Beyond the Cold War of Words

April 20th 2015 - 11:31
The annexation of Crimea, the subsequent conflict in the East of Ukraine, and the lingering uncertainty hanging over this part of the world owing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pledge to ‘protect Russian speakers’ abroad, has brought the post-Soviet world right back into the center of the world’s attention. Arguably, one of the major factors fuelling the Ukraine conflict is the asymmetric provision of information, including the use of propaganda. Media outlets such as RT (the former Russia Today) and Sputnik News which broadcast in several countries and in multiple languages are vital elements of the Russian propaganda machine. The rise to prominence of these organizations and their at times divisive messages only help to increase the suspicions that Russia may engage in similar covert operations in other countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union, as it did in Ukraine.

Apart from the fact that the crisis caused the biggest stand-off in East‐West relations since the end of the Cold War, the anti-Western messages broadcast by the likes of RT and Sputnik risk undermining fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy within nations that lie within the Russian orbit, as alternative sounds are crowded out. These developments are particularly important to the young generations—who are most likely to want to hold their leaders to account, and seek the freedom to shape their lives in their own image. These worrying trends call for a Western response that aims to prevent, or counteract, one-sided coverage of events and developments in the post-Soviet space. However, rather than engaging in a kind of two‐sided information warfare as took place during the heydays of the Cold War, western media should instead focus on shared (societal) values such as enshrined in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Such an approach would avoid the pitfalls of confrontation and escalation, whilst at the same time allow for the support of fundamental rights and values in those countries where these are under pressure.

This report is commissioned by RNW, an international media organization based in The Netherlands that aims to promote free speech and fundamental freedoms in countries where these are severely restricted. RNW (co)creates content and online platforms where young people can form and express their opinions about sensitive issues. This study zooms in on a select number of countries belonging to the post-Soviet space that lie on the fault lines of overlapping spheres of influence between Europe and Russia. Specifically, the report assesses the risks of the current one-sided media services to Russian speaking minorities in Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. In doing so, the study examines the extent to which RNW could make a meaningful contribution to a more balanced information service, focusing on online and social media. Furthermore, the report analyzes the opportunities for RNW to operate in these countries, and provides an inventory of the kinds of (legal) barriers that exist that could hinder this aim.

Authors: Sijbren de Jong, Willem Th. Oosterveld, Artur Usanov, Katarina Kertysova,
Ihor Ilko and Juncal Fernández-Garayzábal González.

Artur Usanov is a strategic analyst at HCSS. He has an MBA with distinction from the London Business School and an MSc in Engineering with distinction from Kaliningrad Technical University. He is also currently finishing his doctoral dissertation in policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Prior to HCSS, Artur worked at RAND Corporation in the U.S., the Kaliningrad Regional Economic Development Agency and the EastWest Institute in Russia. He also taught at Kaliningrad State Technical University and Kaliningrad International Business School.

Sijbren de Jong is a Strategic Analyst at HCSS and lecturer in Geo-Economics at Leiden University, The Hague. He has a PhD in EU external energy security relations from the University of Leuven and holds degrees in Economic Geography (MSc) from the University of Groningen and Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding (MA) from the University of Leuven. His geographical areas of expertise include Russia, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea Region; Central and Eastern Europe; and the Western Balkans.

Willem Oosterveld is a Strategic Analyst at HCSS. He holds degrees in political science, law and history, having studied in Amsterdam, Leiden, Paris, New York and Harvard. A former Fulbright scholar, he earned a PhD in the history of international law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.