Amidst the turmoil in Ukraine, information leaks are becoming more and more frequent. These leaks have the power to severely undermine the image of a country. The question is – do these represent planned, targeted attacks in an information war, or are there other reasons for their appearance?
Former NSA agent Edward Snowden asking Russian President Vladimir Putin a question about Russia's experinece in surveilence during Putin's "Direct Line" to the Nation. Photo: Reuters
Many of today’s most polarizing international events are accompanied by provocative online material that compromise the protagonists of the political game, or what essentially amounts to a form of whistleblowing.
This is the term commonly used to describe the act of bringing secret information about the illegal, immoral, or socially harmful activities of an organization, especially a government authority, into the public domain.
In 2010, the world was shocked by the revelations of Wikileaks. A vast amount of sensitive data was released by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who was subsequently convicted and sentenced to a long stretch in prison. Three years later, a huge international scandal broke out over the publications of former NSA employee Edward Snowden on the illegal activity of U.S. special services in the acquisition of confidential information.
The use of the internet as a political podium and a platform for shaping public opinion is now being pursued by politicians everywhere, not only in the United States.
Online leaks have evolved into an effective tool of information warfare, serving, so it would appear, one of three goals: to discredit opponents, to disclose classified information (not necessarily accurate), and to leak information witnessed by an insider to an event or other such person (a real leak).
During the crisis in Ukraine, the leak of online information has become a torrent. It is quite an effective form of informational attack in shaping public opinion: For example, the conversation between former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych smacks of an authorized leak.
Tymoshenko said things that would never have crossed her lips on the podium, while her supporters became yet more convinced of the firmness of her political ambitions. In the West, more attention was paid to her statement that Moscow was listening in to telephone calls, rather than the actual content of the declassified conversation. Such portrayal of the Russian authorities only reinforced their negative image in the eyes of the West.
Of course, it could be posited that the leaked conversation between Tymoshenko and Shufrych was part of the information game being conducted by the Russian special services, yet it is difficult to prove.
It cannot be ruled out that other recent leaks — such as the exchanges between U.S. diplomatic mission representatives Victoria Nuland and Jeffrey Payette, or the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet — may have been in pursuit of similar goals. Edward Snowden proved that the NSA has the ability to keep a record of negotiations, while modern information security cannot guarantee strict confidence.
From a technical point of view, such leaks are easy to fake, but the key issue is not to show who recorded the conversations and how, but who the public is more likely to believe. In other words, who enjoys the greater trust. Trust, for its part, is an essential element of “soft power”.
However, the distribution of information leaks online is one of the most effective methods of information attack when the aim is to undermine confidence.
This year’s conflict in Ukraine is further confirmation that Russia is once again losing the information war with the West — and with it trust.
It has to be stated that Russia’s “soft” actions in presenting an accurate version of its position are ineffective; not to mention the capability of its “soft power” to achieve goals or influence others.
The reasons for this inefficiency are numerous. The first is related to the peculiarities of Russia’s political development. Modern Russian society is too radicalized and divided into two diffuse camps: the official authorities and the opposition.
And Russia’s internal opposition forces are far more adept at utilizing Russia’s electronic information environment than the state authorities. For instance, notorious blogger Alexei Navalny asserts that “The internet is the only infrastructure in which to carry out independent political (or social) activities.”
There is no doubt that his team are virtuosos when it comes to manipulating the information resources of modern Russian society (mainly in Moscow) to accomplish their political goals.
It is no coincidence that, in the West, Russian opposition figures are more popular — and seen as more trustworthy — than official representatives. Proof of this is the fact that the sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Russian officials seemed to be based entirely on information published by Navalny in The New York Times.
The second reason for the failure in Russia’s projection of soft power is historical memory. This is an extremely subjective concept, which, unfortunately, is becoming more and more politically motivated: Information about historical facts left behind in documentary sources does not always reliably reflect the nature of events.
For instance, few people today remember that an international fact-finding mission recognized Russia’s actions in the 2008 conflict with Georgia as legitimate. A carefully planned and executed information attack has long inclined world opinion against Russia.
Nevertheless, six years after those events, Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, commenting on events in Ukraine, said that Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 was already a closed chapter in Russian-U.S. relations.
Today, many of the actions of the Kremlin are perceived by the international community as an attempt to revive the Soviet empire.
In particular, such thoughts were expressed by former U.S. Presidential National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in February 2014 at the onset of the conflict with Ukraine.
A few days before the escalation, the U.S. expert said that Russia had the potential to become a full-fledged European power, but at the same time, guided by the imperial ambitions of President Vladimir Putin, is seeking to preserve Russia's influence in Ukraine, alarming Western leaders in the process.
Unfortunately, Russia is again losing the information war being waged against it by various political forces in the West. That said, it is important to note the variety of ways in which information can be effectively utilized in the resolution of conflicts today.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.