Disinformation Is Russia’s Only Hope – And Republicans Are Helping

Heather Cox Richardson

On Wednesday the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War published a long essay explaining that Russia’s only strategy for success in Ukraine is to win the disinformation war in which it is engaged. While the piece by Nataliya Bugayova and Frederick W. Kagan, with Katryna Stepanenko, focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine, the point it makes about Russia’s information operation against Western countries applies more widely.

The authors note that the countries allied behind Ukraine dwarf Russia, with relative gross domestic products of $63 trillion and $1.9 trillion, respectively, while those countries allied with Russia are not mobilizing to help Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia cannot defeat Ukraine or the West, they write, if the West mobilizes its resources.

This means that the strategy that matters most for the Kremlin is not the military strategy, but rather the spread of disinformation that causes the West to back away and allow Russia to win. That disinformation operation echoes the Russian practice of getting a population to believe in a false reality so that voters will cast their ballots for the party of oligarchs. In this case, in addition to seeding the idea that Ukraine cannot win and that the Russian invasion was justified, the Kremlin is exploiting divisions already roiling U.S. politics. 

It is, for example, playing on the American opposition to sending our troops to fight “forever” wars, a dislike ingrained in the population since the Vietnam War. But the U.S. is not fighting in Ukraine. Ukrainians are asking only for money and matériel, and their war is not a proxy war—they are fighting for their own reasons—although their victory could well prevent U.S. engagement elsewhere in the future. The Kremlin is also playing on the idea that aid to Ukraine is too expensive as the U.S. faces large budget deficits, but the U.S. contribution to Ukraine’s war effort in 2023 was less than 0.5% of the defense budget. 

Russian propaganda is also changing key Western concepts of war, suggesting, for example, that Ukrainian surrender will bring peace when, in fact, the end of fighting will simply take away Ukrainians’ ability to protect themselves against Russian violence. The authors note that Russia is using Americans’ regard for peace, life, American interests, freedom of debate, and responsible foreign relations against the U.S.

The authors’ argument parallels that of political observers in the U.S. and elsewhere: Russian actors have amplified the power of a relatively small, aggressive country by leveraging disinformation. 

The European Union will hold parliamentary elections in June, and on Wednesday the Czech government sanctioned a news site called Voice of Europe, saying it was part of a pro-Russian propaganda operation. It also sanctioned the man running the site, Artyom Marchevsky, as well as Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch, saying Medvedchuk was running a “Russian influence operation” through Voice of Europe.

The far right has been rising in Europe, and Nicholas Vinocur, Pieter Haeck, and Eddy Wax of Politico noted that “Voice of Europe’s YouTube page throws up a parade of EU lawmakers, many of them belonging to far-right, Euroskeptic parties, who line up to bash the Green Deal, predict the Union’s imminent collapse, or attack Ukraine.”

Belgian security services were in on the investigation, and on Thursday, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo added that Russian operatives had paid European Union lawmakers to parrot Russian propaganda. Intelligence sources told Czech media that Voice of Europe paid politicians from Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Poland to influence the upcoming E.U. elections. Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper said the money was paid in cash or cryptocurrency. 

Czech prime minister Petr Fiala wrote on social media: “We have uncovered a pro-Russian network that was developing an operation to spread Russian influence and undermine security across Europe.” “This shows how great the risk of foreign influence is,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told journalists. “It’s a threat to our democracy, to our free elections, to our freedom of speech, to everything.”

There are reasons to think the same disinformation process is underway in the United States. Not only do MAGA Republicans, including House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), parrot Russian talking points about Ukraine, but Russian disinformation has also been a key part of the House Republicans’ attempt to impeach President Joe Biden. 

Republicans spent months touting Alexander Smirnov’s allegation that Biden had accepted foreign bribes, with Representative James Comer (R-KY) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) calling his evidence “verifiable” and “valuable.” In February the Department of Justice indicted Smirnov for creating a false record, days before revealing that he was in close contact with “Russian intelligence agencies” and was “actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections.”  

On March 19, former Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas testified about the investigation into Biden’s alleged corruption before the House Oversight Committee at the request of the Democrats. Parnas was part of the attempt to create dirt on Biden before the 2020 election, and he explained how the process worked.  

“The only information ever pushed about the Bidens and Ukraine has come from Russia and Russian agents,” Parnas said, and was part of “a much larger plan for Russia to crush Ukraine by infiltrating the United States.” Politicians and right-wing media figures, including then-representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), The Hill reporter John Solomon, Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity, and other FNC hosts, knew the narrative was false, Parnas said, even as they echoed it. He suggested that they were permitting “Russia to use our government for malicious purposes, and to reward selfish people with ill-gotten gains.” 

The attempt to create a false reality—whether by foreign operatives or homegrown ones—seems increasingly obvious in perceptions of the 2024 election. There has been much chatter, for example, about polls showing Trump ahead of Biden. But the 2022 polls were badly skewed rightward by partisan actors, and Democrat Marilyn Lands’s overwhelming victory over her Republican opponent in an Alabama House election this week suggests those errors have not yet been fully addressed.

Real measures of political enthusiasm appear to favor Biden and the Democrats. On Wednesday, Molly Cook Escobar, Albert Sun, and Shane Goldmacher of the New York Timesreported that since leaving office, Trump has spent more than $100 million on legal fees alone. He is badly in need of money, and his reordering of the funding priorities of the Republican National Committee to put himself first means that the party is badly in need of money, too.

Donors’ awareness that their cash will go to Trump before funding other Republican candidates might well slow fundraising. Certainly, small-donor contributions to Trump have dropped off significantly: Brian Schwartz of CNBC reported last week that “[i]n 2023, Trump’s reelection campaign raised 62.5% less money from small-dollar donors than it did in 2019, the year before the last presidential election.”  

Billionaires Liz and Dick Uihlein have recently said they will back Trump, and Alexandra Ulmer of Reuters reported on Tuesday that other billionaires had pooled the money to back Trump’s then–$454 million appeal bond before an appeals court reduced it. But Ulmer also noted that there might be a limit to such gifts, as they “could draw scrutiny from election regulators or federal prosecutors if the benefactors were to give Trump amounts exceeding campaign contribution limits. While the payment would not be a direct donation to Trump’s campaign, federal laws broadly define political contributions as ‘anything of value’ provided to a campaign.”

Meanwhile, the fundraising of Biden and the Democrats is breaking records. Last night, in New York City, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama joined Biden onstage with television personality Stephen Colbert, along with event host Mindy Kaling and musical guests Queen Latifah, Lizzo, and Ben Platt. The 5,000-person event raised an eye-popping amount—more than $25 million—and the campaign noted that, unlike donations to Trump, every dollar raised would go to the campaign.

In his remarks, Biden said that the grassroots nature of the Democrats’ support showed in the number of people who have contributed so far to his campaign: 1.5 million in all, including 550,000 “brand-new contributors in the last couple of weeks.” Ninety-seven percent of the donations have been less than $200. 

Tonight, Adrienne Watson, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, the president’s primary forum for national security and foreign policy, pointed to Russia’s devastating recent attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid and called again for Speaker Johnson to bring up the bipartisan national security supplemental bill providing aid to Ukraine that the Senate passed in February. She warned: “Ukraine’s need is urgent, and we cannot afford any further delays.”

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