A man holding up a placard reading "No to war!" protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Saint Petersburg on February 24, 2022.

A man holding up a placard reading "No to war!" protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Saint Petersburg on February 24, 2022. Photo by SERGEI MIKHAILICHENKO/AFP via Getty Images

Putin Lost the Digital War Abroad. Will He Lose at Home?

Its diplomatic efforts in tatters, its agencies beset by cyber vigilantes, the Russian government is still choking off the information that fuels its homegrown protest movement.

The Kremlin's vaunted influence operators failed to defuse the nearly universal condemnation of its war on Ukraine, which has led tech companies to turn their backs on the country and provoked digital vigilantes into action against Russian targets. But Vladimir Putin’s accelerating efforts to control information within his own country—and keep his own populace from turning against him—may yet prove successful.

The failure of the external influence effort could perhaps be seen most starkly at the United Nations, where 141 countries voted to condemn the attack and a committee overwhelmingly approved an investigation into alleged Russian human-rights violations in Ukraine. Moscow’s messaging has proven no match for the flow of images and video clips showing the brutal war in Ukraine, said David Kaye, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of expression.

“Simply the…very images that we're getting from Ukraine, the…social media and communications effort that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has been undertaking, I think all of those things kind of play into making it easier for diplomats to isolate Russia.”

Emerson T. Brooking, a co-author of Like War, concurred.

“Russia was part of the G8 less than a decade ago. It's been rendered a pariah state in the course of a week. And I think that's due tremendously to the public pressure that Ukrainians were able to exert and the fact that this conflict was playing out on everyone’s smartphone,” Brooking said during an Atlantic Council Digital Forensics Lab event.

The failure is in stark contrast to past hybrid-war campaigns in which Russia has skillfully used information tactics to stave off effective global pushback—for example, when seizing Crimea or pushing into eastern Ukraine eight years ago.

“They pioneered obfuscation of forces, psychological dislocation, mass disinformation campaigns, and repeated denials, which, in 2014—it really frustrated a rapid international response to their actions,” Brooking said. “They didn’t use that playbook this time” because the size of the operation, and the months-long build-up on the Ukrainian border it required, made that impossible, he said. 

“There's no way to obscure the fight in the gray zone when you're launching a conventional invasion involving 190,000 soldiers.”

That failure is largely due to U.S. efforts to highlight Russian false-flag operations before they occurred and rally a strong, unified response. But the Russians did themselves no favors in how clumsily they attempted to persuade audiences that Ukrainian forces were committing atrocities in in the Russian-occupied portion of the Donbas, said Nika Aleksejeva, a lead researcher for the Baltics at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.  

“It was more like theatrics, like really staged footage or quite poorly edited footage,” she said. Examples include videos that purported to show Ukrainians shelling Donetsk (using obviously timed explosions) and injured civilians (using an amputee actor who had not even bothered to fully remove his prosthetic).

Russia is still pushing messages on social media via bot networks. “We’ve seen reports of some apps being blocked in Russia or taken out to the app stores, but plenty of pro-Russia content continues to be generated,” said McDaniel Wicker, a vice president for strategy at the firm BabelStreet. But those messages simply don’t seem to be landing effectively.

Now the Russian government is losing the ability to influence audiences abroad via its established propaganda channels Sputnik and RT, both of which are now banned in the European Union. The U.S. arm of RT has also shuttered its doors. 

Nor is Russia using cyber operations to much effect, outside of a few denial-of-service attacks against Ukraine. 

There are several reasons for that, said Liran Tancman, who helped found Israel’s Cyber Command and now leads the Rezilion cybersecurity firm. First, the tools a nation-state might use to steal information from a network are very different from the ones that could destroy it. 

“There is always an inherent tension between using cybersecurity for intelligence versus using cybersecurity for attacks,” Tancman said. 

That’s one reason why Russia is shooting at television towers rather than attempt to take down media electronically. 

Nor would cyberthievery do much good. Though there have been some reports of Russia using credential information possibly stolen from Ukrainian targets to steal data from other governmental targets across Europe, there’s no equivalent to the Russia-backed theft of Democratic Party emails that were used to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.. 

The failure of the external influence operation can also be seen in the way cyber vigilantes have begun acting against Russian agencies and organizations. The Hactivist collective Anonymous has targeted Russian television and other government sites. Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister for Innovation has put together an “IT army” to find vulnerabilities in Russian government and television networks. And new vigilante groups are gathering volunteerss to attack yet other targets.As the world watches Russian artillery shell civilian buildings across Ukraine, it’s a safe bet their numbers will grow.

Russia’s pariah status will undermine its cybersecurity in ways its leaders probably did not expect. Microsoft’s Friday decision to suspend sales in the country means that the many Russian businesses and institutions that use its software won’t be able to buy new versions, leaving them increasingly vulnerable as flaws are inevitably discovered. 

The influence war at home

Protests continue to flare across Russia, but government efforts to reduce the flow of information into and around the country may sap dissident communities of vital fuel.

The government has been choking off social media, first slowing down access to Twitter and Facebook and, as of Friday, simply blocking the latter entirely. Meanwhile, it has been turning up its own propaganda efforts, especially on television.

“There are reports [that] if you check programming of Kremlin-owned TV channels, the air times for propaganda talk shows was increased,” said Aleksejeva of the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

She said much of the faked footage purporting to show Ukrainian atrocities was likely aimed at domestic audiences.  

“I think it was more intended to generate headlines for…Kremlin-owned media, to basically create this alertness in the news cycle and convince internal audiences, because the international audience was clearly unconvinced,” Aleksejeva said.

This may be worsening the generation gap in Russian perceptions of the war, because older people are more likely to get their information from television, she said.

The Russian government is also increasing the punishment for speaking out, passing a law on Friday that prescribes up to 15 years in prison for spreading “fake information” about the military or the war in Ukraine.

Kaye and Aleksejeva worry that Western efforts to shut down Russian outlets in their own countries, which has in some cases prompted Moscow’s counter-reaction, are also reducing the ability of dissidents within Russia to gather information and recruit others to their cause.

As well, Kaye said, “There has been a push by some in the Ukrainian government to…say to the companies, ‘Don't allow access to those tools in Russia.’ I think that it was a serious miscalculation...It's just politically sort of counterproductive because you want to make sure that people who support your perspective, or who might support your perspective, have access to information about what's actually happening.” 

Even Aleksejeva, who said she favors a ban on RT and other propaganda channels in Europe, said banning Facebook and other sites make it harder to get information from abroad. 

“So if people are lazy, if they just stick with their habit of just watching TV and sourcing their understanding from there, then it's quite bad,” she said.