Russian Disinformation and the Syria Strikes

In the lead up to this weekend’s coordinated attack in Syria by U.S., French and British cruise missiles, the Russian propaganda machine went into overdrive. The Pentagon reported a 2,000% increase in Russian social media troll activity in the 24-hours before and after allied militaries launched 105 cruise missiles at targets associated with the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capabilities after Western leaders blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for killing 40 people with chemical munitions including chlorine gas and an unknown nerve agent. Bellicose Russian threats of retaliation raised worries that the allied response to the attack risked sparking World War III and wild accusations were flung by Russian officials to confuse the issue and send the debate off into irrelevant directions.

“Welcome to the new face of warfare, where disinformation has become an important new front in international security policy, confusing policymaking and raising doubts about what is real.”

Welcome to the new face of warfare, where disinformation has become an important new front in international security policy, confusing policymaking and raising doubts about what is real. This, says Senator Ben Sasse, is what “the wars of the future will look like…The fog of war will not be limited to our situation rooms and battlefields.”

Propaganda is nothing new in Russia. The strategic use of disinformation was a prominent element of Soviet strategy. But, the proliferation of new technologies, social media and twenty four hour global news coverage provide new opportunities for mischief. As an article in Armeyskiy Sbornik, a Russian military publication put it, “under today’s conditions, means of information influence have reached a level of development such that they are capable of resolving strategic tasks.”

Information warfare provides Russia a low-cost way to achieve strategic goals. Through bluff and confusion, Russia is able to shape the strategic landscape despite inferior conventional military capabilities. And, in the context of Syria over the past week, it’s a strategy that appears to have yielded at least some success. It is very likely that the Western response was at least delayed, and probably tempered by, the clammer stirred up by the Kremlin.  “A measured dose of faux insanity is being used to make up for a gaping disparity in conventional military and economic strength,” the New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa writes.

The Syria Strikes

There are two primary ways Russia employed propaganda to shape the Western response the gas attack:

1) creating an exaggerated fear of Russian retaliation, and;
2) muddling the issues, making it harder to discern what is and isn’t true and blurring moral distinctions between the sides.

Last month, Russia’s top military officer, General Valery Gerasimov, threatened to shoot down missiles fired at Syrian territory and, if Russian forces were threatened, he suggested Russia would retaliate with attacks on the U.S. warships and aircraft that launched them. Last week, Russia’s Ambassador to Lebanon reiterated the threat as President Trump and his advisors weighed a response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons attack on Douma. The comments bolstered the idea that, as I wrote last week, “escalation with Assad will mean an escalation with Russia that risks stumbling into a conflict neither Washington nor Moscow want.” The prospect of armed conflict between the United States and Russia is enough to scare the tar out of anyone.

While Russia’s military is nothing to be scoffed at, America’s war-fighting capabilities are far superior. There is little doubt that the U.S. and its allies would prevail if the two forces ever came to blows. Still, the costs of such a clash would be higher than the U.S. is willing to pay. “We could stumble into direct conflict very quickly,” Heather Conley, a European security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank told Vox News. “The nation is not prepared for this eventuality.”

A direct conflict with the U.S. is not something Russia likely wants either. “But, those fears also have tactical utility for the Kremlin, both in terms of causing alarm in Western capitals and serving to unite the population at home against the spectre of foreign aggression,”  Yaffa says.

Although Russia did not succeed in preventing the US and allies from responding to last week’s gas attack altogether, fears of escalation with Moscow likely restricted its scale. The mere threat of a Russian retaliation established by Moscow’s preemptive bluster was enough to discourage more aggressive options for response under consideration in Western capitals.

In reality, allied missiles reached their targets. The deconfliction channel through which allied and Russian military forces communicate to avoid inadvertently hitting each other worked. Russia was informed in advance of the attacks and stood by as the attacks occurred.

The Confusion Track

The other tactic in Russia’s propaganda effort is what we’ll call the confusion track. In the immediate aftermath of the Douma attacks, Kremlin propaganda set out to muddy the question of Assad’s culpability in the gas attack. Syria and Russia claimed that there was no gas attack. Then, later in the week, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Laverov ludicrously claimed that the attack was staged. Lavrov said he had “irrefutable data that [this] was yet another staged event and staging was done … by the special services of one of the countries at the forefront of the anti-Russia campaign.” A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman pointed the finger at Britain, saying the UK was “directly involved.” He offered no evidence and nor did he even bother to suggest a motive for Britain to do such a thing.

On the eve of the attacks, I was interviewed on BBC radio about this charge alongside Alexander Nekrassov, a former Kremlin advisor who reliably tows Moscow’s line. When I pressed Nekrassov to explain why Britain would launch a poison gas attack in Syria, he responded by launching into an absurd machine-gun fire of irrelevant whattaboutisms — Britain ruined Yemen, Britain destroyed Libya, and something about America purportedly using chemical weapons in Vietnam. None of this had anything to do with why Britain would want to gas women and children in Syria.

During the same interview, Nekrassov also accused a conservative British Member of Parliament who also joined us on air of being a paid British propaganda shill. Without a hint of irony, he claimed that Britain used Twitter-bots, paid shills, and a media taking orders from the state to gaslight the world. What he was describing, very precisely, was Russian propaganda and attributing it to Britain.

The ridiculous accusations created a distraction that forced advocates of military action to refute nonsense rather than to directly debate the issue of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and Russian backing for the Syrian regime while sewing doubts about who was really responsible. The sheer unbridled absurdity of the claims and the accusations that Britain used similar disinformation tactics, serves Russia’s broader objective of encouraging assumptions that the statements of governments cannot be trusted, that objective truth is an illusion.

The Aftermath

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement calling the attacks “an act of aggression against a sovereign state,” and demanded an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to consider a resolution condemning the strikes. That resolution, predictably, failed. But, as the New Yorker’s Yaffa wrote, “that fiery rhetoric—more theatrical than substantive—may be the limit of Russia’s immediate reaction, or at least a signifier that its response will not be on the battlefield.”

In the wake of the strikes, Russia is walking back their threats, saying that the allied cruise missiles did not cross their air defense “zone of responsibility,” thus there was no need to engage them. Russia and Syria‘s erroneous claims that most of the cruise missiles were knocked down by Syrian air defense systems, amplified by social media trolls, diminished the importance of the strikes in Syria even as Russia went through the ritual of denouncing them.

Yet, Russia’s strategy seems to have yielded at least some results. The biggest threat to Russian interests in Syria, a decision by Western nations to seek Assad’s removal from power was averted. In the end, the strategic situation remains unchanged. The attacks diminished, but did not eliminate, the Syrian regime’s ability to deliver chemical weapons. Syria’s military capabilities were otherwise left untouched. Syrian government forces continue to have the upper-hand in the seven-year-old civil war that has claimed nearly a half million lives. As of this writing, Assad remains poised to wipe out the remaining elements of resistance and the Middle East beach-head Russia has established in Syria is secure.

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