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Information war is at its peak in the Ukraine conflict

NewsInformation war is at its peak in the Ukraine conflict

One problem of US’ overwhelming global information dominance is the trap of believing your own propaganda and treating it as the ground reality.


The present Russia-Ukraine war has seen the massive impact of social media and television in waging information war at a global level. Social media has now become the greatest tool of reaching out to individual minds and thereby influencing the masses in a manner that supersedes the impact of all legacy mass media tools like print, radio and even TV. Social media’s message is so personalised and yet has such massive outreach that it is instrumental in shaping the minds of the masses. Presently, its impact supersedes the impact of traditional mass media. Today some 2.7 billion viewers use Facebook every day, some 206 million use Twitter and some 122 million use YouTube daily. These social media platforms therefore have a major role in shaping public perceptions and opinion.
These US tech giants media have been blatantly partisan in this war. They permitted calls to assassinate Putin, demonise the Russians as a race and went out of the way to push the Ukrainian narrative in this war. The truth is hundreds of former US government officials from the Departments of Defence, FBI, Homeland Security etc. work in these companies to peddle US government narratives. There is a revolving door policy between Big Tech and US government agencies (Jared Cohen of US State Department and Joseph Rozek of the US Department of Defence and many others are now with internet/social media platforms). In fact these platforms had received some $44.4 bn worth of contracts from Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to spread stories of violent extremism during the Global War on Terror.

CYBER ARMY: For the Ukraine war the CIA got together a 300,000 strong army of cyber warriors on a Telegram group called TT Army of Ukraine. (This is incidentally larger than the Ukraine Land Army of 2.5 lakh.) It has been carrying out coordinated attacks on Russian websites and other online assets. Mostly they mounted DDoS attacks. (Distributed Denial of Services attacks that take down a site by flooding it with internet traffic). Some are leading campaigns to force companies to stop trading with Russia. Others are trying to penetrate Russian firewalls to bring their version of the war to the people of Russia.

NETWORK BATTALION 65: Another CIA sponsored cyber army called Network Battalion 65 hacked into Russian Nuclear Institute files and published them openly on the net to spill Russian nuclear secrets. All these cyber warriors have every day been posting hundreds of video clips (some taken from video war games, previous conflicts and military exercises) showing destruction of Russian military equipment by Javelin missiles and Stinger SAMs. Even as they advertise American military equipment, they create a hype that Ukraine is winning the war. The impression they generate is of an impending Russian military collapse of will and morale and a coup that could overthrow Putin in Moscow. In actual fact Putin’s popularity rating has shot up to 80% in Russia post this conflict.
The Russian view point has been totally blanked out in this war. As it is, RTV and Sputnik have been banned by the US and Western governments to block out the Russian viewpoint entirely. The wartime tactic of spreading disinformation to undermine morale of the rival camp has received a technical boost as seen in hundreds of fake videos being circulated during this war on social media and then on to the TV screens. Fake narratives and lies are being promoted shamelessly.

WESTERN PROPAGANDA PLAYBOOK: Alwyn and Heidi Toller in their famous book, War and Anti War, had listed basic propaganda ploys or tools. Some of these are:
* ATROCITY ACCUSATIONS: These have most skilfully been employed in Ukraine with civilian deaths in Bucha being touted as not just atrocities but as genocide. The Russians have reacted angrily to these accusations, calling them fake and deliberately staged. With such fierce air attacks, tank battles and artillery barrages civilian casualties are bound to occur on a large scale. The surprise is that despite huge quantities of ammunition expenditure, civilian causalities are comparatively lower than what we have seen in Iraq and Syria. Ukraine prohibited all males from16 to 60 to leave the city battle fields. They armed some 18,000 civilians-thus making them legitimate targets. Now they are coming up with strident atrocity accusations that are used to justify more economic sanctions against Russia and additional weapons shipments to Ukraine.

* HYPERBOLIC INFLATION OF STAKES: It gives the national audience a feel that everything that they hold dear is at risk. Thus the Ukraine war has been made into a hyperbolic contest between democracy and autocratic regimes. India is being pressurised to take the side of democracies. Ukraine is hardly an ideal democracy and no better than Russia in democratic freedoms and practices. Corruption is perhaps more rife in Ukraine than it is in Russia. Yet the entire struggle is being elevated to a moral plane.

* DEMONISATION OR DEHUMANISATION OF OPPONENT: Putin has been called a war criminal and killer by no less than President Joe Biden himself. The Russian military in general and especially Putin in particular are being demonised. This is destroying any chances of resolving this crisis peacefully. How can you negotiate with killers?

* POLARISATION: Those who are not with us are against us. India is being pressurised to condemn Russia and not buy cheap oil and weapons from them. This even as Europe continues to buy massive quantities of oil and gas from Russia every day.

Propaganda that discredits the other side’s propaganda is termed as meta propaganda. It calls into question everything that comes from the enemy. All statements made by Russian military are said to be lies and fabrications. Ukraine alone is telling the truth.

OUTSOURCING PROPAGANDA: Dan Cohen, writing in the, has blown the lid off a massively funded, specialized PR campaign that is being run by several entities associated with the governments of US, UK and NATO to portray the war in Ukraine to suit western agendas. The strategic communication narrative is to depict the Ukrainian military as a tiny but righteous David standing up to a brutal Russian military Goliath and winning outright. Not widely known is the fact that behind this massively successful propaganda campaign are a group of international PR firms working directly with the Ukraine Foreign Ministry.
Just hours after the beginning of the Russian military campaign, an anonymous figure who runs a PR firm in Ukraine, started collaborating with Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry. A slew of some 150 international PR firms collaborated to commence a massive propaganda blitz. This PR juggernaut was led by PR Network co-founder Nicky Regazzoni and Francis Ingham. Francis Ingham incidentally, is a top consultant loosely connected with the UK government. Reportedly he sits on the UK government’s Communication Services Strategy and Evaluation Council.
Dan Cohen also mentions Yuroslav Turbil (a communication specialist) who has worked with several US government organizations. He is credited with creating a dossier containing key messages, approved language and other data to run the Ukraine PR campaign. Dan says the story of the Snake Island heroes (taken from famous incident in the German Ardennes offensive) and the ghost pilot of Kiev (who in his lone SU-27 supposedly shot down half the Russian Air Force), are all credited to him. These were hugely popular and catchy stories. Unfortunately in the end stories remain just that—stories.
While greatly playing up Russian losses, the western media has completely blanked out the very heavy punishment taken by the Ukraine armed forces and logistical infrastructure. Over time this will widen the gulf between propaganda and reality to unbridgeable levels.

USE OF INTELLIGENCE SPECULATION AND ANALYSIS AS PROPAGANDA: NBC News reported that the US has been using intelligence leaks and even half-baked intelligence analysis as part of their information war. Most of the time the intelligence cited is not based on hard evidence. Low confidence inputs based on mere analysis or even plain false and fake inputs are passed on as hard facts. Overtime this is eroding the reliability of information put out by the US. US officials conceded they were using intelligence releases not to tell the truth but to influence decisions of Putin. A former MI 6 Chief said these were more designed to manipulate than inform. Some examples of this genre are the initial reports leaked about Russian plans to attack Ukraine. These were designed to delay the Russian attack. Then there was the claim that Russia had asked China for supply of weapons and spares. Then intelligence was put out that Russia was planning to use chemical and biological warfare agents (this was to cover up the US funding of some 32 biowarfare labs in Ukraine). Critics in the US decried this imperial narrative control by a democratic government openly manufacturing the consent of its public to be lied to for their own good and get limited strategic gains. This could badly erode credibility in the long run. All the hype about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had later proved to be outrageous lies. The disenchantment with The American narrative building exercise is setting in rather early in this war.

Like in the Gulf war, the danger now is the West getting carried away by its own propaganda and failing to analyse objectively the military outcomes in the field. There is a frenzied chorus from retired American generals who feel that Ukraine has actually won the war and with a little more of heavy weapons support it can inflict a humiliating defeat on the Russian Army and push them back across the border. This has led to many futile Ukrainian counter attacks that have been decimated by the Russian artillery and air. As the relentless attrition grinds down the Ukrainian armed forces, there could be a sudden collapse a few weeks down the line as the interdiction of Ukraine’s oil and ammunition begins to take its toll. Alternatively if Russia is pushed to the wall it could cross the nuclear threshold.

CONFLICT TERMINATION: UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER? Then there is the aspect of conflict termination. President Biden calling Putin a killer and war criminal virtually closes the window for any dialogue for conflict termination. It takes us back to the Two World wars when such maximalist stances were adopted and the call was for unconditional surrender. Is the US expecting a Russia armed with some 6,300 nuclear warheads to surrender unconditionally? That Russia will get disintegrated and economically destroyed but will never use weapons of mass destruction against the beloved US? The logic is very weird and could result in a nuclear catastrophe at the global level.

Russian service members drive tanks along the street before a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday. REUTERS

Maskarovika and disinformation have been an integral part of Russian strategic thought since WWII. In 2013, Gen Valery Gerasimov had propounded the Russian whole of government approach or hybrid war doctrine. This entailed a judicious mix of conventional and sub-conventional warfare as also a coherent mix of hard and soft power options in terms of information war, cyberwar, propaganda, disinformation and deception coupled with use of political, diplomatic and economic tools to prevail in any conflict.

Cyberwar attacks had been mounted very successfully by Russia in the brief war against Georgia in 2008 and again in 2014 when President Yanukovych was overthrown as part of an Orange Revolution in Kiev. Russia was forced to retaliate. In 2015 Russia attacked Ukraine’s electricity grid and left over 2 lakh people without power supply. In 2017, Russian malware attacks hit Ukraine’s railways, airports and banks. They had also attacked the computer systems of many multi-national firms, leading to losses of billions of dollars. Russia used cyberattacks on Ukrainian power generation systems and other computer networks very successfully.

MASKAROVIKA IN UKRAINE: The massive Russian military deployment against Ukraine could be seen by the whole wide world via all weather satellites, accompanied by UAVs and American AWACS and JSTARS flying over Poland and other East European countries bordering Russia. Yet the Russians were able to keep their intentions secret till the very end. Indian students in Ukraine were told it was all bluff and bluster and there was no need for them to go back. Most of them stayed back on the assurances of Ukraine authorities and had to face major problems in evacuation during a hot war. The head of German intelligence too was caught off guard and had to be flown out from Kiev at the very last minute when the war started. The French chief of intelligence reportedly had to resign as he failed to anticipate the Russian invasion. Even through President Biden was warning the world of an impending Russian invasion, perhaps he actually did not believe it himself. He and most Western leaders felt Putin was just bluffing and was using the coercive military deployment merely as a show of force to get US and NATO to revamp the European security architecture.

RUSSIAN CYBER COMMAND: Russia is ranked fourth in index of cyber power as per Belfer Centre at the Harvard Kennedy School. From 23-26 February 2022 the Russian cyber command targeted Ukraine’s command posts and banking system. However US cyberwar support ensured that most of these attacks were thwarted. Russia launched a number of low grade attacks on Ukraine’s government and corporate websites that were defaced. Cyber-attacks on government and military targets went up by 196% in first three days of war (24-26 February). However, this time US assistance thwarted the most serious cyberattacks. That is why we have not so far seen many successful Russian cyberattacks. Ukraine is receiving help from a hackers’ group called Anonymous. As per the assessment of Aaron Turner, a California based cyberwar expert, so far both sides are holding back from catastrophic cyberattacks that will likely result in mutually assured destruction (MAD) of systems.

However, in this war the Russians tried to target satellite communication networks to interfere with intelligence gathering and situational awareness. These hacker attacks on KA-Sat disabled modems that enable communication with satellites. It is not known how effective these attacks were. Major attacks were attempted between 5am and 9 am on 24 February, the day the invasion was launched. As stated most of the Russian hacker attacks were thwarted by US cyberwar experts, giving an erroneous impression that very few Russian attacks were attempted. As per the new hybrid war doctrine, massive cyber-attacks were mounted but most did not succeed. Russian hacker groups involved are APT-28 and Sandworms. They are past masters at phising and wiper attacks aimed at stealing data and deleting all information stored in a system.

With the deployment of over 300,000 experts by the CIA in support of the Ukraine war effort, the US has succeeded entirely in winning the information war. Social media and electronic and print media are flooded with Ukrainian narrative. One major advantage that the Americans have is English language which is a global link language. Information wars are waged at three levels: global, regional and local. Russia and China are able to hive off their social media domains from western social media and thereby protect their local domains. The information domain at the global and regional levels are all dominated by western narratives. The Russian and Chinese both tightly control their own domestic social media and to a great extent are able to insulate their domestic populations from the adverse impact of the enemies information war. India has major lessons to learn here because Indians use all Western Social media systems and there are no firewalls to protect the local information domain.

However, one problem of this overwhelming global information dominance is the trap of believing your own propaganda and treating it as the ground reality and not the fictive reality. This can lead to highly flawed estimates of the situation and a loss of objectivity in military planning. Perhaps key organizations and individuals may know the truth but the general perception that is fashioned by the relentless info-war assault on the social, electronic and print medium is so overwhelming that over time it overrides and perhaps shapes the actions of the elite leadership itself.

US generals are clearly losing sight of the dangerous nuclear threshold. Russia has the largest number of nuclear warheads in the world. US generals feel Putin is bluffing with his nuclear sabre-rattling. Before Russia invaded Ukraine they had felt his force deployment was also a bluff and he would not invade. They were wrong then. If they prove wrong a second time about nuclear thresholds, the consequences could be catastrophic for the whole world.
A major psychological blow has been the loss of the Russian flagship Cruiser Moskava. This is dangerous as reportedly this cruiser had nuclear armed missiles on board. Its loss is a major blow to Russian prestige and may even sting them to escalate to a tactical nuclear level or to widen the area of the conflict (vertical and horizontal escalation). The world is clearly staring at Armageddon and great caution is called for.

Maj Gen (Dr) G.D. Bakshi is an Indian Army veteran. This article is by arrangement with Indian Military Review.

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