Putin's Russian Propaganda on Ukraine - Is the West Losing?

Tuesday, June 3rd 2014

Our First Monday Forum brought home the propaganda and disinformation campaign which Russia is waging in connection with its claims on Ukraine.  Three experts framed this as an integral part of a Whole of Government effort.   They pointed out two distinct advantages that have made Russia’s information war effective.

  • The government controls most Russian broadcasters and a host of extra-official commentators.
  • The government has no scruples about putting out distortions and outright lies.  Western counter-claims cannot capture as much attention as the initial stories and statements.

Adam Powell, the organizer for our Council and the cosponsors at the University of Southern California, wrote a concise and informative account of the event.  More opinionated comment came from Communications Strategist David Henderson and Council Member John Brown.  And my colleague David Jackson has beaten me to the punch with a balanced and interpretive post on this subject.

Will Stevens of the State Department's Ukraine Communications Task Force, Myroslava Gongadze of VOA's Ukrainian Service, and Nenad Pejic of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty issued a powerful indictment of Vladimir Putin’s regime.  However, like any stimulating discussion, this one raised as many questions as it answered.


  • There was no answer to a question posed from the audience: what propaganda war is President Putin winning?   Russian public support is one thing, but how has he changed views among the majorities in Russia’s Near Abroad?  Among Western allies?  No one cited reliable survey numbers.
  • Henderson attributed observations about the State Department’s ignorance of information technology that seem unfounded to this observer.  No one took into account any Department activities on the ground at embassies, whose Public Affairs Sections use social media aggressively.  Henderson’s assertions sound to me like glittering generalities.

No one mentioned what the provisional Ukrainian Government or its new President Poroshenko is saying.  Surely, a free Ukraine should be constructing its own positive narrative.

Let’s be clear about which propaganda war we're talking about.  And U.S. public diplomacy is more than a dozen people in a Washington boiler room.  The Task Force should be working with our diplomats in Eastern Europe (and probably is -- it just didn't come out at our Forum).  Finally, it’s always necessary to knock down and correct disinformation, but more important is a stream of positive information: statements, stories and pictures that balance the narrative.  The affected nations should be doing their part.

David Jackson is right: Twitter is not the answer.  And John Brown points out that the West doesn’t do monolithic propaganda very well, and suggests that perhaps it’s a good thing.  Above all, let us not imitate Vladimir Putin.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy.

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Author: Joe Johnson

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