U.S. officials are bracing for Russian President Vladimir Putin to double down on his already robust disinformation campaign in America.
Kremlin-linked accounts already have stepped up propaganda campaigns worldwide on Facebook and Instagram, flooding social media with disinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war and amplifying pro-Moscow conspiracy theories, according to a recent report by the platforms’ parent company Meta.
The Kremlin cultivated a worldwide network of proxy outlets and social media bots to spread its message, stir internal discord in the West and undermine democratic institutions, according to U.S. authorities and cybersecurity professionals.
“They’re really good at this,” said Howard Stoffer, a scholar of national security and international affairs at the University of New Haven. “They’ve developed a very skilled way of getting false information into the narrative and that then becomes mixed in with the real information and people don’t know how to sort it out.”
Since the invasion in late February, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, has approached news outlets with paid advertisements that resemble op-eds accusing Ukraine of “genocide of the Russian-speaking population” and NATO of using Ukraine to “establish a foothold in the struggle against Russia.”
The Washington Times rejected the advertisement and has not been able to find another news outlet that accepted the ad.
However, Newsweek ran a story last week with the headline “Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Reveals Why Ukraine War Began, How It Could End” in which Mr. Antonov conveys the same talking points nearly verbatim.
In the article, the news magazine clarified that Mr. Antonov’s arguments run “contrary to that of Ukraine and its foreign backers, including the U.S.”
Newsweek did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia has also woven its message throughout social media, posting disinformation about the war on user accounts both overtly and covertly linked to Russian government officials.
In a post last week on the official Twitter account for the Russian mission to the United Nations, it said a deadly missile strike on a civilian train station in eastern Ukraine was carried out by Ukrainians to “disrupt the mass exit of residents from the city in order to use them as a ‘human shield.’”
Last month, the Russian Embassy in the U.K. used Twitter posts to accuse Ukrainian forces of staging the March 9 airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol. It ignited a flurry of spiraling online conspiracy theories despite the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe verifying it was a Russian attack.
In the Meta report released last week, the company detailed efforts by Ghostwriter, a hacker group linked to Russian ally Belarus, to take over the social media profiles of Ukrainian military leaders to post disinformation from their accounts.
The report also outlined other Russian efforts to spread online disinformation, including the creation of fake accounts to stoke anti-Ukrainian sentiments.
The Kremlin has long been engaged in a simmering information war with the U.S. Since the Cold War, Soviet and later Russian propagandists have seized on opportunities to stoke internal social and political divides in America and engaged in campaigns to discredit the U.S. on a global stage, in addition to bolstering Russia’s image on the world stage.
According to a 2020 report from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), the Russian disinformation apparatus has evolved into a full-fledged ecosystem expanding well beyond official government and state-funded messaging to achieve their goals.
U.S. officials accused Russia of posting attention-grabbing headlines on social media and sowing online discord to interfere in the 2016 and 2020 elections to help Mr. Trump.
Rather than appealing to one’s logic, experts say, Russian propagandists seize on their targets’ emotions to make them begin to question the truth.
Among the most blatant evidence of the Kremlin’s attempts to influence Americans’ perception and opinion has been the Russian state-controlled television news network RT America, formerly Russia Today. Until last month, it operated out of a Washington headquarters serving as, according to the GEC, a direct conduit for “the Kremlin’s talking points.”
Before being dropped by major U.S. distributors at the beginning of March, RT and its sister radio news outlet Sputnik operated under the supervision of the Russian government while, at the same time, blending in with major independent and fact-based news outlets, including having a correspondent at the White House.
During Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine Border, RT toed the Russian line by peddling Kremlin claims that the buildup was part of a “routine” military exercise, that NATO expansionism was to blame for the rising tensions, Ukraine was overrun by Nazis, and that the Russian army was protecting the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine.
Just days before the invasion, RT America ran stories about Russian-speaking “refugees” being relocated from the Donbas region to Russia amid fears sparked by reports that “the Ukrainian Army was planning ‘a breakthrough’ into the Donbas territory.
Nathalie Vogel, an information warfare specialist and senior fellow at the Prague-based European Values Center’s Kremlin Watch, said that for those experienced in spotting Russian propaganda, the talking points were nothing new. Many of the bullet points were recycled line-for-line from the 2014 annexation of Ukraine, she said.
In a bid to dismantle the Kremlin’s propaganda,
the Biden administration laid its cards out on the table, revealing operational intelligence that was scrubbed of details that would reveal sources and methods.
Weeks before the attack, administration officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon called Mr. Putin’s bluff from the podium. On Feb. 24th, their predictions were proven to be true.
“We did that for several reasons,” a national security official told The Times. “One reason was the importance of countering Russian disinformation and denying them some type of false pretext or justification for launching the attack. And two, because we recognize the united and the closely coordinated response was going to be critical in order to hold Russia accountable for its action and to raise the pressure on Putin.”
The approach not only helped dismantle Russia’s claims but also bolstered the U.S.’s credibility on the world stage, potentially repairing some of the damage from Mr. Biden’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As Russia’s information war escalates in tandem with its assault on Ukraine, experts and lawmakers recommend a back-to-basics approach of using U.S. transparency to rebuff Kremlin talking points.
“Putin spent months spinning false narratives he hoped would paralyze Ukraine’s western allies once he invaded. Now, in danger of losing the war, Putin will no doubt double down on his disinformation efforts,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Transparency is key to ensuring Putin does not succeed in fracturing international opposition to his war.”
Since the invasion, Russia has accused the U.S. of operating chemical and biological weapons development facilities in Ukraine and accused Ukraine of using “crisis actors” and blaming Russia for fake atrocities to influence the West.
“The lies are just getting bigger,” said Mr. Stoffer, the national security scholar. “You have to think about the fact that now they’re trying to challenge these outright human rights violations, these outright war crimes, which are only going to get worse.”
He said the most effective anecdote going forward will be transparent, objective accounts from the media and from trusted governments to expose Russia’s actions.
Since the Russian retreat from Kyiv, the administration has disputed Russian claims of detente by broadcasting evidence of Russia repositioning forces on the eastern front.
The U.S. has also aimed its intelligence capabilities at collecting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, which a National Security Council official said could be shared with partner nations and potentially with the public.
But the transparency strategy is not without risk. It requires extensive review to filter out any details that could reveal intelligence tradecraft.
Each release undergoes “a rigorous review process by the National Security Council and the Intelligence Community to validate the quality of the information and protect sources and methods,” the official said. “We only approve the release of intelligence if we are confident those two requirements are met.”
Ms. Vogel of Kremlin Watch said the end goal should be to develop resilience against Russian disinformation.
She cautioned that it is not realistic to seal the West off from the Kremlin’s talking points or to remove every pro-Russian account on social media. Instead, she said. Americans need to be able to spot Russian disinformation and have access to objective facts that counter the Kremlin’s narrative.
“The people who are behind the accounts are entitled to their opinion, even if it’s nonsense,” Ms. Vogel said. “But you have to have people on the other hand that can identify nonsense. It boils down to exactly that. … Ask yourself, why these stories are being told.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.