A prominent Czech expert on disinformation and “Empty threats” says that while the West spent years underestimating the danger emanating from Moscow, a resolute response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its “nuclear blackmail” could help reverse years of “paralysis” in the face of “empty threats” oft-repeated by the Kremlin.
Jakub Kalensky of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), a Helsinki think tank established by the European Union and NATO, says allowing worst-case fears of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions to steer responses to the invasion of Ukraine would be a mistake.
“Taken abstractly, the threat of a nuclear strike is obviously something absolutely horrible,” Kalensky told ASN Georgian Service this month in a wide-ranging interview. “However, I really do not want us to fall for the trap and start discussing what happens if Putin does it [uses nuclear weapons], because I believe that this is only helping Putin in his work to spread fear of the consequences of opposing the Kremlin’s unlawful, criminal, genocidal aggression.”
Kyiv and Western officials have accused Russian officials of “nuclear blackmail” in their capture of Ukrainian nuclear facilities, including Europe’s biggest power plant at Zaporizhzhya, and their threats to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory that they falsely claim now includes four regions of eastern Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned earlier this month that Putin would invite “the prospect of Armageddon” if he used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine and expressed hope of finding an “off-ramp” to help avoid such a grave outcome.
Kalensky told RFE/RL that, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began in late February, “we should make sure that Russia will not have the army [or] the economy to harm anyone. That’s what we should be doing, and then we don’t really have to worry about what Mr. Putin might do.”
’15 Years Of Empty Threats’
Kalensky was a founder of the EU’s East StratCom Task Force, set up in 2015 to counter Russian disinformation after the occupation and annexation of Crimea, and its flagship EUvsDisinfo database. Until recently, he was a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).
He cites more than a decade of Russian aggression, beginning with a cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 from Russian IP addresses, continuing through Russia’s five-day war to support breakaway regions of Georgia in 2008, and then the occupation of Crimea along with Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“As a disinformation or propaganda specialist, what I see is 15 years of empty threats being used over and over and over again [by Moscow] simply because they are paralyzing us,” Kalensky said. “So all I’m saying is that we shouldn’t fall for this trap, because that only helps Putin to achieve his goal, and it harms Ukrainians who are actually fighting for our European or Euro-Atlantic values.”
Disinformation is a key component of what’s become known as “hybrid” warfare, a 21st-century term for a military strategy that employs covert digital and high-tech tactics including cyberattacks, as well as armed proxy groups and military posturing.
Kalensky credits Putin’s long-running information war with successfully shaping the language and coverage among European media of events from the occupation of Crimea and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 to the pandemic and last month’s “pseudo-referendums” in occupied Ukraine.
“I’m afraid that the Russian disinformation war is very competent, very skillful, and can achieve massive results,” he said, “and I fear that they managed sometimes to influence how we framed the debate — the voices that ‘the more you support Ukraine, the bigger the problems will be, that Russia will be angry and they will do something terrible.'”
He suggests such responses “should be discredited as basically copy-pasting the Russian position.”
Acknowledging that it might be wishful thinking on his part, Kalensky says that recent weeks have shown the Russian propaganda machine “seems to be making some mistakes” and now “it’s not going that well.”
He cites a recent expose by Meduza, a Riga-based news outlet made up of emigre Russian journalists, on Kremlin instructions to propagandists for covering Putin’s mobilization by laying blame for call-ups on local military commissars.
“I would hope that the information machine of the Kremlin is starting to make mistakes,” Kalensky said. “However, when we look at the history of dealing with the Putin regime, I’m a bit afraid that they were quite successful in influencing the way we understand the Russian regime and also the way we talk about it, and ultimately the way we actually make decisions about it.”
The outspoken Kalensky says he regards the battle for Ukraine as the “purest clash of democracy and autocracy, of human rights and unlawfulness, between rule of law and might-makes-right,” adding, “We really should have been much more resolute in supporting those who are fighting for our values.”
He says he thinks that democratic governments should have immediately stopped all business with Russia and cut it off from the international economy.
While many Western countries have imposed unprecedented trade, economic, and other sanctions on Russia, with Moscow responding with countermeasures, Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and natural gas in particular has left EU members and aspiring members vulnerable in the resulting energy crisis.
In March 2022, all 27 EU members adopted a Versailles Declaration to phase out their dependence on Russian fossil fuels “as soon as possible.”
Since then, EU countries have imported tens of billions of dollars in Russian fossil fuels and debate still divides the bloc. “I’m not saying it would solve all the problems, but as a strategic communication expert, I find it a very bad message that there is still Western money going into Russia,” Kalensky said. “I think that’s a mistake.”
While some Western comparisons of Putin to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler can be facile, disinformation expert Kalensky says he thinks the Russian president “has been making Hitler-like speeches for quite some time already and it ties in with the Kremlin propaganda, the dehumanizing language towards Ukraine claiming that Ukraine is not even a nation.”
He calls a Putin speech last year on the “historical unity” of Russians and Ukrainians that foreshadowed the invasion “straight out of Hitler’s notebook.”
Kalensky links it with the steady rehabilitation of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin under two decades of Putin’s leadership. “Dictators are usually inspired by other dictators,” he said. “It kind of shows that if you want to commit crimes in the future, it surely helps if you start justifying the crimes of the past.”
He notes Putin’s reintroduction of the Soviet anthem’s melody in 2000 and his lament, in 2005, of the Soviet Union’s demise.
“Again, it just shows me that we in the West should have been significantly more alerted when we saw someone reinstating the Soviet anthem,” Kalensky said. “When we saw someone talking about ‘the biggest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century, we really should have been much more sensitive to that, because this signals that the crimes will be committed again, and they are committed again.”