Psychological warfare is, by definition, a good thing. It is a weapon that wins wars, without large numbers of people being killed. It is the victory of the intellect over brute force. Winning hearts and minds means that one does not have to win battles.
In another life, when I was a student, I spent a lot of time learning about such unorthodox subjects. My degree was in history, but somehow I ended up as a specialist in very contemporary politics and covert activities. When I sat my exams, I wrote about things that had happened only a few days earlier in Beirut. I then went off to the happy-go-lucky world of motorsport, but I did not forget what I learned about psychological warfare. The key to success in psyops is perception. Perception is reality, because while the truth is important, what is more important is what people believe the truth to be. Ironically, the most effective propaganda is the truth, because it cannot be disproved. It can be attacked and the people delivering the message can be undermined, but if a story is right and credible, the message is more easily accepted.
The other key point about propaganda is that it must be used both at home and abroad. If your own people do not support what you are doing, a war will ultimately be lost. The enemy will try to undermine you, and so you, in turn, must try to undermine them.
It is really not that different from brand building and political spin-doctoring. A spin doctor is a psyops officer without the uniform and a brand agency could be a propaganda unit tomorrow. The goal is to sell a message. This has become rather more difficult in the modern era because the Internet is a mess and there is much clutter that gets in the way of delivering messages. Information, right or wrong, is travelling faster. Social media played a major part in mobilising, informing and influencing public opinion during the Arab Spring. There was much disinformation (deliberately untrue stories) and a wide variety of fake or doctored photography. Who do you believe? It is all about the credibility of sources. People trust sources that have not failed them in the past. Good information is power.
Bernie Ecclestone has some unusual opinions, but this does not mean that he is right and saying that he believes “Vladimir Putin should be running Europe”, that he sees no economic benefit from the European Union and that women cannot drive F1 cars is counter-productive when one looks at the aims of the Formula One group and the sport itself. We have established, beyond reasonable doubt, that the primary goal of the Formula One group is to make money for its investors. They do not care about the sport. They just want to maximise revenues. Russia is one country in a calendar of 21 and, whether people like it or not, in the majority of these other countries, Putin is not seen as a good guy. Much of the world believes the Russian leader to be a dangerous threat, who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals and has ambitions to rebuild some kind of Soviet-scale power. Thus F1 is doing itself no favours by being linked with Russia in any active sense. F1, as a whole, wants to be in the Russian market. They want Russian people to buy their products and they want the Russians to watch F1 on television. In a perfect world, they would probably like to see the Russians more prosperous because people with money buy more things, and are less radical in their politics.
Putin works hard to have the Russian population see him as the strong man who is keeping Russia strong and giving it a presence in the world. He has carefully nurtured an image for himself as a manly kind of man, on the basis that this will be appreciated by the people. But Russians are not fools and they look at politicians as we look at our leaders. At the moment, so they say, the television is winning the battle with the refrigerator. Putin is still very popular, but if the fridge has nothing in it, eventually his popularity will erode and people will start asking questions. For now, he attacks the Western media when it is required and tries to create confusion about any facts that do not serve his purpose. Blaming foreigners is the oldest trick in the book, although one can also blame minorities, particularly successful immigrants. State-run television and other Russian media blame the West for Russia’s economic situation, while in the West some trace the country’s economic ills to a time before sanctions and low oil prices and say that investment started to dry up in 2012 when Putin announced that he would standing for the presidency again. Russia’s constitution prohibits a person from serving more than two presidential terms in a row, but sets no limit on non-consecutive terms. Putin served two terms, between 2000 to 2008, and then stepped down to become Prime Minister, leaving the role of President to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev. The length of each presidential term was increased from four years to six and so Putin could be re-elected and serve until 2024.
Putin was confident enough once he was back in power to embark on the low-risk strategy of taking over Crimea. It made him look strong and made Russia feel like it was a global player again. The Formula 1 race is part of that same strategy. The Crimean occupation was Bad Guy 101. Special forces were sent in to “assist” pro-Moscow activists in order to take over Crimea’s parliament and government. It was all very deniable, even if the Internet was filled with evidence that Putin was staging the whole thing. Moscow then justified attacks in Ukraine by saying it was defending Russian citizens and Russian speakers with ethnic ties to the country.
The West recognised what was happening and reacted to it. Countries around Russia are worried. They believe that they are under threat. Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have all raised their military spending in the course of the last year, Poland by an impressive 18 percent. Russia is once again seen as a threat, which it has not been since the days of the Cold War. Russia uses the lame argument that this military build-up is unjustified and a threat from the West.
Who do we believe? How do we judge what is right and what is wrong?
We must use our brains. No Russian has yet explained to me why NATO countries would want to invade Russia. They all have far too much to do at home to be worrying about expanding. Germany has spent years pouring money into the old East Germany to such an extent that this has held back its own economic development. It is just not intelligent to think that it make sense to invade the east. In history only power-crazed lunatics have done that – and they have lost. And remember, we did not invade a few years back when Russia was unable to defend itself. All that happened was that Western companies rushed in to Russia to try to make money. That did not work very well for most of them.
The Russian population turned to Putin only when they realised things were not working out and they began to yearn for the stability of the old Soviet days, when they felt more secure and less threatened. They might like for the prosperity and freedoms of the West, but they did not want to be in a free market because that meant being competitive.
You can argue that I am wrong and I am sure that some will say that I should stick to motorsport etc etc etc. That’s fine, I don’t need to be right. It is what I believe, based on the evidence put before me. It is my opinion and if you wish to share that’s fine. If not you can have your own opinion and that’s fine too.
The one point which is important, however, is that I believe that F1 is best without too close an association with Putin.
Having said that, Bernie Ecclestone’s seal of approval is not necessarily a good thing. Not all publicity is good publicity and over time Mr E has created an image of having quirky and controversial views. The response of a spokesman of the board of Deputies of British Jews summed up this up rather well back in 2009.
“Mr Ecclestone’s comments regarding Hitler, female, black and Jewish racing drivers are quite bizarre,” he said. “He says ‘Politics are not for me’ and we are inclined to agree.”
Bernie’s recent blanket-bombing of Formula 1, when he suggested that he would not take his family to an F1 race because the show is so bad, simply added to the same image.
So, in a way, Ecclestone supporting Putin is more negative than positive for the Russians.