That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
His invasion of Ukraine one year ago floundered from the very beginning. But what about Putin’s disinformation efforts? In some parts of the world, his messages appears to have gained - to some degree - traction.
Special thanks to CIA Veteran John Sipher, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research Ellen McCarthy, special correspondent on Soviet affairs of The Wall Street Journal David Satter, and to Meredith Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International.
“You are fighting for the homeland for its future,” Vladimir Putin tells the Russian people in a Red Square parade marking the Soviet victory in World War II. No one should forget the lessons of World War II, he adds, and that there is no place in the world for executioners, punishers, and Nazis.
[Russian National Anthem Playing]
And then the playing of the Russian national anthem copied from the prior Soviet anthem owed to a fallen empire and whose collapse Putin has called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
The subtext was hardly nuanced, the Kremlin dictator saying that Russia was fighting in Ukraine to preserve (as it fought Nazi Germany 80 years ago) its sovereignty and way of life which was threatened by outside forces.
But Putin's narrative was false. In World War II, Russia had indeed been the victim of aggression, it was invaded. Now, however, it was the aggressor. Such false narratives have a name: disinformation. I'm Paul Brandus and that's the name of this series that's called simply Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, Founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
One tactic that peddlers of disinformation use is to make up something about another party, something that is false, thus putting the onus on that other party to deny something that never was in the first place.
Vasily Alekseyevich Nebenzya:
Like when Russia's ambassador to the United Nations claimed last fall that the U.S. was operating biological weapons labs in Ukraine. The Russians offered no proof, just an allegation. American Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield then had to say that the Russian claim was rubbish.
Russia's called us here once again for the sole purpose of spreading disinformation. We all know these claims are pure fabrications brought forth without a shred of evidence, and I would even venture to say the Russian delegation knows these charges are fabricated but they dutifully carry out marching orders from President Putin.
This is all nasty stuff but as we explained (in episode two of this series), it's classic active measures, the Soviet era phrase for using disinformation for a variety of goals like influencing public opinion, muddying the issue, distracting, in general, using lies to gain some sort of military or political advantage.
Putin you'll recall spent 15 years in the KGB rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. One year into his brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine, Putin has shown the world as if Chechnya and Syria were not reminders, that vicious and unrelenting bombings of innocent civilians is for him, a perfectly acceptable tactic.
And disinformation, well, that remains as essential to his being as breathing in and out. His disinformation campaign now can be dissected in various ways. First is his campaign at home against the Russian people.
Been relatively effective inside the country, inside Russia which is a dimension that we often overlook. The war still has a quite high level of support from all the information that's available to us. Partially, of course, this is a result of concealing the extent of the losses.
It's hard for Russians to get that information, particularly if they're not adept at using the internet or if they're not motivated, which is often the case.
The state propaganda is relentless in shaping their opinions and unfortunately, because there's no competing media anymore — they've shut down opposition newspapers, they've shut down independent sites, they don't have much competition.
That's David Satter, speaking to me from Paris. Mr. Satter is a lifelong journalist and student of Russia. He was based in Moscow in the 1970s and 80s for the Financial Times and kicked out of Putin's Russia in 2013. He currently writes for The Wall Street Journal and is a fellow at both the Hudson Institute and School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
So, that's Putin's disinformation campaign at home, what about abroad? For that, I turn to Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International, who says the Russians have actually gotten some traction with their messaging.
I think there's a number of reasons but if you look at Russian media in general, like RT is syndicated all over the world in multiple languages, very similar to BBC or any of the other major global news outlets.
They also have really gotten a foothold in Africa, partially because there is a vacuum there for good information and good journalism, and partly because of some of the other things that they're doing there with the Wagner Group, for example, working with some of the different governments there. They have certainly been involved in a number of disinformation campaigns there, both on their own behalf, as well as on behalf of local governments there.
So, they have more of a foothold than a bit more influence there. And I think that narrative against the West being this hegemonic power, not allowing countries to do the things that they want is a popular narrative in a lot of developing countries. Especially as the economy gets worse in some of these places, there is more opportunity for that narrative to take hold.
Wilson mentioned the Wagner Group, it's headed by a close ally of Putin's, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has admitted running information campaigns meant to meddle with elections here in the U.S. and elsewhere in Ukraine. Their work, blood thirsty, indiscriminate, and murderous is well-known, but as Wilson pointed out, the Wagner Group is also helping Putin in Africa.
For example, the United Nations just released a report saying that the Wagner Group has an estimated 5,000 troops across Africa tasked with everything from securing mineral deposits to working with rebels to install pro-Moscow governments.
All this seems a throwback to the Cold War when Washington and Moscow jousted for influence around the globe. The question that I had and put to Wilson is the impact of the war in places like Africa.
Well, one narrative, at least in the West is that the war, which has helped snarl supply chains, pushed up food and energy prices, those things have obviously hurt parts of the world that you're talking about. Did they not see that or is that just not being communicated to them in an effective manner?
No, I think they're aware of it, at least at the leadership level. In fact, when the grain prices were sky high and the Russians were not allowing grain to leave Ukraine, there was a very concerted effort on the part of European and the U.S. governments to go and meet with those leaders and say, “Do you understand what's happening here, and the position that this has kind of created for you?”
Whether that actually gets down to a local level or not is something entirely different. And the ability to influence that is subject to a lot of other factors like what's going on politically in the country at the time. Who is providing money to that government? Who is providing aid? Who is doing new projects in those countries?
So, there's a lot of moving parts there but I think the awareness is there but that doesn't always mean that the disinformation doesn't take hold.
The Russians have always been good at information warfare. Ellen McCarthy has spent the bulk of her career as an intelligence officer and a former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
I think what has been more of a surprise is how effective they really are, given that there's so much more information out there. They've been good since I've been looking at the Soviet Union in Russia. But in a world that is more open, more transparent, there's more data, I'm surprised at still how effective they are.
You would think that when the Russian people see body bags coming back to their town, that they would start to question some things, but they're not.
Meanwhile, David Satter, the lifelong Kremlinologist agrees with all of that, but he takes it a step further saying that even American and other Western elites have allowed themselves to be seduced by Putin and his disinformation efforts, thus becoming willing messengers for the Kremlin.
On the question of how effective are they in shaping opinion outside of Russia in the West, for example, in the U.S. they've had some successes.
Of course, it's important to bear in mind that a certain segment of the American professoriate that deals with this question has been trained and inculcated by the Valdai Discussion Club, which the Russians ran for many years in which they invited Western specialists and journalists, and wined and dined them and gave them access to Putin and disinform them.
And to the point that many of these people adopted Russian positions as their own opinion and are repeating them now. For example, we see a lot of that with the claim that Putin had a legitimate reason for invading Ukraine or at least, his motives were understandable because of the expansion of NATO.
That's a nonsense claim but it gets repeated constantly. We have a lot of people putting out … and we have this in Congress, we have it in cable news, various derogatory information about Ukraine. These people, if you were to trace back their sources of information, oftentimes, those sources have had connections with Russian disinformation operatives.
But smooth as these Russian efforts have been in the past, Satter notes that there aren't limits.
When you're bombing civilian buildings, when you're invading a neighboring country. There's only so much that disinformation directed at a free society can do. Our hope, of course, is that it won't hobble American policy-making but the Russians will certainly try.
And try they, will incorporating new technologies and new tactics along the way.
Like this fake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urging Ukrainians to lay down their weapons. The quality of this so-called deep fake is not very good, but it offers a glimpse of Russian tactics, which will only improve as the artificial intelligence behind such fakery grows ever more sophisticated.
This series on Disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk International, we build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Welcome back. As you know, this is the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and no end appears in sight. For all of his battlefield setbacks, all the damage he has done to his economy, and to Russia's place in the world, Vladimir Putin shows no sign of backing down.
He still seems to think that time is on his side and at some point, the West will tire of the economic sacrifices being made to help Ukraine. Some American lawmakers already think this — not many, but some.
Earlier this month, for example, nearly a dozen house Republicans introduced a non-binding measure calling for an immediate halt of American aid. That's a small minority, a fringe group, if you will, but, nevertheless.
Perhaps, these folks would do well to listen to John Sipher, a retired 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, including former Station Chief in Moscow. Sipher knows Russia as well as anyone, and says anyone who would do Putin's bidding should wake up and understand who we are dealing with.
Putin for the last decade or more, has essentially, been looking to undercut us at all ways. He has a foreign policy of sabotage and subversion. As you know, he's interfered in our elections, he's been involved in disinformation, in subversion, sabotage efforts in the West. He’s been supporting violent groups, he's murdered citizens around Europe, potentially put bounties on U.S. soldiers, and a variety of things, cyber-attacks and things that we're aware of.
You never hear Putin's American sympathizers mention these things and the fact that they don't, can be considered one pernicious effect of Putin's long-running disinformation campaign, again, to seduce, to soften up his willing and perhaps unwitting messengers.
You'd think that images of schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings leveled by Putin's bombs would give pause to these sympathizers. But as we've discussed (in prior episodes of this series) the matter of cognitive dissonance comes into play here, namely, when someone believes something, when it takes root in their mind, it is extraordinarily difficult for those attitudes to be dislodged.
I urge you to go back and listen to episode eight, the one titled No Delete Button.
And here we are, one year after Putin announced his so-called “special military operation.” He says Russia is fighting for its freedom, its sovereignty. His very phrasing has an Orwellian tint. It was Orwell's 1984 (you'll recall) that Winston Smith, the protagonist, a low-ranking citizen of Oceania, was told that “War is peace”.
And so, it is with Putin who spoke with a straight face of bringing justice to Ukraine, particularly to those who committed, he says, bloody crimes. War is peace or well wrote, no, it is not. War is war. It is death, devastation, and incalculable suffering. It is also disinformation.
If you like this show and this series, I hope you'll go to the Apple or Spotify page, or wherever you're listening to this and give us a review. Thanks to David Satter, Ellen McCarthy, and John Sipher for their insights. We'll be hearing more from each of them in future episodes.
Our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz, audio engineer, Nathan Corson, executive producers, Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International, I'm Paul Brandus, thanks so much for listening.