The Kremlin is ramping up a disinformation offensive aimed at demoralizing Ukraine and Western powers, using Russian state-owned broadcasters and trolls on social media platforms to portray the West as the aggressor and the government in Kyiv as a puppet of NATO, say Western officials and information war experts.
Scare stories in recent days have included claims that Ukrainian commandos are planning to launch so-called “false flag” attacks in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine to justify NATO military action and that the United States is planning to attack Russia during this week’s Winter Olympics in China.
The core message is that NATO and Kyiv present a major threat to Russia, they say.
Moscow has waged a sophisticated and multi-faceted information warfare campaign against Ukraine since 2014, when a popular uprising toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Shortly after Yanukovych’s ouster in a color revolution that Moscow blamed on the West, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and seized part of the Donbas, initially using armed proxies.
Western leaders fear Putin is prepared to invade Ukraine if he fails to secure concessions he wants from the United States and NATO that in effect would carve out for Russia a Soviet era-like sphere of influence across eastern Europe. Among Putin’s key demands is a guarantee that NATO will never expand eastward. Russian officials deny they have any intentions to invade their neighbor, despite an unprecedented massive military build-up along the borders of Ukraine. They accuse Western powers of causing alarm.
“The drumbeat of Kremlin propaganda is also becoming noticeably louder,” according to Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of fact-checking website StopFake.org, which monitors Russian disinformation.
“Over the past eight years, Moscow has been able to deploy an impressive and expanding arsenal of information weapons against Ukraine,” Fedchenko wrote in an expert commentary for the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research institution.
“These have ranged from small armies of online trolls to lavishly funded mainstream media outlets that combine world-class production values with an often near-complete absence of journalistic ethics. Each individual element operates under direct or indirect Kremlin control. Together, they repeat and amplify variations of the same carefully curated messages designed to justify or otherwise support Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine,” he maintains.
Shaping the message
Other analysts also say the Kremlin is making strenuous efforts to try to control the narrative in Ukraine and tailoring messages to Russians and key audiences outside Russia.
Tom Southern is director of special projects at the Center for Information Resilience (CIR), a UK-based NGO which exposes disinformation activities. Southern told British reporters there are two sides to the Kremlin’s information war — “what is being pushed in Ukraine, and what’s being pushed about Ukraine.” He said Kremlin propagandists work across a broad spectrum that uses official Russian government statements broadcast by its well-funded domestic and international media outlets but amplify key messages using social media sites and messaging apps like Telegram.
“This includes the messaging that Ukraine is a failed state and historical revisionism of Ukraine and NATO, as provoking Russia or targeting Russian speakers in Ukraine,” he says. A key message both to domestic Russian audiences and to international ones is that NATO is the aggressor and has broken promises it made as the Soviet Union collapsed about not expanding the Western alliance eastward.
The Russian leader has made the claim frequently about NATO skullduggery, accusing Western powers of taking advantage of a weakened, disoriented Russia as the Soviet Union fell apart. And the West’s supposed trickery and violation of a solemn pledge not to expand has figured prominently as an important component in a Putin foreign policy narrative which presents Russia as a victim and aggrieved party. This key message is being played across all Russian-controlled media outlets and broadcast on social media platforms, say disinformation experts.
Authoritative historians say no such formal undertaking was ever given. And in 2014 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in an interview, “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all” during his talks with U.S. leaders.
Kremlin propaganda output has been increasing compared to this time last year, according to Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of culture and information policy. Russia’s official websites are the main drivers, but technology is used by the Kremlin to “circulate harmful, hostile content” and to spread disinformation, he says. He says Russia’s prevailing narrative comprises three key messages — Ukraine is a failed state, Russia is peaceful and that the West wants war.
Western broadcasters have been complaining in recent weeks that Russian state-controlled media have been misusing their reports and footage by dubbing over their dispatches with changed commentary designed to assist in shaping the message that the West is on a war footing and is preparing to attack.
This is a variation on what disinformation experts dub ‘information laundering’ — using Western sources to undermine Western arguments, often by interviewing “experts” who are aligned with Moscow but have obscure backgrounds.
The Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, an NGO that receives funding from the European Union among others, has warned that the Kremlin is seeking to fan tensions with constant accusations that Ukraine is “preparing provocations.” One example it says was a recent claim that Ukraine and NATO were planning to launch a clandestine operation code named “Crushing Sword” which would use fake footage of Russian aggression and use that as a pretext to attack Russia.