Propaganda of the deed has its origins in the anarchist/revolutionary movements of the 1800s. The actors then tried to spread their message through actions, feeling that would have a bigger impact than traditional propaganda. Those early anarchists and revolutionaries used violence to attract more attention and gain a bigger audience than any speeches or pamphlets had done.
Today, propaganda of the deed is used regularly to describe the terrorist playbook. Spectacular attacks, such as September 11 by al Qaeda and the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (IS), capture the attention of the world. The names become recognizable, and put the messages on a world stage.
But propaganda of the deed isn’t just for terrorists. We are witnessing it right now in the geopolitical power play between Russia and the West. Several weeks ago, Russia began moving military equipment into Syria, a move welcomed by President Bashar al Assad. Russia and Syria watchers took notice, awaiting the reaction from the Western nations – especially the US. As early as 2012, the US government began backing the Syrian rebels*, whose intent was to overthrow the Assad regime. By 2014, Islamic State had established a foothold in Syria. Later that same year, the US began conducting airstrikes against IS. Despite White House reports to the contrary, the strikes have not been overly effective in stopping IS.
Russia, a major ally of Syria, moved in with the promise to help Assad defeat IS. Almost immediately, Russian planes began bombing not only IS targets, but Syrian rebel positions as well. To those who know Russia, their true intent is no secret.
In Russia, image is everything. The intensity of their bombing campaign is designed to show the world how effective Russia is compared to the West (read: US) in defeating an enemy in the Middle East. In recent years, the gains made by the US in the region seem to have been lost. Russia, looking to improve their image tarnished by their annexation of Crimea, wasted no time stepping in. During his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Vladimir Putin all but called out the US for acting superior to the world, and for creating the power vacuum that now exists in the Middle East. He also announced a strategy to stabilize the region, in this case providing military and technical assistance to Assad.
Putin’s speech was a message to the world that Russia is still a superpower. Russia’s actions in Syria deliver a bigger message that the West is ineffective when dealing with terrorists and unrest in the Middle East. Russia is asserting its (perceived) dominance while increasing its presence in the Middle East, traditionally dominated by the US. Putin is also showing the world that he is a real leader, that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are weak. In the wake of US failures to train and aid the Syrian opposition, Putin is stepping in with guns blazing.
The image of a strong, manly Russia has long been feed to the masses, from the New Soviet Man to Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photo ops. Putin openly challenging the West in Syria is more effective propaganda than any UNSC speech. Any attempt to show Russia as a great power, all the while showing up the US, is a great victory for Putin. The outcome of Russia’s actions in Syria remains to be seen. In the meantime, those actions are speaking volumes
*On 9 October, the Pentagon announced it was ending its program of training Syrian rebels, focusing instead on supplying weapons.