At a glance.
- Deception, counter-deception, and "deterrence by detection."
- Disinformation takes Spanish lessons.
- Historical memory.
- Joint Sino-Russian disinformation.
- Defining democracy down.
Deception, counter-deception, and "deterrence by detection."
The present crisis over Russia's intentions toward Ukraine and its ongoing dispute with NATO has been accompanied by US charges that Russia is preparing elaborate deep fakes designed to provide at least a fig leaf of defensive plausibility to any further invasion of Ukraine it might conduct.
There's some precedent for this sort of operation. Russia has used deception around violent events before, and it's often done so with a principally domestic audience in mind. The Washington Post cites a good recent example: "The disinformation is often designed to muddy the waters for Russia’s domestic audience rather than make a convincing case worldwide. After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine by a Russian surface-to-air missile, for instance, Russian state news initially suggested the Ukrainian air force had been trying to shoot down Putin’s plane but accidentally hit the Boeing aircraft."
A more direct foreshadowing of the sort of operation the US predicts occurred late last year. A website appeared with pictures that it represented as showing mass graves containing the victims of Ukrainian massacres of ethnic Russians. The site represented itself as the work of a human rights organization in the Donbas. That group was quickly determined to be a GRU front by Western analysts, but not before its claims were repeated and amplified by Russian media, prominently including RT and Tass.
The Military Times reports that General David Berger, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, has renewed his call for "deterrence by detection," and argued that the current Russian threat to Ukraine show the value of such an approach. Everything Russia is doing,, he says, is designed to "set the theater," and the best way to counter that is to show it for what it is. “We have to have the capability to illuminate that,” General Berger said the National Defense Industrial Association's Expeditionary Warfare Conference. “Some portion of that is so that we can understand how they’re setting their pieces for battle. And part of it, frankly, is to bring it to international attention and expose it for what it is.”
Disinformation, Spanish language edition.
Foreign Policy cites a study by Omelas that found Russian-run Spanish language outlets outperforming their American counterparts in pushing a narrative on the crisis in Ukraine. The Russian media outpace US services by three-to-one as measured by audience engagement in the Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere. The case exhibits a great deal of attention-to-detail on the part of the Russian disinformation organs: the Hispanic world hasn't been closely affected by the crisis in Eastern Europe, but any potential fissure is worth exploiting. Foreign Policy quotes Andrew Gonzalez, the Omelas program manager who conducted the study: “They want to disrupt [and] politically influence the discourse in any or all of these countries to make it more difficult for the people to understand what is actually happening. On Ukraine, if they’re able to discombobulate the people from understanding what’s going on, it makes it much harder for the government to generate support for some type of retaliation or countermeasure.”
Historical analogies and historical memory: in the Donbas of 2022: who's playing the role of Germany in 1938?
If you listen to Moscow, Kyiv has cast itself as Berlin. Its government amounts, Russia's line says, to a restored Nazi regime, and it's got ethnic Russians in its sights. To NATO, and especially to its more recently admitted members who were formerly part of either the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact, it seems that the Donbas in 2022 is playing the role the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia played in 1938. Germany extracted concessions from Britain and France on the grounds that Germany needed to come to the rescue of Germans resident in the northwestern part of Bohemia; the Sudetenländer were, Germany claimed, facing intolerable persecution at the hands of the Czechs. That Anglo-French policy was called "appeasement" at the time, and was presented as a wise compromise designed to avoid another general European war.
Since then "appeasement" has acquired uglier associations, and is generally remembered rightly or wrongly as having made a prime contribution to the outbreak of the Second World War. Memories of that experience, and of the years of Soviet domination that followed the war's end in 1945 are painfully vivid in Eastern Europe. Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks posted a long statement on the consequences of appeasement to his Ministry's website.
One more historical analogy is worth mentioning. Germany's invasion of Poland was preceded by a faked attack on a German radio station at Gleiwitz. Convicts were dressed in Polish army uniforms and shot by the SS at the radio station. The pictures of the dead were presented as evidence that Poland was about to attack Germany. That story was as implausible as Moscow's claim that Ukraine presents a military threat to Russia. Today we wouldn't be given still pictures, but rather artfully prepared deep fake videos.
Joint Sino-Russian disinformation.
The Olympic Games meeting between Presidents Putin and Xi resulted in a long communiqué, a "Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development." The dominant rhetorical technique is unlikely insistence. There's some strikingly direct mendacity about chemical and biological weapons. No one who's looked into the matter seriously believes the US and its allies have active, dangerous, chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Russia certainly has a chemical warfare capability, and has recently used it in attempted assassinations (see the New York Times account of the attempt on the life of a GRU defector residing in the UK); both countries are suspected of active biological warfare research programs. But the disinformation in the Joint Statement expressed high-minded concern about the US and its allies, who are said to be up to no good:
"The sides affirm the need to fully respect and further strengthen the BWC, including by institutionalizing it, strengthening its mechanisms, and adopting a legally binding Protocol to the Convention with an effective verification mechanism, as well as through regular consultation and cooperation in addressing any issues related to the implementation of the Convention.
"The sides emphasize that domestic and foreign bioweapons activities by the United States and its allies raise serious concerns and questions for the international community regarding their compliance with the BWC. The sides share the view that such activities pose a serious threat to the national security of the Russian Federation and China and are detrimental to the security of the respective regions. The sides call on the U.S. and its allies to act in an open, transparent, and responsible manner by properly reporting on their military biological activities conducted overseas and on their national territory, and by supporting the resumption of negotiations on a legally binding BWC Protocol with an effective verification mechanism.
"The sides, reaffirming their commitment to the goal of a world free of chemical weapons, call upon all parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to work together to uphold its credibility and effectiveness. Russia and China are deeply concerned about the politicization of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and call on all of its members to strengthen solidarity and cooperation and protect the tradition of consensual decision-making. Russia and China insist that the United States, as the sole State Party to the Convention that has not yet completed the process of eliminating chemical weapons, accelerate the elimination of its stockpiles of chemical weapons. The sides emphasize the importance of balancing the non-proliferation obligations of states with the interests of legitimate international cooperation in the use of advanced technology and related materials and equipment for peaceful purposes. The sides note the resolution entitled ”Promoting international Cooperation on Peaceful Uses in the Context of International Security“ adopted at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly on the initiative of China and co‑sponsored by Russia, and look forward to its consistent implementation in accordance with the goals set forth therein."
To return to the memory of the Second World War, there's also a curious statement about the Second World War, an expression of a determination to "uphold" its "outcomes," and to condemn any attempt to deny the responsibility of "Nazi aggressors" and "their accomplices." It's difficult to read this as anything other than a riposte to statements from the Baltic States comparing the present situation between Ukraine and Russia to that which obtained between Germany and its neighbors in 1939. In 1939, of course, the Soviet Union was a signatory of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which made it a de facto ally of Germany in the invasion of Poland (in which the Soviet Union took an independent part), and which gave the Soviet Union license to absorb the three Baltic States.
"The sides intend to strongly uphold the outcomes of the Second World War and the existing post-war world order, defend the authority of the United Nations and justice in international relations, resist attempts to deny, distort, and falsify the history of the Second World War.
"In order to prevent the recurrence of the tragedy of the world war, the sides will strongly condemn actions aimed at denying the responsibility for atrocities of Nazi aggressors, militarist invaders, and their accomplices, besmirch and tarnish the honour of the victorious countries."
Defining democracy down.
The Joint Statement also has some things to say about democracy. They may not look exactly familiar to those who live in actual democracies:
"The sides share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of States, and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community.
"The sides believe that democracy is a means of citizens' participation in the government of their country with the view to improving the well-being of population and implementing the principle of popular government. Democracy is exercised in all spheres of public life as part of a nation-wide process and reflects the interests of all the people, its will, guarantees its rights, meets its needs and protects its interests. There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy. A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state, based on its social and political system, its historical background, traditions and unique cultural characteristics. It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.
"The sides note that Russia and China as world powers with rich cultural and historical heritage have long-standing traditions of democracy, which rely on thousand-years of experience of development, broad popular support and consideration of the needs and interests of citizens. Russia and China guarantee their people the right to take part through various means and in various forms in the administration of the State and public life in accordance with the law. The people of both countries are certain of the way they have chosen and respect the democratic systems and traditions of other States."
Of course, doing what you're told is what mathematicians might call a degenerate case of participation in the government of your country,, so there's perhaps a literal (albeit degenerate) sense in which the statement is true. That state which acts in accordance with the public good is doing what the public really wants, whether the public knows that's what it wants or not. The old Marxists would have called the uncomprehending public cases of false consciousness. Still, it's an understanding of democracy that has a certain provenance. Rousseau would have gotten it.