Russia's 'disinformation campaign' on Salisbury attack follows familiar script

  1. Various theories spread to undermine UK stance on attack on Skripals
  2. UK Foreign Secretary under pressure to clarify evidence
  3. Deniability key to hybrid warfare

Since fingers pointed toward Russia after an attack against a former double agent and his daughter in Britain, dozens of alternative theories have been proposed by figures linked to the Kremlin. Experts told WikiTribune the allegations fit an established pattern of Russian disinformation campaigns that should be countered with the transparent use of facts.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were attacked in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, perhaps because Yulia was engaged and the mother of her future husband disapproved of the match, reported Moscow newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets.

Alternatively, the attack was ordered by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, on the request of her friend Gina Haspel the proposed CIA director, according to TV Zvedza, a network run by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

In fact, the UK government might have ordered the attack to distract the public from the poor state of Brexit negotiations with the European Union (EU), suggested Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. His spokesperson also suggested Britain is trying to isolate Russia so it cannot host this summer’s World Cup.

Altogether, EUvsDisinfo, which is run by the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, has tracked at least 25 alternative theories propagated by pro-Kremlin officials and media. EUvsDisinfo is an instrument of the strategic communication of the EU towards the Eastern neighbourhood. It is in line with the objectives of the Action Plan , developed by the East Stratcom Team in cooperation with the EU.

The British government was quick to say that it had concluded the attack was either ordered by the Russian government or the Kremlin was otherwise responsible. Russia has consistently denied involvement as the incident escalated into a diplomatic crisis, with 24 countries, plus the UK, expelling Russian diplomats.

The UK government has been urged to contend (Guardian) with this disinformation campaign by clearly setting out the facts. Observers agree that this is the best way to counter a well-established pattern of Russian obfuscation and dissonance.

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Stick to the facts

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been criticized by opponents who say he misled the public when telling German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Porton Down chemical weapons experts had told him the nerve agent definitely came from Russia.

The head of the government laboratory told Sky News that the nerve agent could not be directly traced back to Russia, and the office running the lab tweeted that establishing the source of the nerve agent is not its responsibility. He did identify the nerve agent as novichok, a type developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

Russia is expected to try to discredit (Guardian) the UK’s allegations at a UN Security Council meeting it called to discuss the diplomatic crisis, to be held on April 5.

Ben Nimmo, an expert in information and disinformation at Washington D.C.-based think tank Atlantic Council, told WikiTribune that countering Russian disinformation requires “clear and consistent” statements.

“That means being careful with the language and not getting ahead of the evidence, and ultimately, it means publishing as much of the evidence as possible,” said Nimmo.

As well as alternative theories, the disinformation around the Salisbury attack has included outright denials and contradictory statements on various details, he said.

“Most of the disinformation so far around the Skripal case has been about confusing people, rather than convincing them. It’s a simple technique, because it doesn’t need any evidence,” said Nimmo.

Such an approach can be counterproductive, continued Nimmo, as “all the different Russian accusations are mutually exclusive. When one official says Russia destroyed its novichok, and another says Russia never had novichok, there’s an obvious flaw.”


Disinformation a strategic tool

EUvsDisinfo argues that confusing audiences is part of a “strategic narrative” created by the Kremlin. This fits with what U.S. think tank the Rand Corporation identifies as an attempt to discredit all information, and undermine public trust in institutions such as government.

EUvsDisinfo draws parallels between the disinformation around the Skripal case and the shooting down of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

When the passenger jet was shot down, killing 298 passengers and crew, with what investigation site Bellingcat later identified as a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile, there was a similar campaign of disinformation.

State-backed news channel RT featured a guest claiming to be a Spanish air traffic controller, who said the plane may have been shot down by the Ukrainian government.

The guest’s testimony was carried by a number of other pro-Kremlin media entities and even cited by President Vladimir Putin. Last month, U.S.-backed outlet RFE/RL, in collaboration with Romanian website RISE, published an investigation that found the “air traffic controller” to be no such thing, but a man who claimed to have been paid $48,000 for his testimony.

Disinformation, providing deniability, is a key part of Russia’s “hybrid war” strategy, said Arch Puddington, from U.S. government-backed NGO Freedom House.

“Unless an assassin is actually caught in the act, on camera, the Putin leadership will deny the act, accuse the target country of lying, and play the role of aggrieved victim,” said Puddington.

“To a certain degree, this is what is happening in the Olympics doping case,” said Puddington. The Kremlin continued to deny the existence of a state-sponsored doping program after a whistleblower revealed its existence. Russia only began to acknowledge (CNN) its existence after the International Olympic Committee barred Russian athletes from competing in the Winter Olympics under a Russian flag.

“The fact that a medical professional who was intimately involved in the doping scheme came clean about everything didn’t faze the leadership. But the penalties imposed by the world doping agency sent a message that Moscow couldn’t ignore,” said Puddington.


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