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Pollster: Russia Winning 'Information War' in Former Soviet States

FILE - Colonel Sergei Storozhenko, commander of the military unit in the village of Perevalnoye, Crimea, talks to the media outside Simferopol, March 6, 2014, the day that Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia.
FILE - Colonel Sergei Storozhenko, commander of the military unit in the village of Perevalnoye, Crimea, talks to the media outside Simferopol, March 6, 2014, the day that Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia.

Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and its subsequent support for armed separatists in the eastern part of the country, has been accompanied by a major Russian information campaign in support of those actions.

That campaign has targeted not only Russia's domestic audience but also audiences in neighboring states that receive Russian media and, because of having once been part of the Soviet Union, are home to a significant number of Russian-language speakers.

A group of experts held a conference Thursday in Washington to assess whether Russia is winning the battle for influence in neighboring countries. One of those experts, from a leading polling organization, stated unequivocally that it is.

The conference, "Assessing Russia's Influence in Its Periphery: Is Russia Really Winning an Information War?" was organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent U.S. government agency that oversees all government-supported U.S. civilian international media, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and by Gallup, the international polling and management consulting organization.

Presentations at the conference were based on what the organizers described as "the latest media consumption and attitudinal findings from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova," along with Gallup 2014 World Poll data from 12 countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.

The 2014 Gallup World Poll found that "a vast majority" of people in 12 countries that were part of the Soviet Union were following the news about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea very closely during the conflict in 2014, with more people considering Russian media as a more reliable source than Western media. Majorities of the respondents in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Armenia and Uzbekistan deemed Russian media "reliable" for news about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.

Warning to West

Gallup found that majorities in most of the former Soviet states supported Crimea becoming part of Russia, and that respondents who used Western media in addition to Russian media were even more likely to support Crimea becoming part of Russia than those who only used Russian media.

Neli Esipova, Gallup's director of research for global migration and the Gallup World Poll's regional director for 29 Eastern European and former Soviet countries, said at Thursday's conference that those 2014 Gallup World Poll respondents in the 12 former Soviet states who lived in urban areas and were better educated tended to be more supportive of Russia's policy in regard to Crimea.

"If the West wants to participate in forming the opinion of people in this region, it will clearly need to makes some changes in its communications strategy," Esipova said. "And those changes have to be made not only in the content, but in the tone of how people present information, how the West presents information. The uniqueness of this region is that people in this region have very strong ties to Russia, and the Russian media knows its audience, and knows how to appeal to it."

Esipova concluded: "In this round of the information war, the Russian media have won."

Another conference participant, Jeffrey Trimble, deputy director of the BBG's International Broadcasting Bureau, said the West must formulate a response to the enhanced media capabilities of both authoritarian states and terrorist organizations.

"The 21st century is seeing a new intensity and scale of media manipulation, psychological warfare and disinformation," he said. "The increasingly sophisticated use of media by authoritarian regimes, the advances in information war by Russia, China, ISIS, are throwing up new challenges, from technical questions about the power of social media through to deeply philosophical issues about the nature of truth and reality."