The Kerch Response: Punishing Putin’s Media Manipulators

December 1, 2018

The interception of three Ukrainian warships by Russian coastguards along the Kerch Strait has whipped up a storm of ‘serious condemnation’ and ‘deep concern’ amongst Western leaders. From the Kremlin’s perspective this storm is little more than a light breeze that may cool the nerves of a regime whose popularity is reaching new lows.

The uninspiring and repetitive diplomatic responses from many nations has certainly provoked frustration amongst policy experts and journalists. Similarly, the assault on Ukrainian ships in international waters has brought together Europeans who demand their democratic values be upheld. The tepid response from Western politicians has opened up the floor to policy experts and journalists, who have proposed an array of measured responses to Kremlin aggression in the Sea of Azov.

There is an overwhelming sense that the West, in particular NATO countries, will avoid any form of military reaction. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed at a Ukrainian business forum in Berlin that there is “no military solution to these problems.” NATO chiefs, too, appear unwilling to contest Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov: having planned a crisis meeting for this Monday, leaders of the military alliance would rather wait out the storm than risk further provocation. The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s cry for help remains unanswered.

Therefore, an appropriate response to the Kerch incident, which resulted in the wounding of six and arrest of over 20 Ukrainian servicemen, must be formulated on the West’s economic, rather than military, might over Russia. Unsurprisingly, the buzzword at this point becomes ‘sanctions’. Since 2014, sanctions have been the main port-of-call for US and EU leaders looking to quell an ambitious and aggressive Russia. Yet the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy remains widely contested.

On the one hand, a weakened Ruble vis-à-vis rising oil prices resulted in a bloom in the Russian oil sector from which the primary benefactors were Russia’s super wealthy.  On the other, analysts at Bloomberg calculated that sanctions may have knocked up to 6% off Russia’s GDP. Also, the announcement on Tuesday that Germany is joining the Netherlands to push for an EU Magnitsky act suggests that Western leaders understand the need to target with sanctions individuals associated with the Kremlin rather than the wider Russian economy. British Prime Minister Theresa May has also expressed support for such sanctions.

Should we accept that sanctions – be they targeted at individuals or entire economic sectors – are becoming the status quo for Western responses to Russian aggression, then we must recognise that the Kremlin will have protective measures in place to shield potential victims of sanctions. In other words, sanctions are a predictable response to the Kerch incident which may play into the Kremlin’s hands.

Leaders of EU countries require more innovation in their reaction to Putin. Calls to suspend the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project – a gas pipeline being built under the Baltic sea to connect Germany directly to Russia’s energy grid – is an excellent example of innovative policy change. The main benefactor of NS2 from the Russian side is Gazprom whose leading shareholder is the Russian state. However, Germany has repeatedly dismissed these calls, opting for economic gain over political integrity.

More often than not innovation provides a unique and new perspective on a problem. We need to put ourselves in the position of Kremlin politicians if we are to create this new perspective. Such an approach is far too often overlooked by policy analysts and journalists.

To understand the Kremlin perspective, we need to establish some of the likely objectives of the Kerch Strait incident: (1) assert geopolitical domination in the Sea of Azov; (2) divide Western countries through provoking a response; (3) add fuel to the domestic fire of anti-western sentiment, in order to (4) boost public support for the regime.

NATO’s decision to withhold naval support for Ukraine means that Russian warships de facto rule the Sea of Azov. In other words, the Kremlin’s first objective has been completed. Furthermore, beyond universal condemnation and expression of ‘deep concern’ Western leaders have failed to launch a unified return strike against the Kremlin. This division in Europe may be the product of diverging economic interests between countries, as well as the complicated political landscapes in many European states (Austria, Italy and UK foremost). Thus, the Kremlin has also realised its second objective.

This leaves us with the remaining third and fourth objectives. Russia has one of the lowest levels of press freedom in the world, with the vast majority of media outlets under control of the state. According to a study from the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, 57% of Russians get their news from television. Television is also the most trusted news source for Russians. Events such as those of the scale of the Kerch Strait incident provide a wealth of ‘content’ for Kremlin-controlled television producers. With few Russians using the Internet to access more objective reporting, as well as the broad lack of trust Russians have in foreign media outlets, the Kremlin-dominated media landscape is able to create an alternate version of events that is not restricted to the framework of objective reporting.

The creation of anti-western narratives has become common practice amongst Kremlin-controlled media outlets. The Ukrainian Crisis Media Center analysed how state-run television channels portray of different countries in Europe. In the extensive 3.5 year study (which started post-annexation), the Center was able to identify that 90% of news about Ukraine was negative. Stories about Ukraine could also be divided into following six narratives: there is a civil war in Ukraine (33%); Ukraine is a failed state (22%); Russia is helping Donbas (15%); russiaphobia in Ukraine (10%); fascists and radicals will destroy Ukraine (7%); Ukraine is a Western puppet state (6%); as well as other narratives (7%). It is clear, therefore, that the Kerch Strait incident will serve to incite and strength anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia.

Television presenters who spread this sentiment are assailants in the crimes of the Putin regime. The success these propagandists have had in manipulating facts means that Kremlin aggression has become an invaluable source of content for state-controlled media outlets. In turn, this may encourage the Kremlin to behave more aggressively, knowing that the public will hear a version of events that will, in any case, emphasise a Kremlin victory.

There are many individuals who contribute to this comprehensive distortion of reality. The first of these individuals is Vladimir Solovev who is the host of An Evening with Vladimir Solovev. Solovev’s show is broadcast on Rossiya 1 – one of the staples of Kremlin propaganda. Vladimir Solovev is also an Italian resident. The second is Sergey Brilev, whose show The News on Saturday is broadcast, again, on Rossiya 1. Brilev is has a dual Russian-British citizenship. In addition, research from Yoshkin Krot – a satirical subproject of MBK Media – has highlighted that Kremlin television hosts enjoy the luxuries of the West whilst pushing strong anti-West narratives to the vast Russian audiences at home.

These individuals are compliant in the crimes of the Putin regime. They mobilise public support for the regime through manipulating facts to a point at which the facts are no longer coherent with reality. In doing so, these individuals bolster the support for a regime that consistently violates international law, murders citizens of other sovereign states and has a stake in the global drug market.

None of these individuals should be granted visas into the Schengen Zone, the UK or US, and existing residential visas and dual citizenships should be revoked. If Western countries are intent on not only punishing compliant Kremlin kleptocrats but also on having a positive impact within Russian society, then mischievous media personalities must be targeted too. Furthermore, in targeting discourse channels within Russian society, Western countries will also be able to challenge, weaken or maybe even dismantle the huge disinformation network the Kremlin-controlled media uses to generate support for the Putin regime.