WASHINGTON (AP) — In a break from the past, the United States and its allies are increasingly revealing their intelligence findings as they confront Russian preparations to invade Ukraine, seeking to undermine the plans of the Russian President Vladimir Putin by exposing them and diverting his efforts to shape the world’s opinion.
The White House has gone public in recent weeks with what it called a developing Russian false flag operation. to create a pretext for an invasion. Britain has named specific Ukrainians he accused of having ties to Russian intelligence officers plotting to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The United States also released a map Russian military positions and detailed how officials believe Russia will attempt to attack Ukraine with up to 175,000 troops.
Experts credit the White House with declassifying intelligence and deciding to refute false claims before they were made – a so-called “pre-rebuttal” that undermines their effectiveness better than an after-the-fact explanation.
But the dissemination of information is not without risks. Intelligence assessments come with varying degrees of certainty, and beyond offering photos of troop movements, the United States and its allies have provided little other evidence. Moscow dismissed Washington’s claims as hysteria and cited past failures of US intelligence, including false information about Iraq’s weapons programs.
There are no clear signs of change so far from Russia, which continues to shift forces to Ukraine and Belarus, an ally in northern Ukraine. There is growing pessimism in Washington and London about ongoing diplomatic efforts and the belief that Putin will likely stage some kind of invasion in the coming weeks.
Russia is notorious for using disinformation as a tactic to sow confusion and discord as part of its overall conflict strategy. When Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, it launched a campaign to influence Russian residents of the territory. State media and Russian-linked social media accounts promoted allegations that the West was manipulating protests in Kyiv and false or unconfirmed accounts of horrific crimes committed by Ukrainian forces.
This time, according to the United States, Russia is trying to portray the Ukrainian leadership as aggressors and persuade its own citizens to support military action. At the same time, according to the United States and its allies, Russia has positioned agents in eastern Ukraine who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces, then blame Kiev .
The White House has repeatedly highlighted what it considers disinformation and is privately sharing additional intelligence with allies, including Ukraine. The State Department recently released a fact sheet listing and denying several Russian claims. And the Treasury Department sanctioned four men accused of links to influence operations intended to serve as a pretext in Ukraine for a new invasion.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki described a “strategic move to call out misinformation when we see it.”
“We’re much more aware of the Russian disinformation machine than we were in 2014,” she said Wednesday, adding, “We need to be very clear with the global community and the American public about what they’re trying to do. and why”.
Moscow continues to demand that NATO not accept Ukraine or expand to other countries. And after British intelligence accused him of being a possible Russian-backed presidential candidate, Ukrainian politician Yevheniy Murayev denied the claim and told the AP it “sounds ridiculous and funny”.
Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow are going back and forth online. On December 21, the Kremlin-backed RT.com released a video alleging that “US private military companies are hoarding CHEMICALS in eastern Ukraine.” The State Department rejected this claim in its Russian Propaganda Fact Sheet. The Russian Foreign Ministry then responded with tweets “debunking @StateDept ‘facts’ on Russian disinformation on Ukraine”.
Washington’s efforts have raised questions in Kyiv, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken a different public approach in trying to calm public fears of an expanded war even as many Ukrainians brace for a possible fight.
Ukrainian officials privately wonder why the Biden administration is warning of an imminent invasion but not imposing preemptive sanctions or taking action against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which has been criticized for giving Moscow more weight on Ukraine and Western Europe. The Biden administration has lobbied Democrats in Congress to oppose a Republican-sponsored bill that would have required imposing sanctions on the pipeline, which has yet to enter service.
The White House has threatened severe sanctions if Russia invades and is preparing to move forces to NATO’s eastern flank in the event of an invasion. The United States and its Western allies are also sending weapons and missile systems to Ukraine.
Molly McKew, a writer and speaker on Russian influence, said the administration’s moves to counter Russian influence efforts must be accompanied by a clearer statement of American goals and plans to push back against any invasion.
Just publicly identifying Russia’s actions won’t stop Russia from carrying them out, said McKew, a former adviser to President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, who fought a 2008 war with Russia and is still trying to regain control of the separatist regions supported by Moscow.
“They’re trying to apply disinformation thinking to military domains,” she said. “You absolutely cannot denounce the crisis.”
In the United States and Ukraine, experts say, society is now much more aware of state-sponsored misinformation. In recent years, Russia has continued to bombard Ukrainians with text messages and fake stories during the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine in which at least 14,000 people have died. And Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election has led to several investigations and years of often heated debate.
Bret Schafer, senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, said that while there are risks in raising false allegations in the process of debunking them, “there is a need to ward off threats information rather than responding to them after they have been left in the wild.
But publicly accusing Russia of misconduct is ultimately a limited deterrent. “They don’t care about reputational damage,” he said.
Associated Press reporters Joshua Boak in Washington and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.