Our Take

Russia’s disinformation strategy has moved from trying to justify its war in Ukraine to trying to convince the West that supporting Ukraine is too costly, Joseph Bodnar, Bret Schafer, and Etienne Soula find in A Year of Disinformation: Russia and China’s Influence Campaigns During the War in Ukraine. 

US President Joe Biden’s historic trip to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s weak response make it clear that Russia is losing the war in Ukraine. The visit also set the table for what could become divisive US domestic political debates about support for Ukraine in the second year of the war, Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph and Amb. Norman Eisen write on the Interference Matters blog.

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Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian diplomats and state media focused on three main narratives: 

  • Bryansk attack: After an alleged terrorist attack in Russia’s Bryansk region, Kremlin-backed messengers blamed Ukrainian forces, promised to destroy them, and asserted that they had planted a large amount of explosives in the area and tried to take school children hostage. Russian intelligence-backed sites called the attack a Ukrainian public relations stunt and argued that it proves Ukraine shouldn’t exist.
  • Broader war: Russian propagandists accused Ukraine of building up forces near Transnistria and preparing an attack with “radioactive substances” in the region. They also asserted that the United States was planning a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. 
  • China: Kremlin-linked accounts showcased growing trade between Russia and China and claimed that any effort to divide the countries would be “doomed to fail”. They also pushed back on renewed attention around the theory that COVID-19 leaked out of a lab in Wuhan. Finally, Russian accounts sent mixed messages on China’s peace plan, with officials saying there was no opportunity for peace at the moment and others arguing that Beijing has a chance to negotiate an end to the war.   

Chinese diplomats and state media focused on three main topics:

  • Ukraine “peace plan”: Chinese diplomats and state media actively promoted China’s position paper on what they still call “the Ukraine crisis”. They were especially keen to portray the report as proof of China’s constructive role in the war and to stress that the international community was admirative of this “important contribution”.
  • Warmongering Westerners: By contrast, Chinese accounts said NATO brought instability to Asia, accused the United States of bullying, and relayed the “seven dark rules of US diplomacy”. Beijing’s diplomats and state media were particularly active in framing the United States as the aggressor in the South China Sea.
  • COVID-19: Apart from a formal Ministry of Foreign Affairs rebuttal on Monday and Wednesday, Chinese diplomats mostly refrained from commenting on the latest allegations surrounding COVID-19’s origins. By contrast, the nationalist tabloid Global Times and several state media personalities dismissed US media’s “hysterical energy” and countered with recycled arguments about Fort Detrick being the source of the alleged lab leak.

News and Commentary

House committee on China makes case to American people: In the House select committee on China’s first hearing, Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) framed the United States’ competition with China as an “existential struggle” as members and witnesses highlighted the growing list of flashpoints between the two countriesincluding Taiwan, human rights, technology, trade, and TikTok. Senior Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman told the Dispatch, “The China committee is a critical opportunity for bipartisanship in Congress on an issue that affects every Americanthe global success of democracy and the post-World War II order that China is trying to undermine and rewrite. It’s vital that this work not devolve into partisan squabbles when there is so much high-level alignment. In technology we’ve seen this alignment bear fruit on the CHIPS and Science Act. If it’s to be successful, committee members making the case of the CCP threat to the American peopleand that includes all Americansmust seek to avoid politicization, including avoiding known racist trip-wires.”

United States, EU take aim at Russian sanctions evasion: The United States and the EU took action to reduce Russian sanctions evasion, as the United States sanctioned more than 200 entities across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that support Russia’s war effort and blacklisted 86 groups, including five Chinese firms, from accessing US technology. The EU also passed a new sanctions package further constraining Russian trade and banking. Deputy Director David Salvo said, “Generally speaking, the latest round of sanctions on Russian individuals and entities by the United States, United Kingdom, and EU reinforces transatlantic unity against Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, we’re seeing subtle divisions among EU member states about how severe some of those sanctions should be or which Russian commodities should be excluded from the EU market. That’s normal horse trading by EU negotiating standards, perhaps, but we need to hope those subtle divisions don’t lead to broader disagreement about how to wield sticks to punish Russia’s ongoing malign behavior.” 

DHS requires states to spend 3% of new grant’s funds on election security: The US Department of Homeland Security will require states receiving funds from a $2 billion preparedness program to allocate at least 3% of their share to improving election security during the 2023 fiscal year. Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine told the Dispatch, “Requiring states to spend at least 3% of their Homeland Security grant funding on protecting elections is an important step to ensuring election officials have the resources they need to keep up with evolving threats, be they foreign or domestic. Such a requirement will help ensure that those remaining jurisdictions that are ‘target rich, cyber poor’ have more funding to do things like replace outdated equipment, address staffing shortages, and conduct updated training to keep abreast of evolving threats from autocratic actors.”

In Case You Missed It

  • A Turkish court sentenced a journalist to 10 months in prison for spreading “misleading information”, the first jail term issued under the country’s new “disinformation law”.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch Russian ally, said Belarus “fully supports” China’s newly released peace plan for Ukraine following a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • Venezuelan state TV hosts repeatedly cited positive coverage of their country by a fake English-language news outlet that used deep-fake generated hosts.
  • Governments in 35 countries shut down the internet 187 times in 2022 during large protests, conflicts, and elections, with almost half of the instances occurring in India, according to a report from Access Now.
  • Chipmakers will be required to freeze expansion plans in China for a decade in order to receive money from a $39 billion US Commerce Department fund dedicated to semiconductor development.
  • Canada banned TikTok from government-issued devices due to privacy and security risks, following similar bans from the US government and European Commission.

ASD in the News

COVID-19 conspiracies soar after latest report on origins. Senior Fellow Bret Schafer quoted in AP News

Big elections changes could come for Maryland, and here’s what lawmakers are considering. Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine quoted in Herald-Mail Media

Committee on Democratic Renewal and Citizenship. Research Analyst Etienne Soula testified before Belgian Parliament

Digital Bridge: Telecom priorities — Tech-on-Thames — AI rulemaking. Research from Joseph Bodnar, Etienne Soula, and Bret Schafer highlighted in Politico EU   

“We Couldn’t Stop”: Debunking Russian Disinfo From a War Zone. Hamilton 2.0 dashboard highlighted in Logically

Quote of the Week

“I think that there needs to be this really concerted focus on protecting elections officials and making sure that folks know we will prosecute any attempts to intimidate or engage in violence against our elections officials, period, full stop… Our democracy depends on the ability of good people to step forward and serve as elections officials.”

  • Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes told the Guardian in an exclusive interview published on March 1.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.