May 12, 2023 | The Telegraph

It’s time to put Putin on the defensive

Moscow continues to spread toxic disinformation to cripple the West. Much more can be done to do the same to Russia
May 12, 2023 | The Telegraph

It’s time to put Putin on the defensive

Moscow continues to spread toxic disinformation to cripple the West. Much more can be done to do the same to Russia

Britain always has been, is now, and will be our eternal enemy,” Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev declared, promising the UK’s imminent collapse “into the abyss of the sea from a wave triggered by a cutting-edge Russian weapons system.” Even as Russia’s military struggles in Ukraine, Moscow still has a powerful weapon – information – which it is currently deploying in full force against London.

For weeks now, Russia has accused the UK of endangering Ukrainian civilians by supplying Kyiv with armor-piercing shells containing depleted uranium. This claim is false: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “[n]o human cancer of any type has even been seen as a result of exposure to … depleted uranium.” In fact, Russia also uses ammunition containing depleted uranium.

But that hasn’t stopped Moscow from churning out disinformation. The Kremlin has even tried to paint the depleted-uranium shells as a form of nuclear escalation. Vladimir Putin threatened that “Russia will be forced to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component.” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed the UK’s decision puts Russia and the West closer to a “nuclear collision.”

These tricks are nothing new. Russia has used the same disinformation playbook for decades. In fact, Moscow also falsely accused Nato of endangering civilians with weapons containing depleted uranium during the alliance’s 1999 intervention in Yugoslavia. After the UK announced its plan to send the shells to Ukraine last March, Zakharova called it a repeat of the “Yugoslavia scenario.”

These baseless allegations resemble Russia’s global disinformation campaign accusing the United States of developing biological weapons. Moscow has alleged that Washington runs covert facilities in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries. Russia has likewise claimed that the U.S. intentionally spread Covid and engineered monkeypox.

Russia wields disinformation to weaken the UK and other Western democracies from within while damaging their reputations on the world stage. Moscow amplifies its disinformation through social media platforms and state-run Russian media outlets such as RT and Sputnik. These outlets operate not only in the West but also in the global south, especially Africa and Latin American, where they are often popular sources of news.

London, along with Washington and other Western capitals, has quickly refuted Moscow’s claims: last year, during a UN Security Council briefing on Ukraine and Biological Weapons, UK Ambassador Barbara Woodward emphasised that Russia “has repeatedly spread disinformation, including wild claims involving dirty bombs, chemical weapons, and offensive biological research.”

That’s a step in the right direction. But now the UK should put Moscow on the defensive.

For starters, London should reveal the truth about Russia’s own bioweapons programmes. Russian sources have provided plenty of material to work with. For example, in 1999, Kenneth Alibek, the first deputy director of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons initiative, told the Nonproliferation Review that Moscow developed “the most efficient, sophisticated, and powerful offensive [biological weapons] programme in the world.” This programme remains alive and well in Russia today, in violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The UK should ensure everyone hears this truth, perhaps by inviting Mr. Alibek to talk about the Kremlin’s bioweapons program.

UK media, too, could pitch in. A documentary on the Soviet and Russian biological weapons programmes could raise mass awareness about this issue. Similar projects have proven their effectiveness in the past. For example, the 2019 HBO mini-series on the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl so annoyed the Kremlin that Moscow banned the series and state news channels attempted to discredit it.

Speaking of nuclear disasters, the UK should continue to remind the world that Russia is threatening to cause Chernobyl 2.0 through its reckless occupation of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, or ZNPP. Ever since Russian troops seised ZNPP last year, concerns have mounted about a possible meltdown. This past weekend, Russian troops began to evacuate locals who worked at and lived near the plant. In a statement, International Atomic Energy Agency director Rafael Mariano warned of “the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant.”

As it combats the Kremlin’s lies, the UK should harness a powerful tool: humour. Dry statements by government officials will not appeal to ordinary people. But witty memes will. London should establish a program to devise creative content to debunk Russian disinformation and spread the word about Moscow’s malfeasance.

Russia is using information as a weapon against the United Kingdom and its allies. Now it’s time for London to use the truth to fight back.

Ivana Stradner is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can hear her interview on Russian propaganda on the Telegraph’s daily podcast ‘Ukraine: The Latest’ here.


Disinformation Russia