Russian invasion of Ukraine: The Strategy of Dezinformatsiya
The Russian army has historically understood victory as the product of human spirit and psychology. Hence, material factors such as technology are not decisive for victory. In a way, this reflects the influence of Carl von Clausewitz on the Russian military thinking. The Prussian theorist, who served in the Russian army for two years, stressed the importance of “moral forces” (e.g., motivation, patriotism, will) in the final outcome of the war. Consequently, it has been argued that the “Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind” (Berzins, 2014).
In his famous article “The Value of Science in Prediction”, published in the military journal Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er [Military-Industrial Courier] in 2013, the Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov described his understanding of modern warfare. In his words, “the focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures”. This analysis did not come from nowhere. In recent years, there is a lively debate within Russian military circles about new forms of warfare and how the armed forces can efficiently practice them. The article examines the strategy of dezinformatsiya (disinformation) which includes the diffusion of narratives.
The strategy of dezinformatsiya
The dissemination of false or inaccurate information (disinformation) is a major component of the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine. It was developed during the Soviet period as a technique to intentionally distort the truth for political gains. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine now includes state-run TV and radio stations, the satellite channel Russia Today, and electronic media outlets. The Russian media have adopted a narrative that can be summarized as follows: “there was a fascist coup d’état in Kiev and now Moscow is obliged to help Russian compatriots”. In effect, the Kremlin has capitalized on the memories of heroic resistance against the German army during Second World War and the sacrifices of Ukraine’s population. Russian TV channels have repeatedly shown images of Nazi salutes and young Ukrainian men wearing neo-Nazi armbands.
Ukraine has been a multi-ethnic country, with Russians being the largest minority. Nevertheless, high rates of intermarriage, a common religion, and strong historical bonds have created a unique relationship between Ukrainians and Russians that probably has no parallel in modern European history. In fact, the break-up of the Soviet Union did not lead to a massive exodus of ethnic Russians from Ukraine like it happened with those living in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In contrast, most Russians even supported Ukrainian independence. Despite the occasional outbursts of Ukrainian nationalism, ethnic Russians have been well-integrated into the society.
Yet, Moscow has been able to mobilize ethnic Russians against the Ukrainian authorities. Putin and his local allies have capitalized on eastern Ukraine’s grievances relating to the highly centralized nature of the state, chronic corruption, and lack of transparency. Moscow has probably drawn valuable lessons from its experiences in Moldova and the South Caucasus during the 1990s. It was the time when the Russian army was covertly involved in ethnic conflicts supporting secessionist movements in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh and Transdninistria.
Thus, the Russian media have often reported real or fabricated atrocities against civilians in the Russian-speaking areas to incite fear and anger. Simultaneously, Russian journalists have flooded the Ukrainian airwaves with constant messages about the illegitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities. The Kremlin’s propaganda is facilitated by restrictions on press freedom and intimidation against independent journalists in Russia.
The disinformation strategy aims at changing public perceptions and promoting certain foreign policy goals like keeping Ukraine away from the Western camp and bringing the country closer to Russia. In effect, the Russian strategy operates at macro, meso and micro levels. Consequently, the target audiences are the West, the Russian society, and the citizens of Ukraine. The quantity of Russian propaganda indicates a significant investment that has taken place over the past years to influence the information environment (Thornton, 2015).
As soon as the Russian army invaded Ukraine, it also launched an international campaign to influence the global public opinion. For this purpose, the Kremlin has utilized pro-Russian political networks and alliances. The Kremlin hopes to counter narratives about Russian aggression and portray the intervention as a humanitarian operation. There is a growing number of pro-Russian political forces in Europe defending Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. For instance, the French far-right political party Front National has been accused of supporting the Moscow’s policy in Ukraine because it has received loans from a Russian bank. In 2015, Marine Le Pen even called for recognition of Crimea as part of Russia. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has proposed an alliance with Russia based on the common Orthodox faith.
Additionally, Moscow has used non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make its case internationally. The Institute of Democracy and Cooperation is a Paris-based Russian-funded think thank that has largely subscribed to the Kremlin’s narrative in Ukraine. There are pro-Kremlin NGOs like the World Without Nazism (Mir Bez Natsizma) that have accused the Ukrainian government of tolerating anti-Semitism and Nazism.
Although it is obvious that the Russian leadership does not recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine anymore, Moscow does not seek a total occupation of Ukraine. It rather strives for a ‘Finlandlization’ of the neighboring country. That means Ukraine could not join organizations like NATO and the European Union, which are largely viewed by the Russian political elite as geopolitical competitors. Russia’s strategy against Ukraine cannot easily be repeated in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is clearly a unique case due to the large territorially-concentrated ethnic Russian population. More importantly, Moscow’s strategy has been based on a calculated risk assumption that other great powers would not come to Kiev’s aid.
*Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Reader in International Security at King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies.