At a glance.
- GCHQ's assessment of Russian information ops.
- Managing expectations in Russia's hybrid war.
- Disinformation, censorship, and influence operations.
GCHQ's assessment of Russian information operations during its war against Ukraine.
Speaking in Canberra this morning, GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming characterized the state of information operations in Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine:
"Russia wrote the hybrid warfare book. State media, on-line media and agents of influence are all used to obfuscate motivations and justify military actions. We’ve seen them use this playbook in Syria and many other theatres. Their aim is to promulgate disinformation. To sow mistrust in the evidence and to amplify false narratives. It’s also to make sure that the real picture of what’s going on doesn’t get exposed inside Russia.
"And that’s where the most dangerous disinformation war is being waged. We know Putin’s campaign is beset by problems – low morale, logistical failures and high Russian casualty numbers. Their command and control is in chaos. We’ve seen Putin lie to his own people in an attempt to hide military incompetence.
"And all of that means, he seeks brutal control of the media and access to the internet, he seeks the closing down of opposition voices, and he’s making heavy investment in their propaganda and covert agencies.
"But here again, it’s clear that Putin has miscalculated. President Zelensky’s information operation has shown itself to be extremely effective. It’s agile, multi-platform, multi-media and extremely well-tailored to different audiences. One only has to look at the way Ukraine’s flag - a field of sunflowers under a sky of blue – to see it flying everywhere, including outside GCHQ, to see how well the message has landed."
Is Russia managing expectations?
“The special operation is aimed at, namely, the neutral status of Ukraine, its demilitarisation, the refusal to use Nazi ideological laws that were adopted by Ukraine,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said shortly after "missile strikes" hit the western city of Lviv. That is, Russia's war aims remain essentially unchanged from those announced by President Putin at the beginning of the invasion.
Mr. Medvedev's remarks have been widely interpreted as walking back comments by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, first deputy chief of the General Staff, who said, Friday, “Our forces will focus on the main thing - the complete liberation of Donbas.” General Rudetskoi thus seemed to be managing expectations, and backing away from Russia's previously expansive ambitions for its special military operation. He did say that Russian withdrawal from key Ukrainian cities was deliberate, and that Russia could take them quickly if it so chose. Thus he offered an "I-meant-to-do-that" explanation of what most observers regard as tactical failure.
Ukraine characterized the new focus on the Donbas as indicating Russia's intention to partition Ukraine the way Korea was partitioned at the end of the Second World War.
Disinformation and influence operations.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy gave an interview to four "prominent" Russian television journalists yesterday, over a Zoom connection. The four journalists were not official or semi-official Kremlin mouthpieces. One was a freelancer, the other three represented Meduza, Kommersant, and TV Rain. Roskomnadzor immediately forbade any outlet from broadcasting the interview, and warned, "The media outlets conducting the interviews will be subject to scrutiny to determine the extent of responsibility and the appropriate response to be taken." Under recently passed Russian law, that appropriate response may be criminal prosecution.
Newsweek has a summary of the points the Russian communications authority found so objectionable:
- "Russia Is 'Stealing' Ukrainian Children, Zelensky Claims. Zelensky accused the Kremlin of removing at least 2,000 children from the hard hit, besieged city of Mariupol by force, and taking them to Russia. 'Their exact whereabouts are unknown,' he said." He also said Russia's war was "worse than a war," and represented an enduring political and cultural rupture between Russian and Ukraine.
- "Mariupol Is a 'Humanitarian Catastrophe.' 'The reality is this. The city is blocked by the Russian military—all entrances and exits from the city of Mariupol are blocked. The port is mined,' Zelensky said. 'There is a humanitarian catastrophe inside the city because it is impossible to go there with food, medicine and water.... 'The Russian military is shelling humanitarian convoys. They kill drivers. There is constant shelling.'"
- "Zelensky Offers Putin Route Out of Ukraine War. When pressed on his military strategy moving forward, and on how he envisions a military victory for Ukraine, Zelensky acknowledged that 'it is impossible to force Russia to completely liberate the territory...It will lead to World War III. I understand everything perfectly and am aware of [this]. That's why I say: it's a compromise. Return to where it all began, and there we will try to solve the issue of Donbas, the complex issue of Donbas."
- "Russia Forged Documents on Planned attack on Donbas. Zelensky accused the Russian government of forging documents that purportedly showed Ukraine's armed forces planned a pre-emptive strike on Donbas. Russia's defense ministry on March 9 published documents it claims shows that Ukraine was planning a military offensive against the region in March 2022."
- "Ukraine Won't Discuss 'De-militarization' and 'De-Nazification' on the grounds that both demands, especially the latter, are absurd.
- "Zelensky Outlines Potential Deal. A potential deal between Russia and Ukraine could include 'security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state,' Zelensky said."
The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab reports that Kremlin-directed Telegram channels, notably Kremlin Z, are posting images and documents which, they say, indicate that Ukraine is planning to invade and recapture Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed by invasion in 2014.
Poland, and perhaps NATO as a whole, has also been accused, by a member of the Duma, of revanchist intentions with respect to the geographically isolated port city of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by Polish territory and has been under Russian control since the end of the Second World War. The accusations were made at a relatively low level, by Duma member Maria Butina, who was last in the news when she was arrested for espionage and expelled from the United States in 2018. Ms Butina told Russian news agencies that “Nato is afraid of its aggressive independent actions. Remember, there was a campaign with fake maps, on which the Kaliningrad region was depicted as if it were not Russian territory.” Kaliningrad was, historically, the city of Königsberg in German East Prussia—it was Immanuel Kant's home town.