Only a person with the dimmest powers of critical reflection could fail to notice the importance of psychological operations (psyops) in today’s world and in contemporary theaters of warfare. Even though the average American might not be familiar with the terms “psychological operations” or “psyops,” he or she is most likely well aware of the intense battle between nations to justify their actions and control the global narrative concerning the rightness and wrongness of those actions.
Indeed, ever since the onset of World War II, nations have waged war not only in the realm of physical weaponry but also in the realm of information. Further, with the rise of the internet and social media, this battle of narratives has only increased in significance. Information, misinformation, and disinformation can now be disseminated instantaneously and globally.
In fact, we are currently experiencing the instantaneous global dissemination of deceptive propaganda related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as it becomes clear that various American politicians have been duped by Russian psyops.
American citizens and leaders must therefore beware of deceptive information being fed to us through the internet, social media accounts, and other media. And, in order to beware, we must be aware. Thus, this article provides a brief “explainer” of psychological operations, before drawing some conclusions about Russian disinformation and its effect on some Americans.
Psychological Operations: A Summary
Psychological operations convey messages to audiences in order to influence their thinking, feeling, and acting. The given target audience for a particular psyops campaign could include national governments, corporations, organizations, social groups, and individuals. The chosen media could include printed material, radio or TV broadcasts, social media postings, internet sites, or loudspeakers.
“White” psyops are forthright information campaigns. They are conveyed through official government statements and acts or emanate from a source closely associated with the government. Sometimes, this information is true and factual; other times it is not.
Unlike white psyops, “grey” psyops are deliberately ambiguous. In it, the perpetrating nation doesn’t reveal that it is the source of the information conveyed to the target audience. The information appears to emanate from non-official sources or is conveyed with no attribution at all.
“Black” psyops are operations in which the information conveyed appears to issue forth from a source (government, social group, corporation, organization, person) that is hostile in nature. The true source of the information is not revealed and would deny responsibility if implicated.
When military personnel are engaging in psyops, they often do so through loudspeaker and face-to-face communication; for example, the armored vehicles of an invading army might broadcast loud messages about the good-will of the invaders and the bad-will of the defending government. Other times, military personnel might drop leaflets or hijack indigenous radio or television outlets.
Russian Psyops during the Ukraine Invasion
Consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The purpose of Russian psyops thus far has been to influence Russian nationals, Ukrainian nationals, and global citizens to think positively about the Russian occupation.
In relation to Russia’s own citizens, Putin’s psyops campaign has included the shuttering of dissenting news outlets and the “command and control” of messaging through remaining outlets. By streamlining communication in this manner, Putin can ensure that Russian citizens will be exposed repeatedly to his narrative about the war.
In an attempt to secure support from Russian citizens, Putin conveys to them that the military strike is a mere “special military operation” to “de-Nazify Urkraine,” rather than to admit it is a war of invasion and occupation. Further, the Russian government issues what appears to be disinformation about the number of Russian troop casualties, numbering the deaths at approximately 30% of what global commentators estimate. Finally, state media outlets do not comment on the war crimes committed by Russian leadership and troops, such as the intentional bombing of hospitals and evacuation routes.
Russia’s psyops also attempt to weaken Ukraine from within. It does this by informing Ukrainian citizens that their leaders cannot be trusted but that Russia’s government can. Additionally, Russian psyops convey to Ukrainian citizens that their nation is incapable of winning the conflict.
Finally, Russia’s psyops attempt to justify Russian actions to the global community, while simultaneously indicting the actions of Ukraine and allied nations. This can be seen in Russia’s accusation that the United States is developing biological weapons in Ukrainian laboratories. It can also be seen in Putin’s assertion that Russia has a historical right to Ukrainian territory and his accusation that NATO has painted Russia into a corner by expanding toward Russia’s borders.
Potential Russian Psyops Strategies
In upcoming days, as circumstances change, Russian psyops will continue to morph. The only question is in which direction they will take.
We might very well see Russian psyops morph in the direction of nuclear threat or nuclear action. We might see Putin make further threats—implicit or explicit—concerning a potential tactical nuclear strike; the purpose of such threats would be to demoralize Ukrainian citizens while simultaneously deterring Western nations from entering the conflict. Similarly, if Russia deploys a nuclear weapon, it’s psyops will attempt to persuade audiences of the necessity of having done so and to further deter Western nations from becoming involved.
Another possibility, should Russia withdraw from Ukraine, is that Russian psyops will be employed to help Putin and Russia save face. The message conveyed would be that Putin had accomplished his “real” objective and thus feels free to withdraw. In so doing, Russian psyops would attempt to enhance Putin’s reputation as a leader who always achieves his goals, and to glorify Russia’s reputation as a global power.
Don’t Be Duped
To date, it seems that most American citizens and thought leaders haven’t been duped by Russian psyops. Yet, it appears that a few have been fooled.
On the Left, some thought leaders hang onto the dogmatic ideological belief that all human beings are essentially good-willed and that, with the proper diplomacy and economic incentives, even the worst tyrant might very well be persuaded to behave better. One evidence of this is former President Obama’s reductions of U.S. military capacities and weak-kneed interactions with Putin. Yet, as William Buckley put it, “Idealism is fine. But as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” Idealism misreads the human condition, and thus easily succumbs to a hostile leader’s disinformation, and with serious consequences.
On the Right, some thought leaders hang seem to have purchased wholesale the last decade’s worth of Russian psyops. One evidence of this is Congressman Madison Cawthorne (R-NC), who recently made statements that favor Russia’s messaging, arguing that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a “thug” and the Ukrainian government is “incredibly evil.” Fortunately, the vast majority of elected GOP officials disagree, with many of them rebuking Cawthorne for his view.
Thus, we must constantly beware of the information and disinformation impinging upon us from all sides. George Bernard Shaw put it best: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”