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Disinforming the Public
By LAWRENCE M. MARTIN-BITTMAN (1)
Professor Emeritus, Boston University
Not all viewers of the videotape "Chechen Terrorists" will have a stomach strong enough to see the whole 15-minute report. It is a collection of the most drastic visual reports about torture, with images of victims' fingers and ears being severed, and beheadings. Some of the victims are begging for mercy, others are in shock, silently expecting the end.
"We don't know who made this film," says the narrator. "Everything is based on facts." Well, "based on facts" may be true, to a degree. The video material, collected by the Russian security organs, has been distributed since October 1999 in Russia and abroad through diplomatic, intelligence and journalistic channels to evoke strong emotional reaction against Chechen independence fighters and to justify Russia's massive military incursion. According to Moscow propagandists, Chechen leaders should be considered a gang of bandits, sadists and murderers who have no place in the civilized world. The authors of the videotape hope that Western experts, journalists and eventually governments will be swayed in favor of Russia's "iron fist" policy against Chechnya.
There is a long tradition in Russia for this kind of propaganda. The KGB and its successors have used film reports and videotapes for disinformation purposes many times in the past because such material promises to have greater emotional impact than written messages. When the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov's growing popularity among Western audiences irritated the Politburo, the KGB distributed eight videotapes in Western Europe showing Sakharov's "luxurious exile " in Gorky --at a time when he actually was on a hunger strike. The growing visibility of dissidents among Russian Jews in the early 1980s inspired the KGB to develop a politically vulgar, anti-Semitic television program with manufactured evidence designed to make them social outcasts. And more recently, the Russian prosecutor general who decided to investigate corruption close to President Yel'tsin's family became in 1999 an unwilling actor in news coverage picturing him with two prostitutes; this time the pictures were real.
The Art of Russian Disinformation
Unlike Western television stations, some of which received the "Chechen Terrorists" tape and refused to air it, Moscow television broadcast the material several times. There is no doubt that the film is authentic; most likely, those who filmed this drama were gangsters who used the footage to blackmail horrified relatives and friends of the kidnapped individuals in order to extort massive ransoms. The existence of these gangs and their activities have been confirmed by the testimony of surviving victims as well as Chechen leaders, including President Aslan Maskhadov and military commander Shamil Basaev.
Every successful disinformation campaign has at its core a volume of true, verifiable information to win the public's trust. In the case of "Chechen Terrorists," the truth is in the first part of the video, with pictures of well-known individuals who survived their ordeals. The second part of the tape includes pictures of anonymous individuals being tortured and beheaded. Neither the first nor the second part of the tape includes any evidence that the torture and murders were conducted by Chechen independence fighters under the directives or with the approval of Chechen political or military leaders. This "detail" easily escapes viewers who are shocked by the drastic pictures. The documentary's editing intentionally doesn't look very professional--this is part of the propagandists' strategy to preserve the tape's raw emotional impact. The film broadly paints all anti-Russian rebels as mass murderers who don't deserve any sympathy or support from the West.
Chechens are in desperate need of understanding and support from the outside world; the accusation that the atrocities were organized and conducted under Chechen leaders' command is absurd. Such action would constitute political suicide. However, in recent years, criminal gangs have kidnapped, for heavy ransom, hundreds of persons--mainly Chechens, along with Westerners, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians and Georgians. The new chaotic conditions of post-Communist Russia created fertile soil for a quickly growing criminal underground, with an estimated 8,000 organized crime units--many of which operate worldwide. Chechen criminals are not an isolated group; they are one tentacle of what has become known as the Russian Mafia, which operates with impunity in Grozny as well as in Moscow, Kyiv, Prague, Paris and New York. Moreover, the Russian Mafia now has close, direct connection to the Russian state security organs, including the intelligence service.
During the last decade a large network was established in Western countries consisting of real and fictitious companies which are operated by this Russian Mafia with the endorsement of Russian intelligence operatives who can now invest in, reward and financially manipulate individuals and companies with much more freedom and flexibility than their Communist predecessors. The operational targets include businesses, research centers, and governmental institutions, as well as media outlets around the world. The symbiosis of the Russian intelligence service and the Russian Mafia makes this cooperative venture physically one of the most dangerous secret organizations in the world, capable of blackmailing and murdering victims anywhere.
Creating an Image
In October 1999 Basaev appealed to the international community for help in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. He warned against false rumors and accusations which are intended to disguise the real reasons for the Russian military intervention. "The massive misinformation campaigns and information blockades going on now are just dangerous to the future of Russia," he said. "The truth will come out sooner or later."(2) Instead of accepting his appeal, the Russians labeled Basaev a criminal and announced a $1million award for his capture.
The propaganda war for public support began years earlier. Yelena Masyuk, a correspondent for the Russian NTV television station, was kidnapped on 10 May 1997 and held for 100 days in inhumane conditions by "Chechen" gangsters until her company paid a $2 million ransom. Why would Chechen nationalists, striving for independence and in desperate need of political support from abroad, kidnap a journalist who was known for sympathetic reporting on their behalf? The same is true about three Britons and a New Zealander responsible for installing in Chechnya an urgently needed satellite telephone system that would enable Chechens to communicate more easily with the outside world. They were killed in December 1998. Two years earlier, shortly after the war with Russia ended, six International Red Cross workers were murdered; Russian propagandists blamed the Chechen separatists. Lyoma Usmanov, president of the US-Chechen Republic Alliance, says that "there is no logic in this version of events, especially when we remember that the Red Cross was the only international organization during the war that saved the lives of many Chechen resistance fighters wounded on the battlefield."(3)
In order to create an image of Chechens supporting the Russian military intervention, Vladimir Putin selected mafioso Beslan Gantamirov, the former mayor of Grozny who was released from prison and sent immediately to Chechnya (after serving only a portion of his six-year sentence for financial crimes), as the leader of "trustworthy" Chechens who are fighting shoulder to shoulder with their Russian brothers against "Chechen terrorists."(4)
The secret manipulation of public opinion and foreign leaders through propaganda, disinformation, intimidation, rumors and provocations (labeled in the language of the Russian political establishment as "active measures") clearly has remained a foreign policy tool. According to the Russian independent press, on 30 November 1994 the Russian Ministry of Defense held a conference to discuss and recommend measures to "boost the morale of the Russian troops and reverse Russian public opinion which was extremely negative toward Russia's being involved in a new Caucasian war."(5) At the conference, "military leaders discussed some extreme, wild options which included exposing 'terrorist' (i.e., Chechen) plans to capture a kindergarten, circulating a rumor that Russian prisoners have been executed, sabotaging one of Moscow's 318 hazardous installations, or hijacking a plane."(6) It is obvious now that some of these "wild options" were to be implemented in subsequent years.
Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in the 1990s continued to try to persuade the outside world that Chechens were only mountain bandits and Islamic terrorists backed by the infamous Osama bin Laden, and that their call for independence should not be recognized. Obviously, the prime motivation for the Russians is to maintain control over this territory and over important pipelines carrying oil from Azerbaijan to southern Russia, as well as to keep Western oil companies out of this area.
The rise of Prime Minister and acting President Vladimir Putin does not portend a likely end to such efforts. Putin is a man who knows how to win friends and manipulate people. During his many years in Soviet and Russian intelligence, he initiated, participated in or directed many "active measures" disinforming foreign governments and influencing foreign public opinion on behalf of Mother Russia. The experience has proven useful in the Chechen campaign. Since August 1999 when Yel'tsin named the former KGB operative as his new prime minister, Putin's political star has been rising. The primary reason for his growing popularity at home has been his radical campaign against Chechnya. He skillfully plays upon the tune of Russia's "national pride" and the "integrity of the country" against "Chechen warlords, terrorists and bandits."
The war, which the Russian government calls "an antiterrorist operation," is different from the 1994-96 Chechen conflict. Rather than launching a frontal attack, the Russians have advanced slowly to minimize their casualties. The disinformation attack against the Chechen people has been equally stealthy. Most average Russians hold tightly to the stereotype of evil Chechens enjoyably torturing and murdering their hostages. Russian propaganda feeds this image.
In a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in September 1999, over 300 Russians were killed; Moscow immediately blamed Chechen terrorists and cited such behavior as justification for the invasion of Chechnya. (Former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin recently announced, however, that the military action had in fact been planned several months prior to the apartment bombings.(7)) When the main marketplace in the Chechen capital was hit by Russian rockets in October 1999 and more than 140 persons were killed, Putin said that Chechens themselves were responsible. At the end of October, the Russian Federal Security Service announced that it had found a large cache of 990 pounds of explosives near the town of Kotovsk belonging to terrorists who planned to blow up an apartment building. In all these cases, evidence about Chechen involvement was missing.(8)
Two months later the office of the prosecutor general issued a report that mass graves of ethnic Russians victims of Chechen genocide during the 1991-98 period had been discovered in Chechnya. The accusation was meant to outbalance Western criticism of Russian violations of human rights and to prove that the "terrorist label" attached to Chechens is justified. Shortly after the attack on Chechnya in September 1999, Chechen television stations, radio towers, telephone facilities and communication lines with the outside world became the first targets for Russian bombers. The savagery of the Russian attackers forced some 200,000 Chechens to abandon their homes and flee across borders. And yet the Chechens are seen as the aggressors.
The British daily newspaper The Independent on 6 January 2000 published the testimony of Alexei Galtin, an operative of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) captured by Chechens, who admitted that the apartment bombings had been organized by the Russian Security Service (FSB) and the military intelligence. Galtin named about 30 operatives of these agencies who were involved. The Russians labeled the statement a provocation in the Chechen war of dirty tricks and came up with another piece of anti-Chechen video propaganda. A videotape distributed on 12 January shows what is called a bomb factory in Urus-Martan, a Chechen town near Grozny where supposedly slave laborers and condemned prisoners were manufacturing explosives "identical to the ones used in the explosions" in the apartment buildings in Russia.(9) At this time it is impossible to verify all accusations and counterattacks by the parties involved; however, in the context of the Russian disinformation traditions and techniques used in this conflict, it is obvious that President Putin's former colleagues from the KGB are heavily involved.
Conversely, there is a campaign from Moscow to transmit positive images, when possible, of Russian soldiers. Even when unflattering material is shown, however, the Russian public is quick to accept official denials, despite the evidence. After footage was aired of Russian soldiers plundering the Chechen village Alkhan-Yurt and killing 17 civilians in December 1999, Russian General A. Shamanov, whose soldiers took part in the rampage, categorically denied that it happened, and most Russians believed him.(10)
In early October 1999 Vladimir Putin established a center to organize news coverage of the Chechen conflict and put another former KGB officer, Mikhail V. Margelov, in charge.(11) ROSINFORMCENTER coordinates propaganda campaigns of all governmental agencies to achieve what Margelov calls "political correctness" in the fight against "bandits" and "international terrorists." This new propaganda and disinformation machine has used both the traditional Soviet disinformation tools and modern public relations techniques of media management.(12)
Moscow's ROSINFORMCENTER and the Russian military command have hindered the work of foreign correspondents and independent Russian journalists as much as possible by inhibiting their access to sources and even detaining some reporters. Whenever journalists working for the Western media have informed their audiences about Russian military failures, their reports were labeled as "Chechen disinformation" or "active measures organized by Western intelligence services to discredit Russia." Several foreign correspondents who visited Grozny, including Jaromir Stetina of Epicentrum, Maria Eismont of Reuters and Andrei Babitsky of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported heavy losses by Russian troops in late December 1999. ROSINFORMCENTER said that the pictures of dead Russian soldiers were from 1995 and these were bodies of dead Chechens dressed in Russian uniforms.(13)
RFE/RL reporter Andrei Babitsky has been caught in a disinformation campaign gone awry.(14) In mid-January, Babitsky disappeared. ROSINFORMCENTER's Yastrzhembsky and the Russian security services denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, although he reportedly had been detained. After international attention was drawn to the reporter's disappearance, conflicting statements were issued from Moscow: Interfax quoted security service officials as saying Babitsky had been charged with participation in "an illegal armed formation"; the interior ministry said he had been arrested for lacking accreditation; while Russian media officials said he would be released with apologies.
The next week the situation grew more ominous. On 3 February, Yastrzhembsky said Russian officials "exchanged" Babitsky for three Russian prisoners of war, and claimed there was a film of the incident. Vladimir Ustinov, acting prosecutor general, first stated Babitsky was exchanged, and then retracted the statement, saying instead the reporter was released and went over to the Chechens. The Chechens have repeatedly denied that any such exchange involving Babitsky took place. As international outrage grew, Russian officials continued attempts to distance themselves from any culpability. FSB director Nikolai Patrushev said Babitsky is "alive" although the FSB doesn't know where. A spokesman for the prosecutor general's office stated a summons has been issued for Babitsky to appear and answer questions about the case. On 9 February, Russian television broadcast a videotape which showed Babitsky saying he wants to go home and giving the date as 6 February--three days after he reportedly was exchanged for prisoners of war.
Do Chechens use the same weapons against their Russian enemies? Probably. In January 2000 the Azer-Press News Agency in Azerbaijan published a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, dated 15 December 1999, and addressed to the speaker of the Russian Duma, in which he says that "it is in the interest of Russia to make this region desolate and lifeless and liquidate the basis for breeding new bandits and terrorists forever." The letter then describes specific measures like dismantling factories and removing local residents from certain areas in the Stalinist tradition. Although the measures reflect the feelings of the Russian elite, the formulations sound too "propagandistic" and could have been manufactured by Chechens or their friends in Russia.(15)
During the last decade, President Yel'tsin rebuilt a system in which deception and disinformation became integral parts of the political environment. The new Russian perpetrators do not hesitate to use the classic weapons of disinformation, including forged documents, publication of compromising, sexually explicit materials, and murder against domestic political rivals or business competitors. A number of Russian journalists with inquisitive minds and the determination to discover the truth, whose stories threatened the comfortable lives of some politicians or businessmen, were murdered by professional killers hired from the ranks of the Russian Mafia. The new alliance between the Russian state security and the Mafia makes this kind of operation run more smoothly. Under Putin, the influence of army and intelligence officials on the government's political decisions has increased visibly as the crippled Russian democracy has embraced militant nationalism.
Chechnya's three years of de facto independence after the 1994-96 war was marked by continuing chaos, and many kidnappings by criminal gangs. These activities seriously damaged the image of the Chechen government during its struggle for international recognition. At home Putin succeeded in painting the Chechen government as responsible for these and other crimes. The separatists have denied any involvement in the September 1999 bombing of several Russian apartment buildings and the Russian police has been unable to come up with any convincing evidence of their guilt, but the incidents still served as welcome ammunition in the propaganda war against Chechnya. At the end of 1999 more than 60 percent of Russians supported Putin's military operation in Chechnya and believed the disinformation message that it was the right way to fight terrorism.
Abroad, Russian propaganda successes were rather limited. When Chechen Minister of Foreign Affairs llyas Akhmadov visited France and the Czech Republic in November 1999, the Moscow media labeled the trip an anti-Russian provocation. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an arrogant diplomatic note to Prague criticizing the Czech government for allowing Akhmadov to visit. "We consider receiving the so-called Minister of Foreign Affairs of Chechnya Ilyas Akhmadov a gross interference in Russian domestic affairs and helping terrorists who are operating on the territory which is a part of the Russian Federation."(16) US officials were much more concerned with Russian leaders' sensibilities: When Akhmadov visited Washington DC, very few government officials, and then only very junior State Department officers, agreed to meet with him.
While a few newspapers and television reports in major Western countries showed a degree of tolerance toward the Russian actions in Chechnya, the majority of the media and governments remained highly critical. Great Britain and the United States asked Prime Minister Putin several times to stop the military campaign and search for political solutions. The Group of 7 largest industrial countries condemned Russia and called for an immediate cease-fire. Russia responded angrily, saying that it was "another splash of crocodile tears which amazes us by its cynicism."(17) Russian Minister of Defense Igor Sergeev blamed the US and NATO for the world's instability, accused the US of trying to gain full control over the Caucasus region and said that "terrorism financed and directed from abroad is on the rise."(18) There is no doubt that the military campaign against Chechnya has served to deepen Russia's international isolation.
As of early February 2000, Grozny had fallen but the guerrilla war was just beginning. The Russian disinformation campaign continues. The head of the Russian Information Center sent a new propaganda statement repeating Russian accusations to a great number of Western media; however, Western governments and the general public remained unconvinced that drastic Russian military measures in Chechnya are justified. In this respect the Russian disinformation war has been a failure.
1. From 1954 until 1968, Lawrence Martin-Bittman worked as a Czechoslovak intelligence officer, including two years as deputy commander of the disinformation department. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Martin-Bittman asked for political asylum in the United States and started his academic career. He has been teaching at Boston University since 1971. He is the author of several books on the subject of international disinformation
2. Shamil Basaev, "A plea from a Chechen commander," The Boston Globe, 28 October 1999, p. A23.
3. Lyoma Usmanov, "Crimes Against Humanity in Chechnya," 23 December 1999, Washington,DC; TURKISTAN-Net.
4. Petra Prochazkova, "Prorusky velitel Gantamirov je tajnym esem Kremlu," Lidove noviny, 30 December 1999, p. 6.
5. Timothy L. Thomas, "The Russian Armed Forces Confront Chechnya," The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, 3 June 1995, pp. 257-290.
7. Nezavisimaya gazeta, 14 January 2000.
8. Ruslan Musayev, "Fierce Battles Raging near Chechen Capital," The Boston Globe 27 October 1999, P. A25.
9. Michael Wines, "Russia Offers Clues Linking Chechens to Apartment Bombings," The New York Times , 13 January 2000, p. A8.
10. Michael R. Gordon, "Russian Outraged at Tapes on Pillage in Chechnya," The New York Times, 30 December 1999, p. A3.
11. In January, former presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky was named director of the center.
12. Michael R. Gordon, "Public Relations Methods Bolster Arsenal in Chechnya Offensive," The New York Times, 28 November 1999, p. A8..
13. Petra Prochazkova, "Moskva vini novinare v Groznem, ze mrtve oblekaji do uniforem Rusu," Lidove noviny, 28 December 1999, p. 6.
14. The following chronology is from the special web site set up by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at <www.rferl.org/nca/special/babitsky/index.html>
15. Ruth Daniloff, "Russia's Spin Doctors," The Boston Globe, 13 January 2000, p. A19.
16. Petr Zavadil, "Moskva hrozi Praze tvrdou odplatou za Cecensko," Lidove noviny, 19 November 1999, p. 1.
17. Steven Erlanger, "Rich Nations Fault Russia For Chechnya," The New York Times, 18 December 1999, p. A5.
18. "USA chteji oslabit Rusko," Mlada Fronta Dnes, 13 November 1999, p. 11.
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially