Russia has inherited a perception of truth that is malleable and changeable over time, one that can be adapted to current needs. Under the Putin regime, the conspiratorial worldview of ‘Russia perpetually under threat by the West’ has been revived on a broad scale, and it is slowly impacting Americans’ perception of truth and reality. In an era of heightened political polarization, conspiratorial thinking by even a relatively small segment of the public could have outsized and possibly disastrous consequences on U.S. national security. Distracting the West by fostering internal polarization and institutional distrust erodes its ability to contain Russia, which allows Putin to achieve his broader goals of undermining opponents and promoting Russian foreign policy goals.
“Modern wars are waged on the level of consciousness and ideas”
— Alexander Vladimirov, 2007.
Russia’s Truth, or Lack Thereof
As eloquently stated by the C suite of Russia Today (RT), Russia’s state-run propaganda mouthpiece: In Russia, there is no ‘truth.’ “In this cynical relativist world of swirling competing versions, nothing is really true.” To many Russians, black is white and white is purple. Whatever Putin’s administration states is consumed as ‘reality’ by many Russians. Additionally, because the domestic information landscape is heavily restricted, conspiratorial thinking and half-truths perpetuated by the state become widely accepted, mainstream ideals.
The strategic culture of Russia operates in different planes and degrees of truth; different prisms of Russian logic can offer immensely different conclusions about information’s intent, purpose, lethality, or encroachment on sovereignty. These divergent paths of logic result in nontraditional conclusions of how power operates, which are emboldened by Putin’s closest circle. Putin’s administration uses lies and conspiracies to deflect blame, cover up human rights violations and war crimes, and mask intentions on a global scale. The Kremlin lies even when it doesn’t need to – challenging conventional means of diplomacy and global order. Prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin denied Russian troops posed a threat to Ukraine, while simultaneously claiming Ukraine was committing genocide in the Donbas region. Then, Putin denied a false flag operation to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, shortly thereafter being debunked by U.S. intelligence revealing soldiers had been installed. Years earlier, Putin claimed to be attacking ISIS after he claimed the lives of civilians in a plane crash.
In the pre-internet age, the USSR spent significant resources on lying to convince the world that communism was winning and was the ideal system for the global world order. Many of these claims relied on insufficient, nonrepresentative evidence, or non-accessible evidence, to be perceived as truthful. However, the U.S. was able to debunk most Soviet operations by disseminating competing facts and intelligence that proved the misleading ‘evidence’ incorrect. This strategy was relatively effective given the limited number of information channels accessible to the public and the scope of Russian disinformation. However, in the internet age, 90.9% of Americans are online and able to explore a sprawling network of news and information. Putin’s aims today are not to convince the world to accept communism, they are to regain global influence for the regime at any cost. This goal does not inherently rely on the support of the West; thus he dispenses lies as he pleases. He taunts the U.S. with his half-truths, and their effects are beginning to seep into existing divisions in U.S. society and make Americans question their sanity. The consequences of Russia’s information warfare on the U.S. are far greater than stoking fears of election integrity; it is building disillusionment with reality among the populations most vulnerable to radicalization.
Disillusionment in America
Conspiracy theories as a foundational concept of truth in America may seem like a distant nightmare, but it has come far closer to reality since the rise of Putin’s regime and the internet age. The same audience that believes hoaxes about moon landings or space aliens are emboldening Russian conspiracies today, which pose a greater threat to our nation’s capacity to respond to urgent national or global emergencies.
Russia is now able to disseminate conspiracy theories on a larger scale via social media and internet publication, which enables Russia to lie whenever, even without good reason. If they throw enough lies at the U.S., some lies are bound to stick. Russia also formerly fabricated conspiracies on a larger case-by-case basis; like Operation INFEKTION and the JFK assassination conspiracy operations. Today, Putin lies without pattern or methodology, presenting a challenge for Western leaders to sift through what is real, fake, or conspiracy.
Below are the results of a study from Spring 2022 in which respondents were asked to assess the accuracy of eight widespread false claims.
18% of Americans believed at least one of the four false claims about vaccines, and 14% believed at least one false claim about Ukraine. The fact that Americans believe inaccurate claims perpetuated by Putin at all is terrifying. This tells us that truth is malleable in the U.S. on a wider scale now.
When Americans see a statement as factual, they overwhelmingly also believe it to be accurate. To Americans, fact is truth. Unfortunately, much of Russian conspiratorial thinking and lies are rooted in some facts, loosely tied together with lies. And often, Kremlin lying is not necessarily seen as credible or plausible; it has as one aim undermining the notion of objective truth and reporting being possible at all. Russia’s aims are to attack a “weakened moral immunity to propaganda, a weakness of confidence in sources of knowledge,” as stated by Leon Aron. This has been exemplified throughout recent history, and most recently as Fox News hosts regurgitated baseless Russian talking points that the U.S. was behind the 2022 Nord Stream gas pipeline sabotage. Often, Russia feeds false information into smaller information ecosystems and news channels with aim of landing them on major news producers, like Fox. Russia’s aim is to continue making Americans question their sanity and perception of reality, facilitated by trolls and bots online, until America can no longer distinguish fact from fiction.
Response by the National Security Apparatus
The U.S. is also polarizing faster than other democracies. This is in part due to asymmetric targeting of right-wing extremes, rather than Russia’s historical efforts to target moderate thinkers with its conspiracies. Asymmetric targeting gives their typically virulent anti-Western and anti-U.S. views a broad international platform. Thus, an unhinging sense of reality in one half of the two-party system which governs the U.S. makes this issue a national security issue – not simply a questionable social issue for future generations. Once Russian conspiracy theories, as any, become mainstream in the U.S. information ecosystem, their relevance becomes considerably more important. It is unwise to avoid them. Particularly as some Russian conspiracies hold some kernels of truth to prop themselves on, the security apparatus cannot disavow these as ‘crazy’ or unproblematic. Putin’s lies are having an impact.
To contain a revisionist Russia, the national security apparatus must target its own biases and seek to understand why Putin lies and what the broader goals are of pushing conspiracies on the West. Conspiratorial thinking has underpinned Russian thinking for centuries and it has become an increasingly important element of the country’s political ideology. Putin uses it to not only exploit westerners abroad but also to exploit nostalgia for Russia’s past greatness, justifying his authoritarian turn and providing a basis for social cohesion and popular mobilization in Russia and former Soviet states. It underpins the broader fundamental goals of Russia to reunite past states with the motherland. Often the roadblock in Putin’s way is the West – via foreign aid, journalism, or diplomacy. Distracting the West by fostering internal polarization and dismantling erodes its ability to contain Russia, which allows Putin to achieve his broader goals.
Responding effectively also requires national security leaders to use time-tested methods to marginalize extremist messaging, respond to conspiracies with a collective, and preferably nonpartisan voice, and organize leading voices to flood the information space with messages that marginalize disinformation. Further, conspiracies are not always necessarily wrong at their core since they often explain the way power operates in simplified terms. The national security community must approach responding to these conspiracies with requisite care, as some conspiracies were later proven real (e.g. Watergate). Finally, the apparatus must call Putin out for what he is: a liar and conspiracy theorist.
DISCLAIMER: This article was submitted as an anonymous publication by a student in the Security Studies Program. Views given are the author’s own.