Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and the Kremlin’s subsequent influence campaigns provide an essential case study of how information warfare can play a relevant role in the modern era and what dangers it can bring to the West.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict rages on, there is no doubt about Vladimir Putin’s failure to achieve most of its military objectives due to significant logistical problems, low combat readiness, and other deficiencies (Jones, 2022). At the same time, Russia faces issues in gaining ground in cyberspace against Ukraine. Kremlin’s narratives are no longer given equal space in the international media nor allowed to pass unchallenged (Aslund, 2022). However, the latter remains an open question as Moscow has started conducting multifaceted information operations to influence the war’s outcome.
Russian influence operations target Europe seeking to create divisions
Undaunted by the failure of its narratives to take root, the Russian state information machine is waging renewed influence operations throughout Europe to turn the tide in a war that has shifted decisively in Kyiv’s favor over the past months (Detsch & Mackinnon, 2022).
The Russian government very likely did not foresee the Western and European leaders‘ resolute response to potential aggression against Ukraine. Despite the diverse threat perceptions, EU and NATO members have promptly adopted robust measures, including unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia and billions of dollars in military aid, resources, and equipment to support Ukraine. European countries, particularly Poland, have also met the influx of millions of Ukrainian refugees with a united show of solidarity.
However, this Western unity is becoming more vulnerable as the conflict drags on and takes its toll on national economies. The Russian invasion has triggered one of the biggest human displacement crises and turmoil in the financial markets. Prolonged or intensified war can only increase the risks of destabilization and damage. Moreover, European leaders are increasingly under pressure from their electorates as rampant inflation, and sharply rising commodity and energy prices hit consumers (Ellyatt, 2022).
There is a growing concern among European and American officials that the economic implications of the conflict will erode the West’s resolve to help Ukraine in its battle against Russia. A cost-of-living crisis and energy disruptions threaten to further fuel public disaffection and unleash political turmoil. As a result, unwavering support for Ukraine can be significantly weakened over time.
The Russian disinformation machine actively exploits the current global insecurity. With a challenging winter approaching, the Kremlin-aligned actors are using existing socio-economic vulnerabilities to increase polarization and provoke internal public pressure on the governments and political elites in the West. Since at least May 2022, Russian influence networks, including covert intelligence outlets and known propaganda and disinformation amplifiers, have been actively targeting American and European audiences to weaken support for Ukraine and change public opinion on the war in favor of Russia (Insikt Group, 2022). The Kremlin has been pushing the narrative that Western support for Ukraine has been escalating the war and causing global food prices to soar. There is a line of thought out of Moscow that if they distract target countries with internal problems, there will be less appetite or capacity to support Ukraine (Vavra, 2022). Hence, Russian operatives seek to stir domestic discontent by blaming Western governments for their populations‘ hardships and consequently break the unity that has enabled a flood of Western military and economic aid to Ukraine (Detsch, 2022).
To better understand how Russia portrays an alternative version of events, it is crucial to illustrate its tools and techniques. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has utilized various methods to increase polarization and disaffection in target countries. These methods include using inauthentic users, fake fact-checking, impersonating legitimate news websites, paid promotion, and utilizing diplomatic accounts to do the dirty work.
- Impersonating legitimate news websites
On September 27, 2022, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, disrupted Russia’s largest and most complex influence operation since the start of Ukraine’s full-scale invasion (Hern, 2022). The network consisting of 1,633 accounts, 70 pages, twenty-nine Instagram profiles, and one Facebook group, targeted audiences across Europe and the UK (Aleksejeva, et al., 2022). In addition, Meta revealed various fake sites that carefully impersonate authentic European news sources, such as the Guardian in the UK, 20 minutes in France, Bild and Welt in Germany, and ANSA in Italy. The spoofed websites copied the layout of the outlets‘ real sites and imitated their web addresses and logos, likely to create a veneer of credibility and draw a big audience (Bond, 2022). This operation has been targeting European audiences with sensitive topics connected to the Russian war in Ukraine. For instance, fake websites posted original articles criticizing Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees in multiple languages, praised Russia, and argued that Western sanctions would backfire. Furthermore, articles portrayed refugees from Ukraine as a threat to host countries and campaigned against supplying Western arms to Ukraine. These narratives were then promoted across a vast array of internet services, including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, and petitions websites (Aleksejeva, et al., 2022).
- Paid promotion of social media posts
According to Meta, actors behind the Russian influence campaign spent around $105 000 to promote content on Facebook and Instagram. Ads primarily targeted German, Italian, and French audiences, thereby including topics such as rising energy prices in Europe, alleged discontent with sanctions against Russia in Germany, supplies of Western weapons to Ukraine, and the arrival of refugees from Ukraine to Europe (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2022). Three pages named Opinion ouverte promoted posts suggesting that Ukraine will likely lead the world into a food crisis. Pages targeting Germany advertised posts alleging that „Germans were bought onto the streets“ to protest „the war against Russia“ or that „children were being killed“ by Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine (Aleksejeva, et al., 2022).
The identified pages actively promoted cloned media websites, posts without any media branding, disinformation outlets, and the URL truemaps.info, which leads to a map of countries supplying Ukraine with weapons. „Truemaps“, an online platform run by Pro-Kremlin Western influencers, was created as a part of a campaign against Western military assistance to Ukraine (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2022).
- Inauthentic users
Inauthentic users have been central to Russian influence operations for manipulating public debate (Hern 2022). During the 2016 American presidential election, Russia actively used fake accounts and automated bots to boost the candidacy of Donald Trump and sow divisions in the American public around various controversial topics such as immigration and Islamophobia (McCarthy 2017). The ongoing attempts of the Kremlin-aligned actors to portray a misled image of Ukraine regarding energy prices, refugees, and inflation with the help of inauthentic users are in line with what Russia has done in the recent past. Against this, Meta identified 1,633 user accounts within the Russia-controlled digital milieu. Most of the assets were empty, had their accounts protected, and portrayed different people (Aleksejeva, et al., 2022). Some other accounts featured AI-generated faces or pictures stolen from other social media platforms. Inauthentic users posted links to cloned websites or videos with logos of well-known media outlets to create an impression of an authentic discussion and increase the number of interactions for the posts (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2022).
- Use of Diplomatic accounts
Russian embassies and consulates are actively using social media platforms to spread falsehoods about the war in Ukraine and undermine support for Kyiv. The diplomatic disinformation intensified after Western governments, and social media companies moved to suppress RT, Sputnik, and other Kremlin-backed media outlets in March 2022 (Klepper, 2022).
Marcel Shliebs, a disinformation researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, has tracked over 300 social media accounts linked to Russian embassies, consulates, and diplomatic groups. According to Shliebs, „each week since the beginning of the war, these diplomats have posted thousands of times, gaining more than a million engagements on Twitter per week“ (Klepper, 2022). Likewise, tech companies have taken specific measures concerning Russia’s diplomatic accounts, such as adding more labels or removing the accounts from recommendations and search results. However, the accounts are still active, aggressively pushing various conspiracy theories and disinformation to different audiences (Klepper, 2022). Among others, Russian missions to Paris and Geneva propagated falsehoods about the executions of civilians in Bucha (Scott, 2022). The Russian embassy in the UK claimed that the bombing of the hospital in Ukraine’s Mariupol was staged (Clayton & Sardarizadeh, 2022).
- Fake fact-checking
As a part of its influence operations, Kremlin-aligned actors have pilfered Western fake fact-checking and open-source research tropes to spread disinformation and distort the truth about the Russia-Ukraine war. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has identified an overlapping web of outlets employing fake fact-checking. The outlets include websites, Telegram channels, Vkontakte (VK) accounts, and Russian government social media accounts – all heavily amplified by the Kremlin. The fake fact-checking method grows in real-time as it enables the Kremlin to reach the English-speaking community in different parts of the world and leverage how people process information (Dickinson, 2022).
One of the Telegram channels War on Fakes, claims to be an apolitical fact-checking organisation that aims to „provide unbiased information“ and to counter „an information war launched against Russia.“ However, War on Fakes employs a common strategy of the Russian disinformation apparatus. It plants false narratives to overwhelm the readers – making it challenging to identify the objective truth amid various false claims (Romero, 2022).
Overall, fake fact-checking tropes effectively suppress information on topics ranging from anti-war protests to war crimes, undermine the trustworthiness of fact-checking institutions, and pose a significant threat to the Ukrainian cause (Dickinson, 2022).
To summarize, Russian influence operations will be a persistent challenge for Europe through the war and beyond. Although Russia faces military setbacks and global outrage over its brutal actions in Ukraine, manipulating the information space will continue to be an essential means for the Kremlin to justify its war and coerce the audience into unwittingly supporting its actions.
As the Russia-Ukraine war drags on, European political leaders are experiencing economic distress and simmering public resentment (Kolhatkar, 2022). Although Europeans broadly rejected Russia’s narrative in the face of its aggression, recent polling across the region suggests that their resolve is weakening. According to a YouGov poll published in September in Germany, France, the UK, and Poland, residents are now more worried about the cost of living than the war (Karnitschnig, 2022). Skyrocketing energy prices and economic slowdown have also mobilized tens of thousands of Italians calling for peace in Ukraine and urging Italy to stop sending weapons to Kyiv.
On October 28, 2022, thousands of demonstrators from the far right and left took to the streets in the Czech Republic to protest rising energy prices, NATO, and Western support for Ukraine. According to police estimates, the rally was smaller than the 70,000 who gathered for the same reasons on September 3, 2022. The protesters have repeatedly condemned the government for supporting Ukraine and the European Union sanctions against Russia (The Washington Post, 2022). Opposition groups in Germany have also started widespread protests to condemn the government’s energy policy and sanctions imposed on Moscow. Earlier in October, supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gathered in Berlin, accusing the government of waging an „economic war“ against the German people (Deutsche Welle, 2022).
Voices of these demonstrations echoed and resonated with Russian narratives and their influence networks. According to Konstantin von Notz, a member of the parliament for the environmentalist Green Party, recent incidents have shown that Germany is susceptible to Russian influence operations (Delcker, 2022). Meanwhile, the Czech Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, whose cabinet is among Ukraine’s most active European supporters, has also blamed pro-Russian forces for the mass demonstrations. „It is clear that Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns repeatedly appear on our territory and that someone is simply succumbing to them,“ – said Fiala, reacting to the rally held in September (Zachová, 2022).
As winter approaches, the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine, including current energy and food security concerns, can further strain the relationship between European populations and their governments. Russian influence networks will likely attempt to exploit this opportunity to sow social unrest and break the unity that has enabled immediate Western military and economic aid to Ukraine (Insikt Group, 2022).
The Kremlin-aligned actors realize that for Ukraine, continued support of Europe’s economic and political heavyweight is essential. On that account, in the days and weeks ahead, Russia will almost certainly continue to take advantage of the increasingly chaotic information environment to undermine Western cohesion before Kyiv can prevail. Furthermore, Moscow is likely to develop new tactics requiring a „whole-of-community“ response to identify and counter malign Russian influence effectively.
Policy recommendations for the European allies to decrease the vulnerability to Russian influence operations
- Conduct regular polling and sociological research to evaluate the scope of the problem in the respective country.
- The national security and intelligence establishments should publicly call out the threat and raise awareness about the character and the scope of hostile influences.
- Increase public funding for independent media, journalists, fact-checkers, and researchers monitoring foreign information operations. To facilitate the process and practically support the capacity building of their civil society, governments should set up a regular funding mechanism.
- Ensure that social media companies comply with the EU’s Digital Services Act and employ robust content moderation.
- Increase the funding and capacity of the European External Action Service’s East STRAT- COM Task Force to counter Russian disinformation.
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Written by Lika Gogliashvili