Inside the high-stakes fight to control the narrative about Ukraine

On February 21, Russia’s Security Council held a choreographed and highly dramatized meeting, in which the country’s hardline war cabinet members alternately pleaded, encouraged and cowered before Vladimir Putin. On the agenda was the issue of recognizing the so-called breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, territorial fictions backed by Russian military muscle since their emergence in 2014. Putin advanced a narrative in which Ukraine is committing genocide in the Donbass. The recognition could provide a pretext for Russia to send regular forces across the internationally recognized border with Ukraine to openly occupy the territories, up to the so-called “line of contact”, as a possible prelude to a further invasion. large. The meeting ended in a dramatic faux pas, with Putin promising to reveal his choice soon.

Then, shortly before 10 PM in Moscow, Putin made a televised address: the United States and its allies, he said, had used Ukraine “as an instrument of confrontation” with Russia, and this posed “a serious, very great for us”. At the end of a furious and disjointed speech, he signed a decree recognizing the separatist territories and threatened Kiev: Russia would place on Ukraine “full responsibility for the possibility of continued bloodshed”. In response, a senior Biden administration official said, “It was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war.”

For months, tensions have been building around this moment. Since the fall, US intelligence agencies have been monitoring preparations for what they believe to be a major Russian invasion. Initially, White House officials who were briefed on the intelligence thought the military buildup might be an elaborate Russian ruse, designed to force Ukraine and the West into concessions. “We worried a lot about that,” a senior Biden administration official said of such a scenario. Intelligence agencies insisted that the buildup could not be a bluff; their assessments were based on multiple sources.

The Biden administration immediately ruled out the prospect of sending US troops to Ukraine, and announced it publicly. With this option on the table, and with the certainty that some form of Russian invasion was inevitable – to date over one hundred and fifty thousand Russian troops have amassed near Ukraine’s borders – a preemptive campaign of name and shame seemed among the only remaining instruments, and one worth trying. “Our assessment from the start has been that they are very likely to do so,” the senior Biden administration official said. “If you think the base storyline is likely to be very bad, it may seem relatively weak to try to disrupt it.”

This scenario had only darkened in recent days. On February 18, President Biden issued his strongest warning yet about the likelihood of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I’m confident he made the decision,” Biden said, of Putin’s intentions. An official letter from the United States to the UN Human Rights Commissioner, got by washington To post, warns that Russia has started creating lists of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation”. On February 21, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, made the looming threat clear: the United States has intelligence that suggests “there will be an even greater form of brutality” against Ukrainians, with the aim of “repressing them, crushing them”. , to hurt them.

The move by the Biden administration, along with other states – the UK foremost – to release what they know about these war plans is a rather unprecedented strategy. In previous crises, Putin was able to take advantage of differences of opinion within the European Union and NATO divert American and British efforts to build a united campaign to counter Russia’s moves. These differences were, at least in part, exacerbated by the different levels of access to information on which the US assessments were based. To ensure that the United States and its partners were “operating from the same set of facts”, according to a US official, the Biden administration decided to accelerate the process by which US intelligence could be shared with countries. European and NATO counterparts. (In the US intelligence community, this process is known as “demotion”.)

In some cases, White House officials have pushed to declassify intelligence material, in order to expose Russian conspiracies and complicate Putin’s apparent invasion plans. A senior US official said: “One of the great lessons learned – we probably should have known this by now – is that exposing nefarious Russian activities is the best antidote to their plots.

It’s rare in politics to get a second chance with the same political problem, but that’s essentially the case with the current threat of invasion. Many of the Biden administration’s top national security officials were in government in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. Some of these officials felt that the Obama administration’s responses to these events and the subsequent Russian intervention in the 2016 US election were inadequate. “We learned a lot about how Russia uses the information space,” a White House official said. “It’s an area of ​​war for them, and, for many years, we as a country, and NATO overall have struggled to catch up. The manager continued, “I like to think we’ve been able to use the information space in new ways. . . . Our goal has been to make it even more difficult for the Russians to execute destabilizing plays.

Eight years ago, Russia used covert forces, quickly dubbed “the little green men,” to seize control of Crimea, and sent weapons, intelligence, and sometimes active-duty Russian soldiers to support potential separatists in the Donbass. “We could see the flow of Russian material into the Donbass, for example, and ask to declassify the aerial images showing that,” said Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to Obama. “It could take a few days for a few slides to be declassified.”

Senior officials in the CIA, National Security Agency, and other spy agencies have traditionally been reluctant to share secret information, which can often be a raw and best-guess product. “Intelligence is imperfect and is only a snapshot in time,” wrote Douglas London, a former CIA officer, in a recent article by Foreign Affairs. Misuse of intelligence is commonplace and, when proven false, can have lasting impacts on institutional credibility – the specter of erroneous US claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq still haunts the imagination of policy makers and intelligence agents. And intelligence agencies have their own operational interests in keeping a low profile, writes London: “By revealing what it knows, the United States risks providing information that adversaries can use to improve their defenses.

In 2014, many Russian military tactics – questionable operations combined with a coordinated propaganda campaign – seemed new, or at least not as familiar and readable to US officials as they would be in years to come. US officials admit they underestimated Russian capabilities in 2014 and were unprepared to react in a concerted manner. As Rhodes explained, the public dissemination of intelligence was not seen as a potential way to drive or shape events, but rather as a matter of messaging and public relations. “Any request we made was treated as a matter of communication, which in turn was considered less valuable than intelligence gathering,” he said. “The US government saw it as a secondary rather than a primary concern – and it drove me crazy.”

Modern Russian information strategy is not so much about making its narrative dominant or compelling, but about creating such a cacophony that the very perspective of knowledge is in doubt. This approach culminated in flight MH17, which was shot down in July 2014, killing nearly three hundred people. Russian media and social media accounts published a deluge of often contradictory theories, which served to downplay and drown out the true, later proven by independent reports prepared by Bellingcat and a Dutch-led investigation: a Russian missile fired from separatist-held territory brought down the plane. “This whole story sums up the Russian advantage,” Rhodes said. “The Dutch investigation, with all its exhaustive evidence, came out years later, but Russia understood that in today’s information landscape, it is enough to act in small bursts in real time. .”


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