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No off ramp for Putin as Ukraine burns

Disinfo Matters is a weekly newsletter that looks beyond fake news to examine how manipulation of narratives, rewriting of history and altering our memories is reshaping our world. We are currently tracking the war in Ukraine. In this edition: Russia’s descent into digital totalitarianism, China leans into Russia’s fake biolabs narrative, Meta does “too little too late” and three pieces on the Ukraine war you should not miss

This week, as the war in Ukraine raged on, an old Soviet joke made a comeback to the Russian-speaking web.  

It tells a story of a Moscow resident who every morning buys a newspaper, carefully scans the front page and tosses it, visibly frustrated, into a bin. Eventually, the newspaper-seller asks the man what it is that he is looking for. An obituary, the man replies. “But obituaries are at the back of the paper,” the salesman says. “The one I am looking for will be at the front,” the man responds.

And there lies the most frightening insight into the current situation: there is no off ramp for Vladimir Putin and no way in sight out of this war.

It is clear that things are going badly for Putin. Russia’s narrative of its newly re-built, high tech powerful army now looks like another Kremlin lie. Russia’s military performance has shocked even the most skeptical analysts. The losses, both manpower and firepower, are enormous. 

All of this, along with the Western arms supplies, has so far enabled Ukrainians to hold on to all major cities and keep up their morale, but it is not enough to win the war. The sheer size of the Russian army and Putin’s disregard for human lives give Russia a massive advantage. Russia might not have the ability to occupy Ukraine, but it can still destroy it.

There is no obvious way for either side to win this war. Russians see that too.  

“We should not have gone in if we didn’t have a plan for taking any of the cities. If you don’t take cities you achieve nothing. Not a single significant city has been taken,” an angry guest said to Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists, in a show aired this week. 

The guest was Yakov Kedmi, Moscow-born former Israeli diplomat who has often gone on Russian state TV to defend Putin’s position. This week he sounded depressed as he called Putin’s war a “deadlock.”

This unusual burst of criticism came as a rare, public sign of a narrative crack that revealed that Russian officials were not prepared for either the invasion or for the information war they are now struggling to fight. 

Just have a look at this brand new War on Fakes website that launched this week. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova says it was put together by a “group of journalists and experts.” Published in six languages, including Mandarin, the website takes every fact of the war and puts a Fake News sign across it.

Russian planes bombing Kyiv? Fake news. Russians blocking humanitarian corridors? Fake news. Russian police beating protesters in Moscow? Fake news. It goes on and on. My favorite: Ukrainian men join the war effort. Fake news. 

The Russian attempt to revive its age-long myth that the U.S. is manufacturing bioweapons in Ukraine is just as unconvincing. And yet, this week, they leaned into the narrative heavily and in a very coordinated way. From headlines of all major state outlets to Sergey Lavrov himself, every pro-Putin Russian is now insisting that American biolabs are one of the reasons for the invasion. “This is preposterous,” tweeted the White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday night. “It’s the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years.” On Thursday morning, the Russian Defense Ministry threw coronavirus into the mix, saying Ukrainian biolabs experimented with covid in bats.   

It is true that the U.S. has funded the rehabilitation and modernization of old Soviet labs across the region, but Psaki says they are in full compliance with all global conventions. This Coda Story piece has a lot more context on how Russians used this in their information war in the past.  

RUSSIA’S DIGITAL TOTALITARIANISM 

Having long experimented with lighter forms of authoritarianism Putin’s Russia seems to have now arrived at its final destination: full on digital totalitarianism. 

The state-run Sputnik radio has now taken over the FM frequencies that from 1990 hosted Ekho Moskvy, the first independent post-Soviet radio station. Using the word “war” online or in print is now banned. Police are detaining thousands, including children. People are having their phones checked in the streets. University students are dragged into police stations to have their biometrics taken, which, we can safely assume feeds straight back into Moscow’s facial recognition system, which is already one of the largest in the world.  

Meantime, evidence is stacking up to show that only very few in Putin’s inner circle actually knew about the full scale of his invasion plans. One of the best pieces (link in Russian) I read this week was reported by Farida Rustamova, a rare independent Moscow journalist with decent sources inside the Kremlin.

In her piece, she paints a picture of Putin’s fractured, confused and scared inner circle and alleges that only General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu knew about the full-scale of the invasion plan. 

“We laugh at Americans for not speaking in one voice but where is that one voice in Russia? What’s going on around the president? Why are people suddenly contradicting the president?” asked the former Israeli diplomat Kedmi on this week’s Solovyov broadcast. Solovyov didn’t have an answer.

No one does. And reading too much into the Kremlin leaks and out of sync public messaging is like reading tea leaves: it can mislead by encouraging wishful thinking. What we already know is that what is needed to end this war is a miracle. And that is nowhere in sight. 

TRENDS WE ARE WATCHING: 

Big Tech Response: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the Silicon Valley neutrality myth, writes Coda’s reporter Erica Hellerstein in our weekly Authoritarian Tech newsletter. With most Silicon Valley platforms now banned in Russia, Russian propaganda is increasingly reliant on its domestic alternatives like Vkontakte or RuTube, Russia’s answer to, you guessed it: YouTube. Russian state media is pushing hard to make the Gazprom-owned RuTube a go-to platform for the “alternative” point of view. Experts tell me the platform can be buggy and is unlikely to take off.  

Deplatforming: Meantime, hundreds of the Russian propaganda voices have now been taken off major platforms like Facebook and YouTube. But is it too late? I asked Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize winning journalist from the Philippines whose newsroom Rappler has done pioneering work on how disinformation spreads on social media. “They are playing catch up by deplatforming. The problem is that the business model is to amplify lies before they amplify facts,” Ressa told me. “Deplatforming is better than nothing, but disinformation on Facebook is like gangrene and the rot has long spread,” she told me. 

What worries Ressa, along with many other tech rights advocates, is that de-platforming continues to look like a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis rather than a thought-out change of policy. The Philippines is one example: the country is gearing up for a key election but Rappler’s team, currently under huge pressure from the government, is also struggling to get Facebook to take down disinformation networks that they are uncovering. Meanwhile Facebook’s parent company Meta is using the Russia ban to position itself as a champion of freedom of speech and democracy. Just check out this statement from Meta’s Nick Clegg. 

Chinese Media on Russia: Russian and Chinese state media have a history of sharing “pundits.” For example Max Blumenthal, editor of the U.S. far-left website The Grayzone, hops regularly between both state broadcasters, as do other western commentators. But our reporter Isobel Cockerell says that in this conflict, cooperation is running deeper than usual. China is pushing the U.S. biolabs narrative hard (see above) across all of its channels. And Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lijian Zhao cited Russian media reports saying that Russian troops have found U.S. biological laboratories storing large quantities of dangerous viruses. During the early days of the pandemic, when the world’s lens was focused on a potential link with the virus and the Wuhan Virology Institute, U.S. labs were also targeted by the Chinese media, which called for probes into their activities. At the time, the Russian propaganda machine had China’s back, also running with the biolabs story and even blaming Covid on the American labs. Now Beijing is repaying the favor. 

Chinese journalists are also embedded with the Russian troops in Ukraine. CGTN, China’s English language broadcaster, is featuring reports by a special correspondent Dmitriy Maslak, who was previously employed by TV Zvezda, run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • “In Kharkiv’s hospitals the faces of war are sculpted by flying glass and burning shrapnel,” reads the opening line of this devastating piece from Kharkhiv by Anthony Loyd of the Times of London. Find strength to read it. Get a box of tissues before you click
  • Kristina Berdynskykh is one of Ukraine’s sharpest political journalists. She has spent the past 14 days hiding from the bombs in the Kyiv metro and writing this diary for the FT. Read it.
  • This investigation by Paul Caruana Galizia into how the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a KGB agent, became a British lord and what it means is essential listening for everyone who wants to understand how we got the world to this messy place. 

MARK YOUR CALENDARS

Friday March 11, 1 p.m. EST join a fundraiser for @KyivIndependent and Proliska, a humanitarian relief organization for Ukraine. Come meet the great filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and British actor James Norton. Register here.

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