Russia’s disinformation defeat
For years, Western experts have opined that Russia excels in disinformation. Russia’s war on Ukraine has demonstrated that such assertions are themselves a form of disinformation. Much like its military campaign, Moscow’s information war has been incompetent and unconvincing, and there are multiple reasons for its failures.
Above all, Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated the Western responses in the days leading up to the war, just as he failed to understand the resolve of the Ukrainian government and its people. Kremlin leaders were clearly taken by surprise by Washington’s partial release of classified information about their political tactics and military objectives, including potential “false flag” operations in staging provocations in the Donbas.
Moscow resorted to giving a very convoluted and unconvincing explanation as to why Russia felt “insecure,” allegedly because of NATO enlargement. This lacked all credibility when looking at the small number of multi-national NATO forces along its eastern flank, overshadowed by the much larger Russian presence on NATO’s borders. The months-long buildup of Russian troops around Ukraine was not matched by any significant NATO escalation.
Russian disinformation operatives staged fake attacks by Ukrainian troops on Russian proxies in the Donbas, but their efforts were so transparent that they gave up. And proxy attacks on Ukrainian positions failed to provoke Ukrainian retaliation as justification for a Russian invasion. The pretexts for the invasion itself lacked any validity even to the most ardent Putin apologists, aside from some U.S. television pundits. Ukraine is obviously not a fascist state, and its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not a Nazi presiding over the “genocide” of Russian speakers.
Propaganda for domestic consumption has also proved amateurish. The scripted televised Security Council meetings presided over by Putin simply demonstrated the subservience and nervousness of top officials. Most probably Putin wanted their declarations of support for the invasion to make them all culpable if there is a future war crimes process, while trying to guarantee that they will not betray him. State propaganda has not trumpeted the war at home, calculating that it would only be popular if it was short and successful. Instead, Putin has been trying to lay the blame for Russia’s military defeats on the West and has threatened nuclear war as his “fortress Russia” turns into a rogue state.
In stark contrast to Moscow’s misfiring disinformation, the messaging of Western governments has proved effective. They brought global attention to Russia’s unprovoked aggression and exposed how Moscow was preparing each stage of the war. The clear distinction between attacker and victim helped to generate large supplies of weapons to Kyiv from almost every NATO state and enabled NATO to reinforce its eastern flank with new troops. The Alliance has gained valuable experience in activating its rapid response force and in moving weapons and equipment across Europe to front line states. While each east flank country has appealed for a sustained U.S. military presence, other former satellite states will demand more effective deterrents and Western help against Russia’s imperial pressures.
The indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities has outraged public opinion and united the West. This will help destabilize Russia itself. Western capitals forged agreement on a more effective package of financial and economic sanctions that will cripple Russia’s already stuttering economy and even freeze much of its accumulated reserves. Calls have also been reinforced for developing alternative energy supplies in Europe to avoid Moscow’s blackmail in the future. As Moscow keeps its budget afloat through energy revenues, the consequences for Russia’s economy and society will be catastrophic.
Moscow’s invasion has enabled Western military intelligence to gain a more updated picture of Russia’s military capabilities and inadequacies during actual combat. Moscow’s breast beating about its military superiority and “shock and awe” operation has only impressed a few Western analysts and not the Ukrainian general staff. War is not a computer game; the most critical factors, even with inferior weaponry, are determination and willpower. Ukrainians are defending their homes while Russian invaders appear confused, demoralized and misled. Even their own internal conscript propaganda was amateurish, as scenes of prisoners of war questioned by Ukrainian fighters have revealed.
If military losses continue to mount even if some Ukrainian territory is seized, this will redound against Putin domestically. No amount of propaganda and disinformation will be able to camouflage Putin’s failures in further isolating Russia and precipitating a potential collapse of the regime and a fracturing of the artificial federation.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His recent book, “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His new book, “Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture,” will be published in the spring.