Ukraine Crisis: A Low-Cost Disinformation Campaign Helps Putin’s Playbook

While Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two separate regions of Ukraine this week, pro-Russian online disinformation activists released several photos and videos depicting Ukraine as the aggressor. Experts and fact-watchers quickly dismantled their blunt efforts. But for Moscow, quantity exceeds quality concerns.

Examples of misinformation circulate on the Internet: a photo of an alleged Ukrainian armored vehicle on Russian soil, a video of Ukrainian troops on an “invasion” mission infiltrating Russia, or another clip purportedly showing Ukrainian or Polish “saboteurs” trying to blow up Russian tanks.

Days after the Kremlin criticized Western “hysteria” over Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, messages from Moscow changed after President Vladimir Putin’s decision on Monday to recognize the pro-Russian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

The new narrative, backed by a campaign of disinformation, focuses on providing “evidence” of Kiev’s aggressiveness, contrasting with the situation on the ground where Ukraine faces the military might of its massive eastern neighbor.

Disinformation is circulated in pro-Russian groups on the Telegram messaging service and then transmitted by state and pro-Kremlin media organizations. Over the past few days, Russian state media have insisted that Putin ordered troops on a “peacekeeping” mission in eastern Ukraine to prevent what the Russian president called the “genocide” of Russian speakers by the government in Kiev.

Editing videos and photos ‘Lazy, lazy, lazy, lazy’ Fake videos and photos have not caught the attention of fact-checkers looking for Russian disinformation on the Internet.

>> More on France 24 monitors: Meet the anonymous internet investigators tracking Russian movements on Ukraine’s borders

A video of “Polish speaking” soldiers trying to sabotage Russian tanks has been dissected to reveal a montage of video clips and audio clips, according to Elliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, an Amsterdam-based investigative website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence. Some footage was filmed in early February, while editors added footage and audio from a video filmed during a Finnish military exercise in 2010.

Anatomy of a separate Russian pseudo-science of separatists – On February 18, the Telegram channel of the press service of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Militia published the following video, allegedly showing a sabotage operation targeting chlorine tanks / R4mfggxbPg

– EliotHiggins February 20, 2022 A Ukrainian armored vehicle is supposedly advancing into Russian territory quickly and effectively. The Soviet-era vehicle in the photo does not belong to the Ukrainian arsenal, according to investigators at Oryx, an open source platform specializing in military equipment and technology. “They couldn’t even get it right,” the group said in a Twitter post.

Most sensitive to investigators was the claim, backed by video from the FSB – one of Russia’s main intelligence services – that a shell fired from Ukrainian territory destroyed a Russian border post on Monday.

The FSB video was examined by investigators of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group that specializes in Russian military issues, and turned out to be suspicious. The “closest Ukrainian sites” located more than 37 kilometers from the zone of influence, the topic of CIT Twitter began. And in a series of publications that systematically refute the claim, CIT noted that the only Ukrainian artillery systems that could fire at such a distance caused far greater destruction than the single hut damaged in the video.

In a letter published on Tuesday, CIT concluded: “We found this ‘not another incident in a series of poorly organized pretexts for a possible operation against Ukraine’.”

Today, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, which protects the Russian border) announced that an unknown shell from Ukrainian territory destroyed a border post 150 meters from the border.

However, there is a problem with this claim.

– CIT (en) (CITeam_en) February 21, 2022 This is not the first time fact-checkers have invoked the efforts of pro-Russian preachers in recent days. “Lazy, lazy, lazy, lazy,” quipped Arik Toller, a researcher at Bellingcat who monitors disinformation “made in the Kremlin.”

Aimed at an “Audience that is already receptive” The lack of sophistication may be really surprising. Russia has been known to be adept at online propaganda since its agents intervened in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Moreover, Moscow “already used the same tactics in 2014 to justify the annexation of Crimea,” recalls Stefan Meister, a Russian security specialist. And disinformation in the German Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with France 24.

Meister believes that it is “impossible to imagine today’s Russia having a dimensionless struggle for cyber-propaganda”.

But how, then, can a good Russian machine produce such “low-cost” disinformation? “Simply because, at the moment, the Russian authorities do not have to do better,” Meister said.

He wants the Kremlin and needs to impress his people. Valentina Shapovalova, a specialist in Russian media and propaganda at the University of Copenhagen, noted in an interview with France 24.

So the authorities developed a narrative and resorted to images that “look like all the misinformation that has been sold for eight years to the Russian-speaking population about Ukraine,” Yevgeny Golovchenko, a specialist in Russian disinformation at the University of Copenhagen, told France 24.

This is not the first time, for example, that Putin has used the term “genocide” to refer to the situation in Ukraine. “That’s what he actually did in 2014 before the Crimean invasion was launched,” Meister recalls.

This means that there is little need to reinvent the wheel and fiddle with the details of misinformation. It can remain simple and work, Golovchenko explained, “because it is primarily aimed at an already receptive audience.”

What’s more, it’s not so much the quality as the amount of misinformation. “The goal is to create so many different – and sometimes contradictory – versions of what’s happening at the border that no one can tell truth from wrong anymore,” Shapovalova said.

Using what Shapovalova calls a “mist of disinformation,” Moscow hopes that Russian-speaking populations, from Moscow to Donbass, will be so saturated with messages that, without knowing which direction they are heading, they will cling to what is familiar: the Kremlin.

Disinformation, however crude, can have a raison d’être at the international level. “Moscow knows very well that, in any case, anything coming from Russia will be considered by the Western public as not very credible. The Kremlin is primarily concerned with the fact that US and European analysts and policymakers are wasting time tracking down and talking about this misinformation,” Meister said.

The purpose of such harsh publicity may be to distract, to create informational background noise intended to distract the opponent.

Finally, another possible explanation is that Moscow is deliberately playing Washington’s game. Golovchenko noted that “the United States has warned on more than one occasion that Russia will create accidents out of the blue before any invasion or military operation in Ukraine.” All the Russian propagandists have to do is make up such crude slanders that everyone will scream a werewolf and notice the possibility of Russia’s “false science” operation to justify the war. In short, this is enough to put pressure on Ukraine and NATO without having to move a single tank.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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