At a glance.
- Disinformation during the Russo-Ukrainian crisis.
- Themes in Russian disinformation.
- Dissemination and amplification.
- Influence operations and their audience.
Disinformation during the Russo-Ukrainian crisis.
The current crisis in Ukraine, and it's a crisis of Russian making, affords an interesting case study in nation-state disinformation campaigns. The US State Department has been running an unusually direct and candid account of Russian disinformation. It offers the following counterpoints, in rumor-control, fiction-versus-fact format:
- "FICTION: Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials are the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship.
"FACT: False statements from the Putin regime blame the victim, Ukraine, for Russia’s aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, occupies Crimea, controls armed forces in the Donbas, and has now amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine while President Putin threatens “retaliatory military-technical” measures if his demands are not met.
- "FICTION: The West is pushing Ukraine toward a conflict.
"FACT: Moscow instigated the current crisis by placing more than 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, with no similar military activity on the Ukrainian side of the border. Russian military and intelligence entities are targeting Ukraine with disinformation attempting to paint Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship. The Russian government is trying to trick the world into believing Ukraine’s behavior could provoke a global conflict and to convince Russian citizens of the need for Russian military action in Ukraine. Russia blames others for its own aggression, but it is Moscow’s responsibility to end this crisis peacefully through de-escalation and diplomacy. Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014, occupies Crimea, and continues to fuel conflict in eastern Ukraine. This follows a pattern of Russian behavior of undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries in the region – invading and occupying parts of Georgia in 2008, and failing to honor its 1999 commitment to withdraw its troops and munitions from Moldova, where they remain without the government’s consent.
- "FICTION: Russia’s deployment of combat forces is a mere repositioning of troops on its own territory.[iii]
"FACT: Deploying more than 100,000 Russian troops, including battle-hardened combat forces and offensive weaponry with no plausible innocuous explanation, to the borders of a country that Russia has previously invaded and still occupies in places is no mere troop rotation. It is a clear, renewed Russian threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The buildup is paired with active disinformation measures designed to undermine confidence in the Ukrainian government and create a pretext for further Russian incursion.
- "FICTION: The United States has planned chemical weapons attacks in the Donbas.[iv]
"FACT: The United States and Russia are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In accordance with its obligations under that international agreement, the United States does not use chemical weapons. However, the Russian government has twice used chemical weapons in recent years to attack and attempt to assassinate opponents, including on foreign soil. Rather than fuel conflict in eastern Ukraine as Russia has done, the United States has provided more than $351 million in humanitarian assistance to those affected by Moscow’s aggression there since 2014. Russia is using statements from high-level officials as well as disinformation and propaganda outlets to intentionally spread outright falsehoods to attempt to create a pretext for military action.
- "FICTION: Russia is defending ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
"FACT: There are no credible reports of any ethnic Russians or Russian speakers being under threat from the Ukrainian government. There are, however, credible reports that in Russia-occupied Crimea and in the Donbas, Ukrainians face suppression of their culture and national identity and live in an environment of severe repression and fear. In Crimea, Russia forces Ukrainians to assume Russian citizenship or lose their property, their access to healthcare, and their jobs. Those who peacefully express opposition to Russia’s occupation or control face imprisonment on baseless grounds, police raids on their homes, officially sanctioned discrimination, and in some cases torture and other abuses. Religious and ethnic minorities are investigated and prosecuted as “extremists” and “terrorists.”
- "FICTION: NATO has plotted against Russia since the end of the Cold War, encircled Russia with forces, broken supposed promises not to enlarge, and threatened Russia’s security with the prospect of Ukrainian membership in the Alliance .[vi]
"FACT: NATO is a defensive alliance, whose purpose is to protect its member states. All Allies reaffirmed at the June 2021 Brussels Summit that “the Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia.” In fact, in 2002 President Putin himself stated “Every country has the right to choose the way it ensures its security. This holds for the Baltic states as well. Secondly, and more specifically, NATO is primarily a defensive bloc. NATO does not encircle Russia – Russia’s land border is just over 20,000 kilometers long. Of that, less than one-sixteenth (1,215 kilometers), is shared with NATO members. Russia has land borders with 14 countries. Only five of them are NATO members. In response to Russia’s use of military force against its neighbors, NATO deployed four multinational battlegroups to the Baltic States and Poland in 2016. These forces are rotational, defensive, proportionate, and requested by the host nations. Before Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, there were no plans to deploy Allied troops to the eastern part of the Alliance. NATO never promised not to admit new members. NATO enlargement is not directed against Russia. Every sovereign nation has the right to choose its own security arrangements and to enter into defensive regional alliances for purposes of self-defense. This is a fundamental principle of European security, reflected in the UN Charter, and is one that Russia has affirmed in myriad international and regional instruments such as the Helsinki Final Act.
- "FICTION: The West shuns diplomacy and goes straight to measures like sanctions.
FACT: The United States and our partners are engaging in intensive diplomacy to resolve this crisis, including directly with the Russian government. President Biden has spoken with President Putin twice and U.S. officials have held dozens of high-level meetings and phone calls with Russian and European counterparts as part of a comprehensive diplomatic effort to resolve this situation peacefully. What remains to be seen is whether Russia is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the global community and take steps to de-escalate the crisis it has generated. But we have also made clear, publicly and privately, that we and our partners will impose swift and severe economic costs on the Russian economy should President Putin choose to further invade Ukraine.
Patterns in disinformation and counter-disinformation.
The US State Department argues that Russia has five enduring disinformation narratives that it adapts to suit its interests in whatever crises or international disputes are going. Those themes are:
- "Theme #1: Russia is an Innocent Victim.'” That is, whatever the West and in particular the main enemy, the US, may say in complaint of Russian actions, those actions are the necessary and reasonable response by Moscow to unprovoked Western hostility and, indeed, to Western aggression. Thus the only grounds on which anyone could have objected to Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014 was xenophobic Russophobia. This theme is on full display during the Ukraine crisis, where Russia's Foreign Ministry has consistently accused NATO of being the aggressor.
- "Theme #2: Historical Revisionism." This most often takes the form of casting its historical opponents as (literal, not figurative) Nazis or Nazi-sympathizers. Thus accusations of an incipient genocide against Russophones in Ukraine (which essentially no one outside Russia credits) have been justified by implausible findings of a Nazi resurgence in Ukraine.
- "Theme #3:'The Collapse of Western Civilization is Imminent.'” Western civilization has lost its soul, and Russia remains the sole guarantor of that tradition and its values.
- "Theme #4: 'Popular Movements are U.S.-sponsored ‘Color Revolutions.’” Popular movements not in Russia's interest are the work of foreign agitation, and not organic, grassroots phenomena.
- "Theme #5: Reality is Whatever the Kremlin Wants It to Be." In this point Foggy Bottom itself gets a bit tendentious. What the State Department has in mind are the Russian responses when it's caught red-handed in some discreditable action, like the 2018 attempted assassination by nerve agent of a GRU defector and his daughter. "In the four weeks following that incident, Russian state-funded and directed outlets RT and Sputnik disseminated 138 separate and contradictory narratives via 735 articles, according to the Policy Institute at King’s College London." The typical Russian aim here has been to misdirect attention and darken counsel.
Amplification and dissemination of disinformation.
RT and Sputnik are Russian-government-funded and Russian-government-directed media outlets that play an important role in enabling Moscow's influence operations. The US State Department's Global Engagement Center has published a report on how the two news services operate. The goal is to position the two outlets as Russian equivalents to state-funded, editorially independent Western services like the BBC and the Voice of America. But, State argues, "RT and Sputnik are not transparent, and their overall goals appear to be fundamentally different from independent media." That said, both are well-executed and slickly produced. Their propagandistic function is most clearly on display, according to the Global Engagement Center, when they're reporting on matters the Kremlin regards as being of high importance to policy. In other cases they're often simply a good read, reporting news in much the same fashion as their international competitors.
Thus lies are most effective when they receive a bodyguard of truth. During the Second World War both sides used radio broadcasts directed at enemy forces to sap morale and otherwise degrade the opposition's effectiveness. The productions of Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose were generally received as risible by their audiences. But Britain's Atlantiksender, a radio service directed at German U-boat crews, was noticeably more effective. If featured more-or-less candid assessments, for example, of German equipment, and it accurately reported matters of such interest to the crews as the results of intramural soccer games in port. One of the Atlantiksender's staff writers, Ian Fleming, achieved post-war fame as the creator of James Bond.
Russian influence operations over the crisis in Ukraine.
Russian attempts to portray itself as a victim, as the object of unprovoked aggression and as a bulwark against an incipient Ukrainian genocide against ethnic Russians, seem to have met with indifferent success, at least insofar as international audiences are concerned. (Russian domestic audiences may be a different matter.) The Atlantic Council reports that a recent survey undertaken to sample international opinion on the crisis shows widespread sympathy with and support for Ukraine, including support for giving Kyiv aid in the current crisis and for extending the country NATO membership.
"The six-country study commissioned by the Yalta European Strategy and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation included 600 interviews per country with representative samples of the general population in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Poland.
"Across all countries surveyed, though of course with national variations on all issues, the study found that Western populations not only endorse strong diplomatic and economic measures, but also back military engagement to deter Russian aggression and protect Ukraine’s borders. If deterrence fails and Russia invades Ukraine again, Western populations are even more emphatic in their backing for military support from NATO member states."
And there's relatively little sentiment in evidence that favors sacrificing Ukraine on the altar of Russian relations:
"Western populations oppose the idea of 'sacrificing' Ukraine in order to improve relations with Russia. Only around 15% of respondents feel it is more important to improve relations with Russia than defend Ukraine, with the highest figure being 18% in Germany."