Cécile Vaissié *: Can Russian Propaganda Deform the Picture of the World? A Look from France.


Is the Kremlin propaganda able to deform the image of the world, which was shaped in the West and, in the context of this report, in France? Certainly, and it began to do so already several decades ago. Or centuries. And today it uses some methods and arguments that were already used in Soviet times.

It also creates new techniques and arguments for new audiences, and, strangely enough, the West turns out to be not sufficiently prepared for this. However, in recent months, the European Union and the United States have started to realize the menace, and the information war conducted by the Kremlin is increasingly being condemned, including by top-level politicians. But, most important, the methods of fighting off this propaganda are being gradually created.

Old methods that are changed and instrumentalized.

Until recently, Ukraine did not exist, or almost did not exist, for most of the French, Europeans and, probably, Americans – except, sometimes, as a sort of Russian province. This was partly due to the confusion between the concepts of “Russian Empire”, “USSR” and “Russia”. One just needs to read General de Gaulle's speeches to take the measure of this confusion: he was talking only about Russia, as if the USSR did not exist at all. But it should also be noted that when Viktor Kravchenko sued a French Communist paper in Paris in 1949, Ukrainian Kravchenko invited many Ukrainians and Belarusians to witness, but called them "Russians" and his homeland "Russia"[1]. Since Ukraine did not exist politically, it almost did not exist in words, and therefore could not convince the French that it was not part of Russia and had the right to its territory.

Of course, this has changed greatly since 2004-2005, and even more since 2013-2014, these evolutions showing that Western ideas about Ukraine can change, if Ukraine itself creates the strong image of an independent country. Struggling during the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan for its right to choose its own way, Ukraine became number 1 news in international media and began to exist in the views of the French public. Its national symbols became known, and a positive image of Ukraine appeared: the image of a people able to fight for its convictions.

Nevertheless, this success is fragile and unfinished, since some French people continue to think that Ukraine, at least, the Crimea, is part of Russia. Their perception is based on ignorance, as well as on the imperial discourses that people close to the Kremlin are renewing and disseminating. Actually, the Kremlin uses many almost unchanged elements of the Stalinist discourse of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and this discourse had a real impact in France when the French Communist Party, financed by Moscow, was the largest party. Elements of this discourse are therefore still efficient in communist circles and in the circles of the ultra-left.

The main component of the re-actualized Stalinist discourse is as follows: the USSR/Putin's Russia wants peace, whereas the US and even the West in general are striving for war. That was said openly by Vladimir Putin in February, 2007 at the Security Forum in Munich. This is also what repeats the writer Nikolai Starikov, who is sometimes invited by a former French Communist teacher to give conferences in Paris. In Starikov's opinion, "the USA and Europe are to blame for the current crisis in Ukraine"[2], since "the West does not need peace, it needs war"[3].

This discourse about peace, invented by Stalinist propagandists immediately after the end of World War 2, is used almost unchanged by today's supporters of "Novorossia", including those in France. For instance, exhibitions were organized, as for the suffering Donbass children, but they aimed to accuse Kiev and the "fascist junta" of bombarding "the peaceful Donbass population". By the way, calling one’s enemies "fascists" is also from that time. As Konstantin Simonov wrote in his poem "Three Points" in 1948: "We are Communists, there is no secret about this. They are fascists, there is no secret about this". Now, Ukrainians are considered as enemies. Also, the present discourse of some members of the Vyborg Club about the alleged enslavement of Europe by the United States resembles Soviet speeches about the Marshall plan in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including the book by... Vanda Vasilevskaya In Paris and Outside Paris (1949).

As it turns out, some images of the world, some arguments and myths, created 70 years ago by the Kremlin, are activated today again. It does not mean that they are not destructible, but successfully combating them means realizing their origins and history.

What images/myths created by the Kremlin are efficient in France?

Other images and verbal constructions were invented to influence not the French, nostalgic for communism, but other segments of the population. The Kremlin propaganda argues, for instance, that today's Russia defends Christian and family values, in contrast to the West, where degrading morals are allegedly reigning ("Gayrope"!). These allegations are easily destroyed by reality – as demonstrated by a comparison between the benefits paid to mothers of many children in France and in Russia. Still, some of the right-wing French people, e.g. the electorate of François Fillon, like the myth on Russian moral supremacy. Therefore, they cannot be frightened by news about the ties between Putin and Fillon, as these French people think that the Russian president defends the same values as they do. The opening of a new church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris should be interpreted in this context. Mireille Mathieu was present at the consecration; Patriarch Cyril offered her an icon [4] and she was appointed "ambassador of the Russian language". Her presence demonstrates the desire of the Russian authorities to touch and impress ordinary French citizens.

Furthermore, Vladimir Putin is represented as a great leader who allegedly fights for his people, and this "strong man" image is readily accepted by some Western circles, while pro-Putin propaganda in France emphasizes, on the contrary, President Hollande’s unsportsmanlike look. In general, the Kremlin media in the West (Sputnik, RT, etc.) constantly criticize some Western leaders (including Obama, Hollande and Merkel), and this is favoured by people who, for various reasons, are unhappy with the current situation in their countries. Therefore, it was not surprising that in February, 2017 Emmanuel Macron, a candidate for the French presidential election, was accused in Sputnik of being allegedly backed by a "very wealthy gay lobby", and of being most likely gay himself [5].

Other elements in the Kremlin propaganda discourse concern the role of the United States and the European Union in the world. In the spirit of Stalinist discourse, the European Union is shown as enslaved by the United States, themselves presented as warmongers. In addition, Natalia Narochnitskaya, who pretends to be a sincere Christian, constantly criticizes the values of the EU, starting with human rights, which, in her opinion, are the "liberal new "communist manifesto" of apostasy in the 21st century" [6]. Natalia Narochnitskaya heads the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris, where she organizes various conferences to which she invites representatives of French political and military elites.

A very specific discourse is also being held about the countries of the former Soviet bloc and the former USSR. Colour revolutions are presented by the Kremlin propaganda not as an expression of the peoples’ desires, but as actions organized by the CIA/USA/EU/West, etc., as it is immediately apparent from the books and articles by Mikhail Leontiev [7], Sergei Kara-Murza [8] or Nikolai Starikov [9]. These authors are not known in France, but their positions are repeated and distributed by endless blogs and groups in social networks. Furthermore, in her books, Natalia Narochnitskaya defends Russia's right to control its "windows" on the Baltic and Black Sea [9], i.e., the Baltic States, Ukraine and Georgia. In her opinion, Eastern Europe countries have always been either in the orbit of Russia, or in the anti-Russian orbit [11]. There is no alternative.

This type of discourse denies, in fact, the role of society. But it is not far from some Western geopolitical theories that seemed very out-dated, but are quoted more and more: the theories of MacKinder, Spikman, even Karl Haushofer, the Nazi geopolitician. MacKinder’s and Spikman’s positions have much in common with the theses of Dugin, who was invited to Paris at the end of November, 2016 by his ultra-right friends and was to take part in a public discussion with Prilepin and a French slavist [12]. Dugin, finally, did not come, and his absence was known only at the last minute, but the meeting took place.

Therefore, the idea that Russia has the right to a zone of influence and that Ukraine belongs to this Russian zone of influence is still widely accepted in France, in both right-wing and left-wing circles.

Why do these myths persuade some French people?

Several reasons explain why these verbal constructions, sometimes very distant from reality, nevertheless have an impact in some segments of the French society. First, as we have seen, some interpretations have been circulated for many years in France, by Communists in particular, and they are repeated today by the Kremlin. Moreover, one must not underestimate the general ignorance, especially with regard to many specific features of present and past Russia. This ignorance is sometimes explained by differences in concepts and terminology. For instance, while the Kremlin is actively campaigning for the "Russian world," it is not easy to explain to French people that "Russians" and "Russian speakers" are not necessarily Russian citizens: in French, "ethnic Russians," and "Russian citizens," are translated by the same word. It is also difficult to explain to citizens of a Nation-State that one can be a Russian-speaker, without being a Russian citizen or an ethnic Russian, and that one can speak Russian in Ukraine, without being a supporter of Ukraine's inclusion into Russia.

The Kremlin verbal constructions convince especially those French people who are dissatisfied and worried about the present, and who consider the European Union to be the cause of their economic difficulties and of the weakening of their country's security. The Internet and social networks play an even more important role in shaping opinions. Being very much used by Western youth, they are key to forming certain attitudes to events and facts, and have become an environment widely infiltrated by "Kremlin trolls". On social networks flourishes the argument of the Kremlin propaganda being only an answer to Western propaganda and using the same methods. The Internet also spreads the idea, that all sources of information and opinions have the same value and deserve the same confidence, although the Kremlin "trolls" and some Internet media are particularly clever at creating “fake facts” ("post-facts") in the line of technologies that used to be taught at Soviet journalism faculties[13].

For these Internet media, facts are not supposed to matter anymore in comparison with myths and "story telling": a temporary paradigm shift is happening in the relation to reality. Conspiratorial theories develop in this critical period, not without the help of the Kremlin media, and they are very often found in groups and on pages supporting official Russian positions. In fact, the Kremlin propaganda widely uses Western shortcomings, weaknesses and gaps. Facing this, Ukraine does not always provide a sufficiently powerful response in the context where it lacks time and money. As for the Western countries, it is still difficult for them to understand the Kremlin’s psychology and processes. They, therefore, need explanations from the peoples who lived in the USSR or under the leadership of the USSR. This dialogue takes place, especially within the EU.

The recent realization in the West.

Anyway, the European Union has recently realized the danger of the information war unleashed by the Kremlin, as proven by the resolution adopted on 23 November, 2016 by the European Parliament. This text explicitly mentions the "war of disinformation and of Russian propaganda," this war being "an integral part of the modern hybrid war, that combines military and non-military, secret and open measures." The resolution also mentions the methods of this war and ways of resisting [14]. Besides, Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Group (ALDE), published in several major European media on January, 2017 an article calling to oppose the "hybrid war that Putin is waging against the West" [15].

In addition, high-ranking politicians now condemn openly the Kremlin attempts to interfere with Western elections. Jean Marc Ayrault, French Foreign Minister, reported on 19 February, 2017 about "an unacceptable [...] form of interference" into the French presidential election [16]. Chris Bryant, former British Minister for European Affairs, talked about Russia’s "direct participation" in the British elections, and added that also "high-level decisions affecting security of Britain were ‘compromised by Russian infiltration’."[17] MP Ben Bradshaw asked to investigate possible Russian interference in Brexit [18].

Before that, the German special services had warned of the Kremlin intentions to influence the German election campaign in 2017 [19]. According to the ex-president of Bulgaria, many indicators show that Russia finances anti-European parties and media in Bulgaria and other European countries [20]. Studies of the Kremlin interference actions were published in Hungary [21], the Czech Republic and Slovakia [22]. Last but not least, the CIA declared in December, 2016 that Russia interfered in the US elections [23], and that was confirmed by the FBI [24]. Since then, there has been more and more information on the links between Donald Trump and people close to the Kremlin.

The need to fight off the Kremlin cyber-attacks and media, and possible Russian interference, has been abruptly perceived and formulated. But, at the same time, the European Union is going through a crisis, which is not just financial, but is also a crisis of identity. Opposing the Kremlin propaganda requires money. Does the West have such budgets and "know how"? For the "know how", no: during the Soviet era, the methods of Western counter-propaganda were mostly addressing the population of the Soviet bloc, and not the West. As for the means, they will be found.

How to resist the Kremlin propaganda?

If one thinks about the Cold War period, when very strong Soviet propaganda was used against the West, it turns out that this propaganda was annihilated – not immediately, not quickly, and, unfortunately, not completely – by publications on facts proving the violent nature of the USSR. Especially, the invasion of Soviet troops in Budapest in 1956 and the invasion of the Warsaw Pact forces in Czechoslovakia in 1968 destroyed the faith of many Western intellectuals in a non-imperialist USSR. The publication of the Gulag Archipelago in 1974 put an end to the illusions of many "progressists" and to the prospects of the FCP (French Communist Party).

Therefore, the publication of reliable and proven facts is particularly important. On the contrary, every lie, every exaggeration will only strengthen "whataboutism": "everyone lies and none is better than another." Information should be developed at all levels: in diplomatic and economic circles, in European intellectual life and in relations between civil societies. Nikolai Starikov wrote in a book widely sold in Russia in 2014: "Ukraine is the very case when we can win there [...] with a pen better than with a sword" [25]. One must resist the Kremlin arguments both with a pen and with the help of media. Especially, since Russia, which uses all Ukrainian and Western gaps, also has huge problems: it is often an object of dreams and fantasies for Western people, but who, among them, really wants to live, study or even rest there?

It is also necessary to act. In the West and in Ukraine, we must all openly defend the European model and its values. Moreover, the recent history of Ukraine has proven that, in order to exist, including in the eyes of others, Ukraine needs to be active, put forward initiatives, and not just react to the actions of the Kremlin. It means solving real problems, fighting corruption, and not just some corrupt officials. The future of Ukraine depends on these efforts; and her image in the West does too.

And, since reforms can take some time, measures must be taken to withstand the propaganda disseminated by the Kremlin media and/or websites and pages that repeat this propaganda. In this context, the efforts of StopFake and InformNapalm collaborators are invaluable. In addition, the Task Force East STRATCOM team was established in 2015 as part of the European Union External Action Service: ten persons specializing in communication and speaking Russian monitor Russian disinformation with the help of 400 experts, journalists and EU officials [26]. Recently, the European Union has amended its budget for 2017 to further strengthen the STRATCOM team. [27]

Besides, sixteen French media, including AFP, Le Monde, Libération and Les Echos, together with the Google News Lab, launched on 27 February, 2017 CrossCheck, a method of information check focused on Russian disinformation [28]. Also eight French media, together with Facebook, have made a device that allows users to report information they think to be false and which will then be double-checked by media partners. Similar project exists in the United States, another is being created in Germany [29].


In the end, the truth will overcome lies, despite "post-facts" and "story telling": "God is not in power, but in truth!" Certainly, there is not enough time, but the time that is lacking now is the time that was not used before, in Ukraine and in the West, to analyze the risks and weaknesses, and to understand what had happened in the Soviet era. The struggle is carried on, and it is also taking place in Russia itself, where some particularly brave people resist the renewal of Soviet myths and the development of false and aggressive propaganda.

*About the author:

Cécile Vaissié, Professor at the Rennes University, France, author of the book Kremlin Nets in France (Les Réseaux du Kremlin en France).

The article was prepared on the basis of the address at the International Conference "The Civilizational War of Russia against Ukraine and the West: the Outlook and Information Dimension".


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2. СТАРИКОВ Николай, Украина. Хаос и революция – оружие доллара, Москва итд, Питер, 2014, p.72.

3. СТАРИКОВ Николай, Украина. Хаос и революция – оружие доллара, Москва итд, Питер, 2014, p.74.

4. See: http://www.mireillemathieu.com/patriarche-kirill-de-moscou/ .

5. «Ex-French Economy Minister Macron Could Be 'US Agent' Lobbying Banks' Interests », Sputnik International, 4 February, 2017, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201702041050340451-macron-us-agent-dhuicq/ .

6. НАРОЧНИЦКАЯ Наталия, Русский код развития, Москва, Книжный мир, 2013, p.17.

7. ЛЕОНТ’ЕВ Михаил, «Запад решил: России не быть », ЛЕОНТ’ЕВ Михаил (и другие), Грозит ли России «оранжевая» революция? , Москва, «Яуза», «ÈКСМО», 2005, p.38.

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10. НАРОЧНИЦКАЯ Наталия, Россия и Русские в современном мире, Москва, Алгоритм, 2010, p.114, p.135. НАРОЧНИЦКАЯ Наталия, Сосредоточение России. Битва за русский мир, Санкт-Петербург, Книжный мир, 2015, p.140.

11. НАРОЧНИЦКАЯ Наталия, Русский Мир, Санкт-Петербург, Алетейя, 2008, p.124.

12. «Russie: à l'Est du nouveau ? Le nouveau colloque d'Eléments», http://www.revue-elements.com/actualites-Russie--a-l-Est-du-nouveau--.html .

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14. «Résolution du Parlement européen du 23 novembre 2016 sur la communication stratégique de l’Union visant à contrer la propagande dirigée contre elle par des tiers (2016/2030(INI) )», http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P8-TA-2016-0441+0+DOC+XML+V0//FR .

15. VERHOFSTADT Guy, «Résistons à la guerre hybride que Poutine mène contre l’Occident», Le Monde, 2 January, 2017 г.

16. « Ayrault : "La France n'acceptera pas qu'on lui dicte ses choix" », Europe 1-le JDD, 19 February 2017, http://www.lejdd.fr/International/Ayrault-La-France-n-acceptera-pas-qu-on-lui-dicte-ses-choix-848534 .

17. FORSTER Katie, «Clear evidence Russia interfered in 2015 UK election, says former Labour minister», Independent, 21 February, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/chris-bryant-russia-interfered-uk-election-former-labour-minister-2015-vladimir-putin-cyber-attack-a7592226.html .

18. KANTER Jake, BIENKOV Adam, «UK officials now think Russia may have interfered with the Brexit vote», Business Insider, 23 February, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/labour-mp-ben-bradshaw-suspicious-russian-interference-brexit-2017-2?IR=T .

19. «War without blood », Zeit Online, 26 February, 2017, http://www.zeit.de/digital/internet/2017-02/bundestag-elections-fake-news-manipulation-russia-hacker-cyberwar .

20. «Президент Болгарии обвинил Россию в попытках разрушить Евросоюз изнутри», Риа Новости, 27 December, 2016,  https://ria.ru/world/20161227/1484689473.html .

21. HEGEDÜS Daniel, «The Kremlin’s Influence in Hungary. Are Russian Vested Interests Wearing Hungarian National Colors?», DGAPkompakt, N°8, February, 2016, https://dgap.org/en/article/getFullPDF/27609 .

22. SMOLEŇOVÁ Ivana, The Pro-Russian Disinformation Campaign in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Prague Security Service Institute, June, 2015, http://www.pssi.cz/download/docs/253_is-pro-russian-campaign.pdf .

23. ENTOUS Adam, NAKASHIMA Ellen, MILLER Greg, « Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House », The Washington Post, 9 December, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-orders-review-of-russian-hacking-during-presidential-campaign/2016/12/09/31d6b300-be2a-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html?utm_term=.6e6a6afbbc7b .

24. ENTOUS Adam, NAKASHIMA Ellen, «FBI in agreement with CIA that Russia aimed to help Trump win White House», The Washington Post, 16 December 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-blames-putins-personal-grud ge-against-her-for-election-interference/2016/12/16/12f36250-c3be-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.e9127629960e .

25. СТАРИКОВ Николай, Украина. Хаос и революция – оружие доллара, Москва итд, Питер, 2014, p.206.

26. LAMIGEON Vincent, ROCCO Anne-Marie, «Comme un air de guerre froide sur la présidentielle française», Challenge, 28 February, 2017, https://www.challenges.fr/magazine/comme-un-air-de-guerre-froide-sur-la-presidentielle-francaise_456595 . «Commentary: Means, goals and consequences of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign», Disinforeview, 19 January, 2017, https://euvsdisinfo.eu/commentary-means-goals-and-consequences-of-the-pro-kremlin-disinformation-campaign/ .

27. VERHOFSTADT Guy, «Résistons à la guerre hybride que Poutine mène contre l’Occident», Le Monde, 2 January, 2017

28. LAMIGEON Vincent, ROCCO Anne-Marie, «Comme un air de guerre froide sur la présidentielle française», Challenge, 28 February, 2017, https://www.challenges.fr/magazine/comme-un-air-de-guerre-froide-sur-la-presidentielle-francaise_456595 . « Lancement de CrossCheck: à l’approche des élections françaises, les rédactions s’associent pour lutter contre la désinformation », FirstDraftNews, 6 February, 2017, https://fr.firstdraftnews.com/lancement-de-crosscheck/ .

29. DELCAMBRE Alexis, «Huit médias français s’allient à Facebook contre les ‘’fake news’’», Le Monde, 6 February, 2017

05.04.2017 07:46:00