Russian misinformation: the war in Ukraine

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Russian misinformation about the war in Ukraine obeys key rules. First: never admit to anything. Second: lying to mislead your enemy, or your own people, is legitimate.

You should view Russian official statements about what is happening in Ukraine with caution, for several reasons.

Never confess

The first reason to be especially sceptical about Moscow’s denials, for example, of killings in Bucha, is the KGB mantra “never confess”.

Soviet Agent Kim Philby set out the doctrine in a 1981 lecture to the Stasi, the East German state security service. Check out Philby’s lecture at the link (click on the picture):

Russian official statements: Kim Philby addresses the Stasi

Philby finishes with one piece of advice that had served him well: never confess:

“If they confront you…with a document with your own handwriting then it’s a forgery – just deny everything…
They interrogated me to break my nerve and force me to confess. And all I had to do really was keep my nerve. So my advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess.” 

This advice, given to spies in 1981, is now applied daily by the Russian government. Sadly for the Russian people, who never wanted this war, and for the Ukrainian people, who are dying and suffering, the Kremlin will keep denying everything in 2022 – until there is no alternative.

Russian misinformation: maskirovka

The second source of Russian misinformation is the concept of maskirovka, defined as military deception. It basically means that it is fully OK, or indeed desirable, to mislead your enemy about what you are doing. You can read an exhaustive description of this technique, with examples, on Wikipedia. If you are in a war, why do, or say, anything that makes life easier for your opponent? Maskirovka was famously used in the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Russian misinformation repeatedly denied that any Russian troops were involved in the occupation of the peninsula. In 2022, Putin repeatedly denied Russia would invade Ukraine, then did so. Now, incredibly, he and other Russian spokesmen deny there is an invasion or a war – it is simply “a military operation”.

This is Russian misinformation on an Orwellian scale.

In addition to seeking to deceive your enemies, Russian misinformation seeks to portray to audiences in Russia its own version of events, and to prevent them from accessing alternative narratives. The goal is to build support for actions of the Russian leadership that harm the Russian people. Propaganda has a long history in the former Soviet Union. See for example my post: The Zhivago Affair: how censorship worked in Soviet Russia – and works now, here.

The leadership of the Soviet Union sought to justify the fact of misleading their people. They argued that it was essential to build Communism, and that people who opposed this goal were simply wrong. The current Russian leadership argues that they are building a greater Russia, or – absurdly – defending Russian-speakers in Ukraine from Nazism. For more on the real causes of the war, see my “Russia-Ukraine war explainer” below.

What about other people lying?

Many readers will no doubt think “what about western leaders lying? Surely they are just as bad? What about the invasion of Iraq, or atrocities committed under colonialism, or countless other examples of people saying what they did or didn’t do?

Indeed, “what about-ism” is a standard response of Russian leaders to accusations of wrong-doing, including during the war of 2022.

There are indeed countless examples of western leaders lying, including trying to hush up atrocities committed by their own countries. The difference is one of consistency and scale. In most western countries, if a leader lies, that leader will come under pressure from the opposition and even from members of his or her own party to resign. Voters will have a chance to punish them at the next election. In Russia, unfortunately, in the past two decades, the government has crushed, jailed or killed the opposition and pummelled media outlets into submission. Even in 2008 in St Petersburg, I remember being chilled to buy a copy of Izvestia, a newspaper which during my time in Moscow from 1992-5 had been a useful source of news, and finding it contained only the official line.

Obviously no nation, or people, is more mendacious than any other. I am talking here only about politicians and official statements.

Iran Air 655, UIA 752 and MH17

In 1988, the USS Vincennes, a US warship, shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 people. Disputes persist over why the incident happened. But the US did not deny shooting down the plane, and – eventually – paid compensation to Iran in 1996.

In 2019, Iran shot down Ukrainian Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 occupants on board. Within days, the Iranian government admitted that they had shot down the aircraft by accident and apologised.

In 2014, a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile shot down MH17, a Malaysian Airlines plane from Schipol carrying 283 mostly Dutch passengers and 15 crew, over Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. A painstaking Dutch official investigation found Russia responsible. Yet despite overwhelming evidence, the Kremlin continues to deny any role whatsoever in the destruction of MH17. This is Russian misinformation of the worst, most heartbreaking, kind.

Russian misinformation: floating fake theories

MH17 is an example of another technique deployed by the Kremlin for masking the truth. This is that of constantly floating alternative theories about what has happened. In 2014, Russia alleged that a Ukrainian fighter jet had shot down MH17 (Russian misinformation); that a Ukrainian Buk was responsible (Russian misinformation); that the path of MH17 was deliberately shifted into a war zone (more Russian misinformation) or numerous other mutually contradictory theories (for a full account, see here).

Such fake theories are accompanied by claims that the true facts are part of an “information campaign” against Russia by dark forces. The aim is to generate weariness and confusion amongst the public in the spirit of “it’s impossible to know the truth”; and to give supporters and conspiracy theorists something to cling to.

The Kremlin is doing the same in Ukraine since 2022, for example, by claiming that atrocities uncovered in areas vacated by retreating Russian forces were committed by the Ukrainians themselves; by others; or were made up.

Russian misinformation: three things to bear in mind

It is difficult to know what is really happening anywhere you are not physically present, particularly in a war zone. You should always analyse what your own side is telling you critically. Your own views will influence what you believe. But when you listen to Russian official statements, bear in mind: Kim Philby, maskirovka, and MH17.

Other resources

This blog is usually about writing, books (including my own) and stories. Do browse. But the gratuitous and awful nature of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the fact I served as a diplomat in Moscow and Kyiv, have led me to write several blogs on this subject:

Feedback welcome.


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2 Responses

  1. You have great experience (Hong Kong and many others…) with negotiations between two States. What is so different about peace negotiations in Ukraine? Why are economic solutions never discussed there? Is the same (past Soviet) mentality the main problem or are negotiations never serious?

    1. The main issue is that Russia has no interest in negotiating. You are right to suggest that they are not serious about reaching a negotiated settlement – for now at least.

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