For years, American officials have lamented that the United States is fighting with one arm tied behind its back when it comes to waging information warfare, that is, the battle for “the hearts and minds”. Opponents, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the Kremlin, are free to spread lies and conspiracy theories, while the US government generally feels compelled to be truthful in its public statements (although it often tries cover up scandalous misconduct). American adversaries find it easy to spread propaganda in the United States – often under false pretenses via social media – but it is more difficult for independent information to penetrate more tightly controlled media spaces in countries like China, North Korea and Russia.
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Today, as the Ukraine crisis escalates, the Joe Biden administration appears to have developed an effective technique for waging information warfare. Rather than allow President Vladimir Putin’s government to freely disseminate ridiculous conspiracy theories about anti-Russian plots involving the West and Ukraine, the administration has chosen to retaliate by releasing intelligence reports on attempted Russia to create a justification for an invasion of Ukraine.
Conspiracies and false attacks
Public information warfare
On January 23, the British government, acting in cooperation with the United States, announced details of an alleged Russian conspiracy install a pro-Moscow regime in Kiev. He even went so far as to name a former pro-Russian member of Ukraine’s parliament as Putin’s favorite puppet.
On February 3, the Biden administration released information about a Russian scheme to film a fake attack on Russian territory or against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine in order to fabricate a justification for an invasion. The administration said Russia had already recruited people who would be involved in the fake attack. Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby said the plan was to result in “a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors who would represent mourners and images of destroyed places, as well as military equipment in the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be designed to look like it was provided by the West.
The United States has also released extensive details of Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border, as well as assessments that a Russian invasion is likely. The administration even shared information about reported dissent in the ranks of the Russian army about a possible attack on Ukraine.
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A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained the administration’s strategy to the the wall street journal: ” We saw [Russia] conduct false flag operations and use confusion to initiate military action on several occasions in recent history. Revealing these plots makes it all the more difficult for Russia to carry them out.
A legacy of provocations
Journalists are understandably skeptical of US intelligence, given the history of the US government making unsubstantiated claims, including the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which were used to justify the US invasion in 2003. But there is indeed a long history of Russia using so-called false flag operations to justify aggression. In 1939, the Soviet Union bombarded his own troops near its border with Finland to justify an invasion of that country. In 1968, KGB agents in what was then Czechoslovakia concocted threats against the Soviet Union and even claimed to have found a cache of “Made in the USA” weapons to justify a Red Army crackdown on the Prague Spring reform movement.
Public information warfare
In 1999, Russian intelligence agents reportedly bombed Russian apartment buildings to justify an invasion of Chechnya. And the Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were both accompanied by copious misinformation, including the use of “little green men” (i.e. soldiers in uniforms green ones devoid of Russian army insignia) to mask the role of Russian military forces. The Kremlin itself blame the CIA for shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014 – an act actually committed by Russian-backed separatists using a Russian air defense system.
A new era of information operations
In the past, the United States has been taken aback by Russian intelligence operations. Revealing Russian conspiracies in real time appears to be an effective response, though it raises concerns about exposing the US intelligence community’s ‘sources and methods’ and has journalists questioning whether the US government’s claims are worthy of confidence.
At the very least, the US reports are throwing sand in the gears of the Russian military machine and forcing the Russian government to wonder where Western intelligence agencies get their information, which could eventually lead to a search for traitors in its own ranks. The reports also neutralize Russian propaganda and allow the United States to try to control the narrative rather than give in to Putin and his propagandists.
Given the growing importance of info ops in modern warfare, this is no small feat. It has already borne fruit in considerable Western unity in the face of Russian threats against Ukraine. However, it remains unclear whether US actions will deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine.