At a glance.

  • Moscow’s line: “russophobia” is the new anti-semitism.
  • Varying strategic assessments of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
  • Russian influence operations in Ukraine appear to fall short of their objective.
  • Know your audience.
  • Russian disinformation directed at North America follows the old entropic playbook.

Russia’s account of events in Ukraine: russophobia is the new anti-semitism.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, moderated the St. Petersberg International Economic Forum last Friday, and spent some time closeted with President Putin, with whom she exchanged views on events in Ukraine. The Daily Beast (whose Julia Davis has been watching Rossiya 1 closely) reports that Ms Simonyan subsequently appeared on Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov to offer an account of her discussions with President Putin. She said she asked him why he had shown so much restraint in attacks against Ukrainian cities, a restraint difficult for non-Russian observers to discern. “He said, “Would we want to turn those cities into Stalingrad?” Indeed, our people are there! Those are our future cities! It’s obvious… This is our land and our people, we’ll later have to restore it.” Ms Simonyan went on to offer her own characterization of the action in Ukraine, presumably derived from her discussions with President Putin. There’s no war, not even, really, a Russian intervention. What’s going on in the Donbas is a civil war between Russians and anti-Russians, and Russia is providing support to the Russians. As she explained:

““It’s obvious to any person that there is no war between Russia and Ukraine. This isn’t even a special operation against the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This is a civil war in Ukraine. Part of Ukrainians, who are Russophobes and are anti-Russian in the same sense fascists were antisemitic—absolutely the same way—is destroying another part of its own people. Russia is simply supporting one side of those warring parties. Why this particular side? That is obvious, because they are Russians. Those are our people. And over there, they are anti-Russians. That’s all.”

She also had an explanation as to why this wasn’t more widely appreciated internationally: the West has blocked RT and Sputnik. If they hadn’t done so, the people in those hostile precincts would see through the Russophobia and their besotted support for Kyiv would evaporate.

In a spirit of accuracy, if not contradiction, we must point out that we have had no difficulty accessing the websites of either RT or Sputnik, and we have no special privileges in this regard. You can google them and see for yourself.

Varying strategic assessments of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The Guardian reports that Admiral Sir Tony Radikin, Britain’s senior military officer, has said that Russia has already “strategically lost” the war in Ukraine, trading personnel and materiel for relatively limited and insignificant gains. Russia is, he argued, now a “more diminished power,” and that diminution is a direct consequence of its invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov offered counterpoint in an interview he gave to the BBC. “We didn’t invade Ukraine,” Mr. Lavrov explained. “We declared a special military operation because we had absolutely no other way of explaining to the west that dragging Ukraine into Nato was a criminal act.” He dismissed credible accounts of Russian atrocities as “fake news.” “It’s a great pity,” the Foreign Minister said, “but international diplomats, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN secretary general and other UN representatives, are being put under pressure by the west. And very often they’re being used to amplify fake news spread by the west. Russia is not squeaky clean. Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed of showing who we are.”

Russian influence operations in Ukraine appear to fall short of their objective.

CyberScoop reviews the operation and results of Russian attempts to isolate the portions of Ukraine it’s occupied and “canalize” the information they receive. This has been done by routing Internet and telecommunications traffic to and from those regions through Russian providers, controlling content and subjecting comms that transit the network to deep packet inspection. The ability to survey Ukrainians’ communications in the occupied regions serves the general goal of controlling the population, but it also serves specific operational security needs, since Ukrainians have regularly reported Russian troop movements and other activities they observe, and that information finds its way to Ukrainian military intelligence.

Content moderation and communications restrictions have other objectives. Victor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s SSSCIP, said, “we understand that the objective is to sow disinformation, to sow panic and instability.” The propaganda is tailored to the specific audience of each occupied region. “It is to make people understand that they have been forgotten,” Zhora explained, adding that the hopelessness the occupiers seek to instill serves the longer term goal of Russification. “The Ukrainian army is losing their last chance to return to normal life, so please get these Russian passports, continue collaborating, etc.”

Information, while restricted, continues to reach contested regions of Ukraine, and observers give SpaceX’s StarLink a good bit of credit for maintaining a degree of connectivity in those areas.

Leaflets misidentify their audience. (Or maybe those are just the ones they had lying around.)

Newsweek reports that last week the area north of Kyiv saw leaflets (delivered by artillery) that urged readers not to be deceived. “They are trying to force you to defend the interests of others!” the screamer read, and the others were identified as “tycoons,” “gangs,” “terrorists.” But the aim seems wayward. The audience was obviously Ukrainian, because that’s where the shells landed, but the leaflets were addressed to the “Citizens of the Chechen Republic!” (exclamation point in the original). The leaflets were apparently leftovers from Russia’s famously brutal campaign against Chechen insurgents from 1999 to 2009, shipped to Belarus and fired into Ukraine by Russian guns. Whether it was a mistake or whether the Russian army simply thought the text was close enough for government work is unclear, but the bombardment is unlikely to have persuaded many of its readers. Maybe next time address them to “Occupant,” or “Current Resident.”

Can you deliver propaganda by artillery? Yes, you can, although it’s not often done nowadays. You load the leaflets into what are called “base-ejecting projectiles,” the kind of shell normally used for delivering illumination (flares on parachutes) or smoke charges. A fuze blows the base off the projectile while it’s over the target and dumps the leaflets out the back, whence they flutter to the ground, to be read, overlooked, ignored, kept as a souvenir, or swept up as litter. The technique is both old-fashioned and puerile, like driving a loud-speaker truck through the streets to trumpet the advantages the conqueror brings to the locals. That the leaflet projos were fired from Belarus suggests two things: that the Russian advance from the north and east is no longer within cannon range of Kyiv’s suburbs, and that Belarus remains a Russian satrapy.

And Russian influence operations in other countries take a different tack.

Microsoft’s report on Russian disinformation sees a lot of it being consumed (at least in terms of page views) in the West, and the New York Times reads this as a success for Moscow. But the operations that appear to be resonating (a bit) involve anti-vaccine propaganda (domestic propaganda strongly urges Russians to be vaccinated, as one would expect). The effects of vaccine disinformation are difficult to gauge, but the approach is the entropic, disruptive one that Russia has used in, for example, earlier campaigns aimed at disrupting elections. The point isn’t to teach or even really to convince, but to confuse, to darken counsel, to introduce friction and exacerbate existing fissures in the target population.

The Daily Beast, citing studies obtained from the US Department of Homeland Security, describes a major thrust of Russian disinformation: sowing doubt about whether supporting Ukraine is really worth it. It’s the doubt that matters, not achieving conviction.

Microsoft on Russian disinformation.

Microsoft’s report on the cyber phases of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, published yesterday, draws attention to the importance influence operations have played in Russian planning and execution. Their blog post on the report is worth quoting at length on the matters, since is expresses not only Redmond’s assessment of the threat, but also its views on countermeasures that may usefully be employed against it:

“Russian agencies are conducting global cyber-influence operations to support their war efforts. These combine tactics developed by the KGB over several decades with new digital technologies and the internet to give foreign influence operations a broader geographic reach, higher volume, more precise targeting, and greater speed and agility. Unfortunately, with sufficient planning and sophistication, these cyber-influence operations are well positioned to take advantage of the longstanding openness of democratic societies and the public polarization that is characteristic of current times. 

“As the war in Ukraine has progressed, Russian agencies are focusing their cyber-influence operations on four distinct audiences. They are targeting the Russian population with the goal of sustaining support for the war effort. They are targeting the Ukrainian population with the goal of undermining confidence in the country’s willingness and ability to withstand Russian attacks. They are targeting American and European populations with the goal of undermining Western unity and deflecting criticism of Russian military war crimes. And they are starting to target populations in nonaligned countries, potentially in part to sustain their support at the United Nations and in other venues. 

“Russian cyber-influence operations are building on and are connected to tactics developed for other cyber activities. Like the APT teams that work within Russian intelligence services, Advance Persistent Manipulator (APM) teams associated with Russian government agencies act through social media and digital platforms. They are pre-positioning false narratives in ways that are similar to the pre-positioning of malware and other software code. They are then launching broad-based and simultaneous “reporting” of these narratives from government-managed and influenced websites and amplifying their narratives through technology tools designed to exploit social media services. Recent examples include narratives around biolabs in Ukraine and multiple efforts to obfuscate military attacks against Ukrainian civilian targets.  

“As part of a new initiative at Microsoft, we are using AI, new analytics tools, broader data sets, and a growing staff of experts to track and forecast this cyber threat. Using these new capabilities, we estimate that Russian cyber influence operations successfully increased the spread of Russian propaganda after the war began by 216 percent in Ukraine and 82 percent in the United States.  

“These ongoing Russian operations build on recent sophisticated efforts to spread false COVID narratives in multiple Western countries. These included state-sponsored cyber-influence operations in 2021 that sought to discourage vaccine adoption through English-language internet reports while simultaneously encouraging vaccine usage through Russian-language sites. During the last six months, similar Russian cyber influence operations sought to help inflame public opposition to COVID-19 policies in New Zealand and Canada.  

“We will continue to expand Microsoft’s work in this field in the weeks and months ahead. This includes both internal growth and through the agreement we announced last week to acquire Miburo Solutions, a leading cyber threat analysis and research company specializing in the detection of and response to foreign cyber influence operations. 

“We’re concerned that many current Russian cyber influence operations currently go for months without proper detection, analysis, or public reporting. This increasingly impacts a wide range of important institutions in both the public and private sectors. And the longer the war lasts in Ukraine, the more important these operations likely will become for Ukraine itself. This is because a longer war will require sustaining public support from the inevitable challenge of greater fatigue. This should add urgency to the importance of strengthening Western defenses against these types of foreign cyber influence attacks.”