At a glance.
- Russia's strategic narrative.
- Tactical influence operations.
- Operational influence operations.
- Debunking, prebunking, and the public use of intelligence products.
- False flags and provocations.
- The biggest lie: no invasion was being prepared.
Disinformation: Russia's strategic narrative.
President Putin expressed his view of Ukraine in a long, rambling, often angry and embittered speech this week. "Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood," he said in the course of announcing Russia's recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. Besides, he added, Ukraine is also a US puppet, it aspires to acquire nuclear weapons, it was Lenin's creation, and, if the Ukrainians really want "de-communisation," then that means giving up communism's creation of their country in the first place.The principal line of disinformation Russia has pursued with respect to Ukraine is to accuse Kyiv of "genocide" against ethnic Russians. It's an absurd claim that's gained little traction abroad, as the Atlantic Council argues. But its principal audience may be a domestic Russian one.
The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab outlined ten prominent, and quite specific, lines of disinformation Russia has pushed during the run-up to the present war. In brief, the narratives, all thoroughly debunked, are:
- "Narrative: Ukrainian border guards shoot migrants from Belarus (December 1, 2021)." This was originally staged in the form of a video distributed in private Facebook pages.
- "Narrative: US mercenaries preparing biochemical weapons in Ukraine (December 21, 2021)." This originated with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
- "Narrative: Ukraine has prepared a plan for attacking Donbas (February 1, 2022)." This was originally pushed by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
- "Narrative: Ukrainian special services planted a bomb in a Donetsk administrative building (February 1, 2022). Also originally staged through the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
- "Narrative: Ukraine prepares for a massive military mobilization (February 3, 2022)." TASS was authorized to disclose this one.
- "Narrative: Ukrainian armed forces initiated a massive artillery attack on Donetsk (February 5, 2022)." Reported by Moskovskiy Komsomolets, and sourced to a Telegram channel.
- "Narrative: Polish mercenaries arrive in Donbas to organize terrorist acts (February 7, 2022)." Put into circulation by the two self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, with reference to the alleged American mercenaries said to be preparing biochemical attacks.
- "Narrative: Ukraine deployed S-300 anti-aircraft missiles near the Donbas (February 11, 2022). Initiated by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and quickly amplified by Russian media outlets.
- "Narrative: a phantom explosion in Donetsk (February 12, 2022)." RT, citing unnamed local media sources, was the point of origin.
- "Narrative: Ukrainian nationalists prepare saboteurs and militants to carry out terrorist attacks in Donbas (February 14, 2022)." This originated with a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic.
There's another, extremely odd claim, that the unseen hands behind the crisis belong to the British Royal Family. Who's really beating the war drums in eastern Ukraine? Why, the House of Windsor, of course. The Telegraph has been watching Russian television and noticed this explanation, offered by the outlet Russia 1. Prince Charles and Prince Andrew need something to distract the public from recent royal scandals, Russia 1 says. Hence Ukrainian aggression against Russia. The claim is so outré, so bizarre, that it can only have been introduced in the hope that the jangle of meretricious noise will serve in some small way to darken the opposition's counsels.
Disinformation: tactical influence operations in Ukraine.
Old-school psychological operations relied on leaflets, loudspeakers, and radio broadcasts. Ukrainian troops are now reported to be on the receiving end of an updated, new-school variant: text messages and social media posts. Freelance journalist Olga Tokariuk tweeted this report: "Psychological warfare in action: Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline start getting text messages telling them that Russian troops have an order to advance and advising them to flee/surrender. On Telegram, fake 'Ukrainian soldiers' write in broken Ukrainian about demoralized army." Old-school psyops were generally derided, back in the day, as puerile and ineffectual. The new-school version might be more successful: social media and texting have a kind of intimate immediacy a loudspeaker on a helicopter lacks.
A side-note on operations security: soldiers now carry smart phones the way they once carried letters from home.
Signaling: operational influence operations.
Bloomberg also comments on the shift in US policy with respect to the public use of intelligence. In some respects it's preemptive debunking of Russian disinformation, introducing a counter-narrative before the Russian messaging finds its legs. It also serves as an influence operation designed to induce friction into Russian forces at the operational level. When you say, as the US has, that you know Russian forces have received orders to move into the Donbas, you're telling Russian commanders that their communications are compromised. “Vladimir, we’re reading your mail,” is how Bloomberg summarizes the message.
Debunking: public uses of intelligence products.
MIT Technology Review notes that the US and the UK have, during the recent phases of Russia's hybrid war with Ukraine, been much quicker to attribute cyberattacks to Russian intelligence services. It took only forty-eight hours for the US to announce that it had "technical intelligence" linking the GRU to denial-of-service attacks against Ukrainian banks and government websites. This is a deliberate policy designed to deprive hostile intelligence services of the deniability and cover upon which their operations depend. “I will note that the speed with which we made that attribution is very unusual,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Neuberger said. “We’ve done so because of a need to call out the behavior quickly as part of holding nations accountable when they conduct disruptive or destabilizing cyber activity.” The shift to more overt use of intelligence has been in progress for some time, gaining momentum since GRU and SVR attempts to meddle with US elections in 2016.
It's not just behavior that's being addressed, but the opposition's disinformation narratives as well. “The administration seems to have gathered that the best defense is a good preemptive offense to get ahead of these narratives, ‘pre-bunking’ them and inoculating the international audience, whether it be the cyber intrusions or false flags and fake pretexts,” says former US National Security Council staffer Gavin Wilde.
A piece in Lawfire argues that liberal, "rule-of-law" democracies are at an inherent disadvantage with respect to information warfare, since they're loathe to engage in strategic deception and lying propaganda. There's a point to that, of course, but it seems to underestimate the counterfire effect of early debunking. Here's another way to think of influence operations: they amount to marketing in battledress. Why are countries who excel at marketing so often laggards at influence operations? (And contrary to cynical conventional wisdom, marketing and advertising, while they may sell sizzle as much as they sell steak, aren't inevitably or even usually mendacious.) It would seem there's an untapped capability here.
Disinformation: false flags and provocations.
Russian media have accused Ukrainian forces of hitting a kindergarten and blaming it on Russian-led separatists in an attempt at provocation. (Tymofiy Mylovanov observed during last night's session in Chicago that artillery fire in the Donbas isn't new; that it's been going on at a low level since Russia's 2014 incursion into Ukraine.) Separatist leaders in Donetsk, however, acknowledge that their guns were the ones that hit the school, but say it's Ukraine's fault anyway, since Ukrainian forces used "mortars and grenades" against them first. Most observers see the ongoing artillery fire as part of a Russian attempt to frame Ukraine as an aggressor against ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the shelling and other "abnormal military activity" “a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion.” The US embassy to Ukraine was equally unambiguous, tweeting: "Russia's shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in Donbas hit a kindergarten, injured two teachers, and knocked out power in the village. The aggressor in Donbas is clear - Russia. This attack, as with so many others, is a heinous Russian violation of the Minsk Agreements and again demonstrates Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian civilians on both sides of the line of contact."
The leader of the Donetsk separatists, Denis Pushilin, has announced that the danger of Ukrainian military action is now so high that the separatists have begun evacuating the province's population across the border to Russia's Rostov oblast, the Telegraph reports. Ukraine denies that it's engaged in any operations against the provinces Russia is seeking to detach, and no one other than Russian sources appear to give claims to the contrary any credence.
Russia said early Monday that it had killed five "saboteurs" who attempted to cross into Russia near Rostov, the Guardian reports. Interfax said Russian forces also destroyed two Ukrainian army vehicles that crossed the border in a failed attempt to come to the saboteurs' rescue. Ukraine denied the claims, which indeed seem preposterous.
And the biggest lie: Russia plans no invasion, and in fact is returning its troops to garrison.
Russia continued into this week to disclaim any intention of preparing a further invasion of Ukraine. The US continues to say that the risk of intensified ground combat remains high. “We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” President Biden said yesterday. "False flag" operations are provocations staged as outrages that can be more-or-less plausibly attributed to an adversary. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post that "there was additional intelligence indicating a false flag by Russia would involve the use of a chemical agent that would immobilize civilians, then use cadavers to make it appear as though the Ukrainians had gassed and killed civilians. One of the officials said the blame might also be pinned on Americans." US Secretary of State Blinken made a similar case yesterday at the United Nations. He enumerated three possible false-flag provocations: “'fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia,' a fake mass grave, a staged drone attack on civilians, or a 'fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons.'”
Russia's Ministry of Defense repeated its claim that units were returning to garrison even after Western intelligence services said they weren't seeing signs of withdrawal from assembly areas near Ukraine. Western governments aren't in general buying it. Reuters reports that the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael Carpenter told a meeting of the OSCE, "We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on January 30. This is the most significant military mobilization in Europe since the Second World War."