Russia’s information war did not proceed according to plan, much like its military decapitation strategy.
In the past two decades, the Russian state and its armed forces have mastered the conduct of information warfare. Moscow’s paradigm for this type of war targets primarily “the consciousness of the masses.” The Russian approach combines military and nonmilitary aspects and proceeds to deny, exploit, influence, corrupt, or destroy the adversary’s information. As such, it is a force multiplier that brings enormous dividends to Moscow at relatively low costs, all at the service of an ideology advocating Russian patriotism and the resurgence of Russia as a superpower.
Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a textbook example of how information warfare facilitated this operation, nullifying any consequential resistance. President Vladimir Putin boasted at the time that “no one was even injured.”
Russia’s information warfare is often routed via a nexus of institutional channels, ranging from RT television (formerly known as Russia Today) to Sputnik multimedia, multilingual YouTube channels, and social media accounts. These channels were the conduit for multiple information campaigns against Western governments, prompting several high-level official complaints.
In the current war against Ukraine, though, Russia’s info-warriors seem suddenly slack and impotent, failing miserably in the war of narratives. These are still early days, but there is something amiss.
This can be attributed, in part, to the US/UK intelligence agencies changing their strategy. Traditionally, they rarely presented their materials to the public. After circulating weapons of mass destruction (WMD) falsehoods in the run-up to the 2003 War on Iraq, these agencies became more reserved, not divulging evidence, even when faced with Russian provocations.
Nevertheless, when Moscow began massing troops on Ukraine’s borders, the Biden administration shifted its stance. It became very vocal about Russian movements, manoeuvres, and planning. It decided to counter the Kremlin’s shadowy manoeuvres with solid facts.
Consequently, the US/UK national security agencies engaged in concerted and more frequent “authorised disclosures” to allied entities and the media. They have released copious details, warning about possible fake terrorist plots and false flag operations. They have given almost a daily assessment of the troops’ movements and likely plans.
While this approach did not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, it seems to have scrambled many of the Kremlin’s tactics and may have even created doubt and confusion in the minds of Russian planners. At the very least, this move has prevented the Russian narrative from creating a casus belli that justifies the invasion. Importantly, it has also prepared the world opinion for what was coming.
Another factor is the rise of open-source intelligence (OSINT), which dented the Kremlin’s info-war supremacy. OSINT is a form of collective analysis of publicly available intelligence, conducted primarily via tech-savvy volunteer activists who bring their field expertise to verify the information and analyse sources.
Since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian tensions, this virtual community has joined forces to debunk fake news and assert the credibility of information. As they often present their findings in real-time, OSINT experts have been feeding the “Twittersphere” with timely and pertinent analysis even quicker than renowned news agencies and defence analysts.
In the past, Russia’s info-warriors would spread fake videos and doctored photos to instil fear, confusion, or sympathy for the Kremlin’s agenda. However, thanks to OSINT practitioners, such disinformation is exposed on the spot and its conveyors ridiculed.
No longer uncontested
Moscow reigned supreme over cyberspace and information spaces in previous wars. In 2016, Ukraine was subjected to a barrage of 6,500 hack attacks. Paradoxically, in 2022, Russian entities are the ones on the receiving end of cyber warfare, as the Anonymous hacker collective declared a “cyberwar” against the Russian government. Shortly after this declaration, RT television stated that a massive cyber-attack had hit its website.
Previously, Moscow capitalised on the democratic environment in the West to spread its narratives unhindered. However, Russian state-owned media outlets have faced multiple physical and virtual restrictions in the past few weeks. For instance, RT has seen European capitals question its presence, impose sanctions, and even ban its broadcasting.
Social media giant Facebook has marked Russia’s state-owned media content as unreliable, while other social media platforms have curtailed these media from running ads or monetising their content. This is a departure from the complacent environment which allowed Russian-funded outlets to flourish.
Losing the victim card
Finally, the Kremlin has lost the battle for the moral higher ground. In all its preceding wars, Russian war planners played the “victim card.” Often these assertions are about Russian citizens being victims of terrorist acts or the target of ‘genocide.’ These claims are then used as pretexts for unleashing devastating wars overseas. The false-flag terrorist operation that was used to justify the invasion of Chechnya in 1999 is a case in point.
No such accusations could stick in the case of the current war. There was no credible terrorist threat, nor has genocide been committed against Russian speakers in Ukraine. Inversely, the Ukrainian side is increasingly perceived as David vs Goliath, attracting the sympathy of world opinion and international media.
Worse still, President Putin’s speech, which tried to persuade audiences on the war’s legitimacy, was counterproductive. Labelling the Ukrainian leadership as a group of “neo-Nazis and drug addicts” and denying the existence of Ukraine throughout history did not sit well with international audiences. It was deemed “one of the most bizarre speeches of his 22 years as Russia’s leader.”
The fact that Russian-funded newsrooms issued guidelines preventing the use of words such as “war” and “invasion” while using Orwellian framing to depict Moscow’s war as a “special military operation” and a “peace enforcement mission” with the purpose of “liberating” land from Ukraine, did not help establish credibility. Such a state of affairs prompted several international journalists to quit RT television, criticising its editorial policies.
Let us not forget that Moscow’s past wars were waged against much weaker opponents (e.g., Georgia, Syria’s opposition groups, Ukraine in 2014). Hence, Russia’s military planners engineered this war draped with hubris and complacency. However, they discovered quickly that this was not going to be the habitual cakewalk. Is this the prelude to more discomfiture to come? Watch that space.
This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the TRT World website.