How Russia uses US military veterans in its propaganda war against Ukraine
John David McIntyre served in the U.S. Army for little more than two years.
A U.S. Army veteran who allegedly defected to Moscow offers a visceral example of how the Kremlin uses Americans with military experience to promote its propaganda about the Ukraine conflict.
John David McIntyre served in the Army as an Indirect Fire Infantryman (11C) from June 2015 to August 2017, according to the service. McIntyre never deployed while in the Army and he left the service as a private first class.
McIntyre told Russia’s RT television news network that he fought with Ukraine’s International Legion in order to gather information about the unit for Russia’s intelligence services. He also described his former comrades in arms as Nazis who had committed war crimes, but none of his claims could be independently verified and his comments closely mirrored official Russian propaganda about pro-Ukrainian forces.
It is unclear exactly why McIntyre left the U.S. military after little more than two years. Due to federal privacy laws, the Army is unable to publicly disclose what type of discharge McIntyre received or if he was subject to any disciplinary or medical actions, Army spokesman Matthew Leonard told Task & Purpose on Monday.
Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news, entertainment, and gear in your inbox daily.
The Russian government is likely to use McIntyre’s comments to RT as part of its efforts to undermine the U.S. military’s credibility, said Olga Lautman, an expert on Russia and Ukraine who works with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C., and The Institute for European Integrity in Brussels, Belgium.
“They are extremely jealous of our military, and they’ve always tried to be competitive on the world stage with our military,” Lautman told Task & Purpose. “Clearly we see after 2022, what the Russian military is actually capable of, which is very little — besides cruel tactics and targeting of civilians.”
But if Russia hopes to use McIntyre’s comments to sway world opinion about Ukraine and the International Legion, it is not likely to see much in the way of results, experts said.
“My guess is that while it may result in a blip on the news cycle it will not go very far,” said retired Army Col. David Maxwell, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C. “I think people are tired of and skeptical of people like [Edward] Snowden and those who seem to be looking for their 15 minutes of fame or are simply misguided and deluded individuals. Maybe tired is not the word but most people do not look at people like this as having any credibility so they are not taken very seriously. It might be newsworthy initially but people quickly lose interest.”
McIntyre’s appearance on RT is more likely to reinforce some people’s existing opinions about the war in Ukraine rather than persuade viewers that the International Legion is a group of Nazis and criminals, said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t think this episode will tarnish the image of the International Legion, really,” Coffey told Task & Purpose. “How many people — especially in America — are watching RT? “If they’re watching RT, they’ve already made up their minds.”
Despite his claims to RT that he has provided Russia with information about Ukraine’s International Legion, McIntyre was a low-level foot soldier in the unit, limiting his value to Russia’s intelligence services, Coffey said.
“It’s not as if he was in the chain of command making big decisions,” Coffey said. “It’s not as if a general defected.”
McIntyre’s comments will likely have more resonance with Russian audiences rather than U.S., European, or Ukrainian viewers, said Marek Posard, an expert on disinformation with the RAND Corporation.
History can offer some perspective on McIntyre’s case. In the 1960s, four U.S. soldiers, including Pfc. James Dresnok, defected to North Korea Posard told Task & Purpose. North Korea featured Dresbok in its information operations, but he was most effective for internal propaganda, such as starring as the “evil American” in North Korean movies.
It’s also worth noting that it is unclear whether McIntyre has actually defected to Russia or if his statements to RT were coerced, Posard said.
McIntyre’s comments about widespread substance abuse within the U.S. Army and Nazis in the International Legion are very similar to the Kremlin’s propaganda talking points, Posard told Task & Purpose.
If McIntyre spoke to RT voluntarily, he would be the latest American to participate in Russian information operations. Navy veteran Patrick Lancaster, who describes himself as a “crowdfunded journalist,” has made several videos from Ukraine that have uncritically parroted Russian propaganda.
Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Lancaster reported that three people had been killed by a Ukrainian roadside bomb, but independent news sites later revealed that the incident was likely staged, noting that the skull of one of the alleged victims from the bomb attack showed signs that it had undergone an autopsy before being placed at the scene.
Marine veteran and former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter has also spouted Kremlin conspiracy theories in Russian media, including RT and Sputnik. In April 2022, Ritter’s Twitter account was briefly suspended after he claimed that Ukrainian police — not Russian forces — were responsible for killing hundreds of hundreds of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv.
Going forward, the Russian government is likely to cite McIntyre’s comments to RT to persuade the Russian public that a growing chorus of Americans support the Kremlin’s war aims in Ukraine, Lautman said.
The fact that McIntyre fought for Ukraine and then allegedly defected with maps and other documents makes him more useful to Russian propaganda than other Americans who parrot Russian propaganda, she said.
“Literally every other day I see another American, who held a position in one of the government agencies, being touted on Russian propaganda to push pro-Kremlin points that it is the United States who pushed Russia into war in Ukraine,” Lautman said.
The latest on Task & Purpose
- The Marine Corps is getting rid of Scout Snipers
- Air Force relieves 2 commanders and 4 subordinates at Minot Air Force Base
- Why mortars are increasingly important on the modern battlefield
- American vet who claims he defected to Russia in Ukraine served just 2 years in the US Army, left as PFC
- How an Air Force captain was court-martialed for hanging up on a colonel
Want to write for Task & Purpose? Click here.