Russian Information And Psychological Warfare In Crimea Crisis – OpEd


In 2014, significant ethnic Russian population started pro-Russian protests in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, and they revolted against the government and brought in Sergey Aksyonov as prime minister of Crimea. On March 16, a controversial referendum was carried out and 95.5% voted in favor of convergence with Russia. On March 18, 2014 Russia annexed Crimea with intentions of incorporating it in Russia.

Unlike traditional warfare, modern day warfare is a war of cyberspace. The annexation of Crimea showcased the multifaceted strategies employed in modern conflicts. Russia used information and psychological operations (PSYOPS) which played a very important role in favor of Russia. These operations were carried out to manipulate people’s perceptions and destabilize adversaries. This writeup will evaluate the effectiveness, ethical implications and long-term impact of Russian information and psychological operations during Crimea crisis and how these tactics contributed to swift and largely uncontested annexation of Crimean Peninsula.

Russia has a policy that offers financial, social, and cultural support to ethnic Russians outside of its borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These countries are referred to as the ‘zone of privileged interests. When any such country is pulled by a rival power, Russia considers it a step over its tolerance. The Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014 started this annexation of Crimea. Many ways were used to make this annexation successful and one important method was the utilization of social media networks.

Social media played the role of a powerful tool in information dissemination, propaganda and psychological operations. Social media can carry out narrative driven operations by Dissemination of Information and Disinformation: social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, VKontakte (VK) — often referred to as the Russian Facebook — and Facebook were used by Russian and pro-Russian parties to justify the act of annexation and legitimize the right of self-determination. Narratives like historical claims, security threads and cultural ties were propagated to manipulate the Crimeam people. For example, there was a viral image on Twitter portraying a Russian speaking school in Crimea being attacked by Ukrainian forces that was later found to be an image taken from a movie.

VKontakte (VK) was used to disseminate information in Crimea to provoke nationalism among the youth. Russian agents had been building the narrative of security threats against the Ukrainian government for years. As a result, any kind of such information was quickly accepted and disseminated in a matter of seconds. Let’s say on average everyone has 330 friends. Every one of those 330 members has a further 330 friends. This creates a great potential for the fast spreading of messages that can be referred to as ’viral effects’ allowing information to be disseminated quickly and uncontrollably, consequently influencing the narratives of millions of people.

Another rumor was spread showing the crucification of a three-year-old child by Ukrainian military, which was later found to be false, but it had already been shared by many and reposted. A sense of insecurity was created among the pro-Russian population to take refuge with Russia. Stories of crucified children and raped women were used to create discord by dividing the Ukrainian population and destroying their morale. Physiological operations were used against troops as Ukrainians soldiers arrived on front line. The Russian government discouraged Ukrainian soldiers by sharing information that their bodies will be found. This was not only limited to Ukrainian soldiers, but Russian people who were supporting Ukraine were also targeted.

To shape online conversations and manipulate public opinion in 2014 a Russian organization the Internet Research Agency (IRA) produced 2,329,674 individual tweets. These tweets were sent via 2,100 distinct accounts in 47 different languages to reach a diverse audience. An analysis of the IRA’s use of Twitter demonstrates a significant increase from 2013, which only revealed a combined 350 tweets compared to the 288,297 tweets in 2014, which were mostly laden with Russia-Ukraine information. Russia employed a wide range of Psychological tactics and strategies such as Propaganda, Disinformation, Demonization, Fear Mongering, Psychological Operations (PSYOP), Sowing Discord, Psychological Operations against Troops etc.

This analysis provides insights into the evolving nature of warfare in the digital age and the repetition of lies eventually accepted as truths. Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014 through a combination of political operations, military intervention, and a controversial referendum. The swift and resistance-free annexation from Crimea population was possible widely because of information warfare carried out at its finest as citizens were being manipulated by incorporating sense of insecurity among them by social media networks .

Bushra Ali

Bushra Ali is an undergraduate student of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad.

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