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Why the US Ramped Up Its Information War With Russia

Pre-buttals may become a standard part of the American playbook.

For years, American officials have lamented that the United States fights with one arm tied behind its back when it comes to waging information war—i.e., the battle for “hearts and minds.” Adversaries including the self-declared Islamic State and the Kremlin are free to spread lies and conspiracy theories, while the U.S. government generally feels compelled to hew to the truth in its public pronouncements (even as it often tries to conceal scandalous misconduct). U.S. adversaries find it easy to beam propaganda into the United States—often under false pretenses via social media—but it is harder for independent information to penetrate into more tightly controlled media spaces in countries such as China, North Korea, and Russia.

Now, as the crisis over Ukraine escalates, the Joe Biden administration seems to have developed an effective technique for waging information war. Rather than allowing President Vladimir Putin’s government to freely disseminate ludicrous conspiracy theories about anti-Russia plots involving the West and Ukraine, the administration has chosen to fight back by releasing intelligence reports about Russia’s attempts to create a justification for an invasion of Ukraine.

Plots and Fake Attacks

On January 23, the British government, acting in cooperation with the United States, announced details of a purported Russian plot to install a pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv. It even went so far as to name a pro-Russia former member of the Ukrainian parliament as Putin’s preferred puppet.

On February 3, the Biden administration released information about a Russian scheme to film a fake attack on Russian territory or on Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine to manufacture a justification for an invasion. The administration said Russia had already recruited people who would be involved in the fake attack. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the plan was to result in “a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors who would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western-supplied.”

The United States has also released copious details about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s border, along with assessments that a Russian invasion is likely. The administration has even shared information about reported dissension within the ranks of the Russian military over a possible attack on Ukraine.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained the administration’s strategy to the Wall Street Journal: “We’ve seen [Russia] run false-flag operations and use the confusion to launch military action many times in recent history. Exposing these plots makes it that much harder for Russia to execute them.”

A Legacy of Provocations

Journalists are naturally skeptical of the U.S. intelligence, given the U.S. government’s history making claims that did not pan out—most notoriously about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was used to justify the U.S. invasion in 2003. But there is indeed a long history of Russia using so-called false-flag operations to justify aggression. In 1939, the Soviet Union shelled its own troops near its border with Finland to justify an invasion of that country. In 1968, KGB agents in what was then Czechoslovakia concocted threats against the Soviet Union and even claimed to have found a “Made in USA” arms cache to justify a Red Army crackdown on the Prague Spring reform movement.

In 1999, Russian intelligence operatives are believed to have bombed Russian apartment buildings to justify an invasion of Chechnya. And the Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were both accompanied by copious disinformation, including the use of “little green men” (i.e., soldiers in green uniforms devoid of Russian army insignia) to disguise the role of Russian military forces. The Kremlin even blamed the CIA for shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014—an act actually carried out by Russia-backed separatists using a Russian air defense system.  

A New Era of Info Ops

In the past, the United States was caught flat-footed by Russian information operations. Exposing Russian plots in real time appears to be an effective response, even though doing so raises concerns about exposing the U.S. intelligence community’s “sources and methods,” and journalists question whether the U.S. government’s claims can be trusted.

At the very least, the U.S. reports throw sand into the gears of the Russian military machine and force the Russian government to wonder where Western intelligence agencies are getting their information, which could possibly lead to a search for traitors within its own ranks. The reports also neutralize Russian propaganda and allow the United States to try to control the narrative rather than ceding to Putin and his propagandists.

Given the growing importance of information operations in modern warfare, that is no small achievement. It has already paid off in considerable Western unity in the face of Russian threats to Ukraine. Whether the U.S. actions will deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, is still unclear.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.