On Saturday, I spoke with Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent, a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, and the author of Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News. His research and writing focuses on terrorism, counterterrorism, social media influence and Russian disinformation, and he has testified before multiple congressional committees regarding Russia’s information warfare campaign against the United States and the West.
We discuss, among other topics:
- Four distinct target audiences for Kremlin disinformation campaigns about Ukraine;
- The informational groundwork being laid by Russia to prepare its own public and troops for mass casualties, and
- Social media companies’ decision to keep Kremlin propaganda outlets on their platforms (despite some efforts to demonetize those accounts).
Clint, just hours ago you published this piece, Russia’s Lies in Four Directions: The Kremlin Strategy to Misinform About Ukraine with the subheading “Many messages targeting many audiences.” You’ve got four quadrants here– summaries and themes of what Russia’s doing to target its messaging inside Russia, inside Ukraine, and to outside audiences. Tell us first, what is Russia trying to communicate to its domestic audience?
Oftentimes when I talk to doubters of Russian propaganda and disinformation, they’ll say, “Oh, that message is stupid. No one believes that.” And when I hear them say that, I almost immediately respond with, “It’s not designed for you.” Meaning that, the message you’re seeing isn’t always about you. We tend to take it that way because we’re exposed to it.
But that’s not always the case. It’s not really designed for you. And oftentimes the message that is designed for you is the one where you stop and say, “You know, they have a point.” Edward Snowden is a great example. I mean, he is the example, I think, for the political left in the US, which we should evaluate, right? There are good points, but the problem is it’s designed around an enduring campaign. And that’s how it works. Three-fourths of time, you say what the audience wants to hear. One-fourth of a time, you say what you want them to hear. And so that’s the process over time and why it works over a decade.
So everything that we’ve seen in the last two to three weeks, in terms of US and NATO allies exposing disinformation, has been Russian justifications for war in Ukraine, and provocations and false flag operations. Bogus shelling– that’s when the Russians shell themselves or blow up a building in their own controlled territory to make it look like Ukraine did it.
None of that is designed for the West, really. Sure– if it worked, they would take it. But most of it is designed for Russian audiences, on Russian social media platforms, in Russia. So VK– Russia’s state media. And that’s to design essentially a campaign to justify the reason for war and rationale, because it’s going to be Russian soldiers, Russian citizens, that are going to go die in that war. That’s just conditioning the audience and providing justification.
Russian messaging inside Russia is sustained, and it’s also a bit delayed. They’re talking about, “We should invade.” It’s like, “Well you already did.” Right? So sometimes when you’re watching, you’re like, “Don’t they know they have already crossed the border, and they’re in there?” I’m not sure all Russians entirely understand that, just because Russia can control its own media environment. Now, it trickles in. It’s not ironclad, it’s not locked down entirely. But the volume of information is going to be the Russian story. That has definitely changed, I think in the last 24 hours. Russians know now– not only is there a big invasion, but we’re not on board with it. There’s some cracks in the foundation, even Russian leaders speaking out against Putin. That’s a huge deal– you don’t do that in Russia.
I think the other big change is that they are trying to essentially dehumanize Ukrainians so that you can justify killing, which is a classic technique in all war propaganda. You have to dehumanize your enemy to justify what you want to do to them, because it’s quite awful.
So saying that the leaders of Ukraine are Nazis or radicals, which is stuff that we’re even seeing on Twitter.
You’ll even hear it trickle into the US, and I’ll come to that last. But turning the story into the justification is “they’re Nazis,” that is playing on historical roots of Russian history. That is very important to Putin and his intelligence services, to always tie back to their version of history and restate things in that context, because there’s a lot of Russian pride around defeating the Nazis in World War II. So that justification hits home– if you believe it.
There’s also this weird wrinkle to that, which is, the Russians court a lot of Nazis around the world. I mean, they have hard fascists– white supremacists, white nationalist groups– inside Russia. The leader of the most dangerous US white supremacist group, the Base, lives in Russia right now. They’re always playing both sides to their advantage.
So before we move to Russia messaging in Ukraine, what is Russia trying to say to its diaspora? How is that different from what it’s communicating to a domestic audience?
The extension of Russian influence is always the Russian diaspora, because there are natural sympathies that people have to their homeland. So they’re consistently messaging in the Russian language to the Russian diaspora. The most important one, I would say, is in Germany. And that is sort of the linchpin of NATO and everything around the EU.
But what’s really crazy to watch is, in a lot of the former Soviet states, there’s no coverage at all of the Ukraine conflict. You wouldn’t even really know that it’s going on. And this comes at a time where those states might be the next ones to be invaded.
And so if you watched the news this morning in Kazakhstan, after getting bailed out by the Russians– I think it was just a month ago, one to two months ago– when they had an internal uprising, they said “We’re not going to send troops to Ukraine.” And I bet that did not go over well in the Kremlin this morning. They’re probably like, “Hey, we came and bailed you out and kept you in power.”
But you’re seeing a lot of these former Soviet states have to pick sides. Belarus is a super strong ally, basically an extension of Putin, at this point. Separately, it’s about discrimination from NATO and EU. And this falls in line with Putin’s other broader goal, which is to remake the Warsaw Pact, essentially bring all Russians abroad under the Russian umbrella.
So let’s go next to Russian messaging to Western audiences, probably to try to justify what we’re all seeing in our free media.
So they’re still making it as one, “these are peacekeepers.” Because that’s Western language, and that’s hard to argue with. If you know about the Balkans in the 90’s, EU, NATO, peacekeeping missions abroad, it tricks the audience to where they have to be like, “Well there does need to be peace. I want peace.” Right? So they’re using that rationale. But if you watch the invasion plan, there’s no peace being made. There’s destruction being brought into that country.
I don’t think it works. I don’t think anyone’s falling for it, in that instance. The other is the humanitarian angle. We’re there to deliver aid and goods. They’re creating the opposite. You know, this is all a play. Again, I don’t think it’s really working. But the ones that are working and do spread, and of all places here in the United States, is that Russia is justified in what it’s doing because the US has done this in the past, which is always taking it the other direction.
The other aspect of it is that “we want strong leaders, and strong leaders are what we need.” Russian nationalism– nations, rather than globalists. This has been built up in our country, here in the US. And that’s why you saw, in a couple of these recent sessions outside of CPAC… There was one last night with Marjorie Taylor Greene. I mean, they’re out there cheering for Putin openly. If you went into their social media communities– and these are public communities, this isn’t private– they’re buying Putin t-shirts. They’re taking in the propaganda full force. They’re advocating for Putin against President Biden.
And I think that’s where this connective tissue of Russia with the far right in Germany, France, the UK, some Scandinavian countries– as well as Canada some, but the US most importantly– has really paid off for them. To the degree where the plan was always to have Americans fight each other, rather than them unified fighting us. I think it’s not working as well as it was a week ago, by the way.
Next let’s just talk about what Russia’s trying to do inside Ukraine and what we’re able to assess of that.
So inside Ukraine, they’re just trying to say that Zelensky is going to fall. He’s going to abandon you. The Ukrainian military is inept and corrupt, and it’s all going to fall apart. And that’s just not going to work, because inside Ukraine right now it’s “circle the wagons.” You’ve got foot patrols out in the streets this morning with AK-47s, going up against Russian special forces. Just shooting straight.
I mean, the Ukrainians did far better than I expected on day one and two. The casualty numbers, and the killed in action, are incredible. If it keeps going the way that it’s going by the end of the weekend, the Russians might very well have lost, in terms of dead, more than we lost in the entire War on Terror over 20 years. Just think about that. I mean, that’s going to be a shock to Russians. It can’t be hidden. So, it’s not working. It’s not going to work. I think Ukrainians are probably more unified now than they ever were before.
So I did just want to get your assessment of the overall war effort there and the Ukrainian resistance. You know your way around a combat zone- you were part of that War on Terror. I know that you don’t have access to special intelligence, or any particular information that’s not available to the rest of us, but what is your personal reflection on what you’re seeing right now?
Ukrainians could not do any better than they’re doing right now. I’m super impressed with them. I don’t have anything special insights on it, other than what you see in social media. I gather the same stuff. And I listen to certain experts on television that I know are really strong. General Hertling– who’s on CNN– he’s really good. He was a commander in NATO forces at times.
I think we all thought they would get mowed down, and they’d close on Kyiv already. They’ll close on Kyiv eventually. And this is where it just comes down to alliances. So, days one to seven, the Ukrainians are doing as good as they can. And I’m super impressed with their ability to fight off the Russians.
The Russians have not massed all their combat power in the country yet. They will. There are no allies. There are no backups. There’s not enough ammunition. And so days one to seven is euphoria– it’s your morale versus their morale. Days seven to fourteen, it becomes a stalemate. Days fourteen and beyond, they lose. There’s just no way to sustain that fight without support.
And so I think that’s why you’re seeing the discussion very openly as to, number one, we’ve got to get humanitarian aid in there right away. We saw the run on the banks. We saw the demand for fuel. We saw the demand for food. They won’t be able to make it too long.
Second, at a minimum, they have got to have ammunition to keep this up. And this fight very clearly comes down to two weapons over others, Stingers and Javelins. Javelins are ground to ground, anti-tank weapons. Highly sophisticated, highly lethal. That’s why they’re knocking out T-80 Russian tanks, which are some of the best tanks ever made. Stingers are for air power. And the Russians already lost an incredible number of jets. Apparently, it sounds like at least two transport planes went down overnight. You’re talking 500 dead in two shots. That really wallops the Russians. So when those run out, or are depleted, it gets pretty dire for the Ukrainians.
And I think that just comes to the discussions around no fly zone today. That’s going to create a NATO versus Russia war. And now, we’re talking much bigger problems. Then the onion’s going to unpeel. We’re talking cyber attacks on scales like we’ve never seen. Threats of nuclear weapons being used. I don’t think there’ll be a nuclear exchange, but you never know. I never would’ve thought Russia would launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine to take it over at one time. So it’s hairy right now. I think Americans will have a big decision to make, which is what we’re going to fight for. And I’m hoping this is a galvanizing moment from here forward.
Just a last question about the information environment. You’ve got, of course, Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms that are essentially serving as a main line into Western audiences for the Kremlin and the vast propaganda apparatus that it has built, and– as you mentioned just at the outset of our conversation– has utilized for more than a decade. What do you think they should be doing right now?
Wipe them out. It’s very straightforward at this point. Look how many other smaller authoritarian countries we have gone after with Western platforms. Rohingya, right? And Myanmar. Whenever it’s these small countries, the tech platforms, they’re all very righteous, and stand up and say, “Let’s get them,” you know, “Let’s run them down.” I mean, this is very clear.
Not only is the Russian state media apparatus part and parcel of this invasion, they are more so than any other country’s information, right? No country wields information in a way like the Russians are doing. And it is distorting people’s understanding of the truth. So this comes down to lies being broadcasted globally, in many different languages. And it is the one weapon they have against the West that without it, it becomes very, very tough for them. Very tough.
This isn’t just about this invasion. It’s the reason we should do it, but it’s about COVID-19 and vaccines. It’s about election interference in our democracies. It’s about rallying white supremacists to target people.
I don’t know what more needs to be said, or what more evidence needs to be there, but whether it’s tech companies, or really any companies moving forward, they have got to pick a side. And there’s going to be three. There’s going to be a China-oriented world, a US-Europe oriented world, and there are going to be distorted versions in between.
Thank you very much.
Thanks for having me.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.