As Russia threatens Ukraine, the U.S. 'pre-bunks' Russian propaganda As Russian troops threaten to invade Ukraine, the U.S. publicizes what it says are Russian attempts to sow disinformation. The goal is to undermine Russian claims that might be used to provoke a war.

As Russia threatens Ukraine, the U.S. 'pre-bunks' Russian propaganda

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The U.S. government says it doesn't know whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine with all those troops he has sent to the border, but the U.S. is actively publicizing what it says are Russian attempts to sow disinformation. The goal is to undermine any Russian moves that might be used as a pretext for an invasion. NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre has the story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Russia hasn't fired any shots at Ukraine, but a Russian disinformation campaign is well underway, according to the U.S. Here's Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.


JOHN KIRBY: As part of this fake attack, we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners.

MYRE: In a similar vein, Britain announced recently that Russia might try to stage a coup in Ukraine and install a leader friendly to the Kremlin who could then invite Russian troops into the country. This kind of intelligence usually remains secret, but the U.S. and its allies have made a decision to go public.

NINA JANKOWICZ: This could potentially be called prebunking (ph).

MYRE: Nina Jankowicz is with the Wilson Center.

JANKOWICZ: Rather than debunking, the governments are getting ahead of a potential Russian narrative and attempting to prebunk it with this intelligence that they've been declassifying.

MYRE: The U.S. and British governments have presented this information without offering proof. They say they can't reveal their sources and methods for obtaining it. This has led to some skepticism. Critics note the U.S. failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government last year, and the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 on the false premise that the country had weapons of mass destruction. Professor Thomas Rid studies disinformation at Johns Hopkins University.

THOMAS RID: I know that a lot of people will intuitively, instinctively say, well, U.S. intelligence has gotten major things wrong in the past.

MYRE: He thinks the U.S. and Britain have provided enough details to make their case.

RID: It is very likely that they simply have good visibility and have seen what they are reporting out or sharing with the public.

MYRE: Rid is the author of "Active Measures," a book that documents Russia's rich tradition of disinformation.

RID: Russia has a history of literally more than 100 years of systematic, well-funded disinformation campaigns. Everybody is expecting from Russia in this context to continue its streak of deception, active measures and disinformation.

MYRE: Jankowicz served as an adviser to Ukraine's Foreign Ministry several years ago. She notes that Russia aggressively spread lies about Ukraine in 2014, when it first invaded the country.

JANKOWICZ: The Russians hired a woman, an actor, to claim that she had seen a little boy be crucified. It had been plastered around on Russian state media and taken as fact until it indeed was proven as false.

MYRE: Brett Schaefer monitors Russian propaganda. He's with the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Schaefer says Russia is portraying Ukraine and the U.S. as the aggressor and is accusing them of planning provocations so they can attack Russia.

BRETT SCHAEFER: It's this idea that it's really the U.S. and Ukraine that are planning a false flag operation.

MYRE: Thomas Rid believes it's important to publicize disinformation but says governments and the media need to keep it in perspective.

RID: The dilemma is that we have to talk about disinformation. We have to talk about disinformation in a nuanced, sober way. If we blow them out of proportion, we are helping the adversary.

MYRE: An adversary that's had lots of practice. Greg Myre, NPR News.


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