MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia easily won its brief war with Georgia, but despite a media blitz to project its side of the story, it concedes it still has a way to go to win the propaganda battle.
Facing an international outcry, the Kremlin finally weighed into the war of spin, granting a flurry of interviews with President Dmitry Medvedev to foreign media about Moscow’s gamble in the Caucasus.
Until then Medvedev, who has steered Russia towards the biggest dispute with the West since the Cold War, had not given a single interview to foreign media since the crisis began.
That was in contrast to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who used dozens of interviews with Western media to compare Russia’s actions in his country to the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe.
“Russia completely lost the information war in the first few days,” said one prominent Russian journalist who asked not to be named.
“Then they realized the mistake and hit back — they rolled out the general staff and then these interviews by Medvedev,” the journalist said. “They have done better than they used to, but they have a very long way to go.”
Medvedev on Tuesday gave, in short order, interviews to CNN, the BBC, TF1, Al Jazeera and Russia Today, a Russian state-controlled English language channel. He also wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times that appeared on Wednesday morning.
Powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continued the blitz on Thursday, giving a robust interview to CNN, in which he accused U.S. officials of provoking the whole conflict.
Observers say the Kremlin, which is being advised by New York-based public relations giant Omnicom Group, launched the unprecedented media access in an attempt to stem the tide of negative coverage of the conflict.
Russian officials complain the Western media has skewed coverage of the conflict — sparked when Georgian forces on Aug 7-8 tried to retake South Ossetia — because Georgia is a U.S. ally which aspires to membership of NATO and the EU.
Investors had hoped that Medvedev — a computer savvy former corporate lawyer — would lead a re-branding of Russia after the eight-year rule of Putin, a former KGB spy.
But with Moscow facing isolation over its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, some observers said the Kremlin was too slow to explain its actions.
“Yes, naturally, certain conclusions will be made from this situation,” a Kremlin source told Reuters. “Practice has shown that a confrontation in such situations is not limited to armed conflict and diplomatic battles but is carried through into the communications sphere.
“Unlike the Georgian side, which has been praised by some for ‘a successful information campaign’, Russia had not prepared for this war and was concerned above all not with the polemics of Saakashvili, but with the defence of its citizens.”
Putin told CNN that the United States had been much better at managing media coverage of the conflict than Russia. “We have got a lot to learn,” he said.
On the evidence of the past few days however Russia has still failed to win the hearts and minds of even its close allies in the old Soviet Union.
One Russian newspaper reporter who covered the conflict in South Ossetia said Russian troops refused access to some foreign media and even demanded reporters carry Russian Foreign Ministry accreditation inside Georgia proper.
That contrasted sharply to the efforts of Georgia, whose 40-year-old president has courted the international media with his fiery rhetoric. Senior Georgian officials were available on mobile telephones to give comments on breaking developments.
As the crisis unfolded, Saakashvili held late night briefings for reporters on top of scores of joint news conferences with world leaders, though he has given fewer interviews over recent days.
Russia’s case was made by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a deputy head of the Russian general staff.
Nogovitsyn, a stern-faced former combat pilot with a wry sense of humor, became Russia’s main spokesman in the conflict by running a daily briefing for reporters in Moscow.
He pulled few punches in his briefings, warning the United States that its warships were upping tension in the Black Sea and quipping that he was sure the Pentagon was concerned about several Humvee vehicles Russia had seized inside Georgia.
“In this information war we still have much to do, we have already spoken about this and we have received some very serious experience in the current situation,” Nogovitsyn told Reuters.
“Perhaps we did not fully appreciate the importance of the information bloc before,” he said.
Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin; Editing by Jon Boyle and Richard Balmforth