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The Russian disinformation war is underway


The Russian incursion in eastern Ukraine has sparked fears it could turn into a major invasion. While we're keeping close watch on the potential battlefield, an information war involving those two countries, as well as the U.S. and Europe, is already in full swing. To break this down, we're joined by NPR correspondents Greg Myre and Jenna McLaughlin. Hello to both of you.



RASCOE: Greg, the U.S. and NATO have made clear they won't send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine, but they are engaged in this information war. Tell us what that means exactly.

MYRE: Yeah. The U.S. and Europe have really spent months behind the scenes putting together a very coordinated campaign, and the goal has been to get ahead of this Russian military buildup and warn the publics in the countries of Europe that this could well be a major war. Ideally, the intent is to stop Russian leader Vladimir Putin from going ahead with it, although that doesn't seem to be the case. But what we have seen has been this unprecedented sharing of classified information on the Russian military, and the U.S. has taken some of this classified information and declassified it. And when you combine that with sort of open-source information like satellite photos, the goal has been to show the full extent of the Russian forces as they built up. We're seeing this right up to today, with U.S. officials saying it's their assessment that Putin is fully prepared to conduct a large-scale invasion at any moment.

The second important point here is that it's really been a challenge to keep everybody unified. But the NATO countries, the 30 members, have largely been on the same page. And we saw that pretty much yesterday as the U.S., the European Union, Germany rolled out sanctions together. So an information campaign can't stop Russian tanks, but it hopefully has been providing some insight into Putin's intentions.

RASCOE: Jenna, talk to us about Russia's approach in this information war.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, Ayesha, there's been so much going on. Late this afternoon, Ukraine time, there was yet another denial-of-service attack that hit Ukrainian government websites, flooding them with traffic and taking them offline. As a reminder, this kind of attack isn't all that sophisticated, but it's very disruptive. And last week, we saw similar attacks against Ukrainian banks and government websites. Cybersecurity researchers revealed they discovered malware on hundreds of Ukrainian computers today that, if activated, could completely wipe them and erase data. Russia keeps denying that they're behind these attacks, and they're fairly flimsy denials at this point. But the objective was to create chaos or to prepare to cause more destruction in the future. And look; cyber is just one tool that Russia can use to directly impact average Ukrainians. They're also spreading disinformation and could look for ways to threaten economic stability and critical infrastructure.

RASCOE: So that's more of the covert side of things. What is Russia doing openly?

MCLAUGHLIN: So overtly, Russian officials, including Putin, have been making ludicrous claims about Ukrainians committing genocide, burying civilians in mass graves, setting off explosives and, most recently, accusing Ukraine of wanting nuclear weapons. Over recent days, we've also seen leaders of the so-called separatist regions in Ukraine, the ones that Putin just recognized, as well as Russian officials posting videos trying to make it look like they were under threat by Ukrainians in real time. But internet sleuths have been digging through metadata in those files and other clues, like images of the officials' watches, and proving that, actually, they were posted hours after they were first filmed, so it was clearly staged. And these kinds of things have been easily debunked by Ukrainian and Western officials. But this is designed to set up a narrative to justify an invasion, including to the Russian people.

RASCOE: Greg, tell us more about this U.S. strategy of sharing classified information more widely. You know, you've said that it's unprecedented. How did they make that decision?

MYRE: So ultimately, it is President Biden's decision to declassify the intelligence and share it more widely. And we've sort of seen this coordinated throughout the government. It's coming out of the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department. Obviously, the intelligence community has played an important role here - and worth noting the current CIA director, William Burns. Now, before this job, he was a career diplomat, and he was the ambassador to Moscow back in the 2000s and someone who had firsthand experience on dealing with Russia. President Biden sent Burns to Moscow last November to tell the Russians that the U.S. was seeing signs of this Russian military buildup almost four months ago. So the U.S. has been working closely with the Europeans, and all the signs are pointing toward a NATO that hasn't been this unified in years. And this is really in sharp contrast to a few years ago when President Trump was openly dismissive of NATO.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, Ayesha, let me just add to Greg's point there. To give a sense of exactly how unusual this is, in the past, it's actually taken months and years to call out Russia for very damaging cyber operations, including shutting down the power grid in Ukraine, as well as meddling in U.S. presidential elections in 2016. So part of the reason for that is a technical challenge. Some of these hacker groups disguise their operations more than others. And part of it is a geopolitical question of whether the international community is willing to come together and jointly expose and condemn the activity.

So it's always a risk to expose intelligence. Russia could change its tactics next time and keep us in the dark. But the whole point of intelligence is to inform policymakers and allow them to make decisions. Plus, the GRU is actually really known for being like a bull in a China shop. It's very noisy in cyberspace, not taking as much care to cover their tracks. U.S. might wager that they actually won't change those tactics either way. So in this case, the U.S. has clearly decided that the risks of exposing Russia's behavior are not as important as the possible benefits, which are preventing Putin from having any plausible deniability for his actions.

RASCOE: So, Greg, it seems like the crisis may be changing from this months-long buildup on the border by Russia to the possibility of actual fighting inside Ukraine. What should we be looking for next?

MYRE: Yeah. Ayesha, we really crossed this very important line Monday, and that's when Putin publicly authorized troops to go into eastern Ukraine. And so we move from this debate about what Russia's intentions may or may not be to a real focus on what's happening on the ground in Ukraine. And we still don't know the full scale or scope of the conflict, but it does seem like we're going to have very good visibility in almost real time. There's going to be lots of media coverage, lots of social media. The Ukrainians are very good at spreading their message. The governments involved are aggressively pushing their narratives. So we should certainly expect this information war to intensify and at a very rapid tempo, and it could likely take weeks, months, even longer to play out.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Greg Myre and Jenna McLaughlin. Thanks to both of you.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

MYRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "RESILIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.