Undeterred by the failure of its narratives to take root, the Russian state information machine is changing its tactics as it seeks to profit from the war in Ukraine – and as the war drags on, causing further turmoil and economic pain, there are more refinements coming soon.
This is the opinion of Recorded futures Craig Theron, who spends his workdays immersed in pro-Russian propaganda, misinformationmisinformation and memes that appeared on the Internet after the February 24th invasion and has just produced a major new report on the subject.
“For this particular report, we looked at a Russian information operation where we saw that Russian networks of influence, such as state-controlled media, intelligence outlets that are not undercover, linked or run by the FSB [Federal Security Service] or SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service]are conducting a multi-pronged information operation to undermine and divide the Western coalition in Ukraine – so the US and European countries, and even Turkey think – and to convince the European population to support Russia and its war against Ukraine,” Teron says.
“From that we identified several different narratives as part of these broader information operations. One of them directly tries to undermine and divide the Western coalition by stirring up resentment between these countries – between Poland and Ukraine, for example – or between Germany and Poland.
“Others are more indirect, trying to portray Ukrainian refugees in a negative light and the impact they have on host countries to persuade those populations to be against [their own government’s] Ukrainian politics, as well as more pro-Russian.”
Theron spoke to Computer Weekly on the sidelines of Information Security Europe 2022, which returned as an in-person event this year after a pandemic-imposed hiatus. He highlighted new intelligence that suggests Russia is moving to create and exploit divisions between member states within the European Union and NATO, while targeting its own people – and people in former Soviet states – with disinformation designed to tempt the people back to the side of Russia.
Much of this latest intelligence stems from a leaked memo purported to originate from the FSB’s Fifth Service, released by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on June 5. The memo discusses some of the failures of Russia’s information operation during the war and makes some chilling recommendations for its efforts moving forward.
“Some of the initial failures, for example, was that their narrative around trying to de-Nazify Ukraine failed to have an emotional attachment,” Theron said. “He failed to detail things like the Ukrainian Nazis [allegedly] killing children in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
“Another example was that they failed to explain that a full-scale invasion of Russia was the only option available to them and that there were no other options.
“Then there is talk of targeting four different audiences: the Russian population, the Ukrainian population, the post-Soviet countries and the European population.”
According to Theron, some of the proposed narratives for the former Soviet states are likely to focus on opportunities for cooperation between them and the puppet states of Donetsk and Luhansk when it comes to future reconstruction and development projects.
Populations within the EU, UK and US, on the other hand, will be targeted with narratives that try to portray their governments as being to blame for the rising cost of living, especially food and fuel, and the resulting insecurity, saying that The European leadership, which is responsible for such difficulties, has prioritized sending weapons and money to Ukraine.
Russia may also seek to “update” the Nazi narrative to draw direct lines between Ukraine today and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and raise questions about the perceived hypocrisy inherent in the ban the Nazis at home while allegedly supporting them in the Ukraine. This may be based on Western sources, including the 2019 BBC documentary The rise of the Nazis and similar television programs.
Future operations will also target Russians themselves, particularly younger people who may be more likely to be anti-war, attracting pro-Russian celebrities, reality TV stars and athletes, while targeting those who have rejected Putin’s war .
The memo also recommends “reducing charges” in Russia against traitors, portraying young people instead as victims of American and European propaganda, and welcoming them back into the fold.
Seize the production memes
Since the war in Ukraine is the conflict of its time, the Russian information operation focuses not only on fake news and manipulation of facts through its own propaganda mouthpieces – Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik are the main “mainstream” media – but through memes.
“A very common thing we saw was the use of memes,” Theron says, “some of them very creative memes to try to influence the audience.”
One such meme (Ref. 1) aims to undermine the integrity of the European Union (EU) response. It depicts a cartoon of the EU standing over Ukraine, which is trapped. The EU tries to give Ukraine a rope to help it, but ends up hanging itself from a nearby tree.
Others seek to bridge the gap between European states by focusing on divisions or historical incidents. A meme (Ref. 2), which takes the popular format of a conversation between the characters Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala from the film Star Wars Attack of the Clonesused the westward shift of Poland’s borders after World War II.
This redrawing of the map saw historically Polish cities, including Lviv (historically Lwów or Lemberg), ceded to the Soviet Union and later Ukraine, as well as major population displacement. The meme fuels the idea that Poland should seek to restore its pre-1939 borders, possibly by force.
Just as Ukraine has created its own IT army of friendly hacktivists, many of these meme operations involve groups of Russian netizens who are tied to but not directly controlled by the Kremlin itself, such as the Cyber Z group, which is apparently based in St. Petersburg and orders memes from a troll farm, Theron says.
“There are also pro-Russian channels on Telegram, which may just be members of the public who also create this type of meme. It’s very hard to tell if they were specifically ordered,” he says.
The area is flooded
Terron and Recorded Future avoid calling Russia’s information operation information warfare on the grounds that influence and information are just another tool to be used in the service of kinetic warfare.
“Typically we use the term information operation if it’s more coordinated, or we’re just influencing operations and influencing networks that spew disinformation and propaganda,” Theron says, “influence is more encompassing than both disinformation and disinformation.”
Russia’s information operation appears to center on the tactic of “flooding the zone” with malicious disinformation — the alleged FSB memo, translated from Russian by Recorded Future, uses the term “saturation of the information space.”
“Russian disinformation and influence operations are … less targeted,” Theron says. “It’s fairer: ‘Throw this misinformation wherever we can as long as it suits our audience and our goals.’
For the average citizen, countering Russian disinformation is a near-impossible task—unless you’re one of the many people believed to have joined Ukraine’s IT army—but there are steps we can all take, Theron says.
“There are several well-known outlets that operate in the West and have ties to Russian intelligence services, so those, whatever, watch out,” he says.
“One key area of focus as we assess the outlook is that as the war continues and the economic hardships become more difficult and people have to endure them for a long period of time, Russia will try very hard to use these difficulties to turn people against Russia sanctions, against their support for Ukraine, and to prioritize domestic economic, energy and food issues.
“Any stories around this narrative that come from suspect sources and Russian state media sources, or smaller media outlets that are connected to Russian intelligence, are something to watch out for,” he says. “For the average person, I’d say just look at different news sources across the political spectrum.”
A constant challenge
Looking ahead, Theron and his team predict that Russian information operations will remain a constant challenge throughout the war and beyond.
Although the Western coalition on Ukraine is broadly united for now, the Kremlin likely expects its operations to bear fruit, especially if the conflict drags on into the winter. Over time, Recorded Future says, this will lead to a natural decline in support for the coalition, and it is likely that this will also be exploited.
On this basis, a “whole of community” response will be required to identify, isolate, inform and counter the Russian information operation.
The full report, including the translation of the alleged FSB memo, can be accessed via Records Insikt Group on Future.