The Russian Bear and Information War

August 22, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Georgian websites were defaced with the image of Mikheil Saakashvili appearing in a collage that juxtaposed him with pictures of Adolf Hitler, evoking the grand-daddy of all arguments: the Nazi comparison. What the cyber warriors, whether Kremlin backed or not, did on the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website is a telling sign of the maturity of Russian information war. Whilst the 58th Army steam-rolled the Georgian army, it was the latter who managed to win this war.

In the immediate conflict that started on August 7 this year, it was the Georgians who fired the first salvos – and that’s what they were. A single Ossetian shot did not set this off, as the overwhelming Georgian response showed. Whatever the true number of casualties in Tskinvali is, it is unquestionable that any force that uses rocket artillery systems such as “GRAD”, a less than precise weapon designed to turn large areas full of unarmoured targets into mince, on a civilian location is one step closer to being branded a villain and an aggressor by that every ephemeral “international community”.

But as soon as the Russian bear rolled into Ossetia and then Georgia proper it was clear who the villain was. The quick response should not be seen as a sinister movie – this war came to a surprise to the West because no-one pays that close attention to this region, and over the past few months the Kremlin surely was aware of what was about to happen at a point in the near future. Yet, the operations and also the reports in the media on all sides shows what the realities of modern warfare are.

Mr Saakashvili gave his speeches in front of EU flags, although the country is not even a candidate member yet. It was obvious to whom the Georgian leader was appealing as soon as the first bear paw fell on his face. He was in an almost win-win situation – thousands of Georgians went out on the streets of Tbilisi wrapped in national flags in support of their leader and the armed forces that were fighting for the territorial integrity of their nation. As soon as Russian bombs fell nearby nationalistic fervour was boosted – Georgians were now the victims. And they certainly were in the West’s eyes – not least when CNN uses footage of burning buildings in Tskinvali to sell us Georgian suffering in Gori. The misinformation and one-sidedness took enormous strides in this conflict.

Georgia was helped by the very fact that most Western journalists were stationed on their territory and that the Russians not only inadvertently killed media members but also completely shut the Western cameras out of the regions under their control. This didn’t help the inherent Russian disadvantage – that it was Russian. After the chaos of the nineties any show of force, especially a fairly competent one such as this, would be seen as a blast from the past, a Soviet-style takeover. Something that Saakashvili tapped into with his evocations of Budapest in 1956 and Afghanistan in 1979.

Furthermore, the hypocrisy and clever trickery of Moscow didn’t help. Defending Serbia’s territorial integrity one day, telling us to forget about such a thing in Georgia the next – surely not a way to win over international support (despite the fact that the hypocrisy ran both ways – isolated Serbia had no right to defend Kosovo, but friendly, NATO-armed Georgia has a right to Abkhazia and South Ossetia). The handing out of Russian passports to these citizens also gave Moscow a free hand in the region and whatever the true reason behind that, Georgia has successfully managed to spin it into a Russian attempt to get a foothold in all its former territories.

The aim of this article is not to say who is right or wrong and whether the territorial integrity of Serbia or Georgia is inviolable or not. It is just an attempt to highlight how a small nation managed to turn a disastrous war it started into a public relations victory whilst a former superpower still has to learn to even try and soften its negative image in the West. To say that the Russian media was any better is of course, false. Even the most balanced articles the author has read on Russian websites usually end with a variation of “my country, right or wrong.” But it is true that here in what we consider the freer nations of the world, we still get misinformed when a major news channel can broadcast footage of one side dealing damage out and then attribute it to the other.

What will now happen in Georgia is hard to predict. If the West steps in to shore up the infrastructure that the Russian aviation destroyed and Georgian freezers are not empty this winter, the nationalistic fervour that Saakashvili managed to whip up can, may be, save him from a new Rose Revolution. With US statements to the effect of “we are all Georgians now” it seems that the superpower (which declared the Caucasus an area of American national interests) will definitely try and prop up its darling – a leader that looked like a child in line for a spanking just a week ago when he was raining rockets down on Ossetia.

But when Russian tanks are refusing to leave the area around Gori it is clear that what matters these days is how you spin everything. Politics, don’t we love them!

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This post was written by Victor Petroff

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