“Disinformation against NATO during the Russian invasion in Ukraine”
Ioanna Georgia Eskiadi
The current paper aims to analyze, define and find examples of disinformation spread during the Russian invasion, specifically during the first months of the invasion of Russia in Ukraine regarding NATO. The disinformation spread aims to destabilize the society and remove the capabilities of building resilience. The spread of disinformation targeting both governments and citizens alike has a tremendous impact on society and the capabilities of the state, leading to a “new” development in hybrid war formats. A hybrid war that includes the spread of disinformation, rumors, and propaganda attempting to undermine social moral, cohesion, legitimacy and beliefs, and minorize the trust in institutions. Disinformation campaigns have been a major tool applied consistently in previous years as crises intensify. Though it remains a constant threat that continues to be exploited and used as a way to defeat a country through non-linear war. The analysis will dive deeper into the disinformation, resilience, hybrid interference and the media landscape in Ukraine in accordance with the Russian disinformation. Also, it will provide some narratives of the Russian disinformation against NATO and will conclude with some recommendations.
Disinformation and resilience
“Disinformation refers to the deliberate creation and dissemination of false and/or manipulated information with the intent to deceive and/or mislead (NATO, 2020). It may take numerous forms, from fabricated content containing false facts to misleading information misrepresenting a reality (Sanchez, 2022)”. Resilience refers to the capacity of any entity to prepare for disruption, to recover from shocks, and to adapt and grow from the disruptive experience. “Disinformation resilience” is the adaptability of states, societies, and individuals to political, economic and societal intentional pressure and falsehood spread in various formats of media, including TV, radio, print and online media, (and) social media, to influence political and economic decisions, including through targeting particular vulnerable groups (Yeliseyeu and Damarad, 2018:6-7)”. Building resilience targeted public awareness campaigns, enhancing participatory democracy, developing better communication techniques, disrupting organizational structures and operations of extremist groups. Especially, governments need to recognize and prioritize the different challenges posed by Russia within different timeframes and coordinate common policy responses.
Hybrid interference and Hybrid warfare
Democracies are threatened due to a new way of invading the stability of a state authoritarian regimes through more subtle, non-military activities. Especially, “democracies need to find means to defend against hybrid interferences (like disinformation campaigns) without jeopardizing the values that they are meant to defend. Hybrid warfare refers to conducting an “indirect war” under special circumstances. Russia follows the idea of “gibridnaya voyna”, so as to avoid the traditional battlefield with the aim of destroying “the political cohesion of an adversary from the inside by employing a carefully crafted hybrid of non-military means and methods, leading to internal collapse. Hybrid agents thrive on being covert, so transparency is a key means of deterring hybrid interference. Deterrence should focus on consistency and making attacks less effective. Crafting effective policy responses involves deepening democratic infrastructure (Wigell, 2021, 50-63)”.
Russian disinformation is organized through buffer zones and spheres of influence towards the former Soviet republics (Boulègue, Lutsevych and Marin, 2018:4-7). Ukraine due to the low trust of the public in the government and the continuous conflict situation by Russia is vulnerable to such actions. Russian disinformation manipulates the information sphere, destabilizes and discredits the authorities, undermines NATO’s support, and blocks Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO. In the first ten months of 2021, the country suffered 288,000 cyber-attacks while Russia was building troops at the Ukraine borders (Ringhof & Torreblanca, 2022).
Media landscape in Ukraine
Ukraine can be characterized as a “laboratory” for Russian influence, which has been weakened after 2014 and civils’ society’s mobilization. The country is vulnerable due to the weak information security, low trust in public institutions and media, corrupted political systems, low media literacy and lack of clear national strategy for conflict resolution. State media channels promote Russia’s position proliferating its narratives. Russia uses bots and Kremlin-funded groups in Facebook but the government has taken some steps with sanctions of Russia’s major state TV channels, banning of its social media and the cooperation between civic media organizations and the state ((Havlíček, and Yeliseyeu, 2021:232-240). Russia develops its disinformation campaigns aiming mostly southern and eastern in areas of mass culture and historical memory.
Disinformation from Russia against NATO
Before and during the war in Ukraine a disinformation environment dominated the public sphere focusing on the role of NATO, aiming to distort the image and the reputation of the organization both in member states and in the outside countries. The aim of Russia is to create a hostile environment leading NATO to face a hybrid war. After 2014 and the illegal annexation of Crimea, the relations between NATO and Russia have been tense. Since 2014, Kremlin-backed media has pumped out a steady stream of accusations that NATO is either too weak to defend the country or too aggressive in its military stance ("As Ukraine conflict heats up, so too does disinformation", 2022).
Some common myths include that NATO is the aggressor and a threat to Russia, but NATO is a defensive alliance, whose purpose is to protect the members. Or Ukraine cannot join NATO but decisions regarding NATO membership are up to each individual applicant and the 30 NATO Allies. Russia has no right to intervene and cannot veto this process. The aim of Russia is to confuse and exhaust the public to not be able to distinguish between fact and fiction. Russian campaigns aim to increase geopolitical tensions between Moscow and the West and to counter NATO's claims against them focused on framing NATO as the enemy. Another conspiracy theory is accusing NATO of using chemical weapons within the country in the hope of blaming Russia for it.
Tactics and narratives employed by Russia
The research was based on Twitter, where a network of accounts spread pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda through a high coordination system and common narratives. The activity of these accounts has increased in the end of 2021, especially in November has been increased by 30%. Most of these accounts have a history of tweeting pro-Russian propaganda. They claimed that “Ukraine is the aggressor or a state of the US. This network towards the end of the year changed and shifted towards a more international audience. The percentage of tweets in Ukrainian and Russian propaganda has decreased as opposed to the percentage of tweets in other languages. The narratives extend beyond what we see in the media and some of them targeted the international community trying to build international opinion in favor of Russia.
Russia used old strategies from 2014 through campaigns over people to Tik-Tok but what is new, it’s that they weaponized the debunking of the information from the Ukrainian side. Portrait Russian sources of war in Ukraine, trying to prove they are doing nothing wrong. Disinformation campaigns by Russia are developing to a parallel war that actually isn’t real. Social media weaponizes Ukraine, because Russian embassies spread disinformation, promoting false debunks. Official sources are used in this disinformation spread.
According to the website of “EUvsDisinfo” (https://euvsdisinfo.eu/?s=nato) the disinformation circulated about NATO during January 2022-April 2022 concentrated on Crimea annexation, Donbas myths, MH-17 airplane, atrocities in Syria, the invasion of Ukraine, bombing civilian targets, Kharkov and Mariupol. After the Bucha atrocities, the Russian ministries of defense and foreign affairs and embassies went into the usual auto-pilot lying: “A Ukrainian provocation, false flag, staged attack, pictures are fake and etc.”. Russia spread messages like “US out, NATO down and the West obey”. Also, Chinese media and officials have made it clear: it is not Russia that is to blame for the military aggression against Ukraine, but the West and NATO’s eastward expansion of the past 20 years, ignoring Russia’s ‘legitimate security concerns. Ultimately, Ukraine is envisaged as a bridge that is outside of NATO and the EU, and nothing else, a portrayal which effectively denies the country the right to choose its own path. China supports Russia’s proposals for security guarantees in Europe and opposes any enlargement of NATO, again omitting the aforementioned right of countries to choose their alliances that Russia, too, has agreed to.
The anti-US and anti-NATO narratives reinforce the idea that Russia is not the aggressor. Pro-Kremlin propagandists circulated videos blaming Ukraine for not respecting the Minsk agreements and accuse NATO, the EU and the US of arming Ukraine with atomic bombs, of expanding towards Russia and of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. In pro-Kremlin nuclear fantasies, the alleged nuclear weapons program is not enough: there needs to be a narrative about the actual use of nuclear weapons, too. A common narrative was “NATO is using Ukraine as a Trojan horse for a nuclear strike against Russia” but the NATO nuclear sharing arrangement is fully in line with the Treaty of Non-Proliferation or “The West sabotaged any agreements on Russian proposals for security guarantees” or that NATO aggression somehow threatens Russia. The Kremlin aimed to reasoning left, right and center in its effort to justify the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and the claims of needing to protect the alleged 700,000 or more people in Donbas are likely propagated with similar intent. The bulk of misleading messages are directed primarily at domestic Russian audiences, which are told on a daily basis that the West, NATO and the US are threatening Russia.
Pro-Kremlin media claim that NATO was pushing Ukraine into a conflict. The Russian state-controlled media quickly announced that Deutsche Welle was a source of NATO propaganda, following up with broader efforts to establish a false equivalence between the respectable global media outlet Deutsche Welle and RT DE. They claimed, also, that Russia is being encircled by NATO and the last one is a hostile military bloc whose main objective is to inflict harm on Russia. The Kremlin’s confusion doesn’t stop at misunderstanding and misrepresenting the role of NATO. The Russian campaign has also directly targeted the role of NATO, mis-portraying them as alleged aggressive threats against Russia’s “legitimate security concerns.
Finally, a strong rule of law is essentially and Ukraine should enhance the trust in the government in order to be more resilient as a society. This can be achieved by establishing more credibility through effective and consistent communication and information system within the general public during a time of war. At the same time, this correlates with the goal of NATO 2030 for a broader and more coordinated approach to resilience through a better advice and assess to national resilience efforts in support of NATO’s collective defense and to better link resilience with the Alliance’s broader posture and plans. Also, the government needs to develop an effective narrative and information-communication system able to counteract the Russian manipulation efforts. This will be achieved by cooperation with the media and the creation of a plan that will educate the public about the real risk and the consequences of disinformation. Media literacy should also be enhanced, so as individuals will protect themselves and the other people from malign information, and it will create a healthy and trustful information environment. Also, transparency is needed, so as to avoid influence and interference from external states. The government should aim to inform citizens better about major state policies and deliver practical information, ensure clarity, highlight outcomes and outline solutions.
NATO could develop projects and initiatives in the communication and media sector through the cooperation with the Ukrainian government, media and experts. Projects about media literacy, media freedom and freedom of speech should be enhanced. This will lead to the independence of the media and transparency, ensuring information security for journalists. National media should also be supported and dialogue enhanced between the government and media by NATO. NATO could lead information campaigns that promote education and civic awareness, so as to build a ‘cognitive resilience’, broadly developing citizens’ critical thinking. Capacity-building should prioritize improving the quality of content and reporting under pressure of disinformation and fake news through fact-checking courses, exposure of disinformation led by NATO. Activities promoting critical thinking and the development of skills in fact checking, should be promoted by NATO. Finally, NATO could build resilience through training where experts will share good practices, leading to the creation of a hub which will aggregate and share trends related to foreign perpetrated disinformation.
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