The information war over Ukraine

Late on Saturday night, local time, British government officials published a highly unusual press release under an ultra-clickable headline: “Kremlin plan to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine exposed.” The officials went on to do the exposing, claiming to “have information that indicates” the Putin regime’s desire to replace Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, with a puppet, possibly in the person of Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian lawmaker. Some stories in US media relayed the claim more or less uncritically; others noted that the press release did not offer any specifics or evidence; none that I saw emphasized that the British government is in the thick of a COVID-partying scandal from which it might welcome a Putin-shaped distraction (or that Liz Truss, Britain’s cheese-import-skeptical foreign minister, who signed off on the press release, is angling to become prime minister should Boris Johnson fall).

Unnamed British officials told the New York Times that they published the plan to put Putin “on notice.” US officials stood behind the British claim. Russian officials denied the claim and advised British officials to “concentrate [their] efforts on studying the history of the Tatar-Mongol yoke.” (Me neither.) When The Observer, a British newspaper, reached Murayev, he laughed, claiming that Russia views him as a threat, not a potential puppet. “You’ve made my evening,” he said. “The British Foreign Office seems confused.” Murayev has since offered similar comment to several other Western news organizations, despite telling one of them that “there is nothing to comment on.”

Listen: Russia, Ukraine, and the front lines of information warfare

Rather than simply transcribe the claims and counterclaims, the best articles on the press release dug into its plausibility. Not that this is especially easy to gauge. Various analysts told The Observer that the intelligence does seem plausible, if not especially surprising or newsworthy; Vasyl Filipchuk, a former spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, told the same paper that such a plot wouldn’t work without a prior, full-on invasion. (“There may be a plan,” Filipchuk said, “but it’s bullshit.”) Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, told the Associated Press that it’s hard to know if the British claim represents a threat, a misunderstanding, or “‘strategic communication’—which is what we call propaganda these days when we’re doing it.” Appearing on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, yesterday, Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator at Bellingcat, told Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, that disparate entities with ties to the Russian state are always throwing around plots. “This does not necessarily mean that these are the plans that will be approved ultimately by Putin,” Grozev said of the British claim. While “any Russia expert” could attest to this, he added, “I didn’t see much of mainstream media going to some of the more skeptical Russia experts before publishing.”

Whether the intelligence is true or not, the British decision to go public with it certainly is part of an information war that’s steering the media’s understanding of—not to mention itself shaping—rising tensions between Western powers and Russia as Putin threatens to invade Ukraine again. John Hudson, a diplomacy and national-security reporter at the Washington Post, said that in going public, Britain is seeking “an upper hand” in this war, preempting a scenario in which Putin might seek to oust Zelensky surreptitiously while claiming a patina of Ukrainian popular legitimacy. Also writing for the Post, Nina Jankowicz and Ross Burley noted the existence of a broader Western strategy to more aggressively counter Russian narratives about Ukraine in the public sphere, after the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook “caught the West flat-footed” when Putin annexed the Crimea in 2014. Russia is running a similar playbook this time, using social and state media to pump out waves of propaganda asserting the vulnerability of Russia and Russian-speakers. (Not that the playbook was wholly new in 2014: as one Ukrainian museum guide told the Wall Street Journal recently, pointing to artworks that glorified a decisive Russian victory in what is now Ukraine in 1709, “the information war started 300 years ago.”)

The US, of course, has been at the center of this information war in recent weeks. Ten days ago, the Biden administration itself publicly shared an intelligence claim, with an official telling CNN that Russia was planning a “false flag” operation in eastern Ukraine as a pretext to invade; Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, confirmed and expanded on the claim at a briefing the same day. At a rare press conference last week, meanwhile, Biden himself told reporters that his “guess” is that Putin will “move in” to Ukraine because “he has to do something” in the face of Western pressure, even if he doesn’t want an all-out war. Biden’s guess went far beyond his administration’s formal assessments of Putin’s behavior, but it was overshadowed in the news cycle by another remark at the presser, in which Biden differentiated between a full Russian invasion of Ukraine and a “minor incursion,” and acknowledged that, in the latter scenario, Western powers might “end up having a fight about what to do.” Ukrainian officials were livid, and spokespeople for Biden quickly flooded the airwaves in a bid to reassure them of strong US support. (“Cleanup on Aisle 1600!” Jake Tapper exclaimed, prior to grilling Psaki on CNN.)

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Reaching eagerly for a long-favored media trope about Biden, major news organizations framed his incursion comment as a “massive gaffe.” This seemed fair. The most useful coverage, though, looked beyond the optics to focus on something much more consequential: that what Biden said was true. (More than one outlet reached for the journalist Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe, which is “some obvious truth” that a politician “isn’t supposed to say.”) Western powers are divided not just on what to do about the Russian threat to Ukraine, but on the magnitude of the threat itself. Analysts are divided, too. The press must consequently walk a very high wire. This is a dangerous situation that demands attention. But hard information about Putin’s true intentions is scarce, which leaves reporters combing for clues—not only in thinly evidenced press releases, but in factual, real-world developments (like Russia emptying its embassy in Kiev) that could themselves be propaganda, or part of a bluff. It’s imperative, for now, that news outlets stay vigilant while sharply scrutinizing all the chum and hawkish hot takes thrown up by the information war, and laying out clearly and prominently what we don’t know.

As Biden’s “gaffe” started to show, the prospect of war is starting to be framed, in some quarters, as a story about US politics; right-wing politicians and their media boosters are already calling Biden weak, and it’s not hard to imagine, should the worst happen, that we might end up with another Afghanistan-sized media feeding frenzy on our hands. (I would gently advise reporters to ask any member of Congress accusing Biden of “appeasing” Russia how they voted on Trump’s 2019 impeachment for leveraging military aid to extort Ukraine.) But I digress. This is not primarily a story about America, but rather the Ukrainian people. As Olga Tokariuk, a Kiev-based reporter, put it on Sunday in a plea to global media, “Ukrainians are not pawns in a geopolitical game. We are real people…with our agency, ideas and aspirations.”

It’s also a story about Russian domestic politics and human rights abuses, a thread that Grozev, of Bellingcat, told CJR has not been pulled enough so far by international media. “In any of the Mafia Hollywood movies, you have a moment where the villain no longer hides that he or she is the villain, and that’s when the risk increases for everybody else in the movie, because they start shooting left and right,” Grozev said. “This is where we are in Russia. Russia is no longer trying to pretend that it’s legitimate, that it’s a peacemaker, that it’s not the villain. It trolls the world. This is one overall story with many tributaries, and the Ukraine threat risk is just one of them.”

Below, more on Ukraine, Russia, and the West:

  • Starr witness: In a Twitter thread that was widely shared among media-watchers over the weekend, Terrell Jermaine Starr, a foreign-affairs reporter who is on the ground in Ukraine right now, weighed in on international coverage of the situation. “I no longer watch news media about Ukraine because I honestly learn nothing new,” Starr wrote. “Yes, Russia could attack, but that isn’t anything new. The same folks giving commentary (including me) about what Putin thinks aren’t providing new information.” He added that he sees his role as “amplifying the voices of the Ukrainian people and continuing to pursue my passions with my friends here. Because this news cycle will end.”
  • Another thread: Matt Duss, a foreign-policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, also weighed in on the coverage yesterday. “Comparing the intensity of coverage of Ukraine and Afghanistan to the lack of coverage of the far more serious threat of global vaccine inequality offers a window into the US’s misguided and militaristic foreign policy debate,” he wrote on Twitter. “Obviously this isn’t to suggest that Ukraine and Afghanistan are not legit important stories, of course they are. It’s about what sorts of threats our political/media establishment deems newsworthy and why, and how those choices (mis)guide our policy debate.” (Duss added, “If only there was a way to bomb global vaccine inequality it might get some sustained coverage…”)
  • “A little overwrought”?: On Sunday, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, of the Times, reported that Biden was considering sending troops and military materiel to allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Cooper and Schmitt called this a potential “major pivot” from Biden’s “restrained stance” on Ukraine, but an administration official pushed back on that assessment, noting to Politico that Biden foreshadowed a similar move in his press conference last week, and adding that they “don’t really get how the NYT story advances that?” Yesterday, the Pentagon said that it would put as many as 8,500 troops on alert for possible deployment, but stressed that they aren’t going anywhere yet.
  • In Ukraine: Last week, a new law came into effect in Ukraine mandating that, beginning in May, all national print media must publish in Ukrainian. Adopted in 2019, the law “does not ban publication in Russian but stipulates that a parallel Ukrainian version of equal scope and circulation must be published, too,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty explains. “Supporters of the law say it will strengthen national identity. Critics argue that it could disenfranchise the country’s native Russian speakers. … The Ukrainian language requirement will apply to regional media starting July 2024. Radio and television have already been under strict Ukrainian language quotas for years.”
  • In Sweden: In his Garbage Day newsletter, Ryan Broderick assessed media coverage of a TikTok panic in Sweden, where children have reportedly seen frightening videos warning of a Russian invasion. One article about the panic, in Defense One, suggested that Russia might be behind the videos, but Broderick concludes that there isn’t much of a there there. “Swedish outlets haven’t connected the Russian invasion TikTok videos to a Russian disinformation campaign,” he writes. “The videos teenagers are seeing are, in many instances, literally just screenshots or clips created by their own news outlets. These videos are filtered and edited and, in some cases, given spooky soundtracks, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything super complicated happening here.”
  • Peak NPR: Journalists at NPR apparently argued over email yesterday as to the correct pronunciation of “Kiev” (or, as it is sometimes rendered, “Kyiv”). Sam Sanders, the host of It’s Been a Minute, described the debate as “a newsroom-wide reply-all apocalypse” that “was absurd and perfect and everything you’d ever expect such an email thread to be. I couldn’t be more proud to work with such sticklers for accuracy.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was supposed to mark the opening of Sarah Palin’s libel trial against the Times, but she tested positive for COVID and so proceedings were pushed back by at least ten days. (Palin is unvaccinated, a fact that whipped up a miniature media frenzy about COVID compliance at a New York City restaurant where a journalist saw Palin dining on Saturday. The journalist’s mom mistook Palin for Tina Fey.) Palin is suing the Times over a 2017 editorial that wrongly accused her of inciting the shooting of Gabby Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman, in Arizona; the trial is expected to be uncomfortable for the Times, but prior to postponing it, US District Court Judge Jed Rakoff made a couple of rulings that would seem to limit the amount of dirty laundry that the paper will have to air in court. (For the full backstory about the case, read Bill Grueskin in CJR.)
  • The media critic Eric Boehlert took the Times to task for running a “puff piece” about Trump fans who marched on the Capitol prior to the insurrection but didn’t breach it; “the ‘marchers’ angle represents a pointless distinction,” Boehlert argues, since “none of the people quoted in the piece say they stayed out of the Jan. 6 violence because they thought it was wrong.” Elsewhere, Dan Froomkin, also a media critic, praised CNN for running a new nightly show about “Democracy in Peril” in the 9pm Eastern time slot vacated by Chris Cuomo’s firing last year—though he gets the feeling that “CNN is treating it like a place-holder until something better comes up.”
  • In media-jobs news, Damon Young is joining the Washington Post Magazine as a contributing columnist; he’ll write weekly about “the angst, anxieties and absurdities of American life.” Elsewhere, Laura Chang, a veteran of the Times, will be the editorial director at Stat. Ryan Cooper, of The Week, will be managing editor at the American Prospect. And Ziff Media Group appointed Alesha Williams Boyd as editor in chief of Mashable and Wendy Sheehan Donnell to the same role at PCMag.
  • Yesterday, Lee Enterprises, a local-newspaper chain that has recently taken steps to stave off a hostile takeover by the cost-cutting hedge fund Alden Global Capital, urged shareholders to support Lee’s nominees to its board in a letter that referred to Alden as a “vulture hedge fund” and accused the firm of undervaluing Lee’s stock. Alden recently sued Lee in a bid to force a vote on its own nominees to the board.
  • For CJR, Haley Swenson and Rebecca Gale, of the Better Life Lab at the New America think tank, argue that every news outlet should establish a permanent childcare beat, following a COVID boom in media interest in the topic. “In or out of a pandemic, child care is inextricably linked to our political and economic past, present and future,” they write. “That should be reflected, in all its complexity, in daily news.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton assesses a new study, by Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff, that found strong correlations between public funding for media and democratic health. Neff and Pickard wrote for CJR last year calling on the US to boost public media to strengthen democracy; Benton supports more funding, but is unclear as to whether “starving public media leads to a democracy’s flaws” or the other way around.
  • On Sunday, Lourdes Maldonado López, a journalist in Tijuana, Mexico, was found shot to death; she’s the third Mexican reporter to have been killed already this year, with one of the other two also killed in Tijuana. Maldonado, whose car was shot at last year, was enrolled in a state protection scheme for threatened reporters and had appealed directly to Mexico’s president for support, saying she feared for her life.
  • Late last year, a British court ruled that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, could be extradited to the US, where he faces espionage charges, after American officials offered assurances as to his treatment. Yesterday, the same court ruled that Assange has the right to take the decision to Britain’s Supreme Court; he may not be granted a hearing there, but the move will at least stall his extradition for now.
  • And for Politico, Brent Walth visited Yamhill, Oregon, the hometown and campaign launching ground of Nicholas Kristof, who recently resigned his Times column to run for governor (or not; a residency requirement may sink his candidacy). Yvette Potter, the mayor of Yamhill, told Walth that she’s never seen Kristof in town; Kristof told Walth that his farm is outside the city limits and that he doesn’t know who Potter is.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: A Ukrainian serviceman patrols a street near frontline with with Russia-backed separatists in Verkhnotoretske village in Yasynuvata district, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval drills in several parts of the world this month, and claimed the West is plotting "provocations" in neighboring Ukraine where the Kremlin has been accused of planning aggressive military action. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)