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World News


Russian PSYOPs in Ukraine Pose a Unique Challenge

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Europe’s single largest security challenge in decades. Both sides have utilized disinformation tactics during the conflict. Russia has played a key role in spreading propaganda and false information through social media, state-run media, and cyber-attacks. These tactics have tried to undermine Ukrainian identity and sovereignty. The use of disinformation has prolonged and intensified the conflict, highlighting the challenges of modern warfare and the need for new strategies to combat these threats.

Russian psychological operations (PSYOPs) in Ukraine incorporate a range of strategies. These strategies primarily include propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation with the goal of sowing discord within Ukrainian society and abroad, to advance the Kremlin’s narrative. The Kremlin has utilized PSYOPs to sway Ukrainian citizens into believing that they will encounter disruptions in heating, shortages of medications, and food scarcity as a result of the war. Actors aligned with Russia who are responsible for these PSYOPs have also targeted Russian dissidents like Alexei Navalny who died at the age of 47 under mysterious circumstances in a Russian prison.

Moreover, Russian PSYOPs in Ukraine form part of a larger plot to weaken Europe and further the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy goals. Russia is employing human-run social media “trolls” and automated “bots” to shape public opinion and foster distrust. Russian embassies are particularly active on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, aiming to expand and solidify their influence.

In addition to PSYOPs, since 2014 when Russia first invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has been employing sophisticated forms of hybrid warfare, with a significant emphasis on propaganda. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has openly acknowledged propaganda as a crucial weapon in Russia’s military arsenal. Russia’s dissemination of a constant stream of falsehoods is intended to introduce new narratives that undermine confidence in the West and diminish the morale of Ukrainian civilians.

The Center for Countering Disinformation which Kyiv launched in 2021 has revealed that the Kremlin’s forthcoming strategies will encompass various themes and tactics. These include disseminating messages suggesting that Ukraine is on the brink of exhausting its resources during its summer counteroffensive.

Furthermore, there will be a scare campaign aimed at Ukrainians, alleging that their government plans to mobilize an additional 3 million citizens for the ongoing war. The Kremlin will also portray the Zelensky government as opposing peace talks. They will utilize so-called “experts” to propagate narratives claiming that Ukraine’s recent acquisition of F-16s will have minimal impact on the outcome of the war. The Kremlin has also planned provocations around Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24th. Lastly, they will employ emotionally driven “fakes and manipulations” to further impair tensions among war-weary Ukrainians.

These tactics are designed to weaken the resolve of Ukrainians by exaggerating missile attacks, fabricating the extent of damage, and circulating rumors about the evacuation of government officials. Russian PSYOPs have been utilized to mask heinous war crimes, such as the execution of Ukrainian defenders in Olenivka, through the dissemination of false information aimed at intimidating Ukrainians and coercing Kyiv into negotiating under favorable conditions. The Kremlin has further employed PSYOPs to destabilize Ukrainian society by propagating fake news regarding arms theft, food shortages, nuclear threats, discrediting mobilization efforts, and other deceptive narratives.

Social media platforms have emerged as crucial tools in the execution of Russian PSYOPs within Ukraine. In Operation Texonto, Russian-aligned actors employed spam emails as their primary tool. This operation unfolded in two waves. The first occurred in November 2023 and a second roughly a month later. The emails contained information about heating interruptions, drug shortages, and food scarcities, which align with typical themes found in Russian propaganda. The overarching objective of this operation was to sway and demoralize Ukrainian citizens, fostering a belief that Russia was prevailing in the war.

In addition to utilizing spam emails, they also leveraged social media platforms to propagate disinformation related to the war, specifically targeting Ukrainian readers. A spear-phishing campaign was executed, focusing on a Ukrainian defense company and a European Union agency. The campaign employed deceptive Microsoft login pages, designed to appear authentic, to pilfer credentials for Microsoft Office 365 accounts.

By utilizing PSYOPs, Russia hopes to destabilize Ukrainian society, advance the Russian narrative, and fracture European resolve. The Center for Countering Disinformation warns of upcoming themes, including portraying Ukraine as exhausted and instilling fear about mobilization. These operations seek to influence and demoralize Ukrainian citizens, erode trust in the government, and spread disinformation to incite panic. Social media platforms play a key role in facilitating these efforts, with tactics such as spam emails and social media manipulation used to shape public opinion. Overall, Russian PSYOPs in Ukraine are part of a broader strategy to destabilize society and further the Kremlin’s objectives.