Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: The Kremlin PR strategy

After the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, CBC News asks three Russia experts about how the Kremlin might find a measure of support from people in the West.

Sowing confusion, disinformation and propaganda a tested approach, experts say

While forensic experts and members of the OSCE mission speak to the media in eastern Ukraine, in Moscow the Kremlin media strategy is to sow confusion, Russia experts say. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

How does the Russian government find any support in the West when the overwhelming response from Western governments and media is that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian rebels?

Russia expert and human rights campaigner Catherine Fitzpatrick says the public relations strategy of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin resembles that of the Soviet era: "massive propaganda, disinformation and counter-propaganda."

However, she says, "They've become more outrageous with these incredibly crazy stories they put out." Part of that is designed to influence the West, Fitzpatrick says, but first and foremost it's to influence the Russian public.

British journalist Angus Roxburgh says the Kremlin's No. 1 strategy is what he calls "throwing out flak, instead of allowing at all the possibility that what the West is claiming is true."

From 2006 to 2009, Roxburgh was a media adviser to the Russian government, and before that he was a BBC correspondent in Moscow and Brussels. His books include The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia.

"They very quickly, and quite impressively, I must say, came out with all these crazy alternative possibilities ... shielding the Kremlin from the awful truth."

Which is not to say that other governments have been above board in their response following the shooting down of a passenger jet by their military.

3-pronged strategy

Edward Lucas of the Economist, and the magazine's former Moscow bureau chief, describes the Putin PR strategy as "doing hearts, minds and wallets."

Edward Lucas, the author of Deception, says the Kremlin media strategy on MH17 is 'doing the standard Russian thing of creating confusion.'

Lucas, the author of Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West and The New Cold War: Putin's Threat to Russia and the West, says Putin has long been pursuing a three-pronged propaganda strategy.

The first element involves "building up economic, commercial and financial dependency on the one hand, with everything from Austrian banks, to German industry, to Dutch energy companies to the City of London."

The second approach is spending lots of money on lobbying, especially what Lucas describes as invisible lobbying, "by putting money into think-tanks and academia and media and cultivating a circle of people who will reliably put out the Russian point of view."

Lucas calls the third part of Putin's strategy a "soft power campaign, where he puts a lot of money into things like RT [the international news network named Russia Today from 2005 to 2009]  and into the general idea that the world isn't being run properly, the West has made a big mess of things."

But the Kremlin PR strategy after the downing of Flight MH17 has to be a challenge.

Fitzpatrick, who tells CBC News she has been closely following events in Ukraine "night and day for 150 days" for The Interpreter blog, says the Kremlin media strategists "probably were panicked and started throwing stuff up against the wall to see if it would stick, and letting people improvise, putting out conspiracy theories, changing them in the middle of the day."

Fitzpatrick is also the author, co-author or translator of many books about Russia.

She says the Kremlin is "just going to muddy the waters and say it could be this, it could be that, they'll confuse people, and they'll just keep saying we need an international investigation."

Advice for the Kremlin

Roxburgh, when pressed into saying what media advice he would give the Kremlin today, explains he would say pretty much what he did when he advised the Russian government: "There is nothing you can do to spin this, people judge you by your actions, not by the way you present to them in some completely implausible manner."

Angus Roxburgh, author of The Strongman, and a former media adviser to the Russian government, says there's nothing the Kremlin can do to spin the MH17 crash.

He then concedes that advice is "useless in PR terms," and that it is political advice.

"Come clean, distance yourself from these crazy gangsters that shot down a plane. It should be pretty obvious Putin never imagined that these people, who he kind of supports, would do that sort of thing, so why doesn't he distance himself from them? It could actually be a 'get out clause' for him, it could be a chance for him to achieve peace in Ukraine."

Roxburgh was with the global PR firm Ketchum Inc. when he advised the Kremlin, but says that Ketchum's work did not do much to improve Russia's image and that the Kremlin "had their own ideas of how to do things." Russia was "more interested in using Ketchum to gauge Western opinion," he says.

"Our message to the Kremlin was 'just meet the journalists more, talk to them, be nice to them, give them more access, all that sort of stuff, and automatically you will get better coverage by doing that," Roxburgh says.

"Ketchum tried to identify people who at least weren't negative about Putin, if not actually positive, and try to place articles by them in the press, not very successfully though," he adds.

How effective is the Kremlin PR strategy?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is using PR tactics from the Soviet era because they do work, Russia expert Catherine Fitzpatrick says. (Alexei Nikolsky/Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/Associated Press)

Lucas says the Kremlin is "doing the standard Russian thing of creating confusion."

"You sow confusion and people in the end just think, 'Well, it's all pretty complicated and there's probably two sides to this story so I'm not going to believe the dominant narrative.'" And Lucas says Putin has been quite a success at undermining the dominant narrative.

He sees Kremlin efforts to win over the West as "much more effective than we realized."

Lucas says that in 2008, in The New Cold War, he "didn't believe that Russian soft power was going to make a difference, I didn't think they'd be able to get their espionage effort back on line, I didn't think the military factor would be nearly as successful as it was and, in fact, things are far worse than I said in a book that at the time was regarded as scaremongering."

Fitzpatrick says the Kremlin uses its propaganda methods because they do work. She points to moral equivalence as one of the methods: "So they'll say this airplane was shot down, but you Americans shot down an Iranian plane." Another method she calls trying to deflect the focus: "How could you allow planes into this area?"

Can't control social media

Fitzpatrick identifies a media problem for the Kremlin, however. "With all the social media, they have a tough time keeping news from getting out, because they can't control it."

She offers the scenario of a farmer in his field seeing Russian tanks go by, then using his mobile phone to capture video and uploading it to YouTube.

Fitzpatrick says the Kremlin is "working hard to inject their faux-citizen stuff into the stream." She looks at the metadata on YouTube videos or image comparison software to check for fabrications. "They've used photos of atrocities from Syria and Chechnya and claim they're done by Ukrainians."

"They have the manpower to invade social media, but the very tool of social media helps debunk what they're doing because some of it's pretty crude," Fitzpatrick concludes.