Prior to kicking off its mega-sized Charlie Foxtrot in Ukraine, the Russians were widely regarded as masters of deception and propaganda.
Whether it was Russian troops masquerading as “little green men” in Crimea in 2014 or the successful hacking of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, the Kremlin set the gold standard for subterfuge. As Russian President Vladimir Putin was poised to send his forces into Ukraine in February, the State Department warned that Russia’s invasion could be preceded by an elaborately staged “false flag” operation as a pretext for war, just as the Nazis had done in 1939 when they claimed Poland had attacked Germany.
But far from being the juggernaut of neo-Soviet disinformation that the West had expected, Russia’s information operations about the war in Ukraine have largely sucked. Just prior to the invasion, Russia claimed that a Ukrainian roadside bomb had killed three people inside separatist-held eastern Ukraine, yet the skull of one of the charred bodies that the Russians paraded in front of sympathetic media showed signs that it had undergone an autopsy procedure, meaning the person was dead before being placed at the scene of the alleged attack.
Since then, Russia has claimed that the reason its troops were forced to abandon their advance on Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv was that Russia never wanted the city anyway, and the initial attacks were just part of an elaborate ruse meant to distract Ukrainian forces from Russia’s real military objectives in the Donets Basin. (As comebacks go, this is one step above: ‘Fine, I didn’t want to be your date to the stupid prom in the first place!’)
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More recently, Russia’s government has unconvincingly claimed that the Ukrainians did not sink the cruiser Moskva, once the flagship Russia’s Black Sea Fleet; and Russian propaganda has accidentally used pictures of criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as well as a Marine in World War II to honor the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War.
One reason why Russian information operations are flailing is “they don’t have a lot of material to work with,” said Marek Posard, an expert on disinformation with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
“There’s only so much you can do when X number of your generals are being killed in theater,” Posard told Task & Purpose. (In this case, the Ukrainians claim to have killed 12 Russian general officers.)
The United States and other Western nations tend to do better at information warfare when they tell the truth, and right now the facts are not in Russia’s favor, because the invasion of Ukraine has revealed how the Russian military is not as professional as many thought it was.
“The military operations in Ukraine clearly are not going well for the Russians,” Posard said. “You can’t hide the fact that civilian casualties are high. You can’t hide the fact that the Russians are shelling targets that they should not be shelling. You can’t hide the fact that there are Russian soldiers lying dead and there’s tanks on the side of the road that have been blown up.”
However, the Russians have often made mistakes and used flimsy claims as part of their propaganda efforts because their goal is to flood the airwaves with as much disinformation as possible, said Olga Lautman, an expert on Russia and Ukraine.
Back in 2014, Russian media claimed without any evidence whatsoever that the Ukrainian military had crucified a 3-year-old boy in the city of Slovyansk, said Lautman, a senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, a nonprofit research institution.
While the story was discredited in western media, Russian information operations are not supposed to make sense, she said. Instead, these operations are intended to create confusion.
“It’s just meant to put out so much propaganda and so many different points to make the person throw their hands up and just say, ‘I don’t know what the truth is,’” Lautman told Task & Purpose.
In fact, sometimes the Russians will cook up completely contradictory narratives in which some propaganda claims discredit other propaganda assertions, Lautman said.
“It is not meant to direct you in any which way,” Lautman said. “It is not meant for a critical thinker. It is more meant to pollute the information space with so much disinformation that the person can’t get to the truth.”
Separately, the Russians also launch very targeted propaganda campaigns against specific people or on certain issues, and those efforts tend to be more thought out, she said. For example, the Russians are currently putting a lot of time and effort into claims that the Ukrainian government is kidnapping journalists to silence them.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, though, its information operations have been weaker than in the past because foreign media have been on the ground to discredit Russian propaganda, Lautman said. The New York Times recently exposed Russia’s lies about the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.
As long as the media coverage continues, Russia’s propaganda campaign will remain weak, Lautman said. “When it wanes, then you will see Russia’s disinformation operations being a lot more successful because they’ll be able to get their message across,” she said.
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