Western powers are getting set to counter an expertly crafted Russian disinformation campaign over Ukraine which has left them wrong-footed too many times for comfort. The aim is to win the daily battle for the news headlines, to get the EU and Nato story out to show that Russia's message falls well short of the truth.
"In Russia, the EU is described as though it is a conspiracy of homosexuals the old myths of the Cold War are back," Robert Pszczel, spokesman in Moscow for Nato, told AFP. "Propaganda is so pervasive. About 90 percent of Russians get news from national television and the segment of Russians who are critical don't watch the news at all," Pszczel said.
"It is a relentless narrative which portrays the outside world as basically a threat to Russia." Russia's annexation last year of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula as Kiev pledged its future to the European Union has plunged relations with Moscow into deep freeze, with no sign of any improvement soon.
It also jolted the 28-nation bloc and the US-led Nato military alliance out of their post-Cold War complacency, showing they needed to come to terms with a much more assertive Russia led by a no-holds barred President Vladimir Putin. A key part of that Russian effort is a sophisticated propaganda machine which, analysts and Western officials say, tries to cast doubts on Western "mainstream media" and even seeks to undermine the very idea of objective truth itself. In early April, several Russian television channels carried reports about a young girl they said had been killed by Ukrainian artillery fire, violating a tenuous truce accord.
The BBC investigated the story but could not track it down and find the girl's body until a Russian journalist finally admitted that she had "never existed." Then there are the Russian "trolls" who plant stories on social media casting Moscow in a favourable light while the authorities in Kiev are "fascists" and Western leaders ridiculous, figures to be mocked.
Modern technology means there are no boundaries and such stories are easily accessed by EU citizens, including Russian speakers in the Baltic states who were once ruled as Soviet satellites from Moscow and are now among the most suspicious of Putin's intentions.
The Lithuanian government banned Russian TV station RTR Planeta for "inciting disorder, aggressive behaviour and carrying tendentious information." EU leaders will discuss an action plan at their June summit designed "to counter the disinformation campaign waged by Russia" but there are fears that a shortage of resources will leave the bloc at a serious disadvantage. "What is clear is that we do not have the same means as the Russians," said an EU diplomatic source, but the aim has to be to follow Moscow's news output more closely so as to respond much quicker and, if possible, in Russian.
"It is not about counter-propaganda, it is meant to state more clearly certain facts and truths," one EU official said. Nato may provide the model, with its Brussels press centre of some 20 staff on the watch constantly. Alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu tries to set the record straight via emails, tweets and the alliance website over what she sees as inaccurate and misleading Russian news stories. But there are limits to what can be done. "It would take up too much time and energy to deal with each and every lie so we try to deal with the basic myths and with the big lies," Lungescu told AFP.
There are also dangers, especially of going too far which could play into Russia's hands, said Nick Cull, at the University of South Carolina, stressing the need for restraint. "The worst thing the West could do right now is fall into the role scripted for them by the Kremlin's spin-doctors of Russophobes who disrespect Russian and Orthodox (church) culture and history and have no interest in a shared future," Cull said.