Responding to Russia’s invasion

On Wednesday 23 March, Simon Baugh, Chief Executive, UK Government Communication Service (GCS), Simon spoke at the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) International summit on how the UK Government Communication Service has been responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the steps they are taking to support Ukraine and its people during this time.

Putin’s lies

On February 14, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Russia is not threatening anyone and doesn’t want to”. 

On the 15 February, Vladimir Putin said Russia was withdrawing its troops from the Ukrainian border. 

On the 17 February, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister complained at the UN Security Council that Western countries were “making unsubstantiated allegations that Russia is going to attack Ukraine”. 

On 24 February, Russia attacked Ukraine.

From the start, Putin’s war has been built on lies. 

Now, more than four weeks into the war, having failed in its initial objectives, Russia is pursuing a strategy of attrition involving the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower. Its tactics will result in the deaths of thousands more innocent Ukrainian civilians and will intensify the humanitarian crisis. There is very strong evidence of atrocities being committed by Russia that cross the threshold for war crimes.

Yet, as the evidence mounts, the Russian Government continues to insist its war is a “special military operation”, its plans are on track, and it has not targeted civilians.

Vladimir Putin’s modus operandi is to lie blatantly and repeatedly. He knows that when people hear the same false information repeatedly, we come to believe it is true. It is what psychologists refer to as the ‘illusory truth effect’. 

In his brilliant book of 2014, “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” Peter Pomarentsev, charts Russia’s course from Communism to a new hall of mirrors form of dictatorship. 

In Russia, working as a TV producer, he writes that he had the growing sense that “reality itself was somehow malleable, that I was with Prosperos who could project any existence they wanted onto post-Soviet Russia. But with every year I worked in Russia, and as the Kremlin became ever more paranoid, [the] strategies became ever more twisted, the need to incite panic and fear ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hate-mongers were put on prime time to keep the nation entranced, distracted

To sustain his lies, Putin has shut down independent media, blocked social media channels, threatened journalists with up to 15 years in jail if they do not regurgitate Kremlin falsehoods, locked up the leader of the opposition, and arrested thousands of peaceful demonstrators. 

Vladimir Putin has lied to the world. He has lied to his own people.  He has even lied to his own soldiers, many of whom seem to have believed they were going on a training mission, only to find themselves killing their neighbours.

As Shakespeare tells us in The Merchant of Venice: “truth will come to light, murder cannot be hid long … at the length truth will out”. 

Our job is to ensure the length is short, and that the Russian people know the truth of Putin’s war.  The truth is the greatest threat to Putin’s power and his greatest fear.

The information war

To understand the vital role communications professionals have to play in this war, it is necessary to understand Russia’s military doctrine. For Russia, communications is not an adjunct to war. Information is a weapon of war. 

Russia’s method is to undermine the cohesion of its enemies, to deliberately sow division and polarise societies to make it harder to respond to its aggression and harder to maintain alliances. Cyber attacks, disinformation, interfering in free elections are all part of a full-spectrum all-domain approach to war. 

Russia’s announcement that it was putting its deterrent forces on special alert is consistent with a wider pattern of communications designed to distract and deter the West from supporting Ukraine. Russia wants us to respond to its rhetoric, or implicitly accept its premises in our own communications. It is vital that we do not respond in kind. Instead, our response must refocus the issue on Ukraine, and Russia’s responsibility to de-escalate – starting by ceasing its assault on Ukraine and withdrawing its forces. 

It is difficult to be sure how much Russia spends on disinformation campaigns, but they are systematic, well-resourced, and perpetrated on an industrial scale. 

Russian pro-government traditional media have a large reach and budget. Two of those outlets, RT and Sputnik, operated in more than 100 countries and broadcast programmes in thirty languages. Then there is its online activity, with troll factories like the Internet Research Agency, which has employed fake accounts on social networks, online media sites, and video platforms to promote the Kremlin’s interests. Putin knows that Russian public opinion, and his future, rests on winning this information war. 

The Kremlin Playbook is to mislead, make false claims, switch stories and fabricate evidence. Within Russia there is evidence it is successful. There is no doubt that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was hugely popular with the Russian people. It is likely that even today most Russians believe that Ukraine is the aggressor in this war.

What GCS is doing

What is the UK Government doing in response? I am proud of the role the Government Communication Service has played so far. And I want to take this opportunity to thank those who have worked so hard in the last few weeks.

Our support starts well before that. Since 2016, we have been providing strategic communications support to the Government of Ukraine, ranging from helping to build a professional communications capability at the centre of Government, to building resilience to cyber security threats, to jointly delivering a campaign to support the shared values of our democracies. 

We facilitated the first ever cross-Government of Ukraine communications community, called One Voice, bringing together communicators to undertake training and share best practice. Our prayers are with them and their families, and we want them to know they are doing a fantastic job.

Alongside our work in Ukraine, GCS has been working with countries in central and eastern Europe to take action against disinformation. GCS has trained more than five hundred communicators from 20 countries using our ‘RESIST 2’ counter disinformation toolkit. 

We will continue to work with others to understand and expose the threat disinformation poses and identify how organisations can monitor and respond to it. We will openly share our resources to help organisations build societal and individual resilience to disinformation. 

In January, as it became evident that Vladimir Putin was intent on invading Ukraine, we took new measures. The intelligence picture showed that Russia was developing false flag attacks to justify an invasion. Kremlin proxies in the Donbas were producing a series of increasingly absurd fake incidents to serve as a pretext for Russian aggression. 

In an unprecedented move, working with allies, we declassified intelligence information so that the world could see what Russia was planning. In exposing Russia’s propaganda and subterfuge, and calling it out for what it was, we hoped Russia would be less likely to engage in an attack. At the same time, we made clear that Russia would face unprecedented economic sanctions if it did invade. Tragically for the people of Ukraine, the messages reached the Kremlin but went unheeded. 

At the start of February, we created the UK Government Information Cell. Its staff are drawn from across the UK Government into one team which includes the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence, Home Office and Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Its goal is to dispel Kremlin falsehoods relating to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It works with our NATO, EU and Five Eyes allies to identify Russian disinformation and expose it as false. It also creates content to bolster the morale and confidence of the Ukrainian people by showing them they are not alone.

We are building the capability to deliver fast communication with impact, in real-time and on the basis of 24/7 monitoring, content production, response and rebuttal. The Information Cell enhances our ability to counter the threat posed by information warfare and exposes Russian audiences to the truth about Putin’s war. It is a leaflet drop operation for the social media age.

Even more important than what the Information Cell does, is what it does not do. Unlike Russia, our model is based on the UK Government using facts to expose the truth. Its unofficial motto has become “the truth, well told”. We do not propagate disinformation ourselves. 

This isn’t a level playing field and we know that the Russians won’t hold themselves to the same standards of factual accuracy and transparency that we want to uphold. But my sincerely held conviction is that some of our greatest long-term advantages against Russian information operations are our ethical and legal frameworks, our open society, our commitment to freedom of the press, and the enduring principle of ‘honesty’ in public life set out in the Civil Service Code.

The debt we owe

We have not done enough to curb Russia. We are all guilty of looking the other way, of failing to respond robustly enough to Russia’s previous provocations, and of not taking seriously Putin’s stated aim of recreating a Greater Russian empire. 

The communications industry is not blameless. I welcome the ICCO’s indefinite suspension of the Russian PR organisation AKOS, and the PRCA’s warning that its members face expulsion for working with Russian organisations on the sanctions list. But in the past, the PR industry has been too willing to compromise our values by doing business with Russia and indirectly supporting Putin and his regime.

Let us be honest with ourselves. As Grozny was flattened, Georgia subjugated, and Crimea annexed, we carried on doing business. Through chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and Dawn Sturgess’s death on the streets of Salisbury from a military-grade nerve agent, we carried on doing business. Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead, Boris Nemtsov murdered, Alexei Navalny poisoned and imprisoned, and we carried on doing business.

We have kidded ourselves that the money flowing from Russia was part of a free market exchange. But the oligarchs and their companies were not legitimate businesses – they were financing Putin’s kleptocracy. 

If there is one positive to come from this awful war let it be that the scales have fallen from our eyes. Responsible countries, companies and citizens do not do business with a country stealing from its own people, murdering its political opponents, and committing appalling atrocities on its neighbours. 

The PR industry owes a debt and the time has come to repay it. We owe it to the Ukrainian people to stand shoulder to shoulder against Russian aggression. We owe it to ordinary Russians to expose the truth of Putin’s war and to persuade them there can be a better future.  We owe it to ourselves to create a world where sovereignty, self-determination and stability are again the norm in Europe.

Our goals

Our goal has been set out clearly by the UK Prime Minister in a simple three word phrase – ‘Putin must fail’. 

Let us all work to maintain the unity of the international community. Putin has been taken aback by the world’s response. The scale of support for Ukraine, through economic sanctions and the self-sanctioning of companies pulling out of Russia has gone much further than most people believed possible. Let us show that our support for Ukraine and its people is steadfast. Our resolve is unshakable. We stand by the Ukrainian people for the long-term.

From a humanitarian perspective, people across the world want to support those who have been forced to flee their homes because of Russia’s brutality. Let us all help people get the information they need to make a donation safely or to become a sponsor of refugees and help Ukrainians find a route to safety.

Domestically, let us all explain that the forthcoming economic costs are the cost of Putin’s war and a price worth paying. Putin is gambling that people will be unwilling to shoulder the costs of supporting Ukraine. Let us prove him wrong, and remind ourselves that however hard it may be, the immediate economic costs are cheaper than long-term instability in Europe.

Let us remind the Russian people that our quarrel is not with them and that Putin’s government serves him and his cronies alone. It is the corruption and miscalculation of Vladimir Putin that are the cause of Russia’s problems. And the path to Russian prosperity and greatness does not lie in isolation and introspection.

But above all, let us send a message to Ukraine. We stand with its people. We stand with its democratically-elected government. We stand with Ukraine.

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