Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Russian Disinformation in the Ukraine Conflict

John R. Haines, Foreign Policy Research Institute
February 2015

John R. Haines is a Senior Fellow and Trustee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and directs the Princeton Committee of FPRI. Much of his current research is focused on Russia and its near abroad, with a special interest in nationalist and separatist movements. He is also the chief executive officer of a private sector corporation that develops nuclear detection and nuclear counterterrorism technologies. 

All warfare is based on deception...
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
-- Sun Tzu

We will not forget! We will not forgive!
-- CyberBerkut motto

In the vanguard of the non-linear war now raging in eastern Ukraine is an old weapon, disinformation, wielded by an unconventional force. Exemplifying that force is the hacktivist group, CyberBerkut. It recently issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to end the war in eastern Ukraine that "has plunged the people of Ukraine into an abyss of war, poverty, unemployment and despair."[1] It directed an additional threat to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk:

"Mr. Yatsenyuk! We start the countdown. You have three days to stop what you started. In the event our conditions are not met, we will open the world's eyes to all that is happening in the country. Personal correspondence top officials, telephone calls, secret documents — everything that we found by hacking the computers of employees of Ukraine's Security Service. You decide: to stop the bloodshed in your own country and start over from scratch, or to commit public suicide in front of millions of people."[2]

The newest fulfillment of this threat is the release of a set of documents CyberBerkut alleges it obtained by "cracking"[3] Ukrainian Defense Ministry computers.[4] The documents, published on CyberBerkut's website and the Russian portal LifeNews, purport to be correspondence between Ukraine's Deputy Defense Secretary, Peter Mehedi, and a senior Syrian commander, Brigadier General Talal Makhlouf.[5] If the documents are to be believed, they suggest American arms shipments intended for frontline units in eastern Ukraine were diverted by Ukrainian government officials and sold illegally for private financial gain to the Assad regime.[6]

Risible as this claim may seem, it is impossible to disprove on the basis of open-source evidence, but then again, that misses the point. The objective of disinformation, to borrow from Whitehead, is to impose a pattern on experience. It is a lens used to distort and pervert our understanding of facts. It is telling Ukrainians that their government is corrupt and has betrayed the forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. It reinforces the narrative among the "Territorial Defense Battalion" paramilitaries — for example, the "cyborgs" of the Azov Battalion whose defense of the Donetsk Airport lasted longer than the siege or Stalingrad or Moscow — that they are being sacrificed in the war, a common and recurring social media theme.[7] It provokes demoralizing backlashes — a 2 February protest on Kyev's Independence Square included calls for the imposition of martial law and the dismissal of senior defense and security officials — that are reported gleefully in Russian news portals.[8]

(More here)

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