What the heck is happening in Ukraine? The answer to that question largely depends on who you ask, what you’re willing to believe, and, probably, what kind of content fills your newsfeed.
As the Biden administration continues to warn that Russia is planning a potentially devastating military invasion—one that, some officials claim, could leave over 50,000 civilians dead—Russia has continued to deny such claims, accusing the West of engaging in a “large-scale disinformation campaign” that seeks to “to divert attention from their own aggressive actions.” U.S. officials have, in turn, accused Russia of spreading disinformation about the U.S. spreading disinformation, effectively arguing that any claim that Russia does not want to invade is fake news.
In short, it’s a big, ugly argument—one that has played out publicly amidst ongoing backroom negotiations over how to peaceably resolve the current regional tensions. This public-facing fight has led to a kind of information fog—a bizarre morass in which questions of what is literally happening in Ukraine, but also why it’s happening, and what it means for everybody involved—are the competitive domain for diverging nation-state agendas.
While, in previous decades, most countries’ citizens would’ve just believed what their government told them, people today are savvier and more skeptical. Made cynical by the fickle nature of the internet (but also by the government controversies of prior decades), a lot of us often find it difficult to believe what we’re seeing with our own eyes in our newsfeeds. The fact that governments are aware of our skepticism means that they try that much harder to convince us of their agendas and—thanks to the dark tools of social media manipulation—they have more firepower to do so than ever before. The result is what we’re currently seeing play out in Ukraine—a conflict that is as much about information, media, and narrative, as it is about the political issues at play.
Throughout the conflict, U.S. officials have sought to emphasize Russia’s dangerous capacity to disinform. This appears to be a strategy in itself—what commentators have referred to as “pre-bunking”—in which U.S. officials declassify typically hidden intelligence on Russian activities as a means of pre-emptively capturing the narrative. If U.S. authorities can get out ahead of Russia’s story, they can more effectively promote their own, so the thinking goes.
Thus, Americans have been hearing a whole helluva lot about Russia’s apparent “hybrid-war” tactics—a fusion style of combat that would ostensibly use cyberattacks, bomb threats, and disinformation to “sow confusion” and destabilize Ukrainian society in the lead-up to an actual military invasion. Commentators have insinuated such activities are already in the works.
On Monday, the Daily Beast published a piece detailing the activities of a well-known Russian disinfo-unit, dubbed Secondary Infektion, that has allegedly been helping out in this department. “Infektion,” which has been written about extensively in the disinfo punditry circuit, appears to have been named after “Operation Infektion”—a Soviet-era disinformation campaign that blamed the U.S. government for the creation of the AIDS virus. The Beast now reports that “Infektion” is seeking to “undermine” international support for the Western effort in Ukraine, using typical online manipulations.
Similarly, a top DHS official, John Cohen, of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, recently said during an interview that Russia would increasingly seek to promulgate “narratives trying to lay the blame for the Ukraine crisis and the potential escalation in that conflict at the feet of the U.S.” America’s strategy, then, has been to warn of these efforts ahead of time, effectively capturing the public’s confidence before it can be got at by the enemy. Unfortunately, for the State Department, however, the strategy of just claiming things to be true without evidence hasn’t been very effective this time around.
Indeed, if the U.S. strategy has been to win hearts and minds by controlling the narrative, not everybody is onboard. Perhaps due to the murky nature of the conflict itself, an increasingly wary public has often expressed skepticism about some of the pro-Western narratives to emerge over the past few weeks.
One good example involves a widely circulated story about Ukrainian civilians undergoing combat training to prep for war with Russia. A viral news story has centered around Valentina Constantinovska, a 79-year-old great-grandmother who was photographed posing with an AK-47. “I will defend my home, my city, my children,” the elderly woman was quoted as telling the press. “Your mother would do it too,” she told an American reporter earlier this week. The inspiring story, which recalled, somewhat, the imagery of WWII-era freedom fighters in Nazi-occupied Europe, quickly made the rounds in European newspapers before getting uncritically picked up by local TV news channels in the U.S. and social media.
However, not everybody was buying this story. After Constantinovska went viral, critics on social media were quick to call out the whole thing as more than a little suspicious. Why were we all hearing about granny all of sudden? Didn’t the story seem just a little too quaint? And how is a geriatric with an automatic weapon supposed to actually help in a situation like this? Skeptics all but accused the story of being a pro-Western information operation.
Worse still, Vice soon reported that “grandma” had been trained by nazis. That is, the folks that Constantinovska was photographed with turned out to be the Azov Battalion—a radical white supremacist paramilitary cell that, rumor has it, has received training from the CIA and other Western forces. Reminiscent of many other murderous goon-squads propped up by the U.S. over the years, Azov is believed to be a kind of firewall against Russian invasion, but it’s also been accused of war crimes by the U.N. and allegedly hates Russia because of its status as a “multicultural society.” As a result of Azov’s association, the inspiring story effectively fell apart.
A similar incident occurred several weeks ago when the State Department had trouble getting audiences to swallow their claims that Russia was planning to release a meticulously produced propaganda video. According to U.S. authorities, Russian intelligence had produced a “false flag” video that included “fabricated attacks” by Ukrainian military forces, as well as “crisis actors,” fake dead bodies and pyrotechnics, and would ultimately be used to justify a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The announcement, made by State Dept. spokesperson Ned Price during an ill-fated Feb. 3 press conference, wasn’t just subjected to derision by online randos but was met with incredulous skepticism by certain quarters of the press corps.
Most dramatically, Price was forced to endure a heated exchange with Associated Press reporter Matt Lee, who accused him of promoting Infowars-style conspiracy bunkum. “Crisis actors? Really? This is like Alex Jones territory you’re getting into now. What evidence do you have to support the idea that there is some propaganda film in the making?” Lee queried.
While this level of pushback is relatively unusual for the AP, you can totally understand Lee’s consternation here. After all, for years, the American public has been told that “false flags” and “crisis actors” are the paranoiac delusions of disturbed minds. Now a spokesperson for the State Department is telling us that not only are they real but they’re apparently being used by our foes to justify military invasions? What kind of weird-ass information landscape are we currently living in where yesterday’s conspiracy theories have now become today’s press briefing talking points?
The combative exchange between Price and Lee—which quickly went viral—ultimately generated additional discussion on both sides of the political aisle about the veracity of the U.S.’s claims and further confused onlookers as to what the hell was going on in the region.
The biggest information crisis of this entire situation, however, seems to involve the politicians most intimately connected to it. That is, nobody directly engaged in diplomatic efforts seems to be able to agree on what’s actually happening. The tensions in the region are very real—long-simmering from a decade of friction between the newer, West-aligned Ukrainian government, Russia, and the U.S. and its NATO satellites. But the nature of the conflict currently unfolding is anything but clear. Despite ongoing claims from America that Russia will “imminently” invade Ukraine, Ukraine, itself, doesn’t seem to agree with those assessments.
“An invasion remains distinctly possible,” said President Biden on Tuesday, when queried on the topic.
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has consistently shot down the seriousness of the situation, sometimes chastising the U.S. for what he calls alarmist rhetoric. Case in point, on Monday, Zelensky made a weird speech in which he appeared to say that Ukraine was facing imminent invasion. The speech rattled markets and led to a panic in certain quarters. However, not long after the speech was aired, advisors close to Zelensky noted that he was actually being sarcastic—a fact largely missed by Western media.
Perhaps the worst criticism has come from David Arakhamia, a key member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, who, in an interview with a Ukrainian outlet on Wednesday, accused the U.S. of widespread propaganda efforts. “I think that when this phase ends in two-three weeks, we should have a retrospective analysis [on] how the main mass media have begun to disseminate information even worse than Skabeeva and Solovyov [reference to two Russian news hosts],”Arakhamia said, claiming the news coverage from major American news outlets was on par with Russia’s worst propagandists. Ironically, Arakhamia accused the U.S. of “hybrid warfare”—the same thing the U.S. is currently accusing Russia of employing in the situation:
“This hysteria is now costing the country 2-3 billion dollars every month. We can’t borrow in foreign markets because the rates there are crazy,” said Arakhamia. “Many exporters refuse. Every day we count the losses of the economy and then distribute this information to our partners through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because they must understand. When someone decides to move the embassy to Lviv, they must understand that such news will cost the Ukrainian economy several hundred million dollars...”
Russia, meanwhile, has continued to insist that it is the victim of a disinfo campaign and that its military drills near the Ukrainian border are not indicative of a coming invasion. On Wednesday, Maria Zakharova, the Director of Russia’s Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mockingly asked Western news sources for a list of her country’s upcoming invasion dates so that she could schedule herself a vacation.
Other journalists who have longstanding ties to the region have also expressed skepticism about what the Biden administration is saying. Simon Shuster, a TIME reporter, recently revealed the following on Twitter:
And yet, too much focus on the internecine chatter between diplomats and the press belies the fact that someone is definitely trying to stir up trouble inside Ukraine, potentially via sophisticated mind games.
Roughly two weeks ago, two men were arrested in Kyiv and accused of plotting to foment violent protests in cities throughout Ukraine. The men, reportedly former Ukrainian security personnel, are accused of trying to recruit thousands of paid protesters, the likes of which, police say, were supposed to launch violent attacks on law enforcement and civilians. The men also had everything you would need to stage violence—including fake blood and the recruitment of emergency medical workers to “certify that there had been casualties” at inorganically spawned protests, one outlet reported. According to Ukrainian authorities, the men were seeking to create scenes of bloodshed that would later be broadcast on TV, apparently to create content that could be circulated around the world to provide evidence of violence and destabilization in Ukraine.
This certainly sounds like one of those spooky information campaigns we’ve all been warned about. On the other hand, no one really knows who these guys are or where they got the idea to do such a violent, disturbing thing.
Problematically, war is complicated and state-backed propaganda has gotten frighteningly good. Most of us don’t have the digital literacy to understand what we’re even looking at on Twitter half the time, let alone suss out whether it’s real or not. Will a Russian invasion occur at some point this afternoon? Frankly, I have no idea. And, even if it does happen, half the U.S. probably won’t believe it, anyway.