Four days after the Ukrainian war broke out, the State Department created an account on Telegram, a messaging app popular with Russians, as it became clear Washington was missing out with the Russians, a senior official told CNN. opportunities for interaction.
A series of Russian-language posts on the account amplified President Joe Biden’s condemnation of the war and warned Russians about Moscow’s propaganda machine.
“Long before the Kremlin began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it intensified its disinformation and censorship of independent media, and it continued to do so even during the war of aggression,” the ministry said on its Telegram account on Thursday.
So far, Russia’s interaction with the State Department’s Telegram account appears to have been very limited — it had 1,911 subscribers as of Friday afternoon Moscow time, and the country’s total population is about 142 million.
Analysts say any single platform or messaging campaign is unlikely to achieve a major breakthrough among the Russian public. But the common goal of a series of actors trying to pierce the digital iron curtain is to gradually erode Russian public support for the war and the morale of Russian soldiers.
The State Department also has an account on Russian messaging platform VK, has set up a website in recent weeks to refute Russian disinformation, and has worked to gain access to Russian-language broadcast platforms for U.S. officials, the official said.
Not a “silver bullet”
But some critics argue that the U.S. government needs to do more, aiming to emulate the massive propaganda efforts of the Cold War, when massive resources were devoted to getting messages to the Soviet populace.
Russian authorities have detained thousands of people protesting the war in Ukraine. A Russian state TV reporter who interrupted a live news broadcast on Monday was detained and fined about $270 with a sign reading “NO WAR”, but could still face jail.
“It’s a real Achilles’ heel for Putin,” James Clapper, who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, told CNN. He said the U.S. government should use any available social media platform to bring photos of dead Russian soldiers and prisoners of war to Russian citizens.
Several Russian prisoners of war appeared at a news conference held by Ukrainian authorities. This could be a problematic practice under the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit states from causing unnecessary humiliation to prisoners of war.
“This kind of thing helps the U.S. government do covert operations,” Clapper said. “And I believe and hope that we are doing something along those lines.”
The U.S. intelligence community is closely monitoring Russian public opinion, but it is unclear whether any kind of covert information operation is planned.
“We’re watching what’s going on in Russia,” said a Western source familiar with intelligence, adding that it was unclear whether public opinion was for or against the war.
Support for the free flow of information into Russia is less veiled.
Alina Polyakova, president of the nonprofit Center for European Policy Analysis, said the State Department’s Telegram account was “a step in the right direction, but frankly, it wasn’t creative enough.”
Polyakova, who grew up in Kyiv in the 1980s, said Russians today don’t seem to trust Western media or government officials as sources of information as they did at the end of the Cold War.
“We really need to think more creatively about who is the right messenger,” she added, pointing to the numerous journalists who have fled Russia in recent weeks as the Kremlin has criminalized independent reporting on the war in Ukraine.
Polyakova said Western governments and charities now have a “huge opportunity” to support these journalists, as they may continue to report from abroad and connect with Russian audiences who trust them.
‘We should bring them real news’
While the State Department sent carefully worded messages to Russian citizens, a loose group of hacker volunteers from Ukraine and abroad was more confrontational.
Yegor Aushev, Ukraine’s cybersecurity chief, said the so-called Ukrainian IT army, which Kyiv was actively encouraging, tried to hack Russian news sites and publish information about Russian casualties in Ukraine, saying he helped organize the hacking group. Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.
Oshev said by phone from Ukraine that Russian citizens “have little knowledge of what’s going on here.” “That’s why we decided that one of the most important targets should be the media. We should bring real news to them.”
But reaching Russian audiences doesn’t require breaking into a computer. The Americans were one of many people who used a website built by an international organization of volunteer programmers called Squad303 to send text messages to Russians.
Florida nurse Stacey McCue used the platform to send about 100 text messages and hundreds of emails to Russians. She began to personalize the messages with her own voice, saying that Moscow had been lying to its citizens and that the war had killed civilians.
So far, McCue has only received three responses: “F— off,” “Crimea is ours,” and one that threatens to “forward your information to the appropriate authorities! Stop making these kinds of calls.” !”
The hostile response didn’t stop McCoo.
“I think it’s better to be proactive and take a stand, even if trying to influence the overall situation is a small thing,” she told CNN.
More high-profile Americans are joining the cause.
The “Terminator” star and former California Governor Schwarzenegger addressed “the Russian people” in a video with Russian subtitles posted to his 5 million Twitter followers and more than 19,000 Telegram subscribers on Thursday.
“I hope you’ll let me tell you the truth about the war in Ukraine and what’s going on there,” Schwarzenegger said before detailing Russia’s bombing of Ukraine’s maternity ward.
It’s unclear how much traction Schwarzenegger’s video may have gained in Russia. But on Friday, the word “Ani” broke into Twitter’s top 10 list of trending topics in Russia, and many videos containing Schwarzenegger were accompanied by praise and criticism from Twitter users.
A source close to Schwarzenegger told CNN that the former bodybuilder made the video voluntarily and was not required to do so by the U.S. government.
But the State Department Telegram account immediately shared the video, and others in the messaging ecosystem followed suit.
Blake Ferrell, a plumber from Indiana, told CNN that he sent video of Schwarzenegger to several Russians via Telegram and still images of the actor’s speech to other Russians via the Squad303 messaging platform.
Ferrell has yet to hear back, but he wants to continue his efforts to reach Russian audiences.
“For me, it’s an excitement to actually get in touch with another person,” he said.
CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis and Dana Bash contributed reporting.