Reanimation package of reforms > News > Interview > Nataliya Ligachova: “The main direction of the Russian information attack may switch to the West”

Nataliya Ligachova: “The main direction of the Russian information attack may switch to the West”

As part of the “Fake Anatomy” program, which is broadcast on the international Russian-language channel “Novyi Mir” (New World) and targets Russian-speaking Europeans, Vadym Miskyi talks with media experts about Russian disinformation and how to fight it.

Vadim’s guest in the next episode of “Fake Anatomy” is Nataliya Ligachova, editor-in-chief of “Detector Media.” The Detector Media team has been analyzing Russian propaganda, disinformation, and manipulation for years. Since the beginning of the Great War, the analytical and fact-checking direction of “Detector Media ” has significantly strengthened: the team analyzes the information in real-time every day and debunks fakes in the #DisinfoChronicle project, as well as analyzes large arrays of data from social networks to track trends in Russian propaganda rhetoric. Nataliya Ligachova comments on these trends of recent weeks.

Vadym Miskyi: On January 14, Russia hit a residential building in Dnipro with a missile. Forty-five people died, over seventy were injured, and 19 were missing. Russian propaganda discusses the degree of Ukraine’s guilt in this tragedy because, as as they say, Ukrainian air defenses allegedly shot down the missile, and if they had not, civilians would not have died. Natalia, could you tell me what they wanted to convey to their audience with such messages? What are they counting on?

Natalia Ligachova: Yes, I think there is a subtle calculation, and I see how it works. For example, the former host of the Medvedchuk channels, Diana Panchenko, is currently filming the so-called films in the occupied part of the Donetsk region — in Donetsk and Mariupol. She manipulates, asking: “who is to blame for all this?” but not “who attacked Ukraine?” (More details about this in the material of Hala Sklyarevska. — “DM”).

My friends, whose relatives stayed in Mariupol, now sometimes say that not everything is clear. To the question “who attacked Ukraine?” they answered that it wasRussia. But they need to be constantly reminded of this: what was the root cause, in particular, perhaps the arrivals and Ukrainian shells or the fragments of downed Russian missiles… And the repetition of seemingly meaningless questions “who is to blame” switches the cause-and-effect relationship in people’s heads – everything becomes “ambiguous.” People begin to think not about Russia’s responsibility for aggression, but what if Ukraine had simply retreated and surrendered the city; if there were no Ukrainian military in the town, then there would be no shelling…Therefore, speculations on civilians’ lives work for some people.

Vadym Miskyi: Let me remind you that Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the President’s Office (until January 18), said in a joint online broadcast with Russian lawyer Mark Feygin that it is possible that Ukrainian air defenses previously shot down the Russian missile that destroyed the house in the Dnipro. On the same day, the Air Force Command of the Ukrainian Army announced that Ukraine had no weapons to shoot down the Х-22 missiles. Why did Arestovych say that?

Nataliya Ligachova: I don’t know why Arestovych threw this ridiculous version into the info space, not being an expert. It is clear that, in reality, there is no difference whether the missile was shot down or hit itself because Russia launched it into Ukrainian territory. But such wording can fuel the narrative: they say that Ukrainians cannot be given high-tech weapons, they do not know how to use them, they shoot at random, and as a result, civilians die. Russia had nothing to do here.

Those who promote the ideas of “peace at any price” take a hold of such messages. Saying that it is worth making any concessions to Russia so that people stop dying.

Vadym Miskyi: How have Russian manipulations changed during the eleven months of the Great War? It started, as we remember, with complete nonsense – that everyone here must be de-Nazified, that Ukrainian civilians will gladly accept Russian “liberators,” that Russia will take over Ukraine in three days, and so on. But these messages did not work, and now even the domestic Russian audience is gradually forgetting them. What replaces them?

Natalia Ligachova: The main new emphasis is that Russia is fighting against NATO. Like, the whole world was planning to attack and tear Russia to pieces, and it was forced to make a preemptive strike. Rational people can not believe such tales because, in fact, there is no evidence that Ukraine (and even NATO) was gathering forces to attack Russia; on the contrary, Russia has been massing troops near the border with Ukraine for months. And why, in the first weeks of the invasion, didn’t they talk about the threat from NATO that Ukraine was preparing an attack on Russia? On the contrary, Putin’s stooge — Lukashenko — laughed at the training of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Units, saying that they are running around with wooden assault riffles and we will defeat Ukraine in three days… But most consumers of propaganda do not think, do not ask uncomfortable questions, but simply believe in everything they hear on TV.

Also, of course, Russian propagandists are trying to influence ordinary residents of Western countries. For example, they claim that Europe is freezing and European women are selling their bodies for warmth. Can any normal person in our time believe this when everyone has access to the Internet and can see what is happening in any country? But they do believe. In addition, Russia blocked part of the resources people used to obtain alternative information and closed the mouths of independent media.

So, Russian propagandists work with public opinion in the West, imposing, first of all, the idea that Ukraine should be forced to negotiate with Russia and make concessions. They use the arguments that the Western citizens are suffering; electricity is getting more expensive, life is getting more expensive, and conditions are getting worse – Ukraine is not worth suffering like that. They are also convinced that the sanctions do not affect Russia; on the contrary, they worsen the lives of citizens of Western countries, and they pay from their own pockets for the weapons that are sent to Ukraine… And so on.

Vadym Miskyi: Another recent fake is the “retribution” of Russian troops for the attack on the barracks in Makiivka. Let me remind you that on the New Year’s Eve, our military eliminated several hundred Russian soldiers in the occupied territory of the Donetsk region with a missile strike. Apparently, according to the Soviet tradition, they were all gathered in one dormitory to watch Putin’s New Year’s greeting. And so the Russian Ministry of Defense claims that in response, Russian missiles hit two hostels in Kramatorsk and destroyed almost six hundred Ukrainian soldiers. Four camera crews from foreign media checked these buildings and found no signs of casualties. Even their bloggers doubted that the Russians managed to kill someone there. Why do the Russians invent victories that cannot be confirmed by anything, and how do even their military commanders refute those victories?

Nataliya Ligachova: First of all, because they do not have significant victories on the real front, while there are successful operations of Ukrainian troops, the informational effect of those  needs to be balanced with something. Our successful strike on Makiivka demoralized the Russians who were monitoring the course of the War.

Secondly, there is a struggle in Russia, including in the information space, between different groups of influence: Shoigu, Prigozhin, and others. They are competing for high positions, influence on society, Putin’s favor, and the opportunity to influence his decisions, and some, in particular Prigozhin and Kadyrov, are building private armies that can then be used in the power struggle. This internal struggle among the so-called Russian elites is, of course, beneficial to us.

Thirdly, critical speeches of the so-called military commanders, or even full-time propagandists of Russian television, may be needed to simulate freedom of speech in Russia. For example that they are no worse than the West, they also have a public debate, and when failures happen, you can criticize the government. However, no one ever criticizes Putin. When they criticize ministers, generals, and other high officials, they are likely to do so with the permission of the top management; this was the case even in the Soviet Union, where the Central Committee of the Communist Party allowed the newspapers to criticize the regional committee, and the regional committee to criticize the district committee. And then the guilty at lower levels were demonstratively punished.

Vadym Miskyi: Recently, Lev Gudkov, the head of the “Levada Center,” a sociological company that is considered as independent as possible in Russia, explained that Russians’ dissatisfaction with the course of the War (which is officially called a “special military operation”)  should not be interpreted as pacifism or disagreement with Russian aggression. The Russians are unhappy that the “operation” has been going on for so long and has not achieved the results. This kind of criticism is now fueled by the “warlords,” channeling public discontent and directing it to the military leadership.

The opposition between the groups of influence about which you speak has intensified recently. For example, in the first half of January, the Russian General Staff and the owner of the private military company “Wagner” Evgenyi Prigozhin lied that they had captured Soledar and that it was their subordinates who played a decisive role in this operation. (In the end, our military left the city. — “DM.”) How far can this struggle in the information space go? Has the Kremlin ceased to control the Russian information space, or does Putin actually sanction all this?

Nataliya Ligachova: Central Russian media are, without a doubt, entirely controlled by the Kremlin. Regarding Prigozhin, Kadyrov, and other figures, there may be nuances. I do not rule out that this struggle will ultimately weaken Putin. But none of the rational experts believe that the people can rise in Russia. Public opinion in Russia is under the complete control of the authorities.

Vadym Miskyi: The other day, the Main Directorate of Intelligence reported that the Russian special services plan to contact Ukrainian journalists on behalf of well-known Western publications with proposals for cooperation and then ask for information about the state of the Ukrainian economy, politics, and the army. In addition to receiving intelligence, Russia is allegedly trying to prevent the supply of weapons to Ukraine in this way. This year we’ve seen many fakes aimed at just that. That Western weapons are ineffective in Ukraine; that the Russians have already destroyed all of it; that they give us Soviet junk; that Ukrainian soldiers do not know how to handle the latest equipment and weapons… All this did not work, and the West is giving us more and more heavy weapons which were not previously shared with anyone outside of NATO. What will Russia invent next to stop arming Ukraine?

Natalia Ligachova: Yes, this is one of their main goals because it is clear that the War’s outcome depends on the West’s readiness to provide Ukraine with efficient and modern weapons in sufficient quantity. Ukrainians are willing to fight, but we are inferior to Russia regarding the number of tanks, guns, and planes.

By providing weapons, we see that the West responds to Russia’s actions and does not act in anticipation. This is because Western governments and NATO are afraid to provoke Russia, for example, to use some kind of weapon of mass destruction.

And I don’t understand why, in such a situation, Russia focused on trying to harm civilians. In particular, trying to “finish off” the energy system – unsuccessfully, but such tragedies as the one in Dnipro happen in the process. At first, they expected chaos and panic to begin with, that large cities would become uninhabitable, and Ukrainians would freeze in the dark, which would force them to rise against the authorities or at least force them to make concessions to the aggressor. But we have already survived half the winter, and none of this has happened. The Russians’ plan failed, but they continued to attack infrastructure and civilians, even though they knew that this is exactly what motivates the West to provide weapons more willingly.

It seems that this is connected with the Russian mentality and perception of the world. In Russia, life is not valued at all. They constantly tell in the media how to die with honor (recently, Vladimir Solovyov said that life is “highly overrated,” and earlier, Putin promised that all Russians who died would go to heaven and, they say, better sooner than later). Western civilization is built on the awareness of the value of every human life. The Russians do not understand this, and with their strikes on civilians, they only encourage the West to give us more and more weapons.

Vadym Miskyi: What should we expect from Russian propaganda and disinformation in 2023? In which directions will it develop and strengthen, or will it invent something new?

Nataliya Ligachova: The most dangerous, in my opinion, is the struggle of Russian propaganda for the minds of Western citizens,from whom Russia hopes to put pressure on their politicians. The ability of Russian propaganda to influence public opinion in Ukraine is no longer in question. Some notable information operations sometimes work, and some Ukrainians remain vulnerable to the Kremlin’s messages. However, Russia will not achieve mass dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian authorities, mass protests, or refusal to resist aggression here with any fakes and manipulations. If they realized this, the main direction of the Russian information attack could shift to the West. Of course, there are enough people there who are vulnerable to Russian propaganda and disinformation. And there are enough people who are simply more concerned about their well-being and security than the fate of Ukraine.

We know that if Russia conquers Ukraine, it will not stop but will move on. But the West realizes this very slowly. Until recently, there was an opinion that Russia should be appeased, that Russia is a partner without which Europe cannot survive. And now, in some places in Europe, the Russians manage to incite people to protest against aid to Ukraine. I think the Kremlin will work primarily in this direction.

“Detector Media”