Ukrainian special forces planning so-called “false flag” operations. The United States considering chemical weapons attacks in the Eastern European country. NATO preparing to attack Russia during the upcoming Winter Olympics.
The Kremlin is ratcheting up its disinformation game with claims like these amid rising geopolitical tensions between Moscow and Western capitals, according to a review of state-backed media content over the last 10 days by POLITICO.
The campaign — spread via Moscow-backed outlets like RT, domestic state-owned broadcasters and fake social media accounts in multiple Western languages — coincides with a large-scale military buildup along the Ukrainian border and increased Western military aide to support Kyiv.
Moscow’s goal, according to three Western national security officials and five external disinformation researchers, is to use wedge issues to foster division among Western countries over their support for Ukraine; counter NATO’s claims against Moscow; and create plausible deniability over potential atrocities including the possible use of chemical weapons.
“Where they really are moving the needle is on undermining support for U.S. internationalism,” said Bret Schafer, head of the information manipulation team at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, in reference to the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics.
“Russia state media messaging is more effective at chipping away at the West’s geopolitical goals than it is in dividing the West because we do that well enough on our own,” he added.
In recent weeks, Western governments have been particularly vocal about outing Russian online tactics. Two of the Western security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss governments’ internal strategies, said the amped-up response was partly because Moscow has been successful in tilting public opinion around geopolitical issues in the past.
The U.S. State Department published a “cheat sheet” seeking to explain the Kremlin’s online falsehoods, while also criticizing Moscow for its “disregard for truth.” In the European Union, the so-called East Stratcom team within the European External Action Service, which is tasked with monitoring Russian online propaganda, highlighted the Kremlin’s tactics, although the 27-country bloc is still divided over how strongly to push back against Moscow.
The Kremlin, in turn, has pushed back against the criticism, claiming that Western governments and media are peddling mistruths about the situation in Ukraine, and that it is Moscow, not Washington or Brussels, that is pushing for a peaceful resolution.
Just like 2014, but worse
Russia is no newcomer to disinformation on Ukraine.
Since the country annexed part of its neighbor in 2014, Kremlin-backed media has pumped out a steady stream of accusations that Kyiv is run by neo-Nazis; that NATO is either too weak to defend the country or too aggressive in its military stance; and that Western citizens did not see the point in protecting Ukraine.
Those narratives are being updated amid the current tensions.
Russian broadcasters have shaped the debate at home as President Vladimir Putin defending the interests of Greater Russia, including sending Russian troops to Belarus as a routine military maneuver with a close ally. On the Kremlin’s international news outlets — which collectively have millions of followers on social media — the likes of RT and Sputnik have criticized Western leaders for spending resources on Ukraine amid the pandemic and questioned how defending Kyiv plays into the national interests of either the U.S. or EU countries.
“The pro-Kremlin disinformation machine uses a well-known tactic of throwing mud against a wall to see what sticks,” said one of the Western officials, who was not authorized to speak publicly about their work tracking Russian online tactics. “There are a lot of contradictions but consistency has never been a strong suit of the Kremlin’s disinformation machine. It’s rather about muddying the waters.”
For Monika Richter, a former EU official specializing in disinformation and current head of research at Semantic Visions, a Prague-based intelligence firm, there’s a disconnect between domestic propaganda, which has focused on framing NATO as the enemy and Ukraine as a means to obtaining security assurances from Washington, and the Kremlin’s foreign media operations, which have been more aggressive in claiming that the West wants war in Eastern Europe.
“The outward disinformation campaign is rattling,” she said. “It appears to be a coordinated effort to lay the groundwork ahead of another attack.”
Chemical weapons and blaming NATO
Yet in recent days, specific themes have started to bubble to the surface.
One relates to accusations — mostly in non-English-language outlets — that either Ukraine or NATO could use chemical weapons within the country in the hope of blaming Russia for it.
These messages were then picked up either by official diplomatic accounts or American entities like SouthFront — a think tank the U.S. State Department has tied to the Kremlin — and shared hundreds of times on social media, according to POLITICO’s analysis via CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Meta.
Another is that the West, not Russia, is the main driver in the potential conflict.
Across RT and Sputnik — in English, French, German and Spanish — reports highlighted how NATO countries had provided weapons to the Ukrainian government, and claimed that U.S. President Joe Biden was using the stand-off to boost his popularity at home. In multiple reports, again heavily shared on social media, RT articles questioned why the U.S. and Europe were supporting Ukraine when the COVID-19 pandemic was rife at home.
Russian-backed media has repeatedly captured significant attention among Western audiences, particularly those in Europe where anti-American sentiment has risen since 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. But Kremlin talking points also have seeped into mainstream U.S. media, particularly promoted by right-wing influencers who have no affiliation to Moscow and have tried to use the Ukrainian stand-off to attack Biden and his domestic agenda.
That includes raising questions about why Washington would enter the conflict in the first place, concerns that U.S. involvement in Ukraine could end similarly to what happened in Afghanistan, and calls for the Biden administration to focus on domestic, not foreign, issues.
“There’s an alignment of interests between the U.S. far right and the Russian government,” said Schafer of the German Marshall Fund. “It’s exceptionally beneficial to have super mainstream U.S. voices parroting lines that Russia has been saying for years.”