WASHINGTON (AP), — The U.S. and its allies are breaking with the past by revealing more of their intelligence findings in order to confront Russian preparations to invade Ukraine. They want to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans and divert his efforts to influence world opinion.
In recent weeks, the White House announced what it called a Russian “false flag” operation that was developing to provide pretext for invasion. Britain has named certain Ukrainians it accuses of being connected to Russian intelligence officers who plotted to overthrow President Volodymyr Zeleskyy. The U.S. also published a map showing Russian military positions. It explained how officials believe Russia will attack Ukraine with up to 175,000 troops.
Experts give credit to the White House for declassifying intelligence, and moving before false claims are made. This so-called “prebuttal,” which undercuts their effectiveness more than an after-the fact explanation, is credited by experts.
However, information disclosure is not without risk. The intelligence assessments have varying degrees of certainty. Beyond showing photos of troop movements and other evidence, the U.S., along with its allies, has provided no other proof. Moscow dismissed Washington’s claims of hysteria. It invoked past intelligence failures by the United States, including false information about Iraq’s weapons program.
Russia continues to push its forces towards Ukraine and into Belarus as an ally of Ukraine’s north. There have been no signs of any change from Russia so far. Washington and London are becoming more pessimistic about Russia’s diplomatic efforts, and there is a growing belief that Putin will launch an invasion within the next few weeks.
Russia is well-known for using disinformation to create confusion and discord as part its overall conflict strategy. Russia launched a campaign to influence ethnic Russians living in the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine in 2014 when it invaded that region. Russia-linked social media accounts and state media promoted the idea that Russia was manipulating protests at Kyiv, and unconfirmed stories of lurid Ukrainian crimes.
The U.S., its allies, and Russia claim that Russia is trying to paint Ukrainian leaders as aggressors in order to persuade its citizens to support military action. The U.S. and its allies claim that Russia has placed operatives in Ukraine to use explosives to sabotage Russia’s proxy forces. Kyiv is then blamed.
The White House has been vocal about disinformation, and it is now sharing intelligence with its allies, including Ukraine. Recently, the State Department published a factsheet listing several Russian claims and discrediting them. Four men were also sanctioned by the Treasury Department for their ties to influence operations that sought to create a pretext in Ukraine to allow for a new invasion.
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, described a strategic decision to “call out disinformation whenever we see it.”
She said Wednesday that she was more aware of Russia’s disinformation machine than in 2014. “We need to be very clear to the U.S. public and the global community about what they are trying to do and why.”
Reporters were told Friday by a European Union official that Moscow-aligned outlets promote conflict justifications in a manner similar to what was done eight years ago. In apparent response to recent American allegations, one narrative these outlets are spreading is that the U.S. might be planning its own false flag operation to provoke a confrontation with eastern Ukraine.
Moscow insists that NATO refuse to accept Ukraine and not expand to other countries. After being accused by British intelligence of being a Russian-backed presidential candidate, Yevheniy Muraev, a Ukrainian politician, denied this accusation and told the Associated Press that it “looks absurd and funny.”
Washington and Moscow continue to trade online. Kremlin-backed RT.com posted a Dec. 21 video claiming that “US private military corporations are amassing CHEMICAL COMBOONS in Eastern Ukraine.” The State Department refuted this claim in its factsheet on Russian propaganda. Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded to the claim with tweets, “debunking @StateDept’s ‘facts’ about Russian disinformation regarding Ukraine.”
Washington’s efforts have been questioned in Kyiv where Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, has tried to calm public fears about an expanded war while many Ukrainians are preparing for combat.
Officials from Ukraine are privately puzzled by the Biden administration’s warnings about an impending invasion, but not imposing sanctions or taking action to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This is a controversial project that has been criticized as giving Moscow greater control over Ukraine and Western Europe. Biden’s administration lobbying Congress against a Republican-sponsored bill would have required sanctions to be imposed on the pipeline. This has not happened yet.
The White House has warned of harsh sanctions against Russia if it invades and is planning to send forces to NATO’s Eastern flank in case of invasion. Allies from the West and the United States are sending weapons and missiles to Ukraine.
Molly McKew, a lecturer and writer on Russian influence, stated that the government’s efforts to counter Russia’s influence needs to be accompanied with a clearer statement about American goals and plans to repel any invasion.
McKew, who was a former advisor to President Mikhail Saakashvili, stated that Russia will continue to carry out its actions despite being publicly identified. Georgia fought a war with Russia in 2008 and is still trying to regain control over the separatist areas backed by Moscow.
She said, “They’re trying disinformation thinking to militaristic domains.” “You cannot exonerate the crisis.”
Experts say there is a greater awareness in the U.S. as well as Ukraine of state-sponsored disinformation. Russia has been bombarding Ukrainians over the years with false stories and text messages during the ongoing war on eastern Ukraine, in which more than 14,000 people have been killed. Russia’s interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections led to many investigations and years of sometimes fractious discussions.
Bret Schafer is senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. He said that although false claims can be made in the process of debunking them and there are some risks, it was better to prevent information threats than to respond to them once they have been released into the wild.
However, publicly accusing Russia for misbehavior can only be a partial deterrent. He said, “They don’t care about reputational harm.”