The ISIS narrative is starting to shift the Russia narrative, and that’s making it harder for Russia and the West to find common ground on Ukraine.

A man holds a sign during a protest march in support of peace in Ukraine, New York, March 2, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Something has perceptibly changed in the way Western media covers Russia – the forecasts of what’s happening within Russia are becoming more hysterical (just consider the media reaction to #WhereisPutin), the willingness to engage militarily is stronger, and the propaganda war is intensifying in scale and scope. You could chalk all this up to the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, of course, but here’s another idea: ISIS is changing the way we talk about Russia. 

The “ISIS narrative,” in short, is starting to shape the “Russia narrative.” Watch CNN long enough, and you will get an intuitive feel for how this happens – a story on ISIS will immediately cut to a story about MH17 or the separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the Boris Nemtsov murder. Even without realizing it, our brains may be programmed to process these events from two very different parts of the world in the same way – as just a giant nexus of terrorism, violence and masked men doing very bad things.

There’s actually a scientific explanation for this. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, together with Amos Tversky, identified a specific type of cognitive bias known as the “availability heuristic.” In the face of uncertainty, they say, the human brain instinctively searches for the most available information to help it make sense of an unfamiliar situation. The brain is hard-wired to believe that the information or theory that is most available is also what’s most important. It’s what makes people believe that shark attacks, homicides and being struck by lightning are so common – those stories are so available in the media that we believe they are significantly more likely to happen than they really are.

In the face of uncertain Russian actions, then, the Western media has become a victim of a specific form of this availability heuristic. Faced with an escalating crisis in Ukraine, the West has been biased by what’s happening elsewhere in the Middle East. As Kahneman might say, instead of thinking slow, the West is thinking fast.

You could see the first signs of this last fall, when President Obama inexplicably mentioned Russia as the #2 threat to international peace and stability in his address to the UN in late September. The Russians, understandably, were baffled.

And that’s been followed up with changing optics in the mainstream media that are starting to blur the ISIS narrative and the Russia narrative. This includes a bizarre piece in The Daily Beast (“Ukraine Rebels Thanks Jesus for Victory”) from the otherwise wonderful Anna Nemtsova, who painted the Ukrainian separatists as some kind of Russian Orthodox jihadis intent on creating Novorossiya with the help of Jesus. 

Or, consider a recent piece by Michael Cecire for Foreign Policy (“The Kremlin Pulls on Georgia”), which describes groups of pro-Russian operatives “protesting in Tbilisi Streets, preaching in Georgian churches.” This is the same way the mainstream media describes the “Arab Street” and imams in mosques in stories about ISIS. 

Yes, the more the media mentions ISIS militants, the Islamic caliphate and the clash of civilizations, the easier it becomes to talk about Russian “militants” (not “separatists” or “freedom fighters”), the restoration of the Soviet empire (which somehow blurs together with the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate) and the clash of values between Europe and Russia (which is starting to strangely mimic the clash of values between Christianity and Islam). That’s a dangerous new development. 

Consider the way that we now talk about the “clash of civilizations” between the West and Russia. While Russia has always historically veered between Europe and Asia, it has never closed itself off from the West. Russia is Europe and Europe is Russia. But the concern that ISIS is encouraging a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West is also encouraging the media to frame Russia’s confrontation with the West in the same terms.

Look at the rhetoric coming from Europe’s top thinkers. You have George Soros calling Russia an “existential threat” to Europe and you have British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond calling Russia the “single greatest threat” to Britain (even bigger than the threat from ISIS). At the same time, you have BuzzFeed posting “destruction porn” photos from Eastern Ukraine, so it’s getting easier and easier to connect the dots between the destruction in Iraq and the destruction in Novorossiya. This is a foreign civilization that will burn Western civilization to the ground, the images seem to say.

That paranoia about a clash of civilizations is based, in no small part, to the rapid extension of ISIS into states across the Middle East. The desire to build a caliphate is deeply troubling, especially when the likes of Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are somehow linked as part of some kind of global terror brand. ISIS is seemingly everywhere, a marauding army that will establish a new empire.

That’s making it easier to ascribe similar types of imperialistic ambitions to Russia. The same way that ISIS is carving up the Middle East, Russia must be seeking to carve up Europe, right? There is the tendency to see Russian imperialistic aims everywhere to reclaim the former Soviet Union as if it were some kind of Russian Orthodox caliphate. The Baltics, Kiev, Eastern Europe, Georgia, Kazakhstan – they’ve all been part of rumors in recent weeks, concerned about signs of a Russian military buildup in the region.

All of this is leading to a massive ratcheting up of the global propaganda war. Every day, we’re told how ISIS is using Facebook to recruit volunteers, how Twitter is being used by ISIS as part of some kind of cyberwar, of how social media is luring young Westerners to fight for ISIS. 

That media attention on the evil impact of ISIS propaganda makes it easier to see a similar type of propaganda war at work between the Russia and the West. Instead of viewing the Russian position on Ukraine as just a different take on the issue – the Palestinians or Iranians offering their counter-take on a complex foreign policy matter – we see it as the hand of a sinister propaganda machine cranking out lies. 

ISIS propaganda, Russian propaganda, it all blurs together in the minds of American TV viewers. ISIS volunteers being recruited via social media start to sound a lot like Russian volunteers being recruited to fight in the Donbas.

At the end of the day, the willingness (whether intentional or not) to mix the narrative around ISIS and the narrative around Russia is dangerous. And it’s not just the “availability heuristic” at work – there’s also another cognitive bias at work – and that’s the “availability cascade.” In short, a complex idea starts to be described in very simple terms that are easy to be understood, and that makes it easier for it to “cascade” into the popular consciousness. 

By simplifying Russian motivations, it’s making it far too easy to condone military action in Ukraine, and it’s making it harder and harder to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. This is the new logic of hardliners in Washington: If this is indeed a “clash of civilizations,” if indeed the Russians are intent on creating a new post-Soviet empire, then they must be stopped the way ISIS is stopped – with boots on the ground and lethal military hardware.

At one time, it looked like the ISIS threat might have encouraged Russia and the West to cooperate – now it looks like the ISIS threat might in some weird way lead the West to close the door on whatever slight diplomatic opening remained with Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.