DAVID PATRIKARAKOS, LONDON
Putin, despite his fastidiously calibrated democratic laminate, is a true totalitarian. He doesn’t just want control of your business or your politics. He comes for your senses: Russian troops aren’t in eastern Ukraine. They never invaded Crimea. What you saw you did not see.
On July 17, 2014, shortly after heavy losses forced the rebels to abandon Sloviansk, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board. Just after the plane went down, the DNR’s military commander, former Russian agent Igor Strelkov, posted a message on his VKontakte site claiming responsibility for destroying what he thought was a Ukrainian plane. The post was later deleted, but not before it had been shared hundreds of times.
US and NATO officials believed that the separatists could only have gotten the necessary anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. International leaders lined up to condemn Putin. “This is a defining moment for Russia,” tweeted British prime minister David Cameron. “President Putin faces a clear choice in how he decides to respond to this appalling tragedy.”
In eastern Ukraine, Putin had deployed the medium most effective for his target audience to push his message: Russian-language TV. But while eastern Ukraine could be confused and subdued through Russian-language TV and social media, the MH17 problem was a global one, requiring a global media platform and—critically— an instant response. Social networks would now have to prove their worth to the Kremlin. As articles on the crash went up around the world, the troll farm kicked into gear.
Thousands of what the Guardian newspaper, among other publications, described as paid pro-Kremlin trolls appeared on comment threads to defend Russia, attack Ukraine and generally confuse the facts. Many of them—and the material they used to advance their cause—came from that bland building on Savushkina Street.The infamous Internet Research Agency, discussed in Chapter 7. It’s a superbly-reported account; the best I’ve read—Claire.
The Kremlin could also take advantage of the tens of thousands of its online fanboys just waiting to tweet or share the official line—critical when you need to react quickly. Hours after MH17 went down, thousands of pro-Russia Facebook pages and Twitter feeds began to parrot Kremlin rhetoric and shift blame onto the Ukrainians: It happened over Ukraine, so it had been Kyiv, or the Americans. Or even, as many pro-Russia memes on VKontakte suggested, collusion between the Americans and the Ukrainians. Conspiracy theory, denial, and blame-shifting: the building blocks of Russian propaganda laid bare, shared and tweeted into infinity.
The majority outside of Russia and eastern Ukraine dismissed these absurd claims, but for Putin that didn’t matter—that wasn’t his goal. Convincing his supporters—most of whom wanted to be convinced—that Russia had nothing to do with the massacre of innocent civilians was easy. The plan for the real target, the watching world, was equally simple: discombobulate and confuse, for which social media’s various platforms, and the ability they have endowed upon users to spread narratives, were the perfect tool.
More problematic was the political fallout. After the crash, enraged diplomats discussed the possibility of a new round of financial sanctions on Russia, which in a globalized world can be devastating. But globalization cuts both ways, which Putin understands, almost instinctively. His entire political philosophy is based on the belief that twentieth-century geopolitical paradigms are obsolete.
And he is right. Russia knows that international corporations have become more powerful than international institutions. Finance itself is multinational. Cameron may have talked tough on sanctions, but Britain is in hock to Russian cash. Britain’s public schools and art galleries are reliant on it. London’s high-end property market is based on it. In 2014, London’s commercial lawyers received 60 percent of their work from Russian clients. The British-based BP has a 20 percent stake in Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company, and its outgoing chair- man, Lord Livingstone, warned that British banks would suffer from further EU sanctions on Moscow. Sanctions duly came on July 29, 2014, but their effect was noticeably limited. Russia’s oil industry was targeted, but the EU’s addiction to Russian gas (as distinct from oil) left that sector untouched.
Ukrainian MP Anatoliy Hrytsenko, former minister of defense and a former presidential candidate, was gloomy, almost bitter about all this when I met him in his office in Ukraine’s parliament in early 2014. Chain-smoking Marlboro Lights, he said, “People talk about interconnectedness, but don’t they realize that Ukraine’s problems affect everyone? Putin annexed a part of our country large enough to settle several European countries in. Who will be next? Estonia, Transnistria? This will have destabilizing consequences in thirty or forty years’ time. By then Cameron and Obama will be off fishing somewhere and other people will have to face the consequences of their actions. Globalization,” he snorted. “It means that Putin can get away with murder.”
Putin, despite the fastidiously calibrated democratic laminate, is a true totalitarian. He doesn’t just want control of your business or your politics. He comes for your senses: Russian troops aren’t in eastern Ukraine. They never invaded Crimea. What you saw you did not see. New media allows him to push his message in ever more effective and pervasive ways. Locally, it reinvents reality to create the conditions for war; internationally, it harnesses the engine of public opinion to either justify or confuse it. Arrayed against him is a citizen army, empowered and given form by social media. Centralized state power faces off against diffuse civilian power, while the West, caught in a web of globalized finance, looks on, largely powerless to act. This is what twenty-first-century war looks like. And Vladimir Putin is its master practitioner.
David Patrikarakos is the author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, of which this is a sample. You can find him on Twitter at @dpatrikarakos
|↑1||The infamous Internet Research Agency, discussed in Chapter 7. It’s a superbly-reported account; the best I’ve read—Claire.|