The Russian assault on Ukraine is not just an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation that is producing horrific destruction and civilian torment. It’s also the biggest war of the modern misinformation era.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his mouthpieces are weaving the most audacious and fatuous alternative reality surrounding any 21st-century conflict – one that renders current diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the war meaningless and futile.
On Thursday, for instance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed with a straight face after talks with his Ukrainian counterpart in Turkey – which, not surprisingly, failed – that Russia “did not attack Ukraine.”
Not only was Lavrov’s claim a lie, as the world knows, it was especially offensive since it came a day after a horrific Russian attack on a children’s and maternity hospital in Ukraine that has been widely denounced as a war crime. And it coincided with unfounded claims from Moscow, which were even picked up by China in its efforts to boost Russian propaganda, that the United States had a bioweapons program in Ukraine, which officials in Washington fear could be laying a pretext for Russia’s own use of chemical or biological weapons against civilians.
“Unfortunately, I can confirm that the Russian leadership, including Minister Lavrov, live in their own reality,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CNBC on Thursday. “He told me looking in my eyes that the pictures of pregnant women being taken from under the rubble of the maternity house are fake.”
Misinformation warfare has long been a weapon of the Russian state. Moscow spun multiple conspiracy theories about the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014, apparently by a Russian missile system, for instance. And Russian state media aired an interview in which two alleged spies blamed for using a nerve agent to poison a Russian defector in England in 2018 absurdly claimed they were in the country to visit a famed cathedral spire in the city of Salisbury.
But the misinformation offensive has hit a new peak in the war on Ukraine, which Putin falsely justified by saying the country needed to be “de-Nazified” and did not have a right to exist as a state. The phrase was especially egregious given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Russian state media has portrayed Russians as victims of the war and covered the invasion as an attempt to liberate the Ukrainian population even as bombs and missiles rain down on civilians.
It is an approach that has multiple payoffs for Moscow. It can be used as cover for atrocities and potential war crimes like the attack on the maternity hospital. Misinformation also plays into the Kremlin’s false narrative about the nature of the war – that it is the victim, which is served up to Russians on state media networks. The Russian claims might be absurd but they also find an audience among conspiracy theorists on social media and can be used by propagandists, even in Western countries, to cast doubt on the credibility of leaders building a united front against Moscow. CNN’s Daniel Dale reported on Thursday, for instance, that videos falsely described as showing Ukrainian “crisis actors” have been viewed millions of times on pro-Russia social media accounts in the last two weeks.
Russia’s baseless claims about the state of the war in Ukraine may also be designed to deflect attention at home and in Europe from the strategic and economic disaster that the invasion has become. US intelligence chiefs said in Washington on Thursday that despite badly misjudging the conflict, Putin was expected to escalate it since, politically, he cannot afford to admit he lost.
The misinformation campaign also makes it impossible for diplomatic efforts to make real progress, since there is no common definition of reality on which to base discussions. This will be an issue if, at some point, Western leaders seek to construct so-called diplomatic off-ramps that Putin could use to exit the conflict without losing face. Although, given his facility with creating fake realities, the Russian leader could presumably simply declare he had forged victory in Ukraine – even though it would be obvious to anyone outside Russia that he would be covering up a defeat.
Putin’s apparent existence in a parallel version of reality may also have dangerous implications, since it appears to be conditioning his decision-making. Some Western officials and observers worry that the Russian President may be locked in a world of false information served up by his intelligence agencies, which could lead him to escalate the conflict – not just against Ukraine, but also against the West.
War on truth is a global threat
The war on truth is not confined to Russia. Its power has played out in politics all over the world, not least in Putin’s election interference in the US in 2016. The potency of the tactic has been magnified multiple times by social media networks that allow misinformation to spread quickly, often unchecked, and that tend to silo like-minded people into networks of falsehoods.
This dynamic has played out in the United States over the last year, where ex-President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. His complaints have shredded the truth and convinced millions of supporters, who prefer to believe that their candidate actually won. Trump’s falsehoods about the election system are causing fundamental damage to America’s democracy. CNN’s Fredreka Schouten reported Thursday that 1 in 5 local election officials say they are likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 presidential race.
The ex-President’s lies have carved deep schisms in US society that will take years to heal and that will deprive America of a common, national version of truth – in much the same way Putin’s falsehoods about the war in Ukraine are hampering diplomatic efforts to end the war. Unlike Putin’s lies, Trump’s were not used as the basis for a major war. But they did help incite the US Capitol insurrection, one of the worst attacks on democracy in US history.
The Russian falsehoods and record of lies about the conflict also offer Ukrainians little incentive to engage in serious dialogue with Russia even as their country is destroyed city by city and the refugee exodus passes 2 million.
Russia has, for example, lied about every aspect of the conflict – dating back to its justifications for the war and insistence that it wouldn’t invade and running right up to Lavrov’s comments on Thursday. The deep mistrust between Russian invaders and Ukrainians has been exacerbated as civilian evacuation routes agreed upon by the two sides were shelled by Russian troops. That experience is undermining the latest Russian announcement that it would open new evacuation corridors to its own territory for Ukrainians.
“I think the Ukrainians, to put it mildly, are taking this with a large grain of salt. I can’t imagine that anybody, really, at this point, believes much of anything that Russia says,” said Steve Hall, a former head of CIA Russia operations, on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Thursday.
CIA chief says Putin is losing the misinformation war
If Russian undertakings cannot be trusted on the basic issue of protecting civilians, it is hard to see how any future cessation of hostilities could be agreed on that both sides could trust. The sense of parallel realities helps explain why international diplomatic efforts to end the crisis are making no headway.
“I do not see a diplomatic solution in the coming hours or even coming days,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters in Versailles ahead of a summit of EU leaders on Thursday, blaming Putin’s conditions for a ceasefire in Ukraine, which he said were “not acceptable to anyone.”
The White House, meanwhile, is warning that Russia could stage a “false-flag” operation in Ukraine, another well-known misinformation tactic, to justify its possible future use of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, following conspiracy theories that the US operated a biological weapons program in Ukraine.
“Russia has a history of inventing outright lies like this,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday, explaining a tweet thread she had written on the issue the day before. “The objective was to make clear the inaccuracy of the information, the misinformation they are trying to put out, and make clear to the world they not only have the capacity, they have a history of using chemical and biological weapons and that in this moment we should have our eyes open for that possibility.”
Russia has even requested a United Nations Security Council meeting on Friday about the United States allegedly developing chemical weapons in Ukraine. “We’re not going to let Russia get away with gaslighting the world or using the UN Security Council as a venue for promoting their disinformation,” Olivia Dalton, spokeswoman for the US Mission to the UN, said Thursday evening.
While Russia has lifted its misinformation warfare to a new peak in the war in Ukraine, the conflict will also mark a historical turning point because of the US information counteroffensive. The Biden administration, using selectively declassified intelligence, warned the world in advance of Russia’s plans after Putin massed men and materiel on the borders of Ukraine in recent months. The accurate predictions of his intentions – despite Russian denials that an invasion was imminent – have helped to repair the public credibility for agencies that failed to thwart the September 11, 2001, attacks and also got the intelligence wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 US invasion.
“In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians,” CIA Director Bill Burns said in a Senate hearing on Thursday.
“In this case, I think we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression, built on a body of lies and false narratives. So this is one information war that I think Putin is losing.”