Russia’s campaign of disinformation has been an integral component of Russia’s multidimensional, or hybrid, war against Ukraine and, indeed, its efforts to undermine the United States and its allies and partners. Let me touch upon just some aspects of the U.S. government’s response and how this campaign is playing out in the U.S.
While there is no doubt that the United States should be devoting substantially more resources in building up our own information infrastructure, the government is becoming more active and savvier in shining the spotlight on and countering Russia’s false narratives. In the last few months, we have seen a growing and vigorous push back from the White House, State Department, Department of Defense and Congress. This has taken many forms, among them statements, remarks, press briefings, media appearances and hearings. They all demonstrate resolute support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They call out Russia as the aggressor and underscore that neither Ukraine nor NATO pose any threat to Russia, in contrast to what Russian propaganda would have one believe.
To cite just one example that I think was particularly pithy and effective – White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s response to a question at a daily briefing earlier this month: “When the fox is screaming from the top of the henhouse that he’s scared of the chickens, which is essentially what they’re doing, that fear isn’t reported as a statement of fact,” “…As you watch [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin screaming about the fear of Ukraine and the Ukrainians, that should not be reported as a statement of fact.” Readily understandable messages such as this one should be disseminated far and wide, including on social media.
A welcome example of countering Moscow’s disinformation are the State Department’s recently released fact sheets titled “United with Ukraine” and “Disarming Disinformation: Our Shared Responsibility,” which are prominently displayed on the homepage of the State Department’s website, www.state.gov. A valuable resource for countering Moscow’s brazen lies and half-truths, they provide worthwhile information to help counter Russia’s false narratives. They also provide useful facts about U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, democracy, economy and culture, as well as information about the consequences of Russia’s aggression for Ukraine and beyond. One practical way that we all can help counter the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is by familiarizing ourselves with and disseminating these factsheets. Other helpful government resources include excellent, concise statements by the U.S. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission, which are delivered every week at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna.
Another new and clever tool of information warfare by the U.S. is designed to make it harder for Mr. Putin to justify an invasion. This has included exposing possible “false-flag” operations that would create pretexts for a Russian invasion. One such plan was to create a fake graphic video, complete with corpses and actors, purportedly showing Ukrainians attacking Russians.
The last few months have seen unprecedented attention to Ukraine not only from the U.S. government, but the media and society at large. Russia’s threats of invasion have dominated the news. While some of the reporting in print and electronic media has been sloppy and superficial, most of it has reflected solid reporting and analysis. Having a print and electronic media on-the-ground presence in Ukraine itself helps expose Ukraine’s side of the story and provides for more insightful reporting. Most editorials, op-eds and print, radio and tv commentary and appearances by opinion-leaders and experts have been favorably disposed toward Ukraine and highly critical of Mr. Putin.
Even so, it is necessary to keep challenging what back during the Cold War were called “useful idiots” – those in the media who are spreading Russian disinformation and essentially parroting Russian talking points. Many come from the populist right – most notoriously, Tucker Carlson, whose latest absurd claim was that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a dictator – but there are also some on the left. These views stand in sharp contrast with those of traditional conservatives who tend to be hardline on Russia and supportive of Ukraine, as well as the vast majority of those on the moderate and liberal side of the political spectrum. So far, these pro-Putin cheerleaders are a minority and their messages have not had much resonance. Certainly not where it counts, including in the U.S. Congress.
Even in Congress there are a few outliers, such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mont.), who has urged the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to drop support for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO. But the traditional strong bipartisan support against Russia’s malign activity remains intact. In fact, the debate within Congress is not about whether to provide more military assistance to Ukraine or not. And it is not about whether to legislate crippling sanctions against Russia or not. Instead, it centers on the extent and timing of sanctions against Moscow, with Republicans advocating an arguably even more assertive approach.
Most Americans are not buying Russia’s false narratives and stand with Ukraine. There is considerable sympathy toward Ukraine and most Americans understand precisely who the aggressor is and who is the victim. More and more Americans also recognize that Ukrainians and Russians are not one people, as Mr. Putin would have one think, although some of the media could do a better job in highlighting the distinctions.
According to recent opinion polls, the American people back Mr. Biden’s approach on Ukraine focusing on both diplomacy and robust deterrence measures. Majorities favor tough sanctions on Russia and assistance to Ukraine. Russian disinformation efforts here in the U.S. have thus far not yielded many results, especially when measured against the considerable resources the Kremlin has employed to this end. But one cannot take anything for granted. We need to build on the recent positive steps and amplify our counter-disinformation to a larger audience, including the Russian people. And we need to do more to assist Ukraine in its war against Russian disinformation as here, too, Ukraine is on the front lines in the global war for freedom, democracy, the truth and what is right.