Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Who, us? Russia is gaslighting the world on the Skripal poisonings

No evidence will ever be satisfying enough for Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, to publicly admit the blame during her weekly press briefing.’ Photograph: Artyom Geodakyan/TASS

From Wikipedia.

“Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.”

This is one of the many tools that Russia uses to counter claims that cause Russia’s reputation harm.  Russia always leads off with deny, deny, deny, but gaslighting is an integral part of their repertoire. This is why Russia always offers alternative theories, conspiracy theories, and wild accusations. 

Notice the caption to the picture from The Guardian/TASS, which infers Maria Zakharova can never be satisfied.  I guess it’s a joke at her expense.

Pink is not her color.

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From state television to the Russian embassy in London, indignation, mockery and flat-out denial is the order of the day

Russia’s reaction to Yulia Skripal’s bombshell Reuters interview has been boringly predictable. State officials, TV hosts, loyalists reporters, a host of experts and, of course, online trolls scrambled to cast doubt on Skripal’s statement.

She couldn’t have known the meaning of “invasive therapy”, she’s a geographist by education. Why didn’t she conceal that hideous tracheostomy scar under a scarf or something? Why did she have to flaunt it like that? Why was her delivery so laboured and unnatural? She kept looking sideways and pursing her lips! Any physiognomist could see that!

She looks like a schoolgirl reciting a poem, one expert chimed in. No, her entire statement looks like an Isis hostage video, said another. Her chaotic lettering betrays an easily led personality, a handwriting expert told the Russian defence ministry’s TV channel.

And anyway, everyone agrees, her speech was full of awkward turns of phrase, which clearly indicates that Skripal was reading from someone else’s crib sheet. And it was obviously written by a native English speaker and then translated – badly – into Russian (the Russian embassy’s infamously waspish Twitter account mocked MI5’s scarcity of well-paid Russia experts). What Russian could have possibly said “back home to my country” instead of just “back to Russia”?

A team of silver-tongued tricksters, who go by the names of Lexus and Vovan, phoned the UK’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and tricked him into thinking that he was speaking to the Armenian prime minister. Russian state media made sure that this story dominated the headlines of the day.

Mockery is an important part of this narrative. Latching on to Theresa May’s statement about Russia’s “highly likely” involvement in the Skripals’ poisoning, the same TV networks and trolls have spun a whole comedy sub-narrative, turning it into a hashtag and even a (still-born) programme to encourage Russian students in the UK to return home. The gist of this counter-argument is that Russia will not accept even a hint of ambivalence in evidence against itself – and no evidence will ever be satisfying enough for Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, to publicly admit the blame during her weekly press briefing.

While it’s tempting to classify all this as some manifestation of the Russian state’s dark arts – “weaponised fake news” or a centrally ordered disinformation campaign – the reality on the ground is rather more mundane and, frankly, desperate. If we are to believe one of the versions of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s poisoning – that it was the work of a rogue agent – Russia could help with the investigation. But that would require accepting at least a portion of the blame, which just never happens in Russia. Blame means weakness, and no Russian official is prepared to show even a trace of that, especially not in front of their own team. So bluster is the only way, even if it clearly leads to a dead end.

The Skripal situation is a depressingly predictable stalemate: the more western leaders and the media press for answers, the less Russian representatives are prepared to give any and will only lash out, even if it means further sanctions and isolation. But, as one government official told me: “If you want to get something from them, don’t always shave against the grain. Sometimes a little flattery can go a long way with these people.”

 Alexey Kovalev is a Russian journalist


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