Fear itself: How nuclear threats play into the Kremlin's information war over Ukraine

Growing anxiety in the West over Russian threats to deploy nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war may be part of a deliberate campaign to spook the West into cutting Ukraine loose, one expert says.

Experts say Russia's attempts to spread its own narratives about Ukraine are failing

A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that he wouldn't hesitate to use nuclear weapons to ward off Ukraine's attempt to reclaim occupied regions that Moscow is trying to absorb. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service/The Associated Press)

The online images and video are captivating. The headlines fairly scream at you that nuclear doomsday is upon us.

There's no doubt whatsoever that Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened repeatedly to unleash Moscow's atomic arsenal in Ukraine.

Less obvious, said Sean Maloney of the Royal Military College of Canada, is how recent social media-driven hysteria over a Russian train supposedly carrying nuclear equipment to Ukraine, and the Russian navy's nuclear undersea drone capability, may be part of a deliberate campaign to scare the West.

Maloney, a professor of history and student of Soviet Cold War tactics, said Moscow's efforts to manipulate, confuse and weaken public and political resolve in the West should be front and centre when a Parliamentary committee meets Thursday to assess Canada's security posture toward Russia.

Top defence officials testified before the committee on Thursday, including Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and the chief of the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's electronic spy agency.

"The gravity of these times should be apparent to all," Eyre said in his opening remarks. He accused both Russia and China of attempting to reshape the world order in their own authoritarian images.

Addressing questions about Russia's nuclear threats, Eyre said that Canada and its allies "have to be concerned about the possibility of escalation. But that being said, we cannot allow nuclear coercion [to stop] us from doing what is right."

Maloney said members of the House of Commons public safety and national security committee will have to "accept the fact that we are in a permanent adversarial relationship with Russia" and that attempts at manipulation will need to be called out forcefully.

In the military world, it's called information operations.

The Soviets were masters at it from the 1950s through to the 1980s, Maloney said. Other experts say the current regime in the Kremlin has shown itself to be less adept at the practice — something the war in Ukraine has demonstrated clearly.

'Doomsday' drones and bomber flights

In addition to reports about the nuclear train and the undersea "doomsday" drone, there have been online posts about the "irregular presence" of Russian strategic bombers in the northern Kola Peninsula.

Maloney said all of these reports should be taken seriously — but with a grain of salt. The fact that three of them emerged within days of each another and in the shadow of Putin's nuclear threats, he said, means they have to be evaluated with a clear eye on who benefits from these narratives, and how.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Vostok 2022 military exercise in far eastern Russia, outside Vladivostok, on Sept. 6, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/The Associated Press)

"I think the intent of that is to exploit the current fear of nuclear war that's been building up," said Maloney. He pointed to at least five recent instances of Putin or members of his inner circle publicly threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend illegally annexed Ukrainian territory.

By putting out unfiltered, unverified images, video and reports on social media, he said, Russia is trying "to support and enhance that fear by letting specialists get hold of that and then [spread the material] through the mainstream media."

Information warfare differs slightly from disinformation campaigns, Maloney said. Disinformation uses lies, forged documents and (sometimes) distorted truths to sow discord and drive wedges into an adversary's society. Information warfare is meant to manage the so-called battlefield using threats, intimidation and misdirection.

People gather in front of a large screen to celebrate the planned incorporation of regions of Ukraine into Russia in Sevastopol, Crimea on Sept. 30, 2022. (The Associated Press)

The head of Canada's military intelligence branch, Maj.-Gen. Michael Wright, was asked by committee members about the threat of Russia deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine and whether there have been any indicators.

"Russia has the capability," Wright said. "What the Five Eyes alliance and our NATO allies are laser-focused on is whether the intent exists.

"In terms of the question regarding indicators, this is obviously something the Five Eyes is laser-focused on. We do closely track indicators and warnings. However, because of the sensitivity of those, I don't think we can discuss [it] in this forum."

Since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has deployed a vast and complex global network to shape the narrative about the Ukraine conflict through formal and social media, according to a 2015 study by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

"The results of these efforts have been mixed," said the study.

"Russia has kept the West from intervening materially in Ukraine, allowing itself the time to build and expand its own military involvement in the conflict. It has sowed discord within the NATO alliance and created tensions between potential adversaries about how to respond.

"It has not, however, fundamentally changed popular or elite attitudes about Russia's actions in Ukraine, nor has it created an information environment favourable to Moscow."

That was pretty much the consensus of an online forum held Wednesday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, which examined the lessons learned so far since the onset of major hostilities last winter.

Protesters march near the White House to support Ukraine.
Demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Ave. to protest Russia's invasion as they celebrate Ukraine's Independence Day outside the White House in Washington on Aug. 27, 2022. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

The Ukrainians have been dominating the battle to shape the online narrative about the war, said the experts participating in the forum. They've done it by exposing the lies and disconnects between the rosy assessments offered by Russian leaders and the sometimes disastrous conditions on the ground, they added.

The forum experts agreed that Moscow has shown itself to be clumsy, inept and unable to keep up with a dynamic online discussion — especially when their public claims have been proven false.

They said Russia is trying to shape the narrative in countries like China and India — where attitudes toward the war tend to be lukewarm or neutral — because the West is growing wise to Moscow's information and disinformation tactics.

'Layers of untruth'

"They are good at information operations when they can take something that has an element of truth and then they can twist that truth or add to that truth layers of untruth, and when they can take that and insert that into credible discussions that move their way into the mainstream," said Emily Harding, senior fellow at the International Security Program at CSIS.

"They create enough buzz around so that the mainstream (media) feel they have to report on it because people are talking about it."

She pointed to the disinformation campaign used in an attempt to influence elections in the U.S. as an example of a Russian success in this field.

"That kind of slow progression, they're quite good at," said Harding.

Maloney said Canadians need both civic literacy and critical thinking to cope with the flood of dubious online information about the war.

"The trick is penetrating it, picking it apart and finding out what exactly it means," he said.

"The concern here is if they want us to be afraid, then we need to not be afraid, because they're trying to manipulate us into a particular position where the public pressurizes the government towards a certain course of action. And in this case, perhaps puts pressure on the Ukrainian government to stop what it's doing or limit what it's doing because it's affecting Russian objectives."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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