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Countering Disinformation: Russia’s Infowar in Ukraine

October 25, 2017

Author:

Julia Summers

For the past year, Russia’s offensive cyber-activities in the United States have been under a spotlight. However, whether it is cyberattacks on U.S. governmental agencies by “patriotic” hackers or interference in the U.S.’s presidential elections through direct and indirect means, Moscow continuously denies having a hand in any of it.[1] Indeed, Putin’s latest remarks at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum stand true: fingerprinting does not apply to cyberspace.[2]  And, IP addresses  can be hidden.[3] However, both facts make such cyber campaigns led by the Kremlin not only possible, but also successful.

Today, there is still little understanding among the public of what Russia’s cyber warfare practices are and what those tactics mean for the U.S.  To come up with a policy solution that might protect against Russia’s cyber warfare and enhance our cybersecurity, U.S. policymakers must first fully grasp the threat and the end goal of such action. To understand Russia’s actions, we need to look to Ukraine, where the Kremlin’s lengthy cyber operations have been successful.

Russia’s Disinformation Campaign in Ukraine

Russia’s cyberwar in Ukraine includes the use of the news media and social networking websites to disseminate fake news as well as cyberattacks on governmental agencies and Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. In Ukraine, such Russian actions exploit existing social divisions and public distrust in the government’s ability to provide protection. As a result, this continuous destabilization effort has helped to justify the separatist narrative in Eastern Ukraine; it also contributed to the loss of Crimea.[4]

Disinformation is a powerful tool in the hands of adversaries. For instance, the spread of propaganda and the manipulation of facts were one of the primary aids that helped Russia to annex the Crimean Peninsula on March 17, 2014.[5] While the occupation was accomplished with physical military forces – the invasion began “in the minds” of the Crimeans.[6] The invasion of Ukraine’s territory and annexation of Crimea was proceeded by a propaganda campaign by Russian state media, such as Russia 24, NTV, Channel One (ORT), and Russia-1 — all widely popular on the peninsula at the time.[7] While many Ukrainians protested corruption and anti-western oppressive policies of the regime in Kyiv, a very different narrative was broadcasted to Crimeans about those events.[8] Such narratives led people in Crimea to believe their lives and freedoms were in danger from their fellow citizens in Kyiv.[9] As the result, when the Russian military came offering protection, many gladly accepted, justifying it with the ethnic belonging to Russian culture.[10]

Following the Crimean annexation, the war in Eastern Ukraine was initiated in a very similar way, through fear mongering and promotion of uncertainty by Russian state media centrally produced views on Ukrainian revolution.[11] Like Crimea, many, although not all, in the Eastern Ukraine’s regions of Donetsk and Luhansk favored Russian media news sources as well, while some Ukrainian media channels were blocked altogether.[12] As an outcome of the disinformation campaign there was a substantial support for Russian military troops in the Eastern Ukraine, as well as separatists wanting to break away from Ukraine in favor of creating a Russian supported republic.[13]

While Russian state media was fully engaging Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Russian trolls have been creating the pro-Russian, anti-western content on Russian social media websites for years.[14] The trolls promoted Russian interests via subtle carefully crafted propaganda.[15] Trolls covered popular forums, social media websites, blogs, and other Internet resources — all spaces that Ukrainians heavily use. The idea is to create negative attitudes towards the West and positive images of Russia.[16]

Furthermore, when the revolution broke out in 2013 in Kyiv, the Russian security service FSB took over the servers of the Russian social networking website Vkontakte – which was very popular in Ukraine.[17] Its creator Pavel Durov said that such reaction from the FSB was caused by his unwillingness to turn over information on Ukrainians participating in 2013 protests. Once Durov lost control of the site, the FSB had unprecedented access to pictures, geolocations, and personal data of about 16 million Ukrainians — including information about Ukrainian soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine against Russian troops and Russian backed separatists.[18]

In addition to this information war, cyberattacks on Ukraine’s government institutions and critical infrastructure further destabilized the country. Some 6,500 cyberattacks occurred in the last two months of 2016.[19] Not only did such attacks drain an already economically weakened country, they further promoted an image of instability and chaos in Ukraine. For example, the hacks of Ukraine’s power grids left over 230,000 people without electricity for six hours in the Western Ukraine — a region that is not yet effected by Russian military troops.[20]  And a year later, the capital city of Kyiv was a test ground for a new Russian cyber weapon aimed at critical infrastructure.[21]

The effects of Russian disinformation in Ukraine have threatened the unity of Ukrainian society, assisted with military invasion, destabilized the country, and eroded the trust of Ukrainian people in the Ukrainian state’s ability to protect them. Frequent and sophisticated cyberattacks created an unfavorable image of the country for outside investors, spread the panic and amplified already existing uncertainty among country’s population.[22]

Countering Disinformation Campaigns

While Russian-led hacking campaign during the U.S.’s 2016 election is being currently worked on by many cyber threat analysts and cybersecurity firms, such as FireEye, Crowd Strike, and others.[23] However, until recently Russia’s disinformation campaign was given less attention and resources for countermeasures.[24]

The dissemination of false stories is a known Russian weapon that works well on democracies.[25] Just as in Ukraine, Russian disinformation campaigns in the U.S. are meant to sow fear, discord, and confuse audiences. These messages can be transmitted through news outlets such as RT and Sputnik.[26] However, not many understand that such views are tailored to present a very particular narrative.[27]

Creating a policy solution to counter Russian disinformation, as well as disinformation campaigns by any actor, is a critical issue for democracies. Europe has been working on this issue for a while. For instance, French president Emanuel Macron has called out RT and Sputnik.[28] In 2015 the European Union created a unit to counter Russian disinformation campaigns as they were picking up momentum.[29] Additionally, United Kingdom temporarily froze Russia Today’s accounts in 2016 as it was accused of misleading and biased reports.[30]

However, tackling such issues are challenging for democracies who value and protect freedom of speech and of the press. To protect Ukraine from Russia’s rampant cyberwar, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko signed an executive order to ban Russian social media and other Internet resources and software coming from Russia on April 28, 2017.[31] Such actions, however, were criticized because of the challenge to press freedom.

In the United States, government-funded news outlets were launched in February 2017 aimed at countering Russia’s state-funded media narratives. For instance, Current Time is a global Russian-language TV network that intends to offer a fact-based news with the assistance of Voice of America and is run by Prague-based Radio Free Europe.[32] However, such policies are aimed at the international community, while Russia’s propaganda networks RT and Sputnik are increasing their audience pool by hiring American favorites such as Larry King and Ed Schutlz. [33]

Conclusion

One of the greatest protective mechanisms democratic societies possess is freedom of expression. Thus, the policy aimed to counter Russian propaganda in the United States should be based on raising widespread awareness of disinformation campaigns, including those following a Russian playbook. Such an approach must be systematic and involve all effective information sources, such as Internet, television, public venues, and local printed newspapers. While involving all groups of our society is important, stressing critical thinking and reading with young people through education and other efforts will create long lasting societal resilience to such campaigns.

Endnotes

[1] Phillips, Ian and Vladimir Isachenkov, Putin: Russia doesn’t hack but “patriotic” individuals might. The Washington Post, June 1, 2017. Accessed June 4, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/putin-russian-state-has-never-been-involved-in-hacking/2017/06/01/efe4b576-46b1-11e7-8de1-cec59a9bf4b1_story.html?utm_term=.81e8cc9ec579

[2] St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Broadcast, June 1,2,3, 2017. Accessed June 3rd, 2017. https://www.forumspb.com/en/2017/sections/68/materials/351/sessions/1933#translation

[3] Chen, Adrian. The Agency. New York Times, June 2, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html

[4] Esipova, Neli and Julie Ray. Information Wars. Harvard International Review, May 6, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://hir.harvard.edu/article/?a=13043

[5] Greene, David and Lauren Migaki. In Crimea, Many Signs of Russia, Few of Resistance. NPR, October 27, 2014. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/10/27/358564273/in-crimea-many-signs-of-russia-few-of-resistance

[6] “Крим 2017: 5 випуск – Вікна-новини-17.03.2017”, Accessed June 22, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaCwsHab9Lw

[7] GALLUP, Contemporary Media Use in Ukraine, accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2014/06/Ukraine-research-brief.pdf

[8] Kanevsky, Glib. Putin’s Propaganda Machine and Ukraine’s Informational Weakness. Euromaidan Press. April 1, 2014. Accessed June 22, 2017.  http://euromaidanpress.com/2014/04/08/putins-propaganda-machine-and-ukraines-informational-weakness/#arvlbdata

[9] Yuhas, Alan. Russian propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: how does it work? The Guardian, March 17, 2014. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/17/crimea-crisis-russia-propaganda-media

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] GALLUP, Contemporary Media Use in Ukraine, accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2014/06/Ukraine-research-brief.pdf

[13] The Russian secret behind Ukraine’s self-declared “Donetsk Republic”. France24: Reporters, October 15, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.france24.com/en/20161014-video-reporters-donetsk-dependent-republic-russia-ukraine-weapons

[14] Chen, Adrian. The Agency. New York Times, June 2, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Johnston, Casey. Crime, Punishment, and Russia’s Original Social Network. Motherboard, February 12, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/v-for-vkontakte

[18] Стало відомо, скільки українців користуються забороненими “Вконтакте”, “Одноклассники” та “Яндекс”. Інфографіка, 16 ТРАВНЯ, 2017. відвідала 3 Червня, 2017. http://espreso.tv/news/2017/05/16/stalo_vidomo_skilky_ukrayinciv_korystuyutsya_zaboronenymy_quotvkontaktequot_quotodnoklassnykyquot_ta_quotyandeksquot_infografika

[19] Zinets, Natalia. Ukraine hit by 6,500 hack attacks sees Russian ‘cyberwar’. Reuters, December 29, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-cyber-idUSKBN14I1QC

[20] Zetter, Kim. Inside the Cunning, Unprecedented hack of Ukraine’s power grid. WIRED, March 3, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017.https://www.wired.com/2016/03/inside-cunning-unprecedented-hack-ukraines-power-grid/

[21] Greenberg, Andy. How an entire nation became Russia’s test lab for cyberwar. WIRED. June 20, 2017. Accessed June 22, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/russian-hackers-attack-ukraine/

[22] Peterson, Nolan. How Russia’s Cyberattacks Have Affected Ukraine. The Daily Signal. December 16, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://dailysignal.com/2016/12/16/how-russias-cyberattacks-have-affected-ukraine/

[23] Cyber researchers confirm Russian government hack of Democratic National Committee. Threat Connect, June 21, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.threatconnect.com/in-the-news/cyber-researchers-confirm-russian-government-hack-democratic-national-committee/

[24] Hooper, Melissa. Combating Russia’s Propaganda Machine. The New York Times, September 7, 2017. Accessed June 4, 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/08/opinion/combating-russias-propaganda-machine.html

[25] MacFarquhar, Neil. A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories. The New York Times, August 28, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/world/europe/russia-sweden-disinformation.html

[26] Zakem, Vera. How Russia’s Disinformation Campaign Could Extend Its Tentacles. NPR, January 6, 2017. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/01/06/508032496/how-russias-disinformation-campaign-could-extend-its-tentacles

[27] Chen, Adrian. The Agency. New York Times, June 2, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html

[28] LoGiurato, Brett. Macron levels remarkable attack on Russian ‘propaganda’ organs as Putin stands by his side. Business Insider. May 29, 2017. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/macron-putin-news-conference-rt-sputnik-propaganda-fake-news-2017-5

[29] Panichi, James. EU declares information war on Russia. POLITICO, August 27, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.politico.eu/article/russia-propaganda-ukraine-eu-response-disinformation/

[30] Osborne, Samuel. Russia Today bank accounts ‘frozen in UK’. INDEPENDENT, October 17, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/russia-today-bank-accounts-frozen-uk-rt-money-finances-freeze-state-media-putin-a7365406.html

[31] УКАЗ ПРЕЗИДЕНТА УКРАЇНИ №133/2017, ПРЕЗИДЕНТ УКРАЇНИПЕТРО ПОРОШЕНКО, 28 квітня 2017, відвідала 3 Червня, 2017. http://www.president.gov.ua/documents/1332017-21850

[32] U.S. launches TV network as alternative to Russian propaganda. CBS News, February 9, 2017. Accessed June 3, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-current-time-tv-network-rfe-russia-russian-propaganda-misinformation-rt/

[33] Rutenberg, Jim. Larry King, the Russian Media and a Partisan Landscape. The New York Times, September 18, 2016. Accessed June 4, 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/19/business/media/moscow-joins-the-partisan-media-landscape-with-familiar-american-faces.html?_r=0

[34] Kamisar, Ben. Trump praises ‘very smart’ Putin on sanctions response. The Hill, December 30, 2017. Accessed June 4, 2017. http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/312245-trump-praises-very-smart-putin

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This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.