US must counter Russian disinformation on Ukraine with ‘psyops’, experts say

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The United States supported Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders by supplying the country with weapons and imposing severe sanctions on Russia.

But despite American support, the conflict only descended into chaos. Russia continues to bomb major cities, the civilian death toll rises and millions have fled their homes, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Captured Russian Air Force officers whose planes were shot down by Ukrainian forces speak to reporters during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, March 11, 2022.
(Associated Press)

Geopolitical experts who spoke to Fox News said the United States should devote more resources to bolstering psychological warfare, an approach that would not send American troops into harm’s way.

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Shaping perceptions

Psychological operations, or “psyops,” generally refer to tactics aimed at shaping the way people perceive events and information. The United States perfected the contraption against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but has lagged in recent decades, preferring to focus on hard power instead.

Russia, meanwhile, has perfected the art of peddling disinformation against Americans to deepen racial and political divisions, while distracting Washington and emboldening American adversaries.

Hong Kong residents in front of television screens broadcasting the news that Russian troops have launched an attack on Ukraine, February 24, 2022.

Hong Kong residents in front of television screens broadcasting the news that Russian troops have launched an attack on Ukraine, February 24, 2022.
(Associated Press)

Pysops could be a “potential mitigating factor” in the conflict, says Rebekah Koffler, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who grew up in the Soviet Union.

“We have to make the Russian population aware of what is going on,” she said, “because right now the Russians and the Americans are limiting the flow of information to Russia – the Russians because they are afraid of Western propaganda, and the United States because we want to punish Russia.”

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The net sum of these actions, she argued, has been an iron curtain on Russia in the information field, a situation that ultimately does not serve American interests because Russians must be favorably disposed to Western opinions rather than Russian opinions.

These “Western views,” Koffler said, include telling the truth about how Russian President Vladimir Putin is “killing Slavic brothers” in Ukraine and that Russians shouldn’t accept that.

Firefighters are seen at the site after airstrikes hit civilian settlements as Russian attacks continue against Ukraine in Dnipro, Ukraine, March 11, 2022.

Firefighters are seen at the site after airstrikes hit civilian settlements as Russian attacks continue against Ukraine in Dnipro, Ukraine, March 11, 2022.
(Getty Images)

The Kremlin crackdown

The Kremlin has cracked down on social media and independent media in Russia, effectively reshaping the narrative of its invasion of Ukraine by calling it a “special military operation” rather than a war.

Russia’s playbook recalls Soviet-era tactics of “reflexive control“, whereby information is conveyed to an adversary – causing him to react in a way that favors the initiator of the action.

The United States could send Russians more information about virtual proxy networks (VPNs) to help them circumvent government censorship, says Ivana Stradner, an adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has studied psyops.

The United States and its Western allies should work with disillusioned Russians who have left the country to help promote a different narrative for Russians at home, Stradner told Fox News. This does not necessarily have to involve “the typical democracy promotion” that has been attempted by the United States in other parts of the world, she said.

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The fight against corruption in Russia, for example, would resonate with more people — especially younger generations — because corruption affects every aspect of daily life, Stradner explained.

“We have to start where we are and now. And for now, the first thing to do is to offer Russians alternative views on the war and to talk about the corruption in the country,” said Stradner. “Corruption certainly affects every young Russian there.”

“The first thing is to offer Russians alternative views on the war and talk about corruption in the country.”

— Ivana Stradner, Advisor, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

The Kremlin’s information war will not end with the end of the war in Ukraine, Stradner warned. She called on social media platforms to be more proactive in tackling misinformation.

Continue to polarize us?

“I also really wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Russia continuing to polarize American society,” she said. “So we could see further protests or different unrest ahead of the 2022 election.”

Firefighters work to clear rubble and extinguish a fire after a Russian rocket exploded in Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 14, 2022.

Firefighters work to clear rubble and extinguish a fire after a Russian rocket exploded in Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 14, 2022.
(Getty Pictures)

Koffler, meanwhile, said psyop tactics must be deployed diligently against Russia, lest the Kremlin overreact.

She recalled the time the Soviets mistakenly shot down a South Korean airliner in 1983, at a time when the United States was functioning major psyop campaigns against the Kremlin.

“The other side of (psyops) is that you can unintentionally cause your opponent to overreact. So that’s the kind of thing where you have to be extremely precise. And that requires a deep understanding of your opponent,” said she declared.

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“I hope President Biden knows now that Ukraine is not Putin’s first or last stop,” Koffler said. “And so, now is the time to wake up and get all our instruments together and get them in sync.”

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