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

The U.S. has supported Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders by supplying the country with weapons and slapping harsh sanctions against Russia. 

But despite U.S. support, the conflict has only descended into further chaos. Russia continues to shell major cities, the civilian death toll is rising, and millions of people have fled their homes, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II. 

Geopolitics experts who spoke with Fox News said the U.S. should be devoting 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,” broadly refer to tactics geared toward shaping how people perceive events and information. The U.S. perfected the craft against the Soviet Union during the Cold War but has lagged behind in recent decades, preferring instead to concentrate on hard power. 

Russia, meanwhile, has been perfecting the craft of peddling disinformation against Americans to deepen racial and political divisions, all while distracting Washington and emboldening U.S. adversaries. 

People in Hong Kong stand by TV screens broadcasting the news that Russian troops have launched an attack on Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022.

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 need to raise awareness within the Russian population about what’s going on,” she said, “because right now, the Russians and the Americans are limiting the information flows into Russia – the Russians because they’re afraid of Western propaganda, and the U.S. because we want to punish Russia.” 

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The net sum of these actions, she argued, has been an Iron Curtain dropped on Russia in the information domain, a situation that ultimately does not serve U.S. interests because Russians need to be favorably predisposed to Western views rather than Russian views.

Those “Western views,” Koffler said, include telling the truth about how Russian President Vladimir Putin is “killing brethren Slavic people” in Ukraine and how the Russians should not be standing for this.  

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

Kremlin’s crackdown

The Kremlin has cracked down on social media and independent outlets 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 harkens back to the Soviet-era tactic of “reflexive control,” whereby information is conveyed to an opponent — causing it to react in a way that favors the initiator of the action. 

The U.S. could send Russian people more information about virtual proxy networks (VPNs) to help them bypass government censorship, says Ivana Stradner, an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has studied psyops.

The U.S. and its Western allies ought to work with disillusioned Russians who have left the country to help promote a different narrative to Russians back home, Stradner told Fox News. This not does have to entail “the typical democracy promotion” that has been tried by the U.S. in other parts of the world, she clarified. 

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Tackling corruption in Russia, for example, would resonate with more people – especially younger generations – because corruption impacts every facet of daily life, Stradner argued. 

“We have to start from where we are and right now. And right now the number one thing is to offer Russians alternative views of the war and talk about corruption in the country,” Stradner said. “Corruption certainly affects every single young Russian over there.” 

“The number one thing is to offer Russians alternative views of the war and talk about corruption in the country.”

— Ivana Stradner, adviser, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

The Kremlin’s information warfare will not stop with the end of the war in Ukraine, Stradner warned. She and called for social media platforms to be more proactive in fighting disinformation. 

Continue polarizing US?

“I would really not exclude also the possibility of Russia to continue polarizing American society,” she said. “So we might actually see new protests or different unrest prior to the 2022 elections.” 

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

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

She evoked the time the Soviets mistakenly shot down a South Korean airliner in 1983 at a time when the U.S. was running major psyop campaigns against the Kremlin.     

“The other side of (psyops) is that you can unintentionally cause your adversary to overreact. So, it’s the kind of thing that you have to be super accurate. And that requires a deep understanding of your adversary,” she said. 

“I hope that President Biden knows right now that Ukraine is not Putin’s first or last step,” Koffler said. “And so right now is the time to wake up and put all of our instruments together and synchronize them.” 

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