By Nina Jankowicz & Ross Burley
(This piece was originally published in The Washington Post on 22 January 2022)
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the American people — and the world — about the United States’ concerns that the Russian government was preparing to invade Ukraine. “As part of its plans,” Psaki said, the Kremlin is “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion” — a false-flag campaign that would lay the blame on Ukraine for instigating the conflict.
A few days later, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace dismembered Moscow’s claim that its buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border is a result of the “threat” of NATO expansion, writing in the Sunday Times that it was clear that the Kremlin’s actions “are really about what President Putin’s interpretation of history is and his unfinished ambitions for Ukraine.”
These responses may seem part of a tit-for-tat diplomatic spat, but they point to how much the West has changed its posture toward adversarial information operations since Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine. In 2014, the Kremlin disinformation playbook caught the West flat-footed; governments were simply unsure how to counter this new hybrid warfare. Now, they are better equipped to anticipate Kremlin narratives, even if they can’t always counter them effectively among key audiences — such as the Russian public.
Today, Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border and complicated Western attempts at diplomacy with unrealistic demands, such as barring Poland or the Baltic states from hosting NATO troops or equipment, and a guarantee that Ukraine or Georgia will not be able to join the Western military alliance. Its rhetoric has also become more bellicose to match, according to our monitoring at the Centre for Information Resilience, a U.K.-based nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to identifying, countering and exposing influence operations.
Moscow has been priming the Russian people for a potential invasion, with a large uptick in discussion of alleged “Ukrainian aggression.” Carefully curated Instagram accounts and mercenary TikTok influencers appeal to younger Russians with false claims of ethnic Russians being targeted in eastern Ukraine. State news channels, meanwhile, have pumped out propaganda around the alleged fortification of Eastern Europe by NATO. Mentions of similar stories in the Russian-language news media have more than doubled since the Kremlin began to move troops to Ukraine’s eastern border in March, from about 250 mentions per day at their peak last spring to over 500 per day this week.
This narrative appears to be gaining little purchase in Russian society. According to a poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center, 50 percent of respondents do not believe a war with Ukraine is likely. But by concurrently casting the troop buildup as a conflict with NATO, the appetite for a war with the alliance appears to be increasing: 25 percent of respondents consider such a conflict possible, up from 19 percent in 2019.
Targeting key communities with disinformation designed to stoke pro-Moscow or generally divisive sentiments has worked for Russia before. The Kremlin has employed this playbook in Estonia, the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine in past conflicts. Back then, too, Russia used narratives about the persecution of Russian speakers or pro-Russian communities in border regions to justify its belligerent actions, resulting in protests or even military conflagrations.
In 2014, the United States and its allies were caught on the back foot, reacting slowly — if at all — to the Kremlin’s campaign of falsehoods. Just as the invasion took our countries by surprise, so did its informational component, muddying the public perception of key international events such as the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Moscow-backed shoot-down of Malaysian Air flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.
In 2014, Western nations simply did not anticipate, or have a playbook for, the so-called “Little Green Men” who appeared in Crimea. The peninsula was invaded by well-armed troops, with no insignia, who spoke Russian. The Kremlin simply denied the Little Green Men were its troops.
Meanwhile, in the St. Petersburg troll factory, hundreds of narratives and conspiracy theories polluted the information space, making it impossible to tell what was true or false, and some Western journalists, not yet savvy to the Kremlin’s tactics, covered “both sides” of the story, giving credence to Kremlin narratives. The very notion of objective truth came under sustained attack by a nation-state.
Today, Western policymakers seem to finally recognize not only that the Kremlin instigated and continues the war in Ukraine, but that the Kremlin treats the information ecosystem as an active front in any conflict. Both the British and U.S. governments have invested expertise in understanding and countering disinformation. In 2017, for example, the United States launched the Global Engagement Center at the State Department, to track disinformation and coordinate policy responses across the U.S. government and between allies. (While the GEC struggled under the politicization of the Trump administration, it is becoming more nimble under Biden, and issued a fact sheet about false Russian narratives regarding Ukraine this week.)
The government has also announced it will launch a joint intelligence center to target foreign influence campaigns. In the U.K., in the immediate aftermath of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in 2018, government officials effectively countered Kremlin disinformation because they knew it was coming. Rather than allow Russian narratives to pollute the news, they told the public to anticipate false narratives but not to listen to them. It worked.
That recognition — along with the fact that Western audiences have become savvier to Russian tactics, thanks to six-plus years of incessant media coverage— presents a challenge for Moscow today. When Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, calls out Russia’s “straw man” arguments around alleged NATO imperialism, or when Psaki highlights the potential for a Russian false-flag operation from the White House podium, it is effective: Policymakers in Western European capitals pay a little more attention. The international community will treat any major flare-up in Crimea or Donbas with suspicion — and that might engender more coordinated responses to any Russian aggression. Disinformation is often designed to exploit divisions in societies and between countries: The West speaking with one unified voice is something the Kremlin fears.
But it may not be enough. The only community Russia needs to trigger, or spin into support for a conflict, is the one on the border. With anti-NATO sentiment in Russia rising, and Moscow seeding a muddled narrative around NATO enlargement in the international press, the ground may already be fertilized for such a conflict — despite Western efforts.