The Kremlin’s Disinformation Strategy Has Run Aground in the Sea of Azov

Based on the official statements from the US, EU, and NATO, it would seem that the disinformation operations conducted by the Kremlin after their recent aggression in the Sea of Azov were not very successful. Although there were a few alibi statements calling on “both sides” to de-escalate; it appears that most Western leaders have not accepted the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives accusing Ukraine of provocation.

One reason might be that attempts by Putin’s regime to mislead the international community are becoming more predictable. Recall that after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of  The Donbas, Western leaders were caught by surprise by the Kremlin’s attempts to deny reality so brazenly. Whereas recently, in the aftermath of the Skripal case, we have already seen that the Kremlin is finding fewer supportive voices in Western circles.

An experienced and swift reaction from Ukrainian civil society helped coordinate an effective response to the developing crisis in the Sea of Azov. The pioneers of countering disinformation from StopFake quickly highlighted the messages with which Putin’s “media” tried to pollute the information space. Their timely evaluation appeared during the first day of the crisis.

In its evaluation of the disinformation campaign, StopFake identified the key narratives as Ukraine acting as the provocateur, the West staging the incident as a pretext, or that the Ukrainian authorities are simply trying to raise their polling figures.

The facts are, however, that the Kremlin has been increasing its military presence in the Azov Sea, even eliciting a response from the EU warning the Kremlin to desist. Additionally, it is Putin’s ratings that are getting to the lowest point in the last decade.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeated exactly the same messages in its official statements as those that have been circulated by Kremlin-backed media outlets. Unsurprisingly, these attempts to disinform mostly reflect the Kremlin’s go-to strategy of shifting the blame of its own transgressions to its opponents.

Still, it would be naive to consider this particular information battle as a victory. As we have previously seen in the disinformation campaigns around Ukraine, Syria, MH17, and many others, the Kremlin is willing to let its disinformation machine repeat the same talking points over and over again for many months, even years. This constant repetition through multiple sources leads to familiarity, and familiarity leads to acceptance. Even in the Skripal case, we have seen some worrying results of Moscow’s propaganda:  81 percent of Bulgarians seem to feel they did not see enough proof of Russian involvement in the poisoning. The target audience of the Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem is not among the elites, but rather among ordinary citizens. Experts experienced in the information space sometimes misjudge that if something appears obvious to them, it must be obvious to everyone – which is not true.

Based on previous experience, we can be sure that the Kremlin’s disinformation machine will continue repeating its same disinformation narratives. It is up to Western leaders to stay vigilant and not get distracted by the Kremlin’s playbook, but rather insist on the facts – what we have seen in the Sea of Azov is a new level of Kremlin aggression against Ukraine.