For years, the Kremlin’s power to weave disinformation into a believable narrative was a seemingly ubiquitous boogeyman, threatening to disrupt elections and sow discord thousands of miles from Moscow.
Then, as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, the tide began to turn.
From the moment the Kremlin claimed that the buildup of troops on its neighbor’s border was just a training exercise, the United States was able to turn one of its mighty assets – classified intelligence – into an effective tool by making it public, undermining Russian forces before they could make their next moves.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan explained the strategy on ABC’s ‘This Week’ on Sunday, explaining that the United States had publicly warned against attacks on residential areas like the Apparent Atrocities Committee. outside the capital Kyiv.
“In fact, before the war started, we declassified the intelligence and presented it indicating that there was a plan from the highest levels of the Russian government to target civilians who oppose the invasion, to provoke violence against them, to organize efforts to brutalize them, to try to terrorize the population and subjugate them,” Sullivan said.
While these revelations have so far succeeded in uniting the West, and indeed much of the world, against Russia, the question of whether the United States can retain the upper hand in a field traditionally dominated by Russia remains an open question.
ABC News spoke to several experts on Russian disinformation and the new US selective intelligence release strategy to counter it.
Waving the “false flag”
More than a month before the attack on Ukraine began, US officials have sounded the alarm, warning they have credible evidence that Russia may attempt a ‘false flag operation’ – manufacturer a pretext to justify an invasion.
While the revelation didn’t deter Moscow from moving in, experts say it still made a profound difference.
“If they could have run a decent false flag operation, it would have given some audiences reason to believe it,” said Todd Helmus, behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation who specializes in misinformation and countering misinformation. Russian and former deployed adviser. to U.S. military commanders, ABC News told. “It could have sown some disunity in the Western response or perhaps made support for Ukraine a partisan issue. The release of intelligence took that away from Russia.”
Helmus says the American first strike was critical.
“That’s the key thing in propaganda wars – the first person to get their point across really owns that space,” he said. “So for the United States to do the pre-bunking, they immediately own the space and flatten Russia.”
After their strategy was disrupted at the jump, Russia was unable to effectively recast the rationale for its invasion, or present its campaign as successful to a wide audience, according to Helmus.
“It’s hard to put lipstick on a pig as they say,” he said. “So badly is going for Russia that it’s hard for them to convey it properly.”
Emily Harding is Deputy Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and previously served as Deputy Director of Staff for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. She says that while parts of the US strategy may seem logical, it’s nonetheless surprising to see the country taking such a proactive approach.
“It’s so shocking. The U.S. government in general is in a bad position to mix everything up in the information space,” Harding said, citing the inherent limits imposed by democratic government with strict rules regarding influence over the public and a bureaucracy that generally ensures declassification. process is slow.
In recent weeks, the United States has gone so far as to share intelligence on the inner workings of the Kremlin, claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being misinformed by his advisers because “they are too afraid to tell the truth” about their army’s failures in Ukraine – a move according to Harding that could be aimed at shaking the confidence of the country’s elite.
“If you’re loyal to Putin, what you assume is that this guy knows what he’s doing,” she said. “A release like that could undermine that judgement.”
“I think what has been good about these releases is that the public has seen how good the intelligence community is at anticipating certain events, reading our adversaries, and then providing decision makers with the actionable intelligence they need. need to make a good decision,” she added. mentioned. “Among many things in this conflict, people are going to see the early stages as a success of information warfare.”
Meanwhile, Wilson Center Russian media and propaganda expert Sarah Oates said that while the Kremlin was extremely disciplined and adept at its anti-democratic propaganda and depiction of NATO as an enemy force designed to destroy the Russia, Putin has deviated from his trajectory. in the last days before the invasion.
“In many ways, we can see the invasion of Ukraine as sort of a natural outcome of this propaganda war that has been going on for years, even decades,” she said. “On the other hand, in February, Putin goes completely out of the script. He just dives into the world of fantasy. He suddenly talks about totally implausible and very deniable things.”
Oates says that after the invasion, Russia – hanging by a thread – reverted to its traditional disinformation tactics. But now they are falling flat.
“I can still see echoes of this in the current information warfare strategy that Russia has been pursuing, particularly in the so-called bio-lab myth. But in general, it’s bad. That’s all just bad. It’s not effective propaganda,” she said.
Truth and Consequences
While information declassification has proven effective so far, there are limits to the strategy – and the risks that come with it.
“As a former intelligence professional, every time you see declassified information, it first makes you swell with pride, but then strikes terror in your heart. You are very proud because you know what the intelligence community is capable.” said Harding. “You also know what sacrifices have been made to get this information and you worry about the possible consequences. There are always consequences.”
She says she’s confident the administration conducts a full cost-benefit analysis before releasing any information, and a senior intelligence official told ABC News that “standard declassification procedures, which are in place to protect sources and methods, have been followed.Yet Harding notes that the repercussions can be disastrous, including the destruction of invaluable working relationships with other countries and “the potential of a human being put at risk.”
Oates says there are also more abstract limitations that work against US transparency, such as inadvertently providing fodder to the opposition.
“It’s hard because when we release information it can be manipulated and used against us and incorporated into their narrative, like Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland trying to say in a congressional hearing ‘well , yes, Ukraine has biological laboratories for research,” she said, pointing out how this innocuous revelation has been twisted by various sources to claim that the country is secretly developing biological weapons. “It’s like — no, she didn’t say that.”
“These are just two completely different systems. And, in general, the Russian propaganda system has been able to spin networks around the US open media system,” Oates continued. “Relying on people to be knowledgeable about information or to verify their sources is kind of weak.”
A Russian resurgence?
Even though Russia has lost the information battle, that does not mean that it has lost the information war.
“I don’t know what they have in their pocket,” Helmus said. “They’re pretty good at adapting. Their campaign targeting the United States in 2016 was full of adapting. They can play this game of ‘it doesn’t work, let’s try that.’
Harding fears the Russian failures will push the Kremlin to new extremes.
“I’m very worried that the Russian government is a bit of a wounded animal right now and looking for ways to strike,” she said.
And Harding says the impact of this strike could be felt much closer to home.
“It’s a big government. They can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she said. “I think it’s still entirely possible that they’re still trying to play our 2022 election, that they’re still trying to sow divisions in American society, especially as this war continues. .”
ABC’s Cindy Smith contributed to this report.