100 Days of War: Disinformation and Threats Against the West
One hundred six days ago, the Russian state invaded Ukraine, destabilizing the region and isolating the world’s largest country. Within that time, Russia has been able to take control of 20% of Ukraine, is being investigated for war crimes, has caused an estimated $600 billion in infrastructure damage, and continues daily attacks in Ukraine.
Outside of Ukraine, Russia has launched multiple disinformation campaigns trying to discredit any source or government that challenges its narrative for invading Ukraine.
For this brief, Overwatch partnered with Olga Lautman, a Subject Matter Expert on Russia and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Our research indicates that as the war continues, Russia will increase its disinformation efforts against the West, could potentially annex occupied territory in Ukraine, and tensions between the U.S. and Russia may escalate further.
In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta on April 26, 2022, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev claimed that the U.S. is forcing Russia to give up its sovereignty. Patrushev is a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and has known the head of the Russian state since the 1970s when both were in the KGB.
Patrushev said, “The United States is doing everything to ensure that other centers of the multipolar world do not even dare to raise their heads, and our country not only dares but publicly declares that it will not play by the imposed rules. They tried to force Russia to give up its sovereignty, self-consciousness, culture, independent foreign and domestic policy.”
On May 11, 2022, the Chief of Russian Foreign Intelligence (SVR) Sergey Naryshkin said that the U.S. State Department is like the Nazi “propaganda machine” run by Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Analysts note that this is the first time Naryshkin has publicly compared the U.S. to Nazi Germany.
On May 27, 2022, Russia’s Chief of Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force Igor Kirillov said that U.S. Biolabs in Nigeria needed to be investigated, claiming the monkeypox strain originated from Nigeria. Kirilov’s comments about monkeypox and the U.S. follow a similar pattern on how Russia blamed the U.S. for COVID-19.
On June 6, 2022, the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom tweeted that the West aggravated the food crisis.
Additionally, we identified smaller-scale disinformation on VK (Russia’s version of Facebook). In a VK post on June 7, 2022, a user claimed that the Red Cross harvested organs in Mariupol, Ukraine.
The source of the claim: chinarising.puntopress.com, is a website run by a dual U.S. and French Citizen with sympathies for the Russian state and the Chinese Communist Party. However, we haven’t seen Russian officials adopt this disinformation narrative.
Further, the Russian state has a pattern of spreading disinformation before a major election in the United States. Because of weakened U.S.-Russia relations resulting from U.S. support for Ukraine, Russia may launch a disinformation campaign before the midterm elections to exploit hot button political issues and attempt to sew distrust in the American electorate.
Russian troll farms also have a history of pushing disinformation on a large scale online, specifically, The Internet Research Agency, which was active in spreading disinformation on social media during the 2016 Presidential Election. The Internet Research Agency is also allegedly behind disinformation efforts with the Russia-Ukraine War.
Annexation of Ukrainian Territory
Before Russia’s invasion, we assessed how Russia could potentially annex the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk’s People’s Republic as a pretext for invading Ukraine. While Russia has not annexed any territory at this point other than Crimea in 2014, there are concerns that they could annex Kherson, which is in Southern Ukraine.
Russian forces have occupied Kherson since early March 2022. Since that time, there have been rumors of a referendum. In mid-March, we were in contact with a Ukrainian in Kherson, who said that “there will be no pseudo-republic.”
Despite his comments, things appear to be trending in that direction. For example, Kherson is now using the Russian ruble under Russian occupation.
Also, in a briefing on May 31, 2022, the State Department said, “As we approach the hundredth day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, we remain concerned about steps Russia is taking to attempt to institutionalize control over sovereign Ukrainian territory, particularly in Ukraine’s Kherson region.”
According to the Kherson Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kherson’s is a leading producer of fruits, vegetables, and wheat in Ukraine. In addition, the “Kherson region is the territory with a well-developed agricultural industry. The region possesses about 2 million hectares of agricultural land, which is the greatest share of plowed fields in Ukraine.”
Threats to the West
The U.S. and European nations have provided Ukraine with significant military aid to date. The latest weaponry that the U.S. and U.K. will supply Ukraine with is long-range missiles capable of hitting long-range targets.
This development resulted in comments from Russian Security Council Deputy chairman Dmitry Medvedev, saying, “If God forbid, these weapons are used against Russian territory, then our armed forces will have no other choice but to strike decision-making centres. Of course, it needs to be understood that the final decision-making centres in this case, unfortunately, are not located on the territory of Kyiv.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin added, “We will strike at those targets which we have not yet been hitting.”
We assess that the Russia-Ukraine War will continue, with Russia amplifying disinformation narratives against the West. With surging fuel and gas prices globally, Russia could use its troll farms to launch an extensive disinformation campaign online, blaming the U.S. and Europe and causing social unrest in European or U.S. cities.
SVR Chief Sergey Naryshkin’s comments comparing the U.S. State Department to Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda shows an escalation in rhetoric from Russian intelligence against the U.S. government. However, with minimal relations between the U.S. and Russia, we don’t anticipate such rhetoric resulting in a significant response from the United States.
Should Russia annex Kherson, they will likely do the same with other occupied territories in Ukraine.
With the U.S. supplying advanced weapons to Ukraine, Russia could retaliate against the West through a cyber-attack or attacking a weapons delivery. Russia launching an attack on a NATO country would lead to a more significant conflict on the world stage, which it wouldn’t be able to sustain long-term with its military losses in Ukraine and heavily sanctioned economy back home.