Information war as most people understand it — the use of propaganda to persuade people that a certain cause is right — does not actually exist in Russia.
The Russian doctrine of information war is not concerned with ideology. It is a way for the state to confuse, dismay, delay and divide. Ideas are of interest in so far as they serve a tactical purpose.
The Kremlin’s post-2012 conservative stance, which has created an environment whereby TV hosts call on citizens to “burn the hearts of gay men,” is a case in point.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was probably telling the truth when he told a TV interviewer he had no problem with homosexuals. His administration is said to contain several, and some key members of the media elite are themselves discreetly gay. Being openly gay in macho Russia has never been particularly pleasant (think of attitudes to “fags” and “benders” in the UK and US in the 1970s), but gay-bashing was never a top topic and was based more on boorishness and ignorance rather than any religious position. As anyone who has ever lived in Russia knows, social culture there is hedonistic and, if anything, somewhat libertine; rates for abortion, divorce and children born out of wedlock are high. Church attendance is low. The US Bible belt it certainly isn’t.
To understand why marginalizing gay people work for Putin it’s worth going back to the beginning of the campaign. In 2011-2012, Putin faced a mounting wave of protests focusing on bad governance and corruption among the elites. He desperately needed to change the agenda and refocus national anger elsewhere. The opposition rock group Pussy Riot’s controversial “punk prayer” in Moscow’s central cathedral came as a Godsend to the Kremlin, allowing it to shift the national conversation away from corruption to its own definition of values. On TV, Jerry Springer-like shows ranted about witches, God, Satan and anal sex. Europe, which had been used by Putin’s opposition as a cypher for the rule of law and transparency, was now labeled “Gayropa.” Putin has managed to transform the struggle in Ukraine from a battle against corrupt kleptocracies into a clash of civilizations.
Domestically the ploy only half worked. Though the Kremlin managed to change the agenda, Putin’s ratings kept on falling (it would take military victory in Crimea to boost them). Internationally, however, it has been far more successful. Unlike in Russia there really are powerful, ideologically driven anti-LGBT movements in the US and Europe, and these groups now see Putin as an ally and help undermine the Western coalition against the Kremlin’s belligerent foreign policy. The idea that Russia is a genuine defender of conservative moral values, and that these values have some sort of geopolitical expression, helps bolster Putin’s status and feeds into the idea Russia has some sort of inherent zone of influence, that countries such as Ukraine are part of its “civilizational block,” and are destined to be in the Kremlin’s orbit. Putin has managed to transform the struggle in Ukraine from a battle against corrupt kleptocracies into a clash of civilizations.
In practice, of course, Russia is economically intertwined with the West. Russian TV is an odd hybrid: “Gayropa” rants by Kremlin hosts such as Dmitry Kyselev are followed by ads for Western brands and Russian franchises of Western TV formats, and these all represent potential pressure points for LGBT rights campaigners.
As this hybridity suggests, the increased frequency with which anti-gay messages crop up in Russian media is not due to an inherent culture, values, or ideology. When Western liberal intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy describe the war in Ukraine as a fight between “conservative” Russia and “liberal Europe,” they would do well to remember that they are in fact walking right into the Kremlin’s narrative trap.