Russia uses disinformation on Ukraine military aggressions as a pretext for war

Russia this week claimed Ukraine’s military crossed into Russia and even released a video of an invading tank, while Russian media highlighted supposed attacks inside the self-declared separatist republics. The U.S. and Ukraine accuse Russia of staging videos to justify an imminent invasion. Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center fellow studying eastern Europe, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And joining me to discuss Russian disinformation is Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at The Wilson Center.

    Nina Jankowicz, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    This evening, we have heard requests from the heads of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics for Russian military help — quote — "against Ukrainian aggression."

    Is that an obvious pretext for a Russian invasion?

  • Nina Jankowicz, The Wilson Center:

    You know, Nick, in short, it is.

    We have already seen more veiled attacks, as you have just noted, to create this pretext, from the shelling of a kindergarten in Ukrainian-held territory that Russia attempted to blame on Ukraine, to allegations of improvised explosive devices in cars containing cadavers.

    And along with the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk to their historical borders, that is, to the borders of Ukrainian-held territory right now, the letters from the leaders of these so-called republics build on those allegations to formally request this help to beat back Ukrainian aggression that simply does not exist.

    The Ukrainian side has been remarkably disciplined in holding their fire, despite these provocations. We have no evidence of Ukrainian aggression or, as Putin talked about in his speech the other day, of — quote, unquote — "genocide" by the Ukrainian army.

    There's just no evidence that any of this exists. And it strains credulity that, after eight years of war, the Ukrainian army would choose this moment, with 190,000 Russian troops on its borders, to pick up a new aggressive offensive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And those Russian troops on the borders that you just mentioned, you and your team are also tracking the movement along the borders. What's the latest that you're seeing?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes, since January, with the Center for Information Resilience, which is a U.K. nonprofit, we have been mapping out open source evidence of these troop movements from citizens in Belarus and Russia and Crimea along the border with Ukraine.

    And, for the past several weeks, we have been seeing them moving closer and closer to the border, moving off of convoys on railroads, getting kitted out, getting set up, with soldiers getting painted and moving closer to the border.

    And we saw similar — similar movements today. We would agree with Secretary of Defense Austin's statement that the Russian army is ready to strike. And that's corroborated also by cyberattacks by SMS psychological warfare and by other evidence that we have seen circulating on social media over the past couple of hours. It's going to be a grim night for Ukraine, I think.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It — there's a lot of fear in Ukraine that is going to be a grim night.

    And, today, we heard from the Zelensky, from Ukrainian officials declaring a state of emergency. That is not the message that Ukrainian officials have been giving over the last few days and weeks.

    How significant is it to see that state of emergency go into effect tonight?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, I think it's a marked change in thinking from the Ukrainian administration, which has sought to kind of maintain calm, sort of a grin-and-bear-it attitude that Ukrainians have had over this past several days.

    But, with Putin's extremely aggressive speech two days ago, along with this renewed intelligence from the U.K. and the U.S., as well as this open source evidence that things are moving closer and closer and closing in on Ukraine, I think the leaders had no choice but to make that announcement to prepare civilians and hope for the best at this point, which is, again, as somebody who has lived and worked in Ukraine, for a country that has never done anything to provoke Russia, it's a very sad evening.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we have seen, of course, disinformation from Russia for years, and certainly in the last few weeks and months during this crisis, but it shifted in the last — just in the last few days.

    How has the Russian disinformation effort shifted right here, what seems to be right at the end?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, at the earlier part of the crisis, we saw a lot more about NATO aggression, about NATO's broken promises to Russia and kind of categorizing this entire crisis as something that NATO could end if it kowtowed to Russia's demands.

    And now, along with these kinetic actions that we have described before, these provocations and staged video incidents, et cetera, we have seen from Putin, from his close officials and from Russian=state-sponsored media, as well as influencers online, this idea of Ukrainian aggression again bubbling up.

    And as I have already laid out, there's just nothing to those claims. We have so much documentation of the Russian forces moving in, of that aggression preparing to occur, and very, very little on the Ukrainian side. And, believe me, people there have cell phones and are documenting things too. There just isn't evidence for any of these claims.

    And that's how the narrative has changed over the past couple of weeks, to pin responsibility on Ukraine and create a pretext for war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nina Jankowicz, thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment