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As Russia threatens Ukraine, the U.S. 'pre-bunks' Russian propaganda

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) hosts French President Emmanuel Macron at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday. Putin and other Russian leaders have sought to portray Ukraine and NATO as the aggressor in the current crisis over Ukraine. The U.S. has gone public with what it calls Russian disinformation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) hosts French President Emmanuel Macron at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday. Putin and other Russian leaders have sought to portray Ukraine and NATO as the aggressor in the current crisis over Ukraine. The U.S. has gone public with what it calls Russian disinformation.

The Biden administration says it doesn't know whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine with the more than 100,000 troops he's amassed near their shared border.

But Biden's national security team says a Russian disinformation campaign is already well underway. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby recently outlined what he described as a Russian plan to create a phony video that could be used as a pretext for a Russian invasion.

"As part of this fake attack, we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses, and actors that would be depicting mourners."

In a similar vein, Britain recently announced that Russia might try to stage a coup in Ukraine and install a leader friendly to the Kremlin — who could then "invite" Russian troops into the country.

This kind of intelligence usually remains secret, but the U.S. and its allies have clearly made a decision to go public.

"This could potentially be called pre-bunking," said Nina Jankowicz, who's with the Wilson Center in Washington and the author of How To Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict.

"Rather than debunking, the (U.S. and British) governments are getting ahead of a potential Russian narrative and attempting to pre-bunk it with this intelligence that they've been declassifying," she said.

U.S. claims face some skepticism

The U.S. and British governments have presented this information without offering proof. They say they can't reveal their sources and methods for obtaining it.

This has led to some skepticism. Critics note the U.S. failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government last year. And the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 on the false premise that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"I know that a lot of people will intuitively, instinctively say, 'Well, U.S. intelligence has gotten major things wrong in the past,'" said Professor Thomas Rid, who studies disinformation at Johns Hopkins University.

He thinks the U.S. and Britain have provided enough information to make their case in this instance.

"It appears that the U.S. intelligence community, with the United Kingdom and others, have very good visibility into Russian planning, because otherwise they wouldn't be able to reveal those details," said Rid, the author of Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare.

"Russia has a history of literally more than 100 years of systematic, well-funded disinformation campaigns," he said. "Everybody is expecting Russia to continue its streak of deception, active measures and disinformation."

Putin and other top Russian officials have insisted that Russia is just conducting military exercises and has no plans to invade Ukraine. In a meeting Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin said he was prepared to keep on talking, but offered no signs that a diplomatic breakthrough was on the horizon.

Russians have frequently targeted Ukraine

Jankowicz served as an advisor to Ukraine's Foreign Ministry several years ago. She notes that Russia aggressively spread lies about Ukraine in 2014 when it first invaded the country.

"The Russians hired a woman and asked her to claim that she had seen a little boy be crucified," she said. "It had been plastered around on Russian state media and taken as fact until it indeed was proven as false."

Ukrainians say that have faced false Russian claims for years and have learned to expect this from Moscow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky touched on this recently in a televised speech, urging his compatriots, "Protect your body from viruses, your brain from lies, your heart from panic."

Bret Schafer, with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, monitors ongoing Russian propaganda campaigns.

He says Russian officials and pro-government media have repeated several main talking points. They're portraying Ukraine as a "hotbed of Nazis." They've been describing Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors in the current crisis. And they're warning the Russian people that Ukraine and the U.S. might carry out a phony operation as a provocation for attacking Russia.

"There's this idea that it's really the U.S. and Ukraine that are really planning a false flag operation," Schafer said Tuesday on a Zoom panel looking at Russian disinformation.

Thomas Rid said his years of research, including interviews with former disinformation specialists in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, taught him the need to maintain perspective.

"They clearly tell you that they exaggerated the effect of their own active measures and disinformation operations because they could get away with it," Rid said. "They could simply claim they were better than they really were, and nobody could prove them wrong. So organizations tend to believe in their own mythmaking."

This creates a challenge, he said.

"The dilemma is that we have to talk about disinformation," he noted. "We have to talk about disinformation in a nuanced, sober way. If we blow them out of proportion, we're helping the adversary."

In this case, an adversary that's had lots of practice.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.