Russia is Winning the Information War
The Invasion of Ukraine was a Practice Run for the 2016 American Election
“Information war is now the main type of war.” Dmitry Kiselev was in a position to know. He was the coordinator of the Russian state agency for international news, and the host of a popular Sunday evening program, Vesti Nedeli, that led the information offensive against Ukraine.
The first men the Kremlin sent to Ukraine, the spearpoint of the Russian invasion, were the political technologists. A war where Vladislav Surkov commands is fought in unreality. He was in Crimea and Kyiv in February 2014, and served as Putin’s advisor on Ukraine thereafter. The Russian political technologist Alexander Borodai was the press officer for Crimea during its annexation. In summer 2014, the “prime ministers” of two newly invented “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s southeast were Russian media managers.
A modest affair in military terms, the Russian invasion of southern and then southeastern Ukraine involved the most sophisticated propaganda campaign in the history of warfare. The propaganda worked at two levels: first, as a direct assault on factuality, denying the obvious, even the war itself; second, as an unconditional proclamation of innocence, denying that Russia could be responsible for any wrong. No war was taking place, and it was thoroughly justified. When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2014, President Putin lied with purpose. On February 28 he claimed, “We have no intention of rattling the sabre and sending troops to Crimea.” He had already sent troops to Crimea. At the moment he uttered these words, Russian troops had been marching through Ukrainian sovereign territory for four days. For that matter, the Night Wolves were in Crimea, following Russian soldiers around in a loud display of revving engines, a media stunt to make the Russian presence unmistakable. Even so, Putin chose to mock reporters who noted the basic facts. On March 4, he asserted that Russian soldiers were local Ukrainian citizens who had purchased their uniforms at local stores. “Why don’t you have a look at the post-Soviet states,” Putin proposed. “There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.”
Putin was not trying to convince anyone in that post-Soviet world that Russia had not invaded Ukraine. Indeed, he took for granted that Ukrainian leaders would not believe his lie. The provisional Ukrainian government understood that Ukraine was under Russian attack, which is why it pled for an international response rather than reacting with military force. Had leaders in Kyiv believed Putin, they certainly would have ordered resistance. Putin’s aim was not to fool Ukrainians but to create a bond of willing ignorance with Russians, who were meant to understand that Putin was lying but to believe him anyway. As the reporter Charles Clover put it in his study of Lev Gumilev: “Putin has correctly surmised that lies unite rather than divide Russia’s political class. The greater and the more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it, and the more they participate in the great sacral mystery of Kremlin power.”
Putin’s direct assault on factuality might be called implausible deniability. By denying what everyone knew, Putin was creating unifying fictions at home and dilemmas in European and American newsrooms. Western journalists are taught to report the facts, and by March 4 the factual evidence that Russia had invaded Ukraine was overwhelming. Russian and Ukrainian journalists had filmed Russian soldiers marching through Crimea. Ukrainians were already calling Russian special forces “little green men,” a joking suggestion that the soldiers in their unmarked uniforms must have come from outer space. The soldiers could not speak Ukrainian; local Ukrainians were also quick to notice Russian slang particular to Russian cities and not used in Ukraine. As the reporter Ekaterina Sergatskova pointed out, “the ‘little green men’ do not conceal that they are from Russia.”
Western journalists are also taught to report various interpretations of the facts. The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.
“The greater and the more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it.”
Western editors, although they had the reports of the Russian invasion on their desks in the late days of February and the early days of March 2014, chose to feature Putin’s exuberant denials. And so the narrative of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted in a subtle but profound way: it was not about what was happening to Ukrainians, but about what the Russian president chose to say about Ukraine. A real war became reality television, with Putin as the hero. Much of the press accepted its supporting role in the drama. Even as Western editors became more critical over time, their criticism was framed as their own doubts about Kremlin claims. When Putin later admitted that Russia had indeed invaded Ukraine, this only proved that the Western press had been a player in his show.
After implausible deniability, Russia’s second propaganda strategy was the proclamation of innocence. The invasion was to be understood not as a stronger country attacking a weaker neighbor at a moment of extreme vulnerability, but as the righteous rebellion of an oppressed people against an overpowering global conspiracy. As Putin said on March 4: “I sometimes get the feeling that across the huge puddle, in America, people sit in a lab and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without actually understanding the consequences of what they are doing.” The war was not taking place; but were it taking place, America was to be blamed; and since America was a superpower, all was permitted in response to its omnipotent malice. If Russia had invaded, which it was somehow both doing and not doing, Russians would be justified in whatever they were doing and not doing.
The choice of tactics in the invasion served this strategy of innocence. The absence of insignia on Russian uniforms and the absence of markings on Russian weapons, armor, equipment, and vehicles did not convince anyone in Ukraine. The point was to create the ambience of a television drama of heroic locals taking unusual measures against titanic American power. Russians would be expected to believe the preposterous: that the soldiers whom they saw on their television screens were not their own army but a ragtag band of can-do Ukrainian rebels defending the honor of their people against a Nazi regime supported by infinite American power. The absence of insignia was not meant as evidence, but as a cue about how Russian viewers were supposed to follow the plot. It was not meant to convince in a factual sense, but to guide in a narrative sense.
Real soldiers pretending for dramatic reasons to be local partisans can use partisan tactics, thus endangering real civilians. As a tactic of war, this might be called reverse asymmetry. Normally, “asymmetrical warfare” means the use of unconventional tactics by a partisan force or terrorist group against a stronger regular army. In the Russian invasion, the strong used the weapons of the weak—partisan and terrorist tactics—in order to pretend to be the weak. During what was already an illegal invasion, the Russian army broke the basic laws of war, by design and from the outset. Putin endorsed this manner of warfare even as he denied that a Russian invasion was under way. On March 4, he predicted that Russian soldiers would hide among civilians. “And let’s see those [Ukrainian] troops try to shoot their own people, with us behind them—not in front, but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children!”
There is nothing inherently Russian about political fiction. Other societies can yield to the same form of politics, after a shock and a scandal, as in Poland, or as a result of inequality and Russian intervention, as in Great Britain and the United States. In his study of Russian media and society, published in 2014, Peter Pomerantsev concluded with the reflection that “here is going to be there,” the West is going to be like Russia. It was Russian policy to accelerate this process.
If leaders were unable to reform Russia, reform had to seem impossible. If Russians believed that all leaders and all media lied, then they would learn to dismiss Western models for themselves. If the citizens of Europe and the United States joined in the general distrust of one another and their institutions, then Europe and America could be expected to disintegrate. Journalists cannot function amidst total skepticism; civil societies wane when citizens cannot count on one another; the rule of law depends upon the beliefs that people will follow law without its being enforced and that enforcement when it comes will be impartial. The very idea of impartiality assumes that there are truths that can be understood regardless of perspective.
Russian propaganda was transmitted by protégés on the European far Right who shared Russia’s interest in the demolition of European institutions. The idea, for example, that the Russian war on Sodom (and the associated Russian invasion of Ukraine) was a “new cold war,” or a “Cold War 2.0,” was formulated by the Izborsk Club. It was a helpful notion in Russia, since it stylized gay bashing (and then the invasion of a helpless neighbor while gay bashing) as a grand confrontation with a global superpower over the shape of civilization. This trope of “a new cold war” was spread by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, who used it on RT beginning in 2011 and during her July 2013 visit to Moscow. The leading American white supremacist, Richard Spencer, used the same term at the same time when interviewed by RT.
The European and American far Right also spread the official Russian claim that Ukrainian protests on the Maidan were the work of the West. The Polish fascist Mateusz Piskorski claimed that Ukrainian protests were the work of “the US embassy.” Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s Freiheitliche party, blamed western security services. Márton Gyöngyös of the Hungarian Jobbik party, whom the Russian press itself had classified as an antisemite and a neo-Nazi in the years before antisemites and neo-Nazis became RT commentators, said that the Maidan protests were arranged by American diplomats. Manuel Ochsenreiter, a German neo-Nazi, spoke of the Ukrainian revolution as “imposed by the West.” None of these people produced evidence.
Russian conspiratorial ideas, spread by the European far Right, found traction in some corners of the American Right. The pronouncements of former Republican congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president in 2008 and 2012, were particularly interesting. Paul, who described himself as a libertarian, had mounted powerful critiques of American wars abroad. Now he defended a Russian war abroad. Paul cited Sergei Glazyev with approval—although Glazyev’s fascist politics and neocommunist economics contradicted Paul’s libertarianism, and Glazyev’s warmongering contradicted Paul’s isolationism. Paul endorsed the Eurasia project, which was again unexpected, given that its philosophical sources were fascist and its economics involved state planning. Paul, echoing a host of European fascists, claimed that “the US government pulled off a coup” in Ukraine. Like them, he provided no evidence. Instead he cited propaganda from RT.
“Russian propaganda was transmitted by protégés on the European far Right who shared Russia’s interest in the demolition of European institutions.”
It was less surprising that Lyndon LaRouche, the leader of an American crypto-Nazi organization, followed Glazyev’s line. LaRouche and Glazyev had been in collaboration for two decades around the idea of an international (Jewish) oligarchy, a genocide of Russians by (Jewish) liberals, and the desirability of Eurasia. In LaRouche’s view, Ukraine was an artificial construction created by Jews to block Eurasia. Like Glazyev and other Russian fascists, LaRouche deployed familiar symbols of the Holocaust to define Jews as the perpetrators and others as the victims. On June 27, 2014, LaRouche published an article by Glazyev, claiming that the Ukrainian government was a Nazi junta installed by the United States.
Stephen Cohen borrowed Russian media terms of abuse at the same time, on June 30, 2014. Like LaRouche, Cohen endorsed the Russian propaganda claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was justified by Ukrainian genocide. The notion that Ukraine was perpetrating genocide was translated into English by RT, and then spread by certain people on the American far Right and the American far Left. This propaganda effort exploited images associated with the Holocaust. These could be used by LaRouche to present Russians to American antisemites as the victims of Jews, or by Cohen to suggest to the American Left and American Jews that Russian victimhood in 2014 was like Jewish victimhood in 1941. Either way, the result was not only to falsify events in Ukraine but also to trivialize the Holocaust.
Writing in The Nation, Cohen claimed that the Ukrainian prime minister had spoken of adversaries as “subhuman,” which he proposed as evidence of the Nazi convictions and behavior of the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian prime minister had in fact written a statement of condolence to the Ukrainian families of soldiers killed in action, in which he used the word “inhuman” (neliudy) to describe the attackers. Russian media then mistranslated the Ukrainian word into Russian as “subhuman” (nedocheloveki), and RT used the word “subhuman” in English-language broadcasts. Cohen served as the final link in the chain, bringing the slander into American media. In one RT account, the mistranslation had been broadcast along with a series of other untruths and accompanied by graphic images of mass murder in Rwanda.
The RT segment violated broadcasting standards in the United Kingdom, and was pulled from the internet. Readers looking for the false “subhuman” claim could still turn to The Nation. When Russia shot down MH17 in July 2014, Cohen said: “We’ve had these shootdowns. We had them in the cold war.” The killing of civilians was dismissed by a vague reference to the past. A Russian weapon with a Russian crew during a Russian invasion of Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner and killed 298 people. A state transferred soldiers and weapons; an officer gave an order to fire; pilots were killed in a cockpit as shrapnel ripped through their bodies; a plane was ripped apart ten kilometers above the earth; children, women, and men died in sudden terror, their body parts scattered over the countryside. On July 18, 2014, the day that Cohen said this, Russian television was broadcasting its multiple versions of the event. Rather than explaining to Americans what reporters knew—that multiple Ukrainian aircraft had been shot down by Russian weapons in the same place in prior weeks, and that the Russian GRU officer Igor Girkin had claimed credit for shooting down the aircraft that turned out to be MH17—Cohen changed the subject to the “cold war.”
This idea that Russia’s anti-gay policies and its invasion of Ukraine were a “new cold war” was a meme spread within Russia by the fascists of the Izborsk Club and then by right-wing politicians on RT: Marine Le Pen, beginning in 2011, and Richard Spencer, beginning in 2013. The term became a mainstay in the pages of The Nation in 2014, thanks to articles by Cohen and the journal’s publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel.
On July 24, 2014, vanden Heuvel claimed on television that Moscow was “calling for a cease fire” in a “civil war.” In speaking in this way, she was separating Russia from a conflict in which it was the aggressor. At that moment, the prime ministers of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Lugansk People’s Republic” were not Ukrainians but Russian citizens brought in by Russian forces, political technologists with no connection to Ukraine. In their public relations capacity, they were promoting the very “civil war” concept that vanden Heuvel was helping to spread. At the time of her television appearance, the Russian citizen in charge of security was Vladimir Antyufeyev, who characterized the conflict as a war against the international Masonic conspiracy and foretold the destruction of the United States.
Vanden Heuvel was speaking one week after MH17 had been shot down by a Russian weapons system, during a summer in which Russian transfers of weapons across the border were widely reported. She was speaking of a “civil war” during a massive Russian artillery barrage from Russian territory. A Russian journalist at the launch site had reported that “Russia is shelling Ukraine from its own territory” and wrote of “the military aggression of Russia against Ukraine.” As vanden Heuvel was speaking, thousands of Russian soldiers from units based all over the Russian Federation were massing at the Russian-Ukrainian border. These elementary realities of the Russian war on Ukraine, known at the time thanks to the work of Russian and Ukrainian reporters, were submerged by The Nation in propaganda tropes.
Important writers of the British Left repeated the same Russian talking points. In The Guardian, John Pilger wrote in May 2014 that Putin “was the only leader to condemn the rise of fascism.” This was an unwise conclusion to draw from current events. Just a few days earlier, neo-Nazis had marched on the streets of Moscow without meeting condemnation from their president. A few weeks earlier, on Russian state television, a Russian anchor had claimed that Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves; and her interlocutor, Alexander Prokhanov, had agreed. Putin’s government paid the anchorwoman, and Putin himself made media appearances with Prokhanov (who also took a joyride in a Russian bomber, a rather clear expression of official support). These people were not condemned. Russia at the time was assembling the European far Right—as electoral “observers,” as soldiers in the field, and as propagators of its messages. Moscow had organized meetings of European fascists and was subsidizing France’s far Right party, the Front National.
How were opinion leaders of the Left seduced by Vladimir Putin, the global leader of the extreme Right? Russia generated tropes targeted at what cyberwar professionals call “susceptibilities”: what people seem likely to believe given their utterances and behavior. It was possible to claim that Ukraine was a Jewish construction (for one audience) and also that Ukraine was a fascist construction (for another audience). People on the Left were drawn in by stimuli on social media that spoke to their own commitments. Pilger wrote his article under the influence of a text he found on the internet, purportedly written by a physician, detailing supposed Ukrainian atrocities in Odessa—but the doctor did not exist and the event did not take place. The Guardian’s correction noted only that Pilger’s source, a fake social media page, had “subsequently been removed”: far gentler, that, than to say that the most-read article about Ukraine in that newspaper in 2014 was a translation of Russian political fiction into English. Guardian associate editor Seumas Milne opined in January 2014 that “far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests” in Ukraine. This corresponded not to The Guardian’s reporting from Ukraine but to the Russian propaganda line. Milne dismissed from the record the labors of about a million Ukrainian citizens to turn the rule of law against oligarchy: an odd turn for a newspaper with a left-wing tradition. Even after Putin had admitted that Russian forces were in Ukraine, Milne was claiming that “the little green men” were mostly Ukrainian. At Putin’s presidential summit on foreign policy at Valdai in 2013, the Russian president had claimed that Russia and Ukraine were “one people.” Milne chaired a session of the 2014 summit, at Putin’s invitation.
None of these people—Milne, Pilger, Cohen, vanden Heuvel, LaRouche, Paul—provided a single interpretation that was not available on RT. In some cases, as with Paul and LaRouche, the debt to Russian propaganda was acknowledged. Even those whose work was published adjacent to actual reporting, in The Nation or in The Guardian, ignored the investigations of actual Russian and Ukrainian reporters. None of these influential American and British writers visited Ukraine, which would have been the normal journalistic practice. Those who spoke so freely of conspiracies, coups, juntas, camps, fascists, and genocides shied from contact with the real world. From a distance, they used their talents to drown a country in unreality; in so doing, they submerged their own countries and themselves.
Enormous amounts of time were wasted in Britain, the United States, and Europe in 2014 and 2015 on discussions about whether Ukraine existed and whether Russia had invaded it. That triumph of informational warfare was instructive for Russian leaders. In the invasion of Ukraine, the main Russian victories were in the minds of Europeans and Americans, not on the battlefields. Far-Right politicians spread Russia’s messages, and left-wing journalists helped to bring them to the center. One of the left-wing journalists then entered the corridors of power. In October 2015, Seumas Milne, having chaired Putin’s Valdai summit, became chief of communications for Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. With Milne as his chief press officer, Corbyn proved a poor advocate for EU membership. British voters chose to leave, and Moscow celebrated.
In July 2016, not long after the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump said, “Putin is not going into Ukraine, you can mark it down.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun more than two years before, in February 2014, right after snipers murdered Ukrainians on the Maidan. It was thanks to that very set of events that Trump had a campaign manager. Yanukovych fled to Russia, but his advisor Paul Manafort kept working for a pro-Russian party in Ukraine through the end of 2015. Manafort’s new employer, the Opposition Bloc, was precisely the part of the Ukrainian political system that wanted to do business with Russia while Russia was invading Ukraine. This was the perfect transition to Manafort’s next job. In 2016, he moved to New York and took over the management of Trump’s campaign. In 2014, Trump had known that Russia had invaded Ukraine. Under Manafort’s tutelage, Trump proclaimed Russian innocence.
Lyndon LaRouche and Ron Paul were taking the same line at the time: Russia had done nothing wrong, and Europeans and Americans were to blame for the Russian invasion, which perhaps had happened and perhaps had not. Writing in The Nation in the summer and autumn of 2016, Cohen defended Trump and Manafort, and dreamed that Trump and Putin would one day come together and remake the world order. The mendacity and the fascism of the Russian assault upon the European Union and the United States, of which the Trump campaign was a part, was a natural story for the Left. However, few on the Left took Trump and his own political fiction seriously in 2016. Perhaps this was because writers they trusted were not analysts of, but rather participants in, the Russian campaign to undermine factuality. In any event, Ukraine was the warning that went unheeded.
When a presidential candidate from a fictional world appeared in the United States, Ukrainians and Russians noted the familiar patterns, but few on the American Right or the American Left listened. When Moscow brought to bear in the United States the same techniques used in Ukraine, few on the American Right or the American Left noticed. And so the United States was defeated, Trump was elected, the Republican Party was blinded, and the Democratic Party was shocked. Russians supplied the political fiction, but Americans were asking for it.
Excerpted from The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder. Used with permission of Tim Duggan Books. Copyright 2018 by Timothy Snyder.