Moscow’s annexation of Crimea was a geopolitical earthquake with tremors extending as far as the information sector. In this new era of “hybrid warfare,” military capabilities and traditional manifestations of power merge seamlessly with intangible factors such as discourse.
Unlike traditional diplomacy, which is based on persuasion and credibility, the so-called “weaponization of information” is quintessentially postmodern, involving an endless volley of dialectic white noise designed to sow confusion. When truth is relegated to perspective, debate and reality-based discourse become anachronistic oddities.
To sustain this offensive, the budget for Russia’s RT channel has soared to over $300 million, with a further $103 million allocated to Rossiya Segodniya and Sputnik News. The latter has hubs in major capitals including Beijing and Washington DC; but its offices are especially concentrated in the “near abroad,” with the exception of Turkmenistan.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss the extent of Russia’s soft-power in Central Asia, its effectiveness, and its sustainability. Muhammad Tahir, the Turkmen Service director, moderated the discussion. He was joined by his colleague Bruce Pannier; and Casey Michel, a journalist and regular contributor at The Diplomat. Also joining were Ravshan Djeenbekov, a member of Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament; and myself, an intern at RFE/RL.
With ties extending into the 19th century and a recent history of nation-building experiments under Soviet authorities, Central Asia has an unshakeable legacy of Russian influence. Indeed, alone among the Soviet Socialist Republics, the “stans” overwhelmingly expressed support for the USSR in the 1991 referendum, with support hovering above 95 percent across the board.
Russia thus clearly has soft-power advantages over its neighbors, and the successor states have never strayed too far from their former patron. As Pannier notes Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the two most remittance dependent states in the world, with whole generations of laborers being exposed to the Russian language. Additionally, a substantial Russian community resides in the region, ensuring a sizeable audience for Russian media outlets.
Kazakhstan, with the largest Russian population in Central Asia, is also the largest consumer of Russian media. Indeed, most cable TV packages in the country include all the Russian channels. Russia also influences the country’s younger generations with an array of social networking sites, the most popular of which is “Moi Mir” with over three million registered users.
Crucially, the region’s media outlets fail to compete with their well-funded Russian counterparts. Michel addresses this point in relation to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where Sputnik News has used the lure of higher wages and slicker production to attract the most qualified journalists to promote the Kremlin’s narrative.
Although Russia’s media investments have been substantial, their worldwide effectiveness is modest. Michel references a Gallup Poll in which Russia’s international approval rating was shown to be the lowest in the world for the 8th consecutive year. These bleak statistics mark a “civilizational crisis” in which Russia finds itself increasingly isolated.
However, Central Asia appears to be the last frontier in which Russia’s narrative still holds. In the same poll, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all witnessed rising disapproval ratings for U.S. foreign policy since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine. Complimenting this was the fact that all three posted the highest approval ratings for Moscow. In addition, Kazakhstan is now tied with Ethiopia in the stakes for steepest drop in U.S. leadership approval ratings, followed closely by Tajikistan.
With such a marked effectiveness for Russian disinformation campaigns in Central Asia, cynicism is perhaps a reasonable response. Complemented by calls for a Western “spin-machine.” But Michel provides the most hopeful message: “Check your facts, check your sources, and then present it in an unbiased manner. Russian media does not, and that is to the Russian media’s eventual detriment.” Like the Orwellian quip, in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
You can listen to the full discussion here.
Bradley Jardine is a Central Asia researcher and writer currently interning with RFE/RL.