On November 15, 2022, NATO and Russia had a tense moment that might have escalated into a military confrontation. A missile hit a Polish village near the Polish-Ukrainian border, killing two civilians. Associated Press cited unnamed Western officials that it was a Russian missile. It might have been the basis for Poland invoking Article 5, the collective defense clause of the NATO charter. However, Western political leadership and security agencies refused to name the perpetrator.
A swift investigation established that the missile was an errant Ukrainian S-300 launched to intercept a Russian projectile. Yet, Ukraine insisted for over two days that it was a Russian missile, despite growing evidence of the opposite. Russia put forward the right explanation but politicized it through official speakers and disinformation channels.
In this example of information warfare, the Western camp succeeded in controlling an explosive situation and preventing an escalation. The Zelenskyy government suffered reputational loss. Russia’s long disinformation efforts deprived it of the trust and credibility badly needed in a dangerous situation.
Information warfare has been defined as “the use and management of information to pursue a competitive advantage, including offensive and defensive efforts”. The Kremlin is certainly waging an information war through influence campaigns and disinformation flows targeting Ukrainian and Western audiences. But so do Western countries and the Ukrainians, even though they are described in the media as more innocently engaged in “strategic communications.” Yet definitions aside, this war exemplifies more vividly than previous conflicts that “information confrontation,” a Russian idiom, has become an integral part of warfare for all parties.
The Russo-Ukraine War provides three models of managing information operations (Russian, NATO, and Ukrainian), each having distinct characteristics. .
Russia – Information operations are intended to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine, destabilize the Ukrainian government and army, put the blame for the war on the Western capitals while deterring them from increasing military assistance to Kyiv, mobilize Russian public opinion to support the Kremlin and limit the influence of external information flows into Russia.
These operations can be executed without any constraint on the credibility of their claims, including on the part of Russian political leadership. For example, Putin together with his ministers and uniformed officers falsely claim that Ukraine, in cooperation with the US Department of Defense, developed offensive biological weapons aimed at Russia.
Information operations are integrated into Russian thinking on the war; they are run by an elaborate mechanism that includes security services, state media, and grey-zone actors, such as the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA), an unofficial “troll factory” controlled by shady financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also owns the Wagner mercenary force. An extensive network of thousands of dedicated channels of disinformation (internet media, social networks, and TV channels such as RT) echoes Russian narratives at home and abroad in many languages, supplemented by the activity of Russian MFA and local influencers. These operations have been especially effective in the Global South and with the Russian public.
A particular emphasis is assigned to the Ukrainian public. Russian influence efforts aimed at that target audience were often coordinated with cyberattacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure. In these cases, the aim of the Russian influence efforts which followed the cyberattacks was to shift responsibility to the Ukrainian government for the consequences – mainly power outages – harming Ukrainian state authorities, local governments, or large Ukrainian businesses, and by that, weakening the popularity of the Ukrainian government. Additionally, Ukrainian government websites have been constantly hacked.
NATO – Whereas the Russians at the official level don’t admit publicly that their political leadership’s proclamations are part of an information campaign, the NATO concept of “Strategic Communications” looks at public diplomacy and information operations and psychological warfare as all parts of the same domain. NATO officials care greatly about sustaining their credibility and do not publish officially unsubstantiated claims. Furthermore, before the war in Ukraine, the US and other Western countries declassified a lot of sensitive intelligence information, despite the threat to endanger the sources of information.
Much effort is invested in the West in unearthing fake Russian narratives. It is an essential basis for confronting Russian disinformation but insufficient to neutralize the disinformation’s effectiveness.
NATO’s information operations intend to shape the information environment of their rivals and amplify NATO narratives. For example, in December 2022 the UK Ministry of Defense published rumors attributed to Russian military bloggers that the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, might have been sacked. Gerasimov wasn’t sacked and even got publicly reappointed several weeks afterward as the head of the Russian forces in Ukraine. The UK briefing’s purpose was not only to inform the public but also to emphasize the perception of the internal struggle inside the Russian high military echelon.
Ukraine – The Ukrainian model merges the Russian concepts of “information confrontation” (given that the background of Ukraine’s security apparatus is Soviet) with the Western “Strategic Communications” concept, which its officials embrace as a part of reforming the Ukrainian military forces according to the NATO standards.
Ukraine has been the main target of Russian influence campaigns for two decades and has served, since 2004, as a laboratory for Russia to test its disinformation tactics. During the eight years (2014-2022) of Russian occupation in the Donbas region, the Ukrainians had the opportunity to study Russian techniques, educate the Ukrainian public, and establish government-controlled and grass-root mechanisms initiatives of civil society, so as to resist the Russian information operations.
During the war, the Ukrainian government has strengthened its control over the media, furthered information-security awareness among the Ukrainian public, and encouraged resistance and internal cohesion against Russian aggression. The Zelenskyy government uses Strategic Communications to help secure a positive image in the West and pressure Western governments for military, economic, and political aid.
Ukraine’s success in mobilizing Western support owes in large part to its being the victim of this war, and to its democratic image and pro-Western orientation. In addition, the Ukrainians recognize the significant Russian investment in influence operations and attribute great importance to the struggle for hearts and minds. President Zelenskyy is fully aware of the scope and significance of the information sphere and often shares videos that contain daily updates on the war, motivational speeches, pictures of Russian-caused destruction, and appeals to the international community. These videos are directed at the Ukrainian population and spread to his millions of followers on social media. Additionally, the Ukrainian army recruits artists, graphic artists, marketing people, photographers, and more, who volunteered to help create content and deliver messages to various audiences.
The Ukrainians also aim is to sow discord among the Russian people and to convince Russian soldiers to surrender. Therefore, Ukraine constantly publishes Russian death tolls and spreads videos and ads suggesting to Russian soldiers how to surrender. Ukraine also runs thousands of facial recognition searches on dead or captured Russians, using the scans to find the soldiers’ social media profiles – and send photos of their corpses to their families back home.
Nevertheless, Ukraine has been unsuccessful to date in its attempts to awaken the Russian public against the Kremlin and has failed to convince the Global South to isolate Russia politically and economically, while making some errors in this space. While generally aware of the need to maintain credibility, its security officials often put forward worst-case scenario threat assessments that, in hindsight, proved wrong but at the time helped Kyiv secure further tranches of Western aid. An attempt byAmnesty International to accuse the Ukrainian side of violations of the Geneva Convention turned the human rights activists into a target of an information attack, entirely suppressing the critical voices in the West on this subject.
The Challenge Facing Liberal Democracies
As Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine continues, Ukraine must balance the demands of countering disinformation effectively, which sometimes requires operational concealment, with maintaining transparency and freedom of the press. Ukraine is still fighting for its survival, easily perceived as an “end that justifies the means.” Even though it is forced to counter an opponent who is not subject to democratic constraints, Ukraine should strive to maintain a balance between fighting back against the Russian propaganda machine and protecting democratic values, in order to maintain its positive image, its reliability, the Ukrainian people’ trust, and all-important Western support.
The case of the war in Ukraine demonstrates the hurdles facing liberal democracies in their struggle against information operations. There’s a growing necessity to distinguish between authentic discourse and viewpoints planted by foreign entities. Since the domestic public is the target of information operations, the principal tool in countering disinformation should be focused on a whole-of-society approach to strengthening information ecosystems.
That should include closer collaboration between the state and the press, encouraging media outlets to take voluntary defensive measures. It could also involve the establishment of designated civilian agencies, which work closely with the country’s intelligence agencies in debunking disinformation campaigns, including removing content from social networks, blocking their distribution sources where possible, and even taking offensive actions against those behind such operations. In addition, intelligence agencies should strive to declassify intelligence information in order to refute disinformation. And last, civil society organizations can take action within a state framework to raise public awareness regarding disinformation, guiding the public on how to evaluate media sources as reliable and increase digital orientation, critical thinking, and controlled consummation of content.
Recently, a civilian NGO, FakeReporter.net, quickly debunked an attempt by a Russian-affiliated network to infiltrate the public debate in Israel over judicial reforms, intending to connect opposition to the reforms with support for the Russian cause in the war in Ukraine. This attempt was clumsy and easily identifiable (bad Hebrew) and Twitter promptly shut it down. But further attempts might bring more sophistication both in technique and substance. This episode epitomizes the need for vigilance, as the populist discourse weakens the institutions of liberal democracies.
Looking ahead, the war in Ukraine illustrates the importance of the information dimension in warfare, at the same time that the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence and deep fake technologies will make it harder to defend against the abuse of such tools. Therefore, governments must implement policies and use technology to address this threat. Countries that lag will expose their publics to future risks.