Russia Steps Up Propaganda War Amid Ukraine Tensions

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WASHINGTON — As the United States last month issued warnings about Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and President Biden threatened President Vladimir V. Putin with sanctions if he launched an invasion, researchers have noticed an increase in social media posts accusing Ukraine of plotting genocide against ethnic groups. Russians.

In one example, an arm of the Moscow-controlled broadcaster RT circulated a clip of Mr Putin saying that events in eastern Ukraine “look like genocide”. News Front, which the State Department has called a disinformation outlet linked to Russian security services, followed up with a Dec. 13 article saying the United States does not consider the massacres to be genocide.

In the months since the Russian troop build-up began, Moscow and its army of online allies pushed back against old arguments that Western Ukrainians were aligned with Nazism, the US has falsely accused. to use proxy forces to plan a chemical attack and claimed the Russian military planned the operations to protect ethnic Russians or preempt NATO action, researchers say.

US intelligence officials said Russia had produced a steady stream of disinformation about Ukraine since 2014. But they saw a spike in December and January as Moscow increased pressure on the Kyiv government.

Tech firm Logical, a UK-based company that helps governments and businesses fight misinformation, tracked Russia-aligned social media accounts, such as those of RT and Sputnik, as well as Twitter accounts. of Russian officials. Posts and articles accusing some Ukrainians of being neo-Nazis have increased significantly since early November, according to Logically. The Moscow-backed information campaign accusing the United States of planning a chemical attack peaked on Dec. 21, the firm said.

Much of the propaganda is aimed at domestic audiences in Russia and pro-Moscow Ukrainians, said Brian Murphy, vice president of strategic operations at Logically. If Russia invades Ukraine, he said, it wants to make sure it has the support of Russian speakers in the country as its tanks and artillery drive through fields or destroy homes.

“There are very few fence-keepers left in Ukraine,” Murphy said. “They are trying to build support in the separatist-occupied regions of Ukraine and in Russia.”

But the propaganda can easily go beyond a Russian-speaking audience.

Intelligence officials say while Russia is unlikely to change much of its mind in Europe, its messages have had more success in South America and Africa, muddying the waters as to which country is responsible for the Ukraine crisis. .

Much like its efforts to divide the American electorate in 2016 by fueling debates on racism, guns and other divisive issues, Russia is trying to increase polarization in Ukraine to give it a tactical advantage, a said Mr. Murphy.

The State Department said in a fact sheet released last week that much of the disinformation repeated old themes, such as portraying Russia as a victim of US actions, portraying Western corporations as on the collapsing because they have moved away from traditional values, and depicting Washington as the supporter of revolutions in the region.

Researchers have tracked similar themes from Russian accounts, including an increase in posts claiming NATO and Ukrainian forces are preparing to attack Russian speakers in Ukraine. Allegations of NATO intervention in Ukraine first peaked in late December before skyrocketing in mid-January, according to Logic.

Mr Murphy, the former head of the intelligence branch of the Department of Homeland Security, said the alleged NATO interference in Ukraine had long been a standard line of attack from Moscow.

While it is often difficult to track the origin of a particular misinformation, researchers can see when many Russian accounts start spreading the same narrative.

“It looks like a coordinated campaign,” Murphy said. “They come out, around the same time, with similar messages.”

The claim that the United States was planning a chemical attack was originally made by the Russian Minister of Defense. But disinformation experts have been tracking how various accounts have amplified it.

Versions of the statement have been redistributed by both state media and websites that the US government says are used by Russian intelligence services, such as News Front and the Strategic Culture Foundation, Bret Schafer said, head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks disinformation and other efforts to undermine democratic governments. The timing of the messages was curious, he said.

Weeks after the messages appeared in December, US officials said a Russian-led false flag operation could be used as an excuse to move troops into Ukraine in the name of protecting the Russian-speaking population.

“One could conceivably view the Russian messages of the last month as an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of their own impending operation,” Schafer said. “Or, in classic propaganda terms, accusing others of what you are guilty of.”

Larissa Doroshenko, a researcher at Northeastern University, said Russian disinformation tactics in Ukraine used both doctored stories and those that were true but tangential to current events to distort narratives or hide the real ones. intentions.

Dr. Doroshenko studied Russian misinformation around the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Ukraine and found that even then Moscow used various means to push the narratives.

“We’re focusing on social media, but it’s a cross-platform approach,” she said. “It’s social media, but it’s also these so-called news sites, these propaganda sites, that show up to please ordinary people.”

Mr Putin took Crimea by stealth, Dr Doroshenko said. But the troop buildup near Ukraine has been anything but hidden.

She said Russian troop deployments and threats against Ukraine were as much aimed at stoking nationalist sentiments as stifling domestic criticism of Putin’s moves to shut down nonprofit groups like Memorial International, a human rights organization, or groups affiliated with Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader.

“If you can create an outside enemy,” she said, “all these questions about what’s going on with civil society in Russia aren’t so important anymore.”