The US has unveiled new information about a Russian plot to invade Ukraine using a fake video as a pretext.
The US believes Russia has already recruited actors to make a propaganda video displaying “graphic scenes of a planned false explosion with dead, actors portraying mourners, and shots of wrecked sites and military equipment,” according to senior administration sources.
The White House made public the Kremlin’s purported preparations to stage an attack on Thursday in the hopes of deterring Moscow from carrying out its latest disinformation campaign.
During a briefing with reporters last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “We have made a commitment — a strategic one — to call out falsehood when we see it.” “We have a lot better understanding of the Russian disinformation machine than we did in 2014,” Psaki stated. “Russia’s potential to falsify the facts and what it is doing is limitless.”
The Biden administration has stepped up its counter-offensives against Russia’s disinformation machine, reacting rapidly to the narratives Moscow is peddling to erode faith in Western democracy.
Russia intensifies its disinformation effort against Ukraine and the United States.
Even as the Kremlin continues to threaten Ukraine by massing troops and equipment along the border, US officials have documented a record-breaking number of attempts by Russian state media and proxies to spread anti-American and anti-Ukrainian content online.
On January 23, the self-declared “Russian federal news agency” Avia.pro published an article claiming that “the United States has begun moving its heavy tanks and light armoured vehicles to the border with Ukraine, apparently preparing to use these vehicles to attack Russia,” in yet another example of Russia’s online malign influence campaign. According to fact-checking website StopFake.org, while Avia.pro is geolocated in the Netherlands, open-source data suggests the domain is registered to a private address of an apartment building in Moscow, Russia.
Researchers at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis have sorted through an avalanche of disinformation produced by Russian state media organisations, including RT and Sputnik, claiming that Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine and that the West made up the invasion storey to justify its own military buildup.
“From September 2021 to January 2022, Russian official media and proxy websites produced a greater quantity of anti-Ukrainian and anti-American narratives on a month-by-month basis than during any preceding time,” the Department of Homeland Security informed state and law enforcement partners this week.
Anti-Ukrainian and anti-American narratives are on the rise, according to a DHS bulletin acquired by CBS News. “Ukraine-focused article production by Russian media outlets” topped 800 in January 2022, according to the bulletin. Researchers noticed a reactive spike in negative reports about the US, NATO, and its allies on December 7, following President Biden’s video conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and again on January 10, when discussions in Geneva began.
Moscow’s misinformation armies have recently spread outlandish tales accusing the US of hiring mercenaries to carry out a chemical attack plot and reviving phoney myths linking Ukrainians to Nazism.
“Disinformation is a big concern,” Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.
“According to the disinformation narrative, Ukraine is the root of the conflict. “That is not the case; Russia is the source of the situation,” Neuberger stated emphatically.
Russia is also spreading the myth that “large NATO forces” are stationed in Ukraine, as well as “serious dangers” to Russia, according to Neuberger. “No, that isn’t true.” She stated again that Russia has over 100,000 troops stationed on Ukraine’s border.
According to the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, a non-governmental organisation sponsored by pro-Ukraine activists, propaganda is filling Telegram channels. The organisation takes note of a recent rumour that Ukraine and NATO are planning a covert operation code-named “Crushing Sword.” That storey, which was first spread by Russian state media and was first put on the telegraph account of Yan Leshchenko, the self-proclaimed military leader of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, uses fake footage of Ukrainian assault as a pretext for Russian military deployment.
While many messages on Telegram are anonymous, others connect to pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians like Yevheniy Muraiev, the owner of the “NASH” TV channel and one of Moscow’s chosen candidates for pro-Russian leadership, according to recent British intelligence reports concluding Putin plans to install a puppet government in Kyiv.
‘This isn’t a one-off cyber attack,’ says Russia’s hybrid information warfare expert.
The White House sent its top cybersecurity officer to NATO on Tuesday to help organise the alliance’s campaign to identify and deflect Russian cyberattacks — both against Ukraine and potential retaliatory cyberattacks against Europe and the United States. Neuberger compared Russia’s cyber operations to “kinetic operations” aimed at destabilising a target populace and government. “The purpose of Russian disinformation is to undermine trust in a country’s leadership or make assessing a situation difficult.”
According to top Ukrainian cyber official Victor Zhora, cyber criminals sought to “shake confidence” in Ukraine last month by hitting more than 90 websites affiliated to 22 Ukrainian government agencies on January 14 in a three-pronged effort aimed at promoting Russia’s state-sponsored tale.
A “far lesser number of enterprises and IT systems” were harmed, with approximately 50 websites vandalised. According to the deputy chairman of Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, “certain foreign IT infrastructures were damaged.”
Hackers successfully used specially crafted “wiper malware” on two government organisations in Ukraine, but no personal information appears to have been compromised.
While the Ukrainian government has yet to formally blame Moscow for the attacks, the study indicates that Russian tactics were used.
“It’s part of Ukraine’s hybrid warfare.” “Cyberspace is simply one of its domains of battle,” Zhora said, adding that international experts will help with the inquiry.
“We believe this is a psychological operation against Ukraine,” stated Zhora. He went on to say, “It’s about sowing confusion and instability.”
Ukraine’s government websites, including the Foreign Ministry’s homepage, temporarily showed a message urging citizens to “be afraid and prepare for the worst.”
Officials, on the other hand, had anticipated far worse. “It’s not a big problem if fifty websites are defaced and some data is lost.” Zhora paused for a moment before continuing. “This is a major situation. It’s a valuable lesson for all of us to learn. It’s the latest in a string of cyber-attacks, but we’ve demonstrated that our security system is up to the task.”
Themes from Russia’s fictitious plot
Last month, the State Department released a fact sheet detailing five themes that Russia has been attempting to polish and sell as part of its disinformation campaign to justify its activities in Ukraine. For one thing, there’s “Russophobia,” which wrongly portrays Russia as a “unwitting victim” of US aggression, downplays the Soviets’ WWII cooperation with Hitler, and portrays the collapse of Western civilizations as “imminent.”
“Russian military doctrine has included disinformation for more than a decade,” said James Lewis, a CSIS researcher and computer expert. “One thing the Russians have learnt is that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it.”
That lesson was reinforced in 2016, according to Lewis, when Kremlin-backed trolls updated their “classic playbook” with an internet disinformation campaign aimed at sowing doubt about the presidential election. As a result, a large network of false social media accounts, or ‘bots,’ was created with the goal of spreading contentious political content throughout the internet, so exacerbating existing schisms in American society. However, Russian electoral intervention, which is expected to resurface in 2020, has taught American leaders a few painful lessons.
Experts who watch Kremlin-backed information warfare have praised the Trump administration’s approach to countering Russia’s disinformation campaign, as well as efforts by social media companies to stop bogus news at its source.
“In recent years, the social media businesses have gone from saying, ‘Oh, we’re just, we’re just a bulletin board….’ to making a far more aggressive attempt to screen out fraudulent content,” Lewis added. “The Russians construct hundreds of fictitious people and use artificial intelligence to send out garbage on Twitter.” However, there is a far more concerted attempt to bring this to light.”