At a glance.
- Outlines of Russian disinformation concerning Ukraine.
- Beijing amplifies Russian talking points.
- Russian influence operations show only limited success.
- The likely course of influence operations concerning Ukraine.
The outlines of Russian disinformation on Ukraine...
Russian disinformation in the service of influence operations designed to fissure Ukrainian society continues, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has done a commendable job in tracking some of its characteristic themes. Those themes exhibit some of the typical inconsistencies that have long marked Russian influence campaigns. For example, on the one hand NATO's provision of weapons, notably anti-armor rockets, to Ukraine is an intolerable provocation and amounts to placing a dagger in the hands of Kyiv, which intends aggression against at the very least Russophone populations if not Russian itself. But on the other hand the weapons are junk, and can't hit the broad side of a barn (or "even an old Soviet tank").
The themes were also on display during Monday's sessions at the United Nations Security Council. Russian diplomats continued their implausible denial of having massed forces near Ukraine, saying it hasn't happened, and that the widely quoted figure of more than a hundred-thousand troops in assembly areas is a malign American fantasy, born of ill-will, bad-faith, and weak nerves. The Washington Post described the sharp exchanges, which include a Russian accusation, probably intended more for domestic than international consumption, that NATO was deliberately marshaling actual, literal Nazis (read, Ukrainians unfriendly to Russia) on Russia's borders. Ukraine, Russian representatives argued, is on a path to self-destruction through its alleged abrogation of the Minsk agreements, which Russia sees as having effectively placed areas of the Donbass under Russian protection. “If our western partners push Kyiv to sabotage the Minsk agreements, something that Ukraine is ... willingly doing, then that might end in the absolute worst way for Ukraine,” Russia's permanent representative at the UN Vasily Nebenzya said. “And not because somebody has destroyed it, but because it would have destroyed itself and Russia has absolutely nothing to do with this.”
The US for its part characterized Russia's actions as the attempt of a former imperial power to re-engorge its lost provinces.
To summarize, the principal Russian talking points are as follows:
- Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine, and hasn't deployed any troops in preparation to do so.
- The crisis is deliberately fabricated by the US.
- NATO intends to expand in order to threaten and damage legitimate Russian interests.
- The Ukrainian government represents a resurgence of the Nazis (this point is principally presented for domestic consumption).
- Ukraine is conducting a genocidal campaign against ethnic Russians in the Donbass.
- Ukraine intends, with NATO support, to attack Russia.
Of all of these, only the third approaches plausibility, or at least a degree of sincerity. The others can only be read as offered in bad faith.
...and China does some low-level amplification of Russian talking points...
For all China's comments at the UN of the importance of quiet diplomacy in seeking a peaceful reduction of tension, Chinese social media operators, Beijing's "Wolf Warriors," have been taking opportunistic advantage of the crisis, trolling the US and the EU, Foreign Policy reports. There are several reasons for China to amplify Russian talking points. Most obviously they offer an opportunity to discomfit a common rival, notably the US. And it seems that Beijing sees a similarity between Russian claims to Ukraine and its own claim to Taiwan: both countries can (and will) be construed as breakaway provinces, not sovereign nations.
...in this case, however, Russian influence operations have seen indifferent success.
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 largely fallen flat, at least insofar as international audiences are concerned. 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. Even locally, the efforts seem to have fallen short of their mark even with populations that might have been expected to sympathize with Moscow. Pro-Russian sentiment sharply declined in the large, predominantly Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv, close to Ukraine's eastern border with Russia. Both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post report that the ongoing pressure on Ukraine seems to have increased national unity even in those regions that had shown some ethnic and linguistic affinity with Russia.
The likely course of influence operations during the Ukraine crisis.
An essay in Foreign Affairs, while agreeing that Russian offensive cyber operations are not only likely, but have actually begun, downplays the threat of destructive malware. It sees the likeliest Russian course of action in cyberspace as involving espionage, military deception and disruption (the cyber analogues of traditional electronic warfare), and influence operations ("Russia could conduct psychological operations to sow confusion and doubt among the Ukrainian population, thereby eroding the public’s will to resist Russian aggression.") Washington seems to agree about the last, the AP reports, as Washington has been unusually open and forthcoming about "naming and shaming" the influence operators and their products.