Inside the High-Stakes Fight to Control the Narrative on Ukraine

On February 21st, Russia’s Security Council held a choreographed and highly dramatized meeting, during which the most hard-line members of the country’s war cabinet alternatively supplicated, egged on, and cowered before Vladimir Putin. The agenda was the question of recognizing the would-be separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, territorial fictions that have been propped up by Russian military muscle since they first appeared, in 2014. Putin has advanced a narrative in which Ukraine is perpetrating genocide in the Donbass. Recognition could provide a pretext for Russia to send regular forces across the internationally recognized border with Ukraine to overtly occupy the territories, right up to the so-called “line of contact,” as a possible prelude to a wider invasion. The meeting ended with a faux dramatic flourish, as Putin promised to reveal his choice soon.

Then, shortly before 10 P.M. in Moscow, Putin made a televised address: the U.S. and its allies, he said, had used Ukraine “as an instrument of confrontation” with Russia, and this posed “a serious, very big threat to us.” At the end of an angry, rambling speech, he signed a decree recognizing the separatist territories and aimed a threat at Kyiv: Russia would place “complete responsibility for the possibility of a continuation of bloodshed” on Ukraine. In response, a senior Biden Administration official said, “This was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war.”

For months, tensions have been building toward this moment. Since the fall, U.S. intelligence agencies have been watching preparations for what they assessed would be a sizable Russian invasion. Initially, White House officials who were briefed on the intelligence thought that the military buildup might be an elaborate Russian ruse, designed to force concessions from Ukraine and the West. “We worried about this a lot,” a senior Biden Administration official said, of such a scenario. The intelligence agencies were insistent that the buildup couldn’t be a bluff; their assessments were based on multiple sources.

The Biden Administration immediately ruled out the prospect of sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, and said so publicly. With that option off the table, and with confidence building that some form of Russian invasion was inevitable—by now, more than a hundred and fifty thousand Russian soldiers have amassed near Ukraine’s borders—a preëmptive name-and-shame campaign seemed among the only instruments left, and one worth trying. “Our assessment the whole time has been that they’re very likely to do this,” the senior Biden Administration official said. “If you think the baseline scenario is likely to be very bad, it can feel relatively low stakes to try and disrupt it.”

That scenario had only darkened in recent days. On February 18th, President Biden issued his strongest warning yet of the likelihood of a pending Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I am convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said, of Putin’s intentions. An official U.S. letter to the U.N. human-rights commissioner, obtained by the Washington Post, warns that Russia has begun creating lists of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation.” On February 21st, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national-security adviser, made the impending threat plain: the U.S. has intelligence that suggests “there will be an even greater form of brutality” against Ukrainians, with the aim “to repress them, to crush them, to harm them.”

The decision by the Biden Administration, along with other states—the United Kingdom most of all—to release what they know of these war plans is a rather unprecedented strategy. In earlier crises, Putin was able to take advantage of differences of opinion within the European Union and NATO to deflect U.S. and British efforts to build a united campaign to counter Russia’s moves. These differences were, at least in part, exacerbated by varying levels of access to the intelligence on which U.S. assessments were based. To insure that the United States and its partners were “operating from the same set of facts,” according to a U.S. official, the Biden Administration moved to expedite the process by which U.S. intelligence could be shared with European and NATO counterparts. (In the U.S. intelligence community, this process is known as “downgrading.”)

In some cases, White House officials have pushed to declassify pieces of intelligence, in order to expose Russian plots and complicate Putin’s apparent invasion plans. A senior U.S. official said, “One of the big lessons learned—arguably we should have known it already—is that shining a light on Russia’s nefarious activities is the best kind of antidote to their plots.”

It is rare in politics to get a second chance with the same policy problem, but that is essentially the case with the current invasion threat. Many of the top national-security officials in the Biden Administration were in government in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. Some of these officials thought that the Obama Administration’s responses to those events and to the subsequent Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. election were inadequate. “We’ve learned a lot about how Russia uses the information space,” a White House official said. “It’s a domain of warfare for them, and, for many years, we as a country, and NATO as a whole, have struggled to catch up.” The official went on, “I’d like to think we have been able to use the information space in new ways . . . . Our goal has been to make it that much harder for the Russians to run destabilizing plays.”

Eight years ago, Russia used covert forces, quickly dubbed “little green men,” to take over Crimea, and sent arms, intelligence, and, at times, active-duty Russian soldiers to support would-be separatists in the Donbass. “We could see the flow of Russian materiel into Donbass, for example, and would ask to declassify overhead imagery showing that,” Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser to Obama, said. “It could take a matter of days just to get a few slides declassified.”

Top officials within the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, and other spy services have traditionally been reluctant to share secret information, which oftentimes can be a raw, best-guess product. “Intelligence is imperfect and just a snapshot in time,” Douglas London, a former C.I.A. officer, wrote in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. The misuses of intelligence are rife and, when proved wrong, can have long-lasting impacts on institutional credibility—the spectre of the U.S.’s erroneous claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq still haunts the imaginations of policymakers and intelligence officers. And intelligence agencies have their own operational interests for remaining tight-lipped, London writes: “By revealing what it knows, the United States risks providing information that adversaries can use to improve their defenses.”

Back in 2014, many of Russia’s military tactics—deniable operations blended with a coördinated propaganda campaign—appeared novel, or at least not as familiar and legible to U.S. officials as they would be in the years to come. U.S. officials acknowledge that they underestimated Russian capabilities in 2014 and were unprepared to respond in a concerted way. As Rhodes explained, the public dissemination of intelligence was viewed not as a potential means of driving or shaping events but, rather, as a matter of messaging and P.R. “Any request we made was treated as a communications question, which in turn was considered of lesser value than intelligence gathering,” he said. “The U.S. government saw it as a secondary, rather than primary, concern—and it drove me crazy.”

The modern Russian information strategy is aimed not so much at making its narrative the dominant or convincing one but at creating such a cacophony that the very prospect of knowability comes into doubt. This approach reached its apotheosis with Flight MH17, which was shot down in July, 2014, killing nearly three hundred people. Russian media and social-media accounts released a barrage of often contradictory theories, which served to belittle and drown out the true one, later proved by independent reports prepared by Bellingcat and a Dutch-led investigation: a Russian missile fired from separatist-held territory took down the plane. “That whole story encapsulated Russia’s advantage,” Rhodes said. “The Dutch investigation, with all its exhaustive evidence, came out years later—but Russia understood that, in today’s information landscape, it’s enough to act in little bursts in real time.”

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