Report | Atlantic Council: Russia’s Information Warfare Against Ukraine Spans Many Fronts

The two reports by Atlantic Council, published on February 22, come at a time when, despite the ups and downs of conventional warfare, information warfare is in full swing, one year after Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

The reports examine the development of Russian anti-Ukraine information warfare. The first report studies Russia’s information warfare prior to 24 February 2022, examining the messages used by the Russian Federation to prepare for and justify its planned war against Ukraine.

The second report examines Russia’s disinformation warfare since its invasion of Ukraine in February last year, in particular the methods and messages used by the Kremlin to undermine Ukraine and demoralize its people, as well as to tarnish its image around the world.

Both reports systematize the messages and narratives and provide a detailed picture of how the Kremlin has conducted its information warfare as a subsidiary tool in its all-out war against Ukraine.

Building Pretext for Aggression: Information as Evidence

The first report looks into the two timeframes – the 2014-2021 interwar period and the seventy days leading up to the 2022 invasion. The report tracks the evolution of information warfare through a collection of more than 10 000 examples of false and misleading narratives and how these narratives were tied to key escalatory events, such as Russia demanding unrealistic security guarantees from Ukraine and the West, separatist officials accusing Ukraine of shelling a kindergarten and employees saboteurs against chemical facilities, separatist officials evacuating civilians and calling for Kremlin intervention; Ukrainian President Zelensky’s discussion of 1994 Budapest Memorandum at Munich Conference, and Putin announcing the recognition of the breakaway republics.

The narratives in these two sampled periods – interwar and 70 days before the Russian – invasion show the variation of the dominant narratives.

Interwar (2014-2020)70 Days to Invasion
Ukrainian Army and voluntary formations are brutal.Russia is seeking peace.
Ukraine became a failed state after it followed Europe.Russia has a moral obligation to do something about security in the region.
Ukrainians are Nazis. Ukraine is aggressive.
West is creating tensions in the region.
Ukraine is a puppet of the West.
Based on an analysis of more than 10K articles in 14 pro-Kremlin outlets
Key messages of the Russian propaganda

Although engaging in information operations might not be a crime under international law – and it has been used in this or that form for centuries – “the messages conveyed in those operations could constitute evidence of a crime, including engaging in the crime of aggression,” say the authors.

And as any prosecution for the crime of aggression would require proving each of these elements, “documenting the Kremlin’s use of information warfare—particularly the employment of disinformation—could help provide some of that evidence.”

Kremlin disinformation in the lead-up to the invasion may therefore be the evidence of planning or preparing for the act of aggression. As the report notes, false information was documented in the report, such as claims that Ukraine planned chemical weapons attacks, shelling of kindergarten, development of nuclear weapons, and genocide against Russians in Donbas.

These narratives, among others, were used to create a pretext for the invasion, thus making them a part of a premeditated invasion plan. Also, disinformation narratives that started before the invasion and continued thereafter may be evidence that Russian/Donbass officials knew that the invasion was a violation of the UN Charter.

If they believed it was legally justified, there would be no need to create a pretext for it. The fact that they created a pretext for the invasion could help prosecutors prove that they were aware a pretext was needed. Therefore, says the report: “If subsequent investigations establish that these officials knew these narratives to be inaccurate, the deployment of disinformation narratives could serve as evidence of knowledge that the invasion was a manifest violation of the UN Charter.”

Undermining Ukraine: Information Operations to Erode Support to Ukraine

The second report explores the information warfare by Russia since the start of the 2024 invasion of Ukraine. The report says the wartime aim of information operations is to undermine Ukraine’s ability to resist, confuse and disorient Ukraine’s population and Ukraine’s allies.

To undermine Ukraine, Russia changed the tack. Initially, every information tool was used to break the nation’s collective will. When the initial military offensive collapsed and the hopes for lightning victory evaporated, it became clear that “conquering Ukraine would require destroying its morale and global confidence in its ability to stop Putin’s ambitions.”

The report looks at the Kremlin information operations expanding globally – case studies from Russia, Ukraine, and Europe are amended by studies from Africa and Latin America. They show how the Kremlin and its proxies adapted and refined tactics to destroy Ukraine’s reputation.

The key elements for undermining Ukraine have been:

  • undermining global support for the Ukrainian war effort;
  • undermining Ukrainian morale;
  • undermining trust in Ukraine as a reliable partner;
  • undermining sympathy for its people;
  • undermining its relationships with its neighbors; and
  • undermining financial support and military aid.

The more the invasion stalled, the pro-Kremlin actors and officials rushed to explain the inevitability of war and the lack of alternative options.

As evident from the report, Kremlin goes to great lengths to shatter the reputation of Kyiv. The report documents a case of distribution of forged letters claiming that Ukraine sold Western-donated weaponry in the middle of the war for profit. To make the claim more believable, pro-Kremlin sources even “invented” dark web sources and markets that Ukrainians supposedly use to resell weapons. This narrative recurred in multiple forms and messages, some of them potentially influencing mainstream Western media.

Domestic Angle

When the “Special Military Operation” did go to plan, it became essential to curb the ability of Russian citizens to receive objective information. Civil liberties and freedoms were restricted even further. To prevent the spread of factual information about the war within its own borders, Russia blocked, banned, and fined foreign online platforms operating in the country, especially Western platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook.

The Russian government silenced dissenting voices by blocking independent media outlets and social media platforms, decrying any accusations/criticism against the government as “fake news,” and even going so far as criminalizing the usage of the words “war” and “invasion.”

In March 2022, a prison term of up to fifteen years was introduced for anything that “discredited” or shared “fake” content regarding the Russian armed forces, including describing their actions as a “war” or “invasion.”

The same law criminalized calls for sanctioning Russia. Among other harsh legislative measures, Putin signed a law that penalized equating the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany or denying the “decisive role” of the Soviet Union in World War II.

To combat the growing body of visual evidence showing death and destruction in populated areas of Ukraine, all of which contradicted official messaging regarding the morality of invasion, the Kremlin launched social media campaigns and in-person rallies, “letter-Z campaign,” and other similar diversion/coverup efforts.

The report demonstrates the Kremlin media ecosystem “presented a highly manipulated yet unified view of world affairs aimed to influence the Russian population to support the war.”

Whitewashing War Crimes

After Russia was forced to pull out from northern parts of Ukraine, evidence documented torture and killings of civilians by the Russian troops. Moscow responded by generating multiple falsehoods to confuse the audiences at home and abroad, claiming Ukraine had either staged fake massacres or committed actual ones.

Such an approach of contested truth through the media noise served two purposes 1) lessen the chance of supporting Ukraine in the conflict and 2) overburden and tire news consumers, making them indifferent by exhausting them emotionally.

Diplomatic Misinformation Offensive/Case Studies

Russia also overtly uses diplomatic channels to spread propaganda and disinformation, and the Russian embassies and agencies were not shying away from spreading patently fake information.

The report includes three case studies – of Poland, France, and Georgia – providing concrete examples of how Russia and its proxies adjust their information operations according to their interests and targeted countries.

In Poland, Russia attempted to use the two countries’ complicated history as neighbors. The information manipulation operations insinuated and spread disinformation about Poland’s alleged intent to annex Ukraine’s territories. This included spreading forged documents allegedly proving the intent, deep-fakes as well as hacking websites and social media accounts to spread false information.

In France, Russia focused on portraying Ukraine as an untrustworthy partner planting stories that weapons provided by European partners were being sold off to third countries. These aimed at delaying or stopping France from supplying Ukraine with its advanced weaponry.

In Georgia, this took the form of persistent messaging by the ruling Georgian Dream party about the need to stay out of the war, scaring the population with the possibility of opening the “second front” involving Georgia. The situation has been further exacerbated by the influx of Russian migrants fleeing mobilization, which raised security concerns, and the Georgian government’s failure to secure the EU candidate’s status.

The Trouble with “Global South”

Ukraine certainly held its own in Europe and North America, but the story is different in the Global South. Capitalizing on its global reach and cleverly using the general mistrust of the West in these parts of the world, through manipulation of the colonialism theme, Moscow has been able to spread its narratives more successfully there.

As for the two global players – China and India, “China’s global media ecosystem is often sympathetic to Russian interests, while nations such as India work to maintain productive relations with both the Kremlin and the West,” – notes the report.

Is Ukraine Winning?

Answering the question of whether Ukraine, given its tenacity on the front line as well as online, is “winning the information war” against Russia, the report says, “there is no monolithic information war in which descriptors such as “winning” and “losing” provide much clarity or nuance, particularly when viewed at a global scale.”

Instead, the report notes, one could describe this information war as “theaters of operation” in which the Kremlin targets various regions, as well as audiences, with nuanced messaging to promote its interests. The report also notes that while policymakers and pundits debate the seriousness of Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling, the menace of the atomic war influences the general public, potentially making a negotiated settlement more palatable, which is to Kremlin’s advantage.

The report predicts that as the war enters its second year, Kremlin will continue information warfare to erode confidence in Ukraine.

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