The US Strategy in the Ukraine Conflict: Showing Russian Disinformation
WASHINGTON.- In a break with the past, The United States and its allies are revealing their intelligence services’ findings about apparent Russian preparations to invade Ukraine, intended to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans. and foil their plans to influence world public opinion.
A few weeks ago, the White House released what it called a Russian “false flag” operation intended to create a pretext for invasion. Britain has identified by first and last name Ukrainians it has accused of links to Russian intelligence who have plotted to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelensky. The United States also released a map of Russian military positions and details of how they believe it will try to attack Ukraine with some 175,000 troops.
Experts have praised the White House for declassifying intelligence information in order to refute falsehoods before they are spread: the so-called “pre-refutation” is much more effective than a later explanation.
Intelligence assessments carry varying degrees of certainty, and apart from publishing photos of troop movements, the United States and its allies have offered little evidence. Moscow has dismissed Washington’s accusations as hysteria and has recalled its past intelligence blunders, such as misinformation about Iraq’s weapons.
So far there are no clear signs of change from Russia, which continues to move forces into Ukraine and into Belarus, its ally to the north of Ukraine. Pessimism is growing in Washington and London about the ongoing diplomatic efforts and the conviction that Putin will probably launch some kind of invasion in the coming weeks.
Russia is known to use disinformation as a tactic to stir up confusion and discord as part of its overall conflict management strategy. When it invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, Russia mounted a campaign to lure ethnic Russians into the territory. State media and Russia-linked social media accounts spread allegations that Western countries were manipulating the protests in Kiev and unfounded or false accounts of lurid crimes committed by Ukrainian soldiers.
This time around, the United States and its allies say, Russia is trying to portray Ukraine’s rulers as aggressors and convince its own citizens to support a military move. At the same time, Washington argues, Russia has stationed agents in eastern Ukraine who could carry out bombings against its own forces to blame Kiev.
The White House has repeatedly highlighted what it calls disinformation and is sending classified intelligence reports to its allies, including Ukraine. The State Department recently released a document listing the Russian claims and their refutation. The Treasury Department has sanctioned four men accused of links to influence operations designed to create a pretext for a new invasion of Ukraine.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki spoke of a “strategic decision to call out disinformation when we see it.”
“We are much more aware of the Russian disinformation machine than we were in 2014,” he said this week. “We must tell the global community and the American public very clearly what they are trying to do and why,” he added.
An official of the European Union (EU) told the press on Friday that media aligned with Moscow spread justifications for a conflict similar to those of eight years ago. One of the narratives promoted by these media – apparently in response to recent US complaints – is that Washington is planning its own false flag operation to provoke a confrontation in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow continues to demand guarantees that NATO does not incorporate Ukraine or extend to other countries. Additionally, after British intelligence accused him of being a Russian-backed presidential candidate, Yevheniy Murayev dismissed the allegation, telling the AP that the claim “seems ridiculous and funny.”
Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow have engaged in online give-and-take. On December 21, the page backed by the Kremlin RT.com published a video according to which “US private military companies are stockpiling CHEMICAL COMPONENTS in eastern Ukraine”. The State Department denied this in its document on Russian propaganda. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded in turn with tweets to “unmask @StateDept ‘data’ on Russian disinformation about Ukraine.”
Washington’s efforts have provoked doubts in Kiev, where Zelensky has tried to allay fears of an expanded war as many of his compatriots get ready for combat.
Ukrainian officials privately wonder why the Joe Biden administration is warning of an impending invasion, but failing to impose pre-emptive sanctions or take action against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has been criticized for giving Moscow greater weight over Ukraine and Western Europe. The Biden administration lobbied Democratic lawmakers to oppose a Republican bill that would force sanctions against the pipeline, which has yet to start operating.
The White House has threatened to apply harsh sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion and is preparing to move forces to NATO’s eastern flank. The United States and its allies are sending missiles and other weapons to Ukraine.
Experts say that in both the United States and Ukraine there is a heightened awareness in society about state-sponsored disinformation. For years, Russia has bombarded Ukrainians with text messages and false stories about the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, in which at least 14,000 people have been killed. Additionally, Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election has sparked several investigations and years of heated debate.
Bret Schafer of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance to Secure Democracy said that while it is risky to spread the false accusations to unmask them, “it is necessary to tackle information threats instead of responding to them once they have been released”.
But publicly accusing Russia of misconduct is ultimately a limited-effect deterrent. “He doesn’t care about the damage to his reputation,” he said.