Author: Alisher Faizullaev

States have always had differences, and sometimes sharp disparities, in their interests, values, aspirations and perceptions of the truth. Propaganda is not a new thing in international politics. The same applies to information warfare – using disinformation, manipulation of information and information technologies to demoralize the enemy and win confrontation. Nowadays, not just governmental propaganda and the traditional media but also social media are involved in developing, defending and promoting political narratives of international actors and the assertion of ‘the true truth’. Both traditional (intergovernmental) and public diplomacy as well as the media played a role in building up Russian and Western contrasting narratives regarding the Crimean Crisis in 2014 . Ever since, Russian and Western narratives related to many fundamental and urgent issues of world politics turn to be increasingly confrontational.

No matter what stands behind powerful narratives, they are ‘real as long as they are believed to be so. Russia and the West trust each other less and less, and suspect the opposite side of manipulation and deception. In short, in the modern Russian-Western confrontation, we can see ‘a conflict between incommensurate worldviews’.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the West also had different political narratives and were not receptive to each other’s positions. However, then the determining factors were differences in their strategic interests and ideologies (communism vs capitalism). The current world is more globalized and integrated, countries have more interdependent economic and political interests and there are no such ideological barriers as they existed in the Cold War era. In the modern world, confrontation between Russia and the West has acquired a more moral substance. Based on their political morality, the parties claim that they are right and the other side is wrong in their assessments and approaches to the events in Crimea, Donbass, the U. S. election, Syria etc. . Trying to prove their case, the representatives of Russia and Western countries extensively refer to legal norms and international law, but often use them as elements of narration.

The present and growing differences between Russian and Western conflicting narratives are predominantly based on their political worldviews and understanding of right and wrong. That is why these are intractable differences. Many factors played a role in the origin of these disparities, including historical, cultural, economic, political, institutional, societal, etc. Perhaps, some accidental events also played a role in the emergence of the current situation. However, all kinds of incidents – intentional and unintentional – tend to be built into the chain of dominant narratives of actors and become complimentary parts of the actor’s worldview, or narrative structure. Narrative structure affects people’s thinking, perception, imagination and moral choices. Moral factors and moral differences appear as one of the fundamental causes of the growing gap between Russian and Western political narratives, and moral differences ‘exist when groups have incommensurate moral orders’. For example, Russia feels not only a legal but moral right to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the West is convinced that this regime is criminal and should end.

Can diplomacy help in finding some common ground? International diplomacy is involved in narrative building and practices, but the world needs to develop a more constructive narrative diplomacy and narrative negotiations in order not to be stymied. The world powers need to find some common explanation of world events and vision for the world. Since political narratives have become part of our reality and are shaping our perception of the world and our practices, we need to think about negotiating narratives and constructing some shared ideas and stories, which would help us to prevent further confrontation or global war. Negotiating narratives means, above all, understanding one’s own and other’s concerns, values and convictions; discovering and discussing fundamental stories, myths and beliefs of the parties involved, and finding out common and meaningful ideas and practices. This is not about negotiating agreements or joint statements but rather about negotiating meanings and creating a shared worldview. In short, it is a joint meaning-making process in conversation.

People and states are inclined to narratives, and political narratives are at the heart of international and domestic politics. States always produce their political narratives and deal with the narratives of other international actors. Narratives help actors to link events together, connect the past, present and future, and have a cohesive worldview . And people, organizations and states are getting used to stories they tell the world. While Russia and the West point fingers at each other,  it is important, of course, to get the facts, objective information and hear the opinion of experts. But that wouldn’t change the narratives and moral orders of the parties: they are too strong and have a huge impact on people’s perception of the reality. Moreover, narratives themselves provide a picture of reality, so they shape and construct the reality and our practices. In the current world, political narratives are developing so ‘comprehensively’ and with a variety of powerful tools, including the media and social media, and hardly any facts can essentially change them. There is a risk that any unsuitable fact will be rejected by a more convenient ‘fact’, and there will be no end to the war of words and evidences.

It is time to train specialists in deep and comprehensive analysis of political discourses and narratives, and in delivering messages for their governments and the international community. Countries currently do not have have a sufficient number of such experts and such practices in international diplomacy. Some may say that narratives in world politics do not arise from scratch, but reflect political, economic and strategic interests of international actors. Yes, indeed. But narratives equally affect our reality and real issues of international relations. Our worldview is woven from different practices and narratives. And by negotiating narratives, or trying to construct common and more adequate narratives, we can enter in new practices and make our world better and safer.

States can negotiate explicitly, and they can also be involved in tacit bargaining through various indirect means . Tacit bargaining happens when communication between actors are incomplete or impossible . In tacit bargaining, parties mainly ‘watch and interpret each other’s behavior, each aware that his own actions are being interpreted and anticipated’ . It is better to conduct narrative negotiations explicitly but not tacitly, and rely not just on the observer’s interpretation of the actor’s intentions and actions, but also directly listen to and discuss the actor’s explanation of his own behavior.

Narrative negotiations and transformations comprise listening to and understanding what others – even adversaries – say. It is important to understand any political worldview in historical, social, cultural and psychological contexts. That doesn’t mean that one needs to accept the opponent’s narratives, worldview and values, and be blind to propaganda and deception.  It simply means awareness, engagement, and dialogue. That is a practice of mindfulness which may affect understanding and building a political narrative.

Some may object: will this not create an opportunity for some international actors to manipulate expert and public opinions? Others may also say that by entering in narrative negotiations, the diplomats might be deceived and drawn into useless and endless conversations. Well, these risks exist even in ‘normal’ international encounters, diplomatic negotiations and consultations. But the science and art of narrative negotiations should include the skills of detecting and dealing with manipulations, tricks and deceptions, and also addressing the issues of concern. This means negotiators need to ask questions and understand each other’s most fundamental values that affect their narratives, and the logic behind their narrative construction.

The aim of diplomacy is to promote international understanding and peace, but as an instrument of foreign policy, diplomacy may resort to insults, particularly symbolic ones . In a heated informational environment of modern diplomacy, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the truth from the fake news. With the increase of conflicting political narratives, politicians, the public and diplomats from the opposed camps are less able to listen to and understand each other. Unfortunately, the modern international public space is filled with both open and concealed accusations and insults.

The power of one’s own convictions is such that it often prevents people, organizations, and states from delving into the narratives of the other parties. The simplest narrative logic says this: we are right (and we have the true evidence!), and you are not (and your evidence is fake!). Even the most notorious villains can think that they, and only they, are right. It is not enough to say that they are wrong in order to convince them or change their opinion. Even in case of wrongdoers and liars, we need, first of all, to understand them. It is important to listen carefully and understand their values, stories, the origin and development of their narratives, their logical and emotional aspects. It is just impossible to change a person, group or country without changing their fundamental beliefs.

Why does Russia say what it says? Why do Western countries say what they say? Because their stories are not built on an empty foundation, and their narratives are associated with their identities, needs, hopes, worries, values, interests, beliefs, and relationships, with their perception of the world and everyday lives. To change a story, we have to recognize and discuss it, but not ignore it. And we need to introduce new practices of creating new stories. To Russia: why not give the West the opportunity to fully explain its position and fears ? To the West: why shouldn’t Russia do the same, and explain in detail its position and worries on  issues? And to both Russia and the West: why not listen to the other side patiently and carefully? Not only at the United Nations Security Council and some other international fora, but widely – in the mainstream media, among diplomats and expert communities, and even ordinary people, without interruptions, obstruction, ridicule and aggression, but by asking questions. For example, by doing some joint work in a special workshop on interaction of Russian and Western political narratives.

This might not seem realistic. But it is time for Russia and the West to discover something in common and create narrative bridges. To do so they need, first of all, to find a common language to speak and listen to each other. Currently that is extremely difficult. But it must not be allowed to be even more difficult in the future. It makes little sense to tell the opposite side that it is wrong, if the other side thinks otherwise. Alas, the truth would be hardly accepted as the truth if it contradicts the actor’s convictions, worldview, and understanding of what is right and what is wrong, i.e. his or her moral order. Cognitive dissonance may happen at state level too, and states tend to keep their systems of beliefs consistent by resisting any information that threatens to destroy their integrity. It would be more effective to engage the other side in dialogue, and that may allow the parties to discover the truth more clearly by being involved in meaningful interactions.  


  1. Resurgent Russia
  2. Annexing Crimea
  3. Gaslighting the West over military action in Syria by denying Russia's activity
  4. Backing a dictator in a foreign war
  5. Stirring tensions between NATO and Turkey
  6. Poisoning dissidents on Russian soil
  7. Moscow's belligerence
  8. Severing Russia’s loose diplomatic ties to NATO
  9. Putting troops on international borders
  10. Spreading disinformation
  11. Going after political dissidents.
  12. Poisoning a Russian ex-spy on British soil
  13. Exploiting Europe's gas crisis to force through its Nord Stream pipeline project
  14. Increased repression
  15. Issuing threats regarding unspecified ‘red lines’ that Russia will not tolerate being crossed
  16. Berating the evil West
  17. Peddling bogus disinformation narratives
  18. Trumpeting the strength of the Russian armed forces
  19. Aggressive behavior towards neighboring countries, including Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine
  20. Malign activities against key competitors – most notably the US.
  21. Hostility towards international institutions – most obviously NATO, but also the EU, the European Court of Human Rights and the OPCW
  22. Disdain for international agreements and law.
  23. Aggressive spying or hacking operations with growing frequency
  24. Banning a number of high-ranking European officials, including the president of the European Parliament, as a response to sanctions levelled at Russia over human rights abuses
  25. No meeting of minds on democracy, human rights, good neighborly relations and international law.
  26. Arrest of lawyers, journalists and doctors just for performing their professional duties.
  27. Picking up people from their homes who take part in demonstrations after being identified by artificial intelligence face-recognition systems pioneered in China.
  28. No longer tolerating dissent 
  29. Not bound by conventional notions of truth and credibility

Top Russian Narratives about the EU

Russian television is Kremlin’s number one channel for communicating extremely negative information about the EU countries. Europeans are depicted as spineless, morally degraded and prone to aggressively attacking Russians with their faulty values. It is understood that Russians should rise up to defend themselves, their compatriots and supporters in Europe.

Not surprisingly, most European countries receive a very negative coverage on Russian TV.  90% of all negative news about Europeans can be classified in 6 primary narratives that, when combined, tell quite a grim story. The content of such messages is rather unoriginal and portrays dissoluteness and moral decay , for example, a “normalization” of sexual perversions and other vices it claims are common in Europe and the United States. Some of the most bizarre quotations include: «Pedophilia is common in all countries that follow American and European policies: Latin America, Canada, Australia…

In parallel with the idea of the «decay» of Europe and western powers in general, Russian propaganda is actively introducing the idea of Russia’s unique spirituality. By consciously pitting the fallen West against spiritually rich Russia, Kremlin suggests that there is a special mission called «Russian world.»

On Russian TV, it appears that Europe is in decay: migrants, terrorist attacks, horrible daily life and as a result  constant non-stop protests.

There is an emphasis in Russian news programs on dehumanizing the average European. He/She is depicted as a strange, depraved, unfair human being. Therefore, the European way of life comes as a threat to Russians and public opinion is fine-tuned to embrace the idea that Russia has the right to bring order to Europe in the name of self-preservation.

Six Primary Narratives


  1. “Horrors of Life”. The most widespread narrative in Russian news is about daily life in Europe. This narrative attempts to persuade Russian citizens that life in Europe is unstable, insecure and full of dangers, thus an average European’s safety is constantly under a threat. The majority of such news pieces are stories about natural and industrial disasters, accidents and crimes. The peculiarity of this narrative is that it is usually based on insignificant events, each shown as something large-scale or even common occurrence. At the same time there might be a lot of similar events in Russia, but they are not mentioned. The techniques of avoiding certain information and, especially direct foreign and domestic comparisons, are employed in order to spread the belief that Europe is very unstable, full of disasters and dangerous to live in. Eventually this creates a story of a hard, fragile and dangerous life in Europe with struggles on daily basis, and a conclusion that Europe “deserves it”. Even reports of “endless” natural disasters in Europe prompt Russian viewers to assume that Mother Nature does not like Europe: according to a social survey by Levada Center (January 2016), 70% of Russians avoid traveling abroad for security reasons. Local authorities in Europe are usually depicted as weak and unable to provide an adequate response to the challenges or using double standards to favor the rich and powerful. The same refers to the police and armed forces of the European countries: if they are mentioned, they are usually shown by Russian TV as weak and inefficient. This narrative predominantly concerns France (16%), Italy (13%), Germany (10%), United Kingdom (9%), and Spain (7%).
  2. The Decaying Europe”. Such wording was consciously chosen as a title for this narrative, because this exact phrase is extremely widespread in Russian media. The narrative is built mainly on affirmations about lack of unity and total decline of moral values in European countries, by using expressions such as “Europe is going to break apart”, “the EU is an artificial formation” and “European values do not exist”. Europeans are depicted as individuals with weak moral values: hypocrisy among political elites, neoNazism, pedophilia and incest are shown as if they were common, ordinary cases. It is also important to note that Russian media classifies LGBT rights and gender equality advocates as the same “problematic” Europeans who practice bestiality, pedophilia and incest. Russians, on the contrary, are positioned vis-a-vis the decadent Europeans as “bearers of spirituality and real values” and thus have to fight to preserve these values, sometimes aggressively, because the virus of the “The Decaying Europe” can erode and ruin Russia as well. The tools of the “The Decaying Europe” narrative are fanciful stories about “rewriting history” and “renaissance of fascism.” The former is usually applied to a number of countries of the former USSR – the Baltic countries, Ukraine and Poland. According to Russian TV, these countries try to wipe out a memory of common victories and “impose a myth” on young generations that the USSR was a horrible country. Kremlin’s TV channels persuade the audience that a triumph of far-right forces throughout Europe is a direct consequence of the “inability to learn lessons from history” and Russia in this situation has “a moral duty” to prevent the “renaissance of Nazism” and ensure order in Europe – even by force if necessary. Russia actively uses this narrative when talking about Ukraine and Europe. More than 70% of this narrative is built around the message that Europe falls apart and is full of internal conflicts in all domains: politics, economy, judicial and moral values. The idea for the united Europe, based on shared values, is depicted as unrealistic (Catalonia and Brexit are used as proof). According to Russian media, there are strong European countries that infringe upon other weak countries.
  3. Protests. According to Russian TV, there are strikes and protests happening every day in European countries: janitors, health workers, farmers, stewards, staff of the Eiffel Tower etc. demonstrate their disagreement with government’s policy. Inefficient and weak management leads to discontent, voices of the people are not heard and so they have to go to the streets to defend their rights. Moreover, there are plenty of deep-seated flaws in economy, national and security policies that leave an average European no choice but to protest. It is obvious that protests are not something extraordinary in a democratic country. They are one of the efficient tools of a dialogue with the authorities and are a characteristic of free speech – something that exists at the core of all democracies. In contrast, in Russia protests are portrayed as useless and as a sign of weakness. Protests in Russia usually lead to dozens or hundreds of protesters being taken into custody with little effect on public opinion regarding the protested issue.
  4.  Terrorism. All media worldwide cover terrorist attacks, but Russian media do it in a specific way by trying to create the impression that Europe is under constant attack. Sometimes, even crimes that had no terrorist motives, are shown as terrorist attacks. Such story is almost always accompanied by comments about the weakness of the police and security services. The tragedies are often depicted as a “pay-off”, a “punishment” of European countries for inadequate policies, their inability to cope with migration crisis and unwillingness to cooperate with Russia on different matters.
  5.  Refugee crisis is yet another of the top narratives used by the Russian media. The refugee crisis is interpreted as “a result of Europe’s own fault,” because Europe supported the US when the latter became involved in the war in Syria. The overall picture shown to the Russian audience is rather grim: thousands of hungry and dangerous immigrants are filling European towns day by day, pushing out the locals, committing crimes and terrorist attacks. “Indeed, the very first blow of the migration wave brought all the deep-seated contradictions inside the European Union to the surface.” This narrative is mainly associated with Germany and the EU. Additionally, Russian media blame Europe for its “hypocrisy”: that it inspired Syrian people to immigrate, but later realized that refugees were a burden. According to Russian media, the way refugees have been handled in the EU had created an unprecedented crisis – refugees are kept in horrible, inhumane conditions in the EU countries. “At a time when the European Union struggles to remain a space of freedom, security, and justice, dozens of people are settling down in the barracks where Nazis kept the Jews.”
  6. Sanctions imposed on Russia. Key message of this narrative is about sanctions imposed against Russia together with the Russian counter-sanctions and them hurting the EU so much that the growing amount of countries wish to remove them in order to survive. This narrative also puts blame on the US, specifying that it refuses to allow the EU to lift sanctions against Russia. It is stated as a common knowledge that the EU is inferior and is under the direct control of the US. The “Sanctions” narrative is used to highlight the strength of Russia. It is often supported by very dubious examples from history, all of them depicting Europe as a cruel power that tried to conquer Russia for centuries, but had always failed. Russians are also described as people who do not need European welfare, because they have a higher moral compass, which does not depend on economic factors. World War II is often used as an example of Russia’s superiority despite the technological advancement of Europe. A distinct feature of Russian news is that the viewer virtually never gets an unaltered fact about an event, but an interpretation, an already formed opinion. The opposing point of view on Russian talk shows is usually mocked or presented nominally. This function is performed by the same people who are regularly humiliated, ridiculed, and sometimes even beaten in the studio. The task of these people is to showcase the other side as stupid, unfair, ridiculous. With such background Russian mainstream narratives look more convincing, consistent and meaningful. General emphasis on top national channels has a consistently expressed emotional tone color – aggressiveness, contempt and preaching doom to Europeans.

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