The US seeks to name and shame Russian disinformation about Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a break with the past, the U.S. and its allies are increasingly revealing their intelligence findings as they confront Russian preparations to invade Ukraine and attempt to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans by using them uncover and his efforts to shape the world distract opinion.

The White House has released what it calls an evolving Russian “false flag” operation in recent weeks to create a pretext for an invasion. Britain designated certain Ukrainians She accused them of having ties to Russian intelligence officers plotting to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The US also released a map of Russian military positions and details how officials believe Russia will attempt to attack Ukraine with up to 175,000 troops.

Experts credit the White House for declassifying intelligence and attempting to refute false claims before they are made — a so-called “prebuttal” that undermines their effectiveness better than an after-the-fact explanation.

But publishing information is not without its risks. Intelligence assessments offer varying degrees of certainty, and apart from offering photographs of troop movements, the US and its allies have provided little other evidence. Moscow has dismissed Washington’s claims as hysteria, citing past failures by American intelligence, including misinformation about Iraq’s weapons programs.

So far, there has been no clear sign of change from Russia, which continues to move troops towards Ukraine and Belarus, an ally in northern Ukraine. There is growing pessimism in Washington and London about ongoing diplomatic efforts and a belief that Putin is likely to launch some sort of invasion in the coming weeks.

Russia is known for using disinformation as a tactic to sow confusion and discord as part of its overall conflict strategy. When Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, it launched a campaign to influence the territory’s ethnic Russian residents. State media and social media accounts linked to Russia promoted claims that the West was rigging protests in Kiev and false or unverified stories of gruesome crimes committed by Ukrainian forces.

This time, the US says, Russia is trying to portray Ukrainian leaders as aggressors and persuade its own citizens to support military action. At the same time, the US and its allies claim that Russia has agents in eastern Ukraine who could use explosives to sabotage Russia’s own proxies and then frame Kiev.

The White House has repeatedly highlighted what it sees as disinformation and is confidentially sharing additional information with allies, including Ukraine. The State Department recently released a fact sheet listing and denying several Russian claims. And the Treasury sanctioned four men accused of links to interfering with operations designed to create the pretext for a new invasion of Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki described a “strategic decision to call out disinformation when we see it.”

“We are much more aware of the Russian disinformation machine than we were in 2014,” she said Wednesday, adding, “We need to be very clear to the global community and the US public as to what they are trying to do and why.”

Moscow continues to demand that NATO not accept Ukraine or expand to other countries. And after British intelligence accused him of being a possible Russian-backed presidential candidate, Ukrainian politician Yevheniy Murayev dismissed the claim, telling the AP it “looks ridiculous and funny”.

Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow are going back and forth online. Kremlin-backed RT.com posted a video on Dec. 21 claiming that “US private military companies are stockpiling CHEMICAL COMPONENTS in eastern Ukraine.” The State Department denied this claim in its fact sheet on Russian propaganda. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded with tweets “debunking @StateDept ‘facts’ about Russian disinformation about Ukraine.”

Washington’s efforts have raised questions in Kyiv, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken a different public approach, trying to quell public fears of a full-blown war even as many Ukrainians brace for a possible fight.

Ukrainian officials are privately asking why the Biden administration is warning of an impending invasion but not imposing pre-emptive sanctions or taking action on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which has been criticized for giving Moscow more leverage over Ukraine and western Europe. The Biden administration lobbied Congressional Democrats to oppose a Republican-backed bill that would have required the imposition of sanctions on the pipeline that is not yet operational.

The White House has threatened tough sanctions if Russia invades and is preparing to move troops to NATO’s eastern flank in the event of an invasion. The US and Western allies are also sending weapons and missile systems to Ukraine.

Molly McKew, an author and lecturer on Russian influence, said the government’s moves to counter Russian influence efforts must be accompanied by a clearer explanation of American goals and plans to counter any invasion.

Public identification of Russia’s actions alone will not deter Russia from carrying them out, said McKew, a former adviser to President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in 2008 and is still trying to regain control of Moscow-backed separatist regions .

“They are trying to apply disinformation thinking to military fields,” she said. “You absolutely cannot argue away the crisis.”

Experts say that in both the US and Ukraine, societal awareness of state-sponsored disinformation is now far greater. Russia has continued to bombard Ukrainians with text messages and fake stories in recent years during the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that has left at least 14,000 people dead. And Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election prompted multiple investigations and years of often conflicting debates.

Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, said that while there are risks in making false claims in the debunking process, “there is a need to deter information threats rather than respond to them after they arise have been released into the wild.”

But publicly accusing Russia of wrongdoing is ultimately a limited deterrent. “They don’t care about reputation damage,” he said.

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Associated Press journalists Joshua Boak in Washington and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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