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In conversation with Mark Laity

Former BBC Defence Correspondent discusses the role of disinformation in the Russo-Ukrainian War

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Image Credit: SHAPE NATO via Flickr

Last week, Nouse conducted an interview with Mark Laity, the former BBC Defence Correspondent, NATO spokesman and York and Nouse alumnus. With an illustrious career spanning the globe, Laity answered questions about a range of issues relating to the conflict in Ukraine, specifically the rise of disinformation seen during the crisis.

I began by asking Laity why he feels resurgent Russian nationalism has continued so strongly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He answered that “what Russia is doing is part of a continuum…[the Kremlin] has never come to terms with their past or the end of the Cold War”. He emphasised the strong sense of Russian exceptionalism emanating from the Kremlin, stating that “Russia is a failed state in many respects, so the people cling onto things of greatness”.

Given his emphasis on exceptionalism, I wanted to understand what narratives have been used by the Kremlin to rationalise their aggression. Laity firstly refuted Russian arguments around rapid NATO expansion, saying “I was working for NATO during these key periods and this was not a big deal when I was there”. He also described how Russians have bought into this sense of exceptionalism, so “when Putin issues this bollocks of Ukraine not being a proper country, they want to believe it. It’s very much easier to believe it than not”.

I probed how Putin has achieved this tight grip on the beliefs of the Russian people, with Laity outlining the ‘information bubble’ of Kremlin media control where Russians face physical threats if they query the regime. “The Russian sense of exceptionalism is peculiarly toxic, in the sense that it’s a very violent exceptionalism which is quite different to other exceptionalisms. With specific reference to propaganda, “if you’re against it, you shut up”.

Following his response, I was curious as to how Putin has created such a credulous population. He explained how “Russia is an insular nation anyway. If you travel fifty kilometres outside of Moscow, it’s like going back a century. A lot of Russia is very backwards, underdeveloped and easy to fool”.

I asked whether the situation is any different with the younger generation, particularly with the rise of social media which sparked the Navalny protests starting in January 2021. He said “the younger generation are of course different, but are they different enough?”. While he admitted that technology challenges the information bubble, “you’ve got to also get into the minds of people, the minds of people who believe in Russian exceptionalism and that Russia is threatened”. In terms of getting material into Russia, “it would be very, very hard to penetrate”.

More broadly, I asked Laity how important Russian propaganda really was for Putin. “Hugely important” he replied, “any country which is on an adventure has got a centre of gravity which is always the support of your population…Putin doesn’t necessarily need their support, but he definitely needs their passivity”.

Drawing this together, he explained how “the combination of narratives, threats, coercion and playing into historical resonance while excluding the outside generates a passive population. No country would want to believe its soldiers are doing what Russian soldiers are doing”.

Shifting the focus away from Russia here, I discussed the recent ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ story where one Ukrainian fighter pilot had supposedly downed forty Russian aircraft, before the Ukrainian defence ministry debunked the story. I asked whether Ukraine is using misinformation, potentially to boost morale. “In general, no” he replied, but “what lies behind it is credibility and one of the ways you gain credibility is to admit bad news”.

Laity amusingly referred to an analogy of throwing mud at a wall, whereby a shiny wall stops it from sticking. “The issue is not countering disinformation, but instead making your wall shiny through strong stories, strong resilience and strong narratives”. He pointed to the strong national narrative and cohesion in Ukraine which encourages citizens to immediately disbelieve, comparing this to the US where conspiracy theories have caught on in recent years.

I wished to conclude the interview with a question around the China and Taiwan conflict, namely whether internal propaganda in China could see the conflict develop in years to come. Laity described how “China has a very passive population similar to Russia and has narratives around Taiwan which the bulk of the Chinese people will believe”. Despite this, he explained how Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has broken the narrative that the West had shot its bolt. “There is no better way to unite us than to have clarity around the threat. China will definitely have had to revise how easily it could get away with it. In the end China is doing ok, why would it want to upset the apple cart?”.

Laity continued on a more optimistic note around how proper conscription and reserved duty in Taiwan, as has been seen in Ukraine, would make it incredibly difficult for China to defeat. “Weakness is provocation. China needs to understand the price when Taiwan can mobilise a decent-sized population to make itself incredibly difficult to defeat. That's a powerful deterrent".

This interview was conducted on Wednesday 4 May 2022.

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