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US Sees No Letup in Russian Influence Operations

Damaged vehicles and buildings in Kharkiv city center in Ukraine, March 16, 2022.
Damaged vehicles and buildings in Kharkiv city center in Ukraine, March 16, 2022.

According to U.S. and Ukrainian officials, Moscow’s efforts to win over the world with its accounts of events in Ukraine are doing no better than Russia's military forces inside Ukraine.

More often than not, they are meeting with stiff resistance.

“Outside of Russia, we have not seen their information operations really find purchase,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Thursday in response to a question from VOA.

“We have seen a continuation of Russian attempts to blame stuff they're doing on the Ukrainians, to accuse Ukrainians of doing stuff that they (the Russians) haven't done yet,” the official said, on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence. “But outside of Russia, there's little to no evidence that their information ops are working. In fact, we've seen quite the opposite.”

Despite such assessments, Russian officials and Russian-affiliated media continued to try to seed social media and the airwaves in places their broadcasts have not been blocked, with allegations of wrongdoing by Ukraine and its backers.

One of Russia’s perhaps most successful recent tropes has been its allegation that the United States has been funding bioweapon research in Ukraine.

A survey by the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, a national security advocacy group that tracks disinformation efforts online, found that Russian officials and Russian state-backed media tweeted the word “biological” almost 600 times in the past week.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense sought to push those claims further Thursday, publishing new allegations on its English-language Telegram feed.

“Russian specialists of nuclear, biological and chemical protection troops have studied original documents revealing details of the implementation of a secret project by the United States in Ukraine to study ways of transmitting diseases to humans through bats at a laboratory in Kharkov,” one post said.

The Russian Telegram feed also began pushing claims that a theater in Mariupol where civilians had been sheltering was not hit by a Russian airstrike as claimed by the Mariupol city council, but blown up by the Azov Battalion, a pro-Ukrainian force that analysts say has embraced neo-Nazi views.

“A refugee from Mariupol said that militants from the Azov nationalist battalion, while retreating, blew up the city drama theater where there were civilians, whom they used as a ‘human shield,’” the Ministry of Defense said on Telegram.

Within hours, the allegations about the bioweapons and the theater were being echoed on official Russian government and media Twitter accounts and websites, in multiple languages.

The senior U.S. defense official declined Thursday to elaborate on the Russian accounts of how the theater in Mariupol was destroyed, saying only that none of the accounts could be confirmed at this time.

But U.S. officials have repeatedly denied Russia’s ongoing accusations about developing bioweapons in Ukraine.

“It's a bunch of malarkey," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters last week. "We are not, not developing biological or chemical weapons inside Ukraine."

U.S. intelligence officials also denied the charges, instead saying Moscow’s insistence on repeating the allegations might indicate it is planning a chemical or biological attack.

“This is something … that's very much a part of Russia's playbook," CIA Director William Burns told a Senate panel last week. "They've used those weapons against their own citizens. They've at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere, so it's something that we take very seriously."

Still, there are some concerns that even if Russia is failing to sway most people in the West, a small minority are repeating the Kremlin’s talking points on podcasts and even on some U.S. cable news networks.

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio last week noted that the bioweapons allegations in particular have "got some people fired up."

Others are more optimistic.

“The sharing of intelligence to shine a light on disinformation … I’ve never seen it better in the 35 years I’ve spent in uniform,” the head of the U.S. National Security Agency, General Paul Nakasone, told lawmakers late Thursday.

Ukrainian officials have likewise said their efforts are paying off.

“Ukraine is winning this information war and winning it massively" Heorhii Tykhy, an adviser to the spokesperson for Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a virtual forum last week.

"Defensive strategies are not enough. … What really helps fight the disinformation is proactive strategies," he added.

The senior U.S. defense official on Thursday was complimentary of Kyiv’s efforts, saying the impact is being felt far beyond Ukraine.

“Ukrainians are doing a good job staying ahead of the information ops,” the official said. “They're doing a good job communicating … using social media to great effect.”

“So, we just haven't seen the Russians have much success.”