The Russians have proved pretty adept at fighting the ‘information war’ in the past, creating (from a Western standpoint) confusion and false narratives. This time out, the West is meeting them head on.
There has been a huge effort in the UK and the US to push military intelligence about Russian troop movements into the media through on-the-record and background briefings. The idea appears to be to neutralise Russian plans by publicising them.
We can’t know for certain how well this is working. Did the Russians choose not to invade Ukraine on Wednesday because an American journalist was briefed that it could happen? Who knows. The inherent problem is obvious; when the invasion didn’t come on Wednesday, the Russians were able to ridicule the claim.
On Thursday the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published an eye-popping video on Twitter which included a map of where the MoD thought Russian forces might make their moves in the first and second phases of an invasion. Once again this is a very public ‘we see you’ message to the Russians.
But it's not easy pitching these things just right. The MoD video asks: “Why does President Putin want to go to war?”
That is a pretty strange way to put it when ministers have spent days and weeks saying they don’t actually know whether he wants to go to war or not. These are the kinds of errors we broadcasters spend a lot of effort trying to iron out (and we don’t always manage it).
But words matter even more when they come from official government channels.
The Foreign Office also published a pretty punchy video on Thursday using BBC footage (did they get permission?) - this time, the video listed types of false flag or staged provocation operations that the West believes the Russians might use as a pretext for invasion.
It is a very direct, public accusation of Russian duplicity from the FCDO and a departure from what we usually think of as ‘diplomacy.’
There are drawbacks to confronting the Russians this way, especially if Western nations are trying all the while to contend that they are trustworthy while the Russians are not.
But in Washington and London the clear calculation is that they must fight an information war even if, perhaps especially if, they won’t fight a real war.