Bloomberg title: The U.S. Is Learning to Win the Information War Against Putin
Bloomberg subtitle: Biden’s willingness to publicly release sensitive intelligence on Russia and Ukraine is savvy, but not without risks.
Opinion by: Hal Brands
Date: 22 February 2022
“Intelligence work happens in the shadows, but the Ukraine crisis is dragging it into the sunlight. One of the most remarkable aspects of this showdown has been President Joe Biden’s willingness to publicly release sensitive information on Russia’s plans before they can be put into action.
These disclosures are part of a strategy to stay a step ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They also represent a faster, more aggressive approach to waging the information wars of the 21st century.
Government officials have always selectively released information to shape public debate or gain advantage over their bureaucratic adversaries. But what we have seen in the Ukraine crisis is something quite coordinated and deliberate.
Since late last year, the Biden team has been revealing (albeit, in most cases, obliquely) loads of information about Putin’s aims and initiatives. The White House began publicizing the Russian buildup in November and December; administration officials continue to discuss the type of units Putin has assembled and what operations they might undertake.
Washington also cast a light on various Russian schemes and subterfuges: Plans for some sort of coup in Kiev; the arrest or assassination of Ukrainian officials; “false flag” operations or staged incidents that might serve as a pretext for military action.
Most recently, U.S. officials publicly stated that they believe Putin has made and communicated his decision to invade, and even predicted when that invasion (beyond the current deployment of Russian troops in the Donbas area) might occur. Whereas Putin has been relatively tight-lipped, American officials can’t seem to stop talking about his plans.
What makes this all the more interesting is where this insight presumably comes from. As several analysts have noted, when U.S. officials discuss their knowledge about Putin’s intentions and the capabilities he has mobilized, they are also hinting that America’s vast intelligence apparatus can monitor the moves of the Russian military and perhaps even peer into the decision-making of the regime. The message seems to be this: “Vladimir, we’re reading your mail.”
This strategy has both an immediate and a longer-term significance. Right now, the administration is trying to deprive Putin of the surprise and ambiguity he has long used to his advantage, and perhaps even cause him to think twice about his plans. Washington is trying to facilitate the preparation of a devastating economic and diplomatic response by letting the world know what Moscow is up to.
Biden may even by trying to stir up dissension within the Kremlin. His administration has let on that some Russian officials fear that Putin is leading the country into a strategic dead-end. Releasing information is a way of regaining some initiative in a crisis of Putin’s making.
More broadly, Biden’s approach is an effort to pick up the pace in the fight against disinformation. The old saw that a lie can travel around the world while the truth is lacing up its boots is particularly relevant in today’s information wars. The U.S has often seemed slow in confronting propaganda and disinformation propagated by its rivals — whether Islamic State, Russia or China — in part because bureaucratic obstacles and concerns about disclosing valuable intelligence keep getting in the way.
That caution has fallen by the wayside. Biden’s team is trying to disarm the Kremlin by publicizing its deceptions before they can have their desired effect. Under the threat of war, the U.S. is fighting faster and more aggressively in the battle of information. That’s exactly what might be necessary in the next crisis — a possible disinformation-aided Chinese pressure campaign against Taiwan, for instance — as well.
It’s not a risk-free approach. The more rapidly Washington publicizes newly acquired information, the greater the risk of a high-profile error. Incessant warnings about an imminent invasion can breed crisis fatigue — or simply annoy a Ukrainian government that seems, perhaps unwisely, to worry more about the panic that might be caused by the rumor of war than about war itself.
There are also operational dangers. If the U.S. develops a penchant for running with hot scoops, Putin or other leaders could undertake elaborate deceptions meant to embarrass an overeager adversary. And if the U.S. has a habit of quickly talking about sensitive information — such as indications that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine — then it could give hostile counterintelligence services a better sense of where that information came from to begin with. The more assertively the U.S. publicizes information it has in this crisis, the harder it could be to obtain such information in the next one.
Risks notwithstanding, we’re likely to see this strategy again in the future. Today’s rivalries are contests over control of the global narrative as well as control of key territory. The crisis in Ukraine may be a preview of how America must compete in a world where the truth is often murky and information moves quicker than ever.”