How Russian Information Operations Are Trying to Win the War

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The Russian government has been waging war against the truth for many decades. Reports suggest Stalin coined the term dezinformatsiya (disinformation) as the name of a KGB propaganda department back in the 1920s. Today, state-backed efforts to distort objective facts and influence public opinion lie at the heart of the Kremlin's war machine. 

As our latest research reveals, it is using tried-and-tested channels both to create and exacerbate divisions between Western-allied countries and to influence voters to oppose their governments' support for Ukraine.

Sowing Division

The uptick in information operations is, in many ways, no surprise. It is the result of a military campaign that has so far failed to achieve many of its objectives. President Vladimir Putin underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance while over-estimating his troops' ability to advance. As time drags on, the country faces an inevitable economic contraction as unprecedented Western sanctions bite, alongside potential political disquiet. However, in response, Moscow is seeking to create division, realizing that economic pain and international divisions in the West can be exacerbated with the right kind of pressure. Information operations are key to applying such pressure by dividing and destabilizing Ukraine's allies.

From analyzing Russian influence networks, we've assessed that multiple info ops have been running since May 2022 to achieve these ends. They use familiar channels: state-controlled media like RT, known covert intelligence outlets and known propaganda and disinformation amplifiers like the website 'SouthFront' and Telegram troll farms' Cyber Front Z.' They also use familiar tactics. One popular effort is to sow division between Western countries. They do this by amplifying genuine stories – such as Turkey's security concerns over Finland and Sweden joining NATO and German-Polish disagreements over the supply of tanks. Additionally, where necessary, they make stuff up. These include the dissemination of forged documents supposedly citing Polish and Lithuanian plans to invade Western Ukraine.

Power to the People

Perhaps the best chance of Putin's Russia influencing the outcome of the war lies in appealing to Western voters directly. This is an advantage autocracies like Russia will always have over democratic governments. While the former can strictly control their populations and access to news media, the latter are ultimately beholden to the electorate. If the latter can be persuaded that war in Ukraine is impacting their quality of life, governments may fall into line to prevent a drubbing at the ballot box.

Thus, we've seen multiple Russian influence operations in this area. Some aim to stir domestic discontent toward Western political leaders and parties, often attempting to blame current economic, energy and food security concerns on negative policies toward Russia. Others negatively portray Ukrainian refugees in their host countries, such as fake news of fatal stabbings and sexual assaults by Ukrainian citizens.

Beyond the War

These assessments carry even more weight as they align with an unverified analytical note from KGB's successor, the FSB, allegedly intercepted by Ukrainian spies in June 2022. It discusses Russian info ops failures during the war and urges a greater focus on narratives targeting the "European Community" with information about the "deterioration of living standards" resulting from support for Ukraine.

Be in no doubt, if Western powers want to win the war against Putin's Russia, they will need not only to arm Ukraine on the ground and hold their nerve with sanctions on Russia. Western Governments also need to improve the media literacy of their populace, urge greater efforts by social media companies to downgrade fake news and do more to call out disinformation when they see it. We believe these info ops campaigns will continue long after the end of the war in a bid to incite distrust of Western media and politicians, especially those facing imminent election challenges.

Nothing less than a whole-of-community response will be required to effectively identify, isolate, inform and counter Russian attempts to undermine and divide the Western coalition.

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