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At a glance.

  • Themes in Russian influence operations.
  • Disinformation in war crimes.
  • Suppressing unwelcome news.
  • Censorship poses difficulties for the censors, too.

Themes in Russian influence operations.

Russian television is naming the Kremlin’s enemies, the Daily Beast reports, and prominent among those enemies are the US, the UK, and, especially, Poland, all of whom have an interest in weakening Russia and dismembering Ukraine. Thus Russia is presenting herself as a kind of guarantor of Ukrainian territorial integrity, presumably minus the Donbas and Crimea. It frames the detachment of those regions as matters of local self-determination, a right it holds sacred, according to the television, anyway. There’s also been considerable woofing on Russian TV about the ease with which Russian nuclear forces could destroy the US. All it would take, one pundit explained, was two nuclear missiles on each coast, and the US would be destroyed, or at least rendered prostrate. “The mushroom cloud would be seen even from Mexico,” an expert told viewers, according to Newsweek, which seems an odd standard, since you can see truck exhaust in San Diego from Mexico, but let us not quibble. The sentiments expressed are both confident and nihilistic. A question for the pundits: how confident are you that the Strategic Rocket Forces would be able to perform better than the Army? Not to make light of the threat of nuclear war, since the consequences would be a catastrophe beyond history, but one would think that Russian combat performance so far might induce some reservations about Russian forces’ ability to perform as advertised.

Prosecuting Zelenskyy?

The struggle-against-Nazis theme is also being pushed by Russian puppets in occupied Ukrainian districts. A senior lawmaker in the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic, Yelena Shishkina, who chairs the unrecognized parliament’s committee on criminal and administrative legislation, has said that the unrecognized government of her unrecognized republic would try Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as a war criminal, should he ever fall into their hands, Newsweek reports.  “Perpetrators of military crimes are not just those who hold weapons in their hands and pull the trigger. Those are also generals, who issue orders, and presidents, too,” Ms Shishkina said, because they’ve affixed their signatures “under orders to send neo-Nazis to Donbas to kill civilians here.”

Suppressio veri: Russian desertions and combat refusals.

Suppression of the truth can serve the interests of disinformation as easily as can direct lying and misrepresentation. A need to keep unwelcome news quiet seems to be at work in Russia during its present war against Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal reports seeing documents describing Russia’s problem with combat refusals, that is, with soldiers deployed in the invasion of Ukraine who refused to follow orders, or who attempted to desert from their units. Many, but not all, of the refusals have come from members of the National Guard, a force designed for keeping order as opposed to taking and holding ground. For many of the soldiers, it’s a business decision: a lawyer representing some of them said, according to the Journal, that “many soldiers who refuse orders to go to Ukraine figure it is easier to risk a criminal case than risk their lives to fight.”

Russian prosecution of desertion and combat refusal have been surprisingly light, typically amounting to dismissal from the service. The Journal writes, “Because Russia hasn’t declared war on Ukraine, there also are few legal grounds for criminal charges against those who refuse to serve abroad.” We doubt that the light penalties handed out so far stem from legalistic respect for black-letter law, as one might find, say, in the US. In Russia, law serves policy to a much greater degree than it does in the West. Nor, we can safely assume, does it represent a respect for selective conscientious objection. Reluctance to prosecute and punish harshly seems rather to be related to uncertainty as to how to handle the cases without drawing attention to the scope of the problem. Hundreds of soldiers are credibly said to have refused orders, and that’s a small but significant fraction of the forces deployed.

Foreign Affairs sees a larger “people problem” in the Russian army. It’s difficult to motivate troops to fight when you’ve accustomed them to systematic hazing, maltreatment, and casual brutality.

Censorship as friction for the censors.

Russia’s government apparently is purchasing VPN services, not to subvert them, but rather for its own use. Top10VPN reports that, since the invasion of Ukraine, “236 official contracts for VPN technology worth over $9.8 million have been made public since the invasion of Ukraine. State institutions and companies regulated by public procurement law based in Moscow spent more than any other region, totaling 196 million rubles ($2.4 million).” The users are either government agencies or established corporations, and they’re purchasing VPN services to retain access to sources of information that Kremlin-imposed censorship has otherwise rendered inaccessible. Their goal is “to circumvent the increasingly punitive digital restrictions, state officials and companies may have turned to VPN software to retain access to international news outlets, local financial publications, and social media platforms.” Thus comprehensive censorship has induced some noticeable friction into the operation of the censoring regime itself.

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