Article by Matthew Frizzell
Moments before the February 24 invasion of Ukraine began, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech stating the reasons as to why he ordered Russian forces to attack their western neighbor:
“The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”
If you were confused by this statement, you’re not alone: what Putin said has little to do with reality, but was rather meant as part of a narrative being spun as part of a decades-long covert misinformation campaign that spans the globe, in this instance a fairy tale designed to paint Russia as the victim and Ukraine as the aggressor in this conflict, and the invasion itself as a peacekeeping action. The broader misinformation campaign is aimed not only at convincing Russian citizens to back the annexation of Ukraine, but also to cause division amongst nations in the West, specifically NATO-allied countries.
“Vladimir Putin engages in using disinformation, or as I call it ‘cognitive warfare,’ to help consolidate and maintain his power,” explains the founder of DisinfoWatch.org, Marcus Kolga. The ultimate goal of the dissemination of this misinformation is to resurrect the Soviet Union—the inclusion of Ukraine being a key component—and protecting the sphere of influence of Putin’s regime.
“His position requires him to present that there is a constant threat to Russia—that there are constant crises that only Vladimir Putin can save the Russian people from.”
Kolga is a leading expert on Russian and Central and Eastern European issues, and has been tracking online interference originating from Russia that has influenced numerous events in the West, ranging from interference in US Presidential elections, the anti-mandate trucker protests in Canada, and the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign that has been justifying Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
This portion of the Russian misinformation campaign against Ukraine paints the country as being an oppressive regime run by nazi-like dictators that are carrying out a campaign of genocide against Russian-speaking communities in the Donbas region; although all of this is false, Putin is using this story as a justification for Russia’s backing of separatist elements in the region, along with his claims that the invasion is intended to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”
Putin’s regime has also been working toward the resurrection of the Soviet Empire, a political entity that has traditionally viewed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an enemy, a perceived adversary that has grown since the end of the Cold War through the admission of member countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Russia has been trying to convince NATO to promise to not allow Ukraine to join the military alliance—one that carries a mandate that if one member country is attacked, its fellow members are obligated to come to its defense—a membership that, according to Putin, would constitute a “hostile act;” therefore, Putin’s propaganda machine also casts the invasion of Ukraine as a preemptive strike, decapitating a Western-backed threat to Russian security.
But the Kremlin’s cognitive warfare campaign against NATO covers a much broader scope than just strategically isolating Ukraine from the West: “Putin wants to recreate the Soviet empire and he can only do that if the West is fractured,” Kolga explains. “So, it’s been his goal over the past two decades to erode the cohesion within the transatlantic alliance. When NATO stands together, Putin has no chance of defeating it.”
“This tool—disinformation propaganda—is truly a front line and ominous weapon that Vladimir Putin uses and uses it very effectively… and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than bombs and guns and tanks. He will continue to use it against [the West], not just Ukraine, as long as he remains in power.”
According to the US State Department, Putin’s disinformation program consists of five main components: official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, the weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation.
“The Kremlin bears direct responsibility for cultivating these tactics and platforms as part of its approach to using information as a weapon,” according to a 2020 State Department report, titled Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem, that details Russia’s misinformation tactics. “It invests massively in its propaganda channels, its intelligence services and its proxies to conduct malicious cyber activity to support their disinformation efforts, and it leverages outlets that masquerade as news sites or research institutions to spread these false and misleading narratives.”
“We’ve seen Russian troll farms constantly push out content, whether it’s around the elections in the United States or Canada or various parts of the European Union,” said Thomas Holt, professor in the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University. Regarding the current crisis in Ukraine, Holt says that “this is one of those times where we can expect Russian troll farms to be heavily active in an attempt to either depict a narrative that fits the notion that they’re a peacekeeping force, or that there’s false flag events that have occurred that justify their presence there or the use of serious violence against civilians or anything else.”
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