Vladimir Putin all but conceded defeat last week in Russia’s war with Georgia, acknowledging that Russia had been whipped by Georgia’s better-prepared high-tech forces.
Really, he did.
In traditional military terms, Russia won that war easily, rolling over the Georgian army and seizing territory.
But as Putin now realizes, his country has come out of the war far more damaged than Georgia did.
That’s because it got outfought on the battlefield on which most modern wars are now decided, in the media.
“I am surprised at how powerful the propaganda machine of the so-called West is,” Putin admitted, calling it “awesome” and “amazing.”
More specifically, Putin said he had been struck by the media’s silence when Georgia’s military started the war by trying to retake two rebellious provinces by force.
There was “absolute silence, as if nothing was happening, as if this was commanded,” he said. “I congratulate you. I congratulate those who were involved in this.”
Russia’s defeat in the information war has cost it considerably. Its global strategic situation has declined, its enemies are more firmly united, its friends aren’t quite so friendly and its economy has suffered.
Up to $35 billion in foreign capital has fled Russia since the war, which in turn has sent Russia’s stock market spiraling.
The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon offers another example of the media as the deciding battlefield.
By traditional standards, the war was an overwhelming Israeli victory. The Israeli Defense Force moved deep into Lebanon, inflicting many more casualties on Hezbollah than it took in return and destroying civilian and military infrastructure.
But as even Israeli officials acknowledge, they lost the war.
International opinion swung so hard against them that they were forced to abandon the fight before achieving their goals, leaving Hezbollah to claim victory.
In the Georgia-Russia war, public-relations and public-diplomacy experts marvel at the preparation and effectiveness of Georgia’s media “blitzkrieg.”
As soon as Russia counterattacked with tanks and troops, Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili went on the media offensive, logging five hours of airtime on global news stations in just a few days.
Journalists around the world were flooded with e-mails explaining Georgia’s situation, and pro-Georgian Web sites were advertised in major newspapers.
Darren Spinck, a principal with Global Strategic Communications Group, points out that Georgia even reached into “new media.”
“One Facebook group, ‘Stop Russian Aggression against Georgia,’ has 22,000 subscribers, more than the registered subscribers for both the Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin groups,” writes Spinck. “Many of these young and educated Facebook subscribers supporting Georgia have turned the blogosphere against Russia, whipping up Russophobic sentiments not seen in such abundance since the Cold War.”
“It seems to me that the price Russia will pay for its minuscule territorial gains will be global and long-lasting,” writes Ira Strauss, the U.S. coordinator on NATO’s Committee on Russia. “And this has nothing to do with media bias; it is the bitter reality of a logical and unavoidable consequence of what was done.”
There are lessons in Russia’s experience for U.S. policymakers and citizens, lessons involving the limits of pure military power and the importance of what might be called a nation’s “brand.”
“Countries … lucky or virtuous enough to have acquired a positive reputation find that everything they or their citizens wish to do on the global stage is easier,” according to Simon Anholt, a British expert on the marketing of nations.
“Their brand goes before them like a calling card that opens doors, creates trust and respect.
“The only sort of government that can afford to ignore the impact of its national reputation is one that has no interest in participating in the global community,” he says.
And these days, not even insular Russia fits that bill.