Last weekend the Western infosphere was dominated by the news coming from Russia, where the head of Wagner group Yevgeny Prigozhin started a mutiny against the Russian army and moved towards Moscow. The putsch, which started on Friday evening finished after 24 hours with an agreement between Prigozhin and Russian authorities. Many questions arise with only a small number of answers about what really happened in Russia, but the putsch has already been a lesson on disinformation. The conclusions are quite pessimistic.
The flow of Russian sources information into Western and Polish infosphere
Considering the fact that the Russian infosphere is strictly controlled and the activity of non-Russian journalists and outlets is limited, the information sources about the putsch were predominantly Russian ones, mainly Telegram channels. Unfortunately, in the Polish infosphere so called OSINT experts copy and paste almost all information without giving sources, which appeared on Russian Telegram channels infecting Polish infosphere with Russian content. Telegram also allows for an automatic translation from Russian to English for the people who do not speak the language. It is vital to remember that many of the Telegram channels are monitored, inspired or even controlled by Russian secret services and the information published there might be prepared for deliberate effect. Such a situation created an enormous information chaos, which naturally is one of the disinformation techniques.
The “copy and paste OSINT technique” led to Polish readers potentially reading fantasy news such as Wagner troops moving from Africa to Russia to support Prigozhin, Wagner approaching a facility with nuclear weapons and even more like massive desertions of Russian troops. Unfortunately, the report from monitoring Twitters shows that these users, who spread such messages, were among the most popular with the reaches counting in millions. It is a vital lesson for next Russian information operations campaigns.
First of all, Russians posses very good, fast, tested ways of spreading disinformation in the Polish infosphere by giving information on Telegram channels, which will be transferred by these users to the Polish infosphere. Secondly, they recognised the vulnerabilities of the Polish infosphere by identifying the influential users, who are also susceptible to disinformation and fake news. Unfortunately, there is no visible change on improving this situation, the current media systems favour delivering information that is fast over checked and reliable. What is more, the Polish so called OSINT experts with few exceptions did not even apologise for their behaviour meaning that there is little hope that they understood the lesson and will be more aware in future.
Russia ruled by war criminal Putin is bad but the collapse of Russia is even worse
The Prigozhin putsch played also on the fear of Western politicians about the potential collapse of Russia. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Luxemburg said that destabilisation of Russia is extremely dangerous for Europe and was concerned about shattering of a country with the world biggest arsenal. According to the American press, there were also signals from the White House to Ukrainian allies not to exploit the turbulent situation in Russia to advance on frontline. It is a clear signal that the West will try to maintain Russia in current borders even with the president who is a war criminal. The similar situation happened during the fall of the USSR, where in Kyiv during his infamous speech George W.H. Bush discouraged Ukrainians from seeking independence. The lesson from history is clear, the collapse of USSR did not destabilise the European security as also the demise of the Russian Federation will not destabilise the European security, rather it will increase the security on the continent. However, from the perspective of disinformation Russia will use this card in future info ops to scare the West that destabilisation of Russia is a grave threat and it is a worse scenario than a bloody dictator in Kremlin who is able to maintain the unity of Russia and secure the nuclear arsenal. In order to counter this harmful narrative, the experts need to clearly explain the situation to the policymakers and the public because it is hard to image that weakening of the most destabilising factor for European security since the III Reich, which Russia currently is, might bring more negatives than positives.
Every anti-Putin man is better than Putin and should be supported by the West
Since the beginning of the large-scale invasion, some Western leaders and experts tried to present it as Putin’s war not Russia’s war indicating that the problem is the Russian president alone not the Russian society. It was a clear message that changing of leadership might resume the business as usual as many Westerners dreamt about. With the growing number of war crimes, brutalities and the examples of Russian support for war, this narrative disappeared. But the Prigozhin putsch again woke this idea up. One of the members of Navalny team called the West to support Prigozhin, despite the fact that he is a bloody war criminal, because he is simply against Putin. It was a signal sent to Kremlin that the return to the business as usual is possible if Putin is removed from office by the anti-Putin opposition. But it will be rather a staged anti-Putin opposition controlled by secret services than a real one. Fortunately, there were no statements from Western countries officials supporting Prigozhin but in some circles the idea of returning to business as usual with Russia is still an attractive and viable option. It would be a terrible mistake because Putin is not a problem, but a Russian neo imperial and neo fascist ideology is.
Russia is rotten, failed state on the edge of collapse
The last lesson is also a distorted image of Russia and the easiness of experts, who predict based on 20 hours of putsch the long-term effects and results for Russian security and foreign policy. First of all, the image of Russia from memes and funny videos is far from the real one. It is also important to stress that some videos might be also inspired by Russian secret services in order to calm down Western countries by showing that Russia is no longer a real threat. Russian army learns from its mistakes and it is different army than it was in 2022. Much more experienced and effective. Russia still has a variety of non-kinetic tools to influence the situation in the West and will probably use them. Lastly, no one, except maybe, the intelligence of the most powerful countries, knows really what really happened during Prigozhin Putsch and how the structure of power looks like.
The details behind the putsch are still unknown but Russia tested several options, which might be used in next information operations. First, they identified the vulnerabilities of Polish infosphere and got to know how to easily transfer Russian content to the Polish infosphere. Secondly, it woke up the Western hopes for not-Putin as a Russian leader, with whom Western countries might do business. Thirdly, it also confirms that the West is not ready for the demise of Russia and will try to maintain it as a single country, similarly to what happened with USSR. Last but not least, Russia is not a failed, rotten state from the funny movies in the Internet. Despite the last failures, the West should not disregard Russia because it could be detrimental for European security. The West must remember about these issues dealing with future of Russia and European security and cannot be as naïve as it was in the past.
Author: Andrzej Kozłowski, Head of the Research Office at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation