Defending against discursive statecraft depends on trust

As well as a regular defence strategy, does the United Kingdom (UK) need a trust strategy, too? The recent British-Russian spat over the transit of HMS Defender past Crimea demonstrated the degree to which narratives are increasingly crucial battlefields as states project their power, present their claims, and seek to position their rivals. It also highlighted some of the specific vulnerabilities of liberal democratic states.

The Royal Navy was not simply affirming the UK’s refusal to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea and thus its claims to the peninsula’s territorial waters, it was also signalling support for Ukraine – which, after all, is also moving closer to a deal to buy British warships – and flying the flag for a newly assertive ‘Global Britain’. 

Likewise, Russia was theatrically asserting its claims to Crimea and its willingness to defend them by any means necessary. At the same time, the Kremlin was using the incident to reinforce its own legitimating narrative at home – that Russia is under threat and thus needs to rally behind a strong and decisive leader – and offensively abroad. Whatever the evident contradictions, it sought to present the UK as at once a dangerous enemy, a mere catspaw of sinister militarist interests, and a has-been power easily routed by Russian might.

This kind of discursive statecraft increasingly characterises a modern age in which military conflict is dangerous and expensive but the way we live in a single information space can be exploited with greater speed and effect. 

The Russians have certainly sought to up the ante, not least to present the British as having been reckless and provocative. At his annual ‘Direct Line’ phone-in on 30th June, Vladimir Putin even used it to raise the spectre of a global war, even while claiming the West would back away from such a conflict because they ‘know they cannot emerge victorious from this war.’ 

This follows a speech by Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, at the Moscow Conference on International Security that ‘a small group of countries full of a sense of their superiority, declaring themselves the rulers of the destinies of the rest of the world’ were actively ‘building up military and political tensions in Europe’.

Meanwhile, Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics and a reliable bellwether of the more hawkish wing of Moscow’s foreign policy community, warned that ‘the risks of a new world war is extremely high. The world is teetering on the edge.’ Nonetheless, while feeling a new Cold War was already underway, Russia has ‘a high chance of winning’ it.

This may not quite be ‘apocalypse now’, but does sound alarmingly like ‘apocalypse tomorrow’. Do the Russians actually believe all this? Almost certainly not.

Instead, this is part of Russia’s campaign of discursive statecraft directed towards both domestic and foreign audiences. Putin’s old social contract with his people – offering them steadily improving standards of living in return for political quiescence – has been broken. Instead, they have experienced at best stagnation, while the elite continues to enrich itself. Thus, he has turned to a new message of foreign threats to justify his new turn towards open authoritarianism. Opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny, first poisoned and then imprisoned, are now characterised as catspaws of foreign subversion.

Abroad, this narrative is meant to dramatise the situation in a way intended to deter challenges and encourage a willingness to, at its most blunt, buy Russia off in the name of avoiding confrontations. This has long been one of Moscow’s gambits. Arguably, for example, the Geneva Summit with Joe Biden, President of the United States (US), was part of the price for scaling back its build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border earlier this year.

Free and open countries are hardly strangers to spin, but ultimately they are more constrained in this new battlefield. A government agency needs to wait for the facts to be confirmed and texts to be approved to react. It cannot move at the speed of Twitter. Likewise, a commitment to ostensible balance has its pitfalls. For example, following the HMS Defender incident the i wrote ‘Boris Johnson defends UK warship’s route through “Russian” waters as tensions with Moscow escalate’. Johnson was framed as apparently needing to ‘defend’ an entirely legal transit, while the reference to ‘“Russian” waters’, quotation marks notwithstanding, ignores the fact that Moscow has not the slightest claim over them under international law.

Meanwhile, the comments sections of news sites churn not only with legitimate dissent, but the deliberate placement of hostile and questioning counter-narratives by the Kremlin’s infamous ‘troll farms’. These not only raise spurious doubts about the official line, they are cherry-picked for redistribution and translation by the very regime that commissioned them in the first place.

There are technical fixes relating to clamping down on fake online identities and manufactured twitter-storms. There are administrative fixes relating to the speed with which governments respond to hostile narratives. There are educational fixes relating to how to consume media critically.

All these need to be addressed, but there is one key issue underlying them all. Russians have some immunity to Kremlin disinformation because they have become used to being lied to by successive regimes for decades. If their habitual cynicism has very real dangers – witness the high levels of vaccine scepticism – it also does provide a degree of protection against such propaganda.

Conversely, mistrust in their own government – despite a robust tradition of investigative journalism, impartial justice and basic common sense – leaves all too many in Britain particularly susceptible to such narratives. It is hard not to blame a combination of successive generations of political leaders willing to be at best economical with the truth, as well as a media culture in which a justified pride in not acting as Whitehall’s stenographer can become knee-jerk cynicism.

The British Social Attitudes Survey found in 2019 only 15% of respondents saying they trusted the government always or most of the time, the lowest level in more than 40 years and the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found 45% of Britons felt their views not represented in British politics

Legitimacy is the fundamental defence against the impact at home of foreign discursive statecraft. If that means more straight answers from our politicians and rather less spin, an unwillingness to let any community feel ignored even if the electoral math would dictate it, then that is surely no bad thing. Trust is, after all, a national security issue too.

Dr Mark Galeotti is Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.

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