that the organization represents interest of a foreign power. Lack of financing is quite a big problem for many of the Russian NGOs. Before the bill became law, Vladimir Putin claimed that public funding for nonprofits will be increased. Later it was confirmed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – he said that the government will support the NGOs, however, assuming “their activity is useful and positive for the country”.

The same year the “foreign agents” law was adopted, the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the biggest donors for the Russian nonprofits halted its activities in the country. Besides, the government lunged at some of the international organizations – Russian office of the Transparency International and bureau of the Nordic Council of Ministers which suspended its work this year were forced to enter the “foreign agents” roster.  

The inclusion of the Dynasty Foundation in the list of the “foreign agents” and its subsequent closure produced a strong public reaction. The organization is the first family nonprofit foundation in Russia. Created by a businessman and scientist Dmitry Zimin it supported talented scientists and educational projects. Mainly, the organization was financed from his private funds. The Foundation gave scholarships and grants to students and young professionals, supported school teachers of exact sciences, organized public lectures, developed a program of short-term visits of foreign scientists to Russia. The Dynasty also financed the “Liberal Mission” Foundation which conducted researches on economic and political issues. Apparently, this was a good reason to consider its activities as “political”. Unexpectedly, several environmental organizations we also included in the Foreign Agents lists.

The law was applied on many organizations promoting human rights and civil society, gender equality, and independent media working in the domains of social protection and assistance to refugees and displaced people. Among them are the prominent human rights center “Memorial” which was originally concentrated on the history of political repressions in the Soviet Union, the famous “Levada – Center”, independent sociological research organization, ” The Committee against Torture”, and “Perm -36”, the founder of Russia’s only museum of the history of political repressions created on the territory of the former Gulag. As the Russian paratroopers were detained in the Eastern Ukraine, “the Saint-Petersburg Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers” which received the complaints from the families of those who were allegedly involved in the conflict, was recognized as a “foreign agent”. The organization claims that it hadn’t received any foreign funding.

Soft power as a threat to a hard power

A person familiar with the political history of Russia can easily notice that the Kremlin on both official and unofficial levels more and more actively uses the Soviet phraseology. The expression “foreign agent” had stuck in ideological memory of a Russian – according to polls this phrase is perceived as the analogy with the terms like “spy”, “enemy”, or “traitor” even among the younger generation. The ”foreign agent” terminology used in the text of the law, thus, clearly functions as a pointer – the enemy can sabotage the country from within.

As the Kremlin began to hunt down “unsuitable” NGOs, some organizations terminated their activities or had to change legal forms. Many do not agree to accept the new “shameful” status and continue to press charges against the Ministry of Justice. Some of the NGOs filed complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. The persecution of the independent non-governmental organizations continues. In May this year the new law was adopted according to which any foreign or international NGO “which threaten the national security” can be recognized as “undesirable” and banned from conducting its activities in Russia. The American National Endowment for Democracy (NED) became the first one in the blacklist. After the law was introduced one of the largest US private nonprofits, The MacArthur Foundation, announced its closure in Russia.

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Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba Back to Russian University

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The Russian Foreign Ministry is preparing for the second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, July 2023. At the Russian Foreign Ministry, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Mikhail Bogdanov has held a special meeting with the heads of diplomatic missions of African states accredited in Moscow. 

Bogdanov briefed them on the preparations for the summit, as well as the second International Parliamentary Conference “Russia – Africa” planned for March.

Deputy Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexander Babakov and Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky made presentations on the concept of the second Russia-Africa International Parliamentary Conference. It was noted that the parliamentary event is regarded as an important stage in the preparation of the Russia-Africa summit.

Representatives of the leadership of the Roscongress Foundation, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, and the Department of State Protocol of the Russian Foreign Ministry took part in the discussion and discussed the entire range of issues related to the organization of the second Russia-Africa summit. 

The African diplomatic corps got acquainted with the architecture of the program of upcoming events, as well as with the organizational and protocol aspects of the stay in St. Petersburg of the heads of state and government of African countries and the leaders of leading regional organizations and inter-African associations.

The heads of African diplomatic missions expressed a consolidated position in support of the speedy restoration of the name of Patrice Lumumba in the name of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. In February 1961, the university was named Patrice Lumumba University after the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, who had been killed in a coup that January. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the name of the Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba, was removed and now authorities are attempting to fix back to influence African leaders to the forthcoming summit.

Established in 1960, it primarily provides higher education to Third World students during the Soviet days. Many students especially from developing countries still come to this popular university from Latin America, Asia and Africa. It is Russia’s most multidisciplinary university, which boasts the largest number of foreign students and offers various academic disciplines. 

In a related development, on January 30, Ambassador-at-Large, Head of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum Oleg Ozerov also held talks with Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister for African Integration Ashraf Sweilim as part of his trip to Cairo, Egypt.

Ozerov emphasized the significant contribution of Egypt, which co-chaired the first such summit in 2019, to the development of this format for coordination of actions and comprehensive cooperation. The progressive build-up of Russia’s economic ties with the African continent, where a significant role in cooperation was played by Egypt, was noted.

A thorough exchange of views took place on the current state of Russian-Egyptian relations and the prospects for strengthening cooperation, including within the framework of joint activities under the auspices of the African Union and the League of Arab States. The second Russia-Africa summit will be held July 26-29 in St. Petersburg, the second largest city, in the Russian Federation.

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Destroying the concept of truth: Russian propaganda uncovered

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Authors: Dr. Maria Alesina and Ivan Kolpakov*

The world has fully realised the power of the Russian propaganda machine only after the 24th of February 2022. The full-fledged invasion of Ukraine would have been impossible without the popular support – or at least silent toleration – of the Russians at home. That this support would be the case was hard to believe. Yet it turned out to be a reality. The reality with far-reaching consequences for Ukrainians, Russians, and the entire world.

From supporting Putin’s decades-long rule to enabling his aggressive external actions, Russian state propaganda has become a factor significantly influencing world’s history. Russia’s intervention in internal political affairs and socio-political discourses of other countries is a widespread phenomenon. For years, state-sponsored media outlet Russia Today (RT) has been impacting public opinion in countries across the globe, spreading fake news and alternative interpretations of reality. However, the product offered by Russian media internationally is a child’s game in comparison to the propaganda targeted at Russia’s own residents.

Irresistible power of entertainment

It is not a coincidence that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was followed by shutting down of the last remaining independent media in Russia. The occupation of Ukrainian territories came together with immediate blocking of the access to Internet and Ukrainian media in favour of streaming Russian television. Alongside the system of state violence and political repressions, propaganda is one of the two key elements used by Vladimir Putin to manipulate the society.

The machine of propaganda did not appear overnight. It has been methodically constructed in the course of the past twenty years, since the very moment when Putin got into power. First, he has monopolised the television as a means to control his political ratings and the elections’ results. In the same way, later, he took full control over the national press and the Internet.

Contrary to what many would imagine, the propaganda machine does not work in a rigid and straightforward way. More than anything, it is based on a modern and addictive entertainment industry, providing vast and diverse content about pop-stars, style, travel, food. And in the midst of this flow of entertainment one finds socio-political content with propaganda-infused messages.

Furthermore, political content itself is presented in an entertaining manner. Presenters of the news programs on the major TV channels talk to viewers in a tabloid-style language. In the studios of the political TV shows, opponents are fighting and insulting one another. Shock and outrage are the main drivers behind these shows’ ratings.

Meanwhile, the Russian propaganda machine is a deeply institutionalised ecosystem, where each player has its own ‘niche’: Telegram-channels are needed for introducing fake news, which are later spread through second-rate online media. After that, in an already ‘legalised’ form these fakes are overtaken by the major TV channels.

To an uncritical viewer, it might even seem that this media-curated socio-political discourse includes certain debates and alternative points of view. In reality, any discussions are carefully constructed and controlled. In this regard, radical patriots are as dangerous for the Kremlin as radical opposition, as their performance is difficult to contain. Everything that does not fit into the narrow margins of the official discourse thus simply gets deprived of air time.

Alternative truth – or lack thereof as such?

Russian propaganda does not simply suggest an alternative version of reality. It undermines the very concept of truth as such. State-controlled media relativize concrete events and developments with such messages as ‘nothing is that evident’ and ‘we will never find out the whole truth’. Information about objective facts is commonly substituted with conspirological statements and narratives that do not require evidences and coherency. In this narrative, the West is heading towards moral degradation, Russia’s army is the second strongest in the world, and the Ukrainian nation does not exist as such. This provides Russians with a comforting sense of their country’s moral superiority and the strength of its leadership: ‘everything is under control’, ‘everything goes according to the plan’.

This brings us to the key element of this vicious circle. A common consumer of propaganda is a person who has Soviet-times experience of media consumption: he or she knows that media can be lying. Yet media are not blamed for that, since their role – by history and by habit – is seen differently. Official media is not necessarily a source of relevant facts and information but a source of the general sense of orientation – be it moral, socio-political, or cultural. They are the main channel through which political agenda ‘from above’ reaches ordinary citizens and provides them with ‘guidelines’ on how to interpret reality. 

The state propaganda machine has become closely associated with Putin’s regime. However, consumers’ habits might eventually turn out to be even more long-lasting than his rule. The main problem thus lies not only in delivering and spreading independent information inside the country but in making Russian citizens perceptive to such information. Considering the global spill-over effects of the ‘brainwashing’ inside Russia, this is something that the world needs to be ready to fully understand and properly tackle, at least in a long-term perspective.

*Ivan Kolpakov is a Russian journalist, writer, one of the founders of the Sol newspaper, editor-in-chief of the Meduza newspaper from 2016 to 2018 and since March 2019.

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Any “red lines” left for Putin?

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Image source: kremlin.ru

“Red lines” have become a ubiquitous narrative of Russian-initiated conflict with the West. Putin repeatedly used “red lines” as a warning metaphor for the West, trying to establish his boundaries of international influence. The “red lines” acquired this warning connotation in his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on April 21, 2021, to be repeated several times later up to February 24, 2022. As explained by his press-secretary Dmitriy Peskov and many other Russian politicians and experts, “red lines’ relate to Russian national interests, outlining its national borders. 

And not only Kremlin but the West also talks about “red lines”, though the West sees “red lines” in using nuclear weapons by Putin in his futile attempt to conquer Ukraine. 

When addressing the nation on February 24, 2022, announcing an invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that any “interference” in Ukraine by outside powers would be “a red line” for Russia. However, the West started to support Ukraine long before the Russian invasion supplying Javelins and intelligence information. The West certainly interfered in different ways from the first day of the Russian invasion providing more weapons, ammunition, humanitarian aid, volunteers, anti-Russian information campaigns, sanctions, intelligence sharing, and military training, to name a few. 

All Kremlin’s propaganda targets the inner audience first. When they speak to the West, at the same time, they address ordinary Russians. The apparent importance of “red lines” for the Kremlin, the ability to show that they are not violated, made the West artfully create information campaigns before supplying new deadly weaponry to Ukraine. These information campaigns aim to provide valid arguments for such supplies as a response to the escalation of the war from the Kremlin’s side. At the same time, they shift attention from the weaponry itself to “conflicts” inside the NATO countries around the supplies. They expose various technical problems, such as a lack of trained personnel to master new weaponry, no service maintenance base, and others. Finally, these information campaigns often highlight Kremlin’s atrocities against civilians (Bucha and missile bombing cities, villages, and critical infrastructure).

We have seen these tactics successfully employed more than once. The Kremlin’s loss of information war has become evident from the beginning of the war. However, when one talks about supplying Ukraine with modern tanks to fight against the Russian army, it takes one to be a master of information tactics to supply the tanks and not to break this crucial “red line.” For the last two decades, Putin has made the Victory of the USSR in the Greta Patriotic War (WW II in the Western tradition) the main achievement of recent Russian history, utilizing it as a unifying myth for multi-national Russia. This myth also serves as a justification for its aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, this makes it very painful for Russia to think of fighting with foreign tanks, especially german tanks, making this red line very thick and visible.

Nevertheless, the West could dilute it without any seemingly essential consequences. Let’s see how it was done.

The German play: at first, Olaf Sholz, Chancellor of Germany, said that Germany would allow Leopard tanks to be sent to Ukraine only after US Abrams; this statement gets immediately refuted by the German Minister of Defense; the refutation followed by supporting statements in the US media that even go as far as saying that the German position irritates Washington.

The Polish play: first, Poland says that it can send a Leopard tank to Ukraine; then it refutes it; then Poland threatens that it would send the tanks even without Germany’s consent, to be followed by a statement of Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs that Germany would not block Poland sending tanks to Ukraine.

All these “conflicts and disaccords” happen before an official decision-making session in Rammstein format. Then the plays continued with Boris Pistorius, recently appointed Germany’s Minister of Defense, who, after the meeting at Rammstein, not only said that there were other countries besides Germany to disagree on shipping tanks to Ukraine (although he never revealed which ones), but also hinting later that the decision on tank shipping could be negative. In such a case, the decision would become irreversible. They even remembered a previous German Minister of Defense who allegedly refused to conduct an inventory of available Leopard tanks.

Less than five days later, a positive decision is taken, making it hard to believe that such significant disagreements and confusion could exist not only inside Germany’s government but also between leading European countries and the US. Of course, conflicts and disagreements might exist, and they do exist for different international topics. However, it is hard to imagine them being so publicly visible on such a vital issue as the Ukraine-Russia war. The war has been going on for almost a year now, and effective mechanisms of communication and decision-making must have been developed, at least in such an essential part of it as military aid.  

After the war’s beginning, the West took a principal position in the war: to provide diverse support to Ukraine to fight against Russia. All sanctions and humanitarian and military aid issues get communicated, coordinated, and then agreed upon. 

According to Francis Bacon’s famous quotation, knowledge is power; this power comes with information, and information comes with noise. The West utterly understands it employing this understanding with art and craft. And the Kremlin fails to play this game. Instead, this wonderful chaos of noise prior to any critical decision allows for diluting more and more “red lines.”

These information tactics allow the West to supply Ukraine with more deadly weapons. We will see another act of this information play before a decision to ship modern jet fighters to Ukraine is agreed upon. Then, of course, there will be the same level of “disagreements and conflicts,” but eventually, one shouldn’t doubt that Ukraine will get jet fighters, starting with Soviet MIG- and SU-fighters from Slovakia and Poland, then followed by F-16s and other NATO models.

The Kremlin’s reaction is precious. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, commented on the decision to ship tanks to Ukraine, saying that it became clear to the Kremlin that there was no accord in the West in general around the issue of military aid to Ukraine. Also, the fact that the West has enough modern tanks capable of fighting with Russian remains obscure for the Kremlin, according to Peskov. This is what the Russian propaganda wants and needs to see: disagreements and conflicts. This conflict’s agenda allows them to lullaby the Russian people with tales that the support for Ukraine will wither soon and that Russians need to be patient just a little bit more. Then Victory will come, exactly like in the Great Patriotic War.

The strategy of the West is clear; no Western country wants to be at war with Russia. At the same time, Ukraine needed support, so the West started supplying it with more advanced weapons. Now the supplies happen much quicker than at the beginning of the war. The “tank case” shows this change in the western approach to the weapon supply, where a silent embargo on offensive weaponry was in effect for 11 months.

The Kremlin’s narrative of “the red lines” failed from the beginning as Russia violated international “red lines” when it invaded a sovereign state. Furthermore, this ‘red line” is not only part of Western values but is one of the pillars of the system of International Law. Another pillar of international relations is that supplying weapons and even using one country’s experienced army officers to help another country’s army in its military actions has never been seen as direct involvement in a war. No one has seen, or described Soviet military support and presence in Vietnam against the U.S., or in Egypt and Syria against Israel  as direct war between the U.S. and the USSR. 

Putin’s several public warnings to respond if NATO crossed “red lines” by providing Ukraine with certain missile strike systems remained just words. Other prominent Russian officials repeatedly made similar warnings, promising to consider U.S. and NATO vehicles transporting weapons on Ukr

The West understands that Putin’s “red lines” are for the internal agenda only. Even the fact that they are not named but outline some obscure “national interests’, allows the Kremlin to interpret them differently, twisting its propaganda around. But the “red lines” do exist. The West should not underestimate them. Inability of the Kremlin to define and observe them. It is quite obvious that the next “red line” is national borders between and Ukraine and Russia as of Feb.24, 2022. This issue lacks accord in the West. Should Ukraine get Crimea back? Should it get it now or later? Should the West publicly announce its “red lines” outlining them as the Russian Federation’s borders as of 1991? 

While these questions are still to be answered, one red line obviously exists for Putin. This line is his personal safety, and in the current power construction in Russia, Putin can secure his safety only if he retains power. When the West challenges his personal power, then he will feel the real threat. One should remember that it might be dangerous to corner a rat, especially one with a nuclear bomb. Putin’s body, ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, regularly reminds us of that, saying that “a nuclear power can never lose a conventional war.” His regular remarks clearly state that the Kremlin acknowledges its possible defeat in Ukraine, but they also warn against such outcome. We should hope that Western leaders have learned how to play with Russia and will continue the winning game, weakening Russia further and successfully staying away from nuclear confrontation.

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