Before Putin’s war with bombs, there was a war with disinformation

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel
Member of the European Parliament

In June 2020, the European Parliament decided to combat disinformation by foreign actors and set up a “Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation”, more aptly abbreviated as INGE. 18 months later, the findings of the Committee, in which I was rapporteur for the Greens/EFA Group, proved to be unambiguous: There is an overwhelming lack of awareness in all fibres of society within the EU when it comes to the severity of threat posed by authoritarian regimes and their disinformation attempts. For too long, the EU and its Member States have turned a blind eye to increased attempts of foreign interference in the information space and have underestimated, how impactful threats of disinformation are.

Since February 24 2022, Putin’s unprovoked and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine has provided undeniable testimony for INGE’s existence. As part of its myriad tactics of hybrid warfare, Putin’s regime fights not only with guns, but also with words. It actively weaponises energy, economic ties in the EU and especially information. The Kremlin’s large-scale, coordianated information manipulation and disinformation campaigns have reached dystopian levels:

Russia was actively spreading disinformation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple EU countries and its neighbours. When it claimed victory by announcing the half-baked vaccine Sputnik V, its disinformation machine supported by Russian state media broadcasting abroad and troll factories started attacking the vaccines developed in the west.[i]

As for the current developments, the propagation of ridiculous narratives about a Nazi Regime in Ukraine led by a President with Jewish roots and starting a senseless war branded as a “special military operation” was carefully prepared through selected fabrications of history. Putin himself published an essay that disregards historic facts and questions the ethnic and state sovereignty of Ukraine. His complete reversal of cause and effect, of aggressor and defender, is based on the denial of Ukraine’s right to exist. In this way, the Kremlin has prepared the ideological ground for the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass and eventually its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The war thus undoubtedly makes clear: Disinformation has devastating real-life ramifications; it can cost the lives of thousands of civilians. This is reinforced by the fact that Russian disinformation is spread without being challenged in certain third countries that have so far failed to condemn or even facilitated Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. It encourages mercenaries to fight against the democratically elected government of Ukraine and aids Putin’s regime to evade the justly imposed Western sanctions.

The fact that we see a stronger recognition, discussion and contextualisation of the nexus between disinformation and the course of the war in recent weeks is important. Beyond this, however, it must also become clearer: There is an urgent need for firm and resolved action by the EU to increase its resilience as well as support Ukraine in the fight against disinformation. The European Parliament’s earlier call for deterrence tools, particularly sanctions, has proven to be on spot through the dramatic events. As the underlying problem persists, the European Parliament’s urge to introduce an effective legal sanctions regime against foreign actors spreading disinformation remains valid: Actors such as Russia or China will continue to act with impunity as without deterrence their disinformation campaigns within the EU face an attractive calculation of very low costs and high rewards.

While continuous effort is needed to tackle this problem, the EU needs to take further steps in the short-term to counter Russian disinformation. The EU-wide ban of RT and Sputnik as well as sanctions against crucial figures of government propaganda (among them Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan) was a necessary action. Without contesting that media bans are far-reaching measures that should never be decided lightly and as any other action to counter disinformation must itself respect fundamental freedoms of expression, we must communicate clearly: What we face aren’t differences in opinions, but blatant lies and conspiracy theories disguised as journalistic reporting as part of the Russian regime’s disinformation machinery supporting its war of aggression in Ukraine.

Beyond that, the implementation of other measures that INGE calls for in principle must be accelerated in the face of the war. The EU must use and extend its institutional resources to combat foreign interference. Until more comprehensive legal regulatory mechanisms are in place, we must urge social media platforms, which are easy targets for manipulation by foreign hostile actors and play a crucial role in spreading disinformation, to actively contain lies used for political ends. Moreover, the EU must advocate for the best possible protection of the journalists, fixers and other media personnel active on the ground in Ukraine. Since information is the best antidote to disinformation, independent, fact-based journalism within and outside the EU is crucial. Let me also emphasize, that although our access is further limited by Putin’s crackdown on civil society, the EU must engage in tackling disinformation within Russia too, as we observe that the Kremlin is stepping up its propaganda campaign on its domestic audience given its military failures.

It is self-evident that neither this nor any other war can be won only by fighting propaganda. Nevertheless, the EU’s comprehensive support for Ukraine against Putin’s aggression must also encompass its cooperation in combatting Russian disinformation in the short-, medium- and long-term. Too long treated as a hollow platitude, the war in Ukraine is a painful reminder that disinformation not countered undermines the core of democracy and constitutes a serious threat to our security and sovereignty.

[i] We have commissioned a study on this subject that can be accessed here:

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