NATO countries may be ramping up their war of words in the coming weeks in Ukraine, where Russian propaganda flows freely into the east while ill-prepared security forces can't even talk to one another.
Multiple officials who spoke with U.S. News say planning is underway to bolster the Ukrainian government’s ability to communicate among its security services and broadcast to the general public. The details are still being worked out, including whether this would require troops from NATO countries on the ground in Ukraine to train and support the effort.
“We are starting some projects together with others, understanding the time factor is of the essence,” says Janis Sarts, Latvia’s state secretary of defence and second highest ranking official at the ministry.
“We’re looking at something that would help Ukrainians to deal with the propaganda that is going on,” he tells U.S. News. “We’ve heard this is a very interesting proposition for [Ukraine].”
The U.S. has been involved in these discussions, Sarts says. When asked whether the prospective plans would include putting troops or trainers on the ground in Ukraine, he says, “Yes. I think that would help.” He declined to comment further on the size, scope and cost of the mission.
The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment in time for this report. A NATO official says the treaty organization does not envisage a “mission,” as such, on this issue.
“NATO Allies are actively considering ways to further strengthen our long-standing cooperation with Ukraine, including in the area of public diplomacy,” the official said by email, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Allies are also providing assistance to Ukraine on a bilateral basis.”
Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and current deputy secretary-general of NATO, tells U.S. News that he has heard discussions about such a mission but does not know the details.
“It’s not being worked out through NATO,” Vershbow says. When asked about Western troops on the ground in Ukraine, he says, “I honestly don’t know. There’s nothing that would preclude that, but it could also be done in the home country [of participating nations], in Latvia or any other country that might provide that.”
There is nothing preventing military assistance or training in Ukraine, says Vershbow.
The need to send a message to its citizens and to Russia alike reflects a cold truth in eastern Ukraine, where many lived through the Cold War and learned to speak the prerequisite Russian. Daily, the message on TV, radio and 21st century sources of information amounts to this: "The fascists are taking over from Kiev. They really want to come and get us.”
It stems from what experts call an extremely aggressive propaganda campaign on behalf of the Russian government that seeks to rob targeted communities of any news coming out of the West, and replace it with its own version of the facts.
U.S. officials and top leadership at NATO, including Vershbow, say there are no muddling interpretations or shades of gray. Russia is flat out lying to the people it hopes to conquer in a desperate attempt to foment fear and submission.
“Despite their arrogance, they clearly understand that their success depends on manipulating public opinion, rather than allowing freedom of information as we would define it,” said Vershbow at a breakfast meeting early Thursday morning.
Russian forces operating in Crimea and east Ukraine put a top priority on seizing TV towers and broadcast hubs, effectively flipping the channel from local outlets back to stations approved by Moscow. And this just in: NATO expansion alone caused organic civil unrest among ethnic Russians, as well as their supporters in Ukraine and Crimea, forcing Russia to race to the rescue, according to these broadcasts.
The deteriorating capabilities of the Ukrainian security services to communicate clearly and effectively have given them little chance at combatting this new flow of information. Even with state-of-the-art communications equipment and training, it’s difficult to speak freely in an environment believed to be deeply infiltrated by Russian spies.
It is among NATO’s top challenges against Russia, still parrying President Vladimir Putin’s threats of further intervention on sovereign soil while maintaining that a military option in Ukraine is off the table.
“The toxicity of the ideology that Putin is now pushing does require a response,” says Vershbow. Perhaps, as he suggests, “some of the tools from the Cold War toolbox will need to be dusted off.”
And the need is urgent and recognized far from the borders of Ukraine. Estonia’s top defense official said Wednesday the West ignored the signs in Georgia in 2008. With Putin’s eye now turning toward his northeast border, it’s time to act.
Russia’s incursion into Caucasus six years ago proved Putin’s “expansionist, imperialist” strategy could work, says Sven Misker, the Estonian minister of defence. The Russian president orchestrated the seizure of Georgian territory with military force, and then sashayed the international conversation to one of de-escalation and peace, leaving the legitimacy of his new lands a fait accompli.
“It’s sort of a ‘We told you so’ moment,” Misker said Wednesday afternoon, while speaking on a panel at the Atlantic Council. “Georgia should have been the wakeup call. We decided to push the snooze button and go back to sleep. We shouldn’t let anything like this happen this time with regards to Ukraine. Not because Ukraine is any larger or more important -- no country is less important than any other country -- but because now we see a pattern.”
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004 during what’s considered “the big bang” period, when the governments and militaries of a group of former Soviet states were considered mature and aligned enough to join the Cold War alliance. All in the Baltics have great faith in Article 5 of the NATO charter that ensures mutual protection, Misker said, and they are pushing for U.S. troops temporarily stationed there to remain permanently.
But both Misker and Latvia's Sarts say their homelands likely could not have joined NATO today, citing potential pressure from the Russian government's growing influence under Putin's leadership. Any assurances they receive from the alliance may not withstand his trickery.
Misker called Wednesday for NATO to “redirect our sensors that have been turned away over the last few years” back toward Russia, in an attempt to learn more about what Putin and his military is doing.
This includes robbing Russia of the intelligence it’s openly gleaning in Ukraine.
One of the biggest tasks there is dealing with the threat of infiltration, says M. Steven Fish, a professor at UC Berkeley and expert on Eurasian security. “It’s going to be very hard, very difficult. The level of penetration is high.”
Ukrainians, along with Belarussians, were at the core of KGB units in the Soviet Army at the height of the Cold War, he says, and considered as reliable as ethnic Russians in manning the bloc’s most important outposts. Other countries, like in the Baltics, were able to flush out much of their Soviet influence in the 1990s. Ukraine, considered the ethnic and social cradle of Russia’s civilization, could not.
Countries like Ukraine “are just lousy” with Russian spies, Fish says, which is why it’s been so difficult for Ukrainian security officials to communicate with one another, and for the U.S. to trust sharing information with them.
“It’s not that [the U.S.] doesn’t trust Ukrainians to do the right thing, or that they can’t handle the information,” he says. “It’s that any information we pass down is going to get to Moscow in a matter of hours.”
“These folks not only report back to Moscow, but they can also screw up communications within the Ukrainian military. It’s not hard to do at this level of penetration.”
Poor communications accounts for much of the Ukrainian military’s haplessness in offsetting Russian influence, says Fish. Improving this capability is absolutely critical.