By Jennifer Mercieca
As Russia amassed troops and equipment along its border with Ukraine last January, it denied that it was going to invade Ukraine, calling warnings of the impending invasion “hysteria.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told American diplomats, “there are no plans or intentions to attack Ukraine. There is no reason to fear some kind of escalatory scenario.”
The Russians had been saying that for months. In November 2021, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said, “Russia is not going to attack anyone. It’s not like that.”
But it was like that.
It’s been a year since Vladimir Putin claimed that he would not order Russian troops to invade Ukraine, claimed that he had no intention of invading Ukraine, claimed that anyone who said that he would invade Ukraine was a troublemaker and a liar.
The lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a great example of how “weirdifying”—disrupting, critiquing, and exposing autocratic propaganda can diminish its power and effectiveness and help to defend democracy.
American national security analysts know that subterfuge is a key feature of Russian propaganda. The Russian term “maskirovka” means “masking” or “camouflage.” And according to former Senior Operations Officer in the CIA Clandestine Service Douglas London, “the tactic is employed to mislead opponents by embellishing strengths, concealing weakness, and disguising true intentions.”
What’s the best course of action when confronted with an adversary that is an established liar? Weirdify.
To counter all of Putin’s lies, the Biden Administration and American intelligence officials did something unusual in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion: they told the world what was about to happen. According to the Washington Post, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “set up a regular process at the White House in which a team would determine whether a particular piece of information if made public, could thwart Russian plans or propaganda. If the answer was yes, it would then be submitted to the intelligence community for recommendations on whether and how to release it.”
Releasing American intelligence information might prevent Putin’s invasion or at least warn the world about Putin’s plan so that his explanations for what he was doing and why he was doing it would not manipulate or confuse others, especially our NATO allies.
American officials said that Putin was planning to invade Ukraine. They said that Putin would invade Ukraine while claiming that he was not going to invade Ukraine. They also said that Putin would blame his invasion of Ukraine on Ukraine. Just like he did.
Each time Americans released information about Putin’s plans, it was to intervene to disrupt Russian propaganda, critique and prebunk Putin’s actions and plans (and his government’s statements about its actions and plans), and expose Putin’s whole propaganda maskirovka for the deception that it was.
And it worked. American intelligence defined the narrative leading up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which left Putin with little room to dissemble. His plans were exposed; all he could do was continue to execute them, going through the motions, creating spectacle as violent farce.
The Biden Administration first tried to weirdify Putin’s invasion propaganda in December 2021 when it released satellite images that showed Russian forces amassing along the Russian-Ukrainian border. It also released information warning that “Russian influence proxies and media outlets have started to increase content denigrating Ukraine and NATO, in part to pin the blame for a potential Russian military escalation on Ukraine.”
Russians would try to divide the West while posing as an innocent victim of aggression, Americans warned. Russians would “emphasize the narrative that Ukrainian leaders had been installed by the West, harbored a hatred for the Russian world, and were acting against the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tried to counter American intelligence by calling what Russia was doing a “so-called Russian invasion of Ukraine” and accusing Americans of “spreading complete disinformation that we are preparing a provocation all but attacking the Russian-speaking population in Donbas in order to obtain the pretext for that very invasion.”
This is what Russia was, in fact, doing.
According to the Associated Press, in January 2022, the Biden Administration released information that Russia had “prepositioned operatives to conduct ‘a false-flag operation’ in eastern Ukraine.” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Russia was “laying the groundwork to invade under false pretenses,” including planning ‘sabotage activities and information operations’ that accuse Ukraine of prepping for its own imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the “false flag” assertion as “total disinformation,” but it wasn’t.
In early February 2022, Defense Department press secretary John Kirby revealed that “Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western-supplied.”
As late as February 20, 2022, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov was still claiming, “There is no invasion, and there [are] no such plans,” on Face the Nation. But the invasion happened just a few days later, just in the way that American intelligence had predicted it would.
Fake videos circulated in Russian media on February 20, 2022, showing fake Ukrainian “atrocities,” which provided cover for Russian aggression. On February 21, 2022, Russian state media claimed that a “group of saboteurs from the territory of Ukraine” attempted to cross the border into Russia. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that Ukraine had not carried out any attacks and had no intention of doing so. “Russia, stop your fake-producing factory now.”
Even as Putin invaded Ukraine, he denied that he was actually “invading” Ukraine.
Instead, he claimed that “Ukraine planned to attack the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics” and that the invasion was merely “a special military operation in order to protect people ‘who have been suffering from abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for eight years’.”
Putin’s claim that he only attacked as self-defense or to defeat Nazis persuaded few who had been paying attention. Biden’s weirdification had worked to disrupt, critique, and expose Putin’s war propaganda.
It’s been a year since Putin ordered Russian troops to invade its sovereign neighbor. The Ukrainians have fought valiantly to defend their nation from Russia, inspiring the world with their commitment to defending democracy.
Because of how the Biden Administration and American intelligence officials weirdified Russia’s propaganda around its plan to invade Ukrainians, NATO, and the rest of the world could prepare by solidifying alliances, moving troops and equipment, and establishing sanctions. The weirdification strategy didn’t prevent the invasion, but it did help the Ukrainians to defend their democracy.