Putin’s Information War: Winning or Losing?

Remarks for World Talent Economy Forum, March 21,2022

Fred Phillips


There are three aspects to be considered here: Social media; cyber-warfare; and world leaders’ exchanges of verbal and action signals, the kinds that are dealt with by game theorists.

Eugene Robinson, in his March 10 Washington Post column, says Putin is winning. Not the shooting war, but the information war, by controlling Russian news media, shutting down apps that carry independent news, and persuading China to do the same, regarding Ukraine war news.

Yet Russians are finding ways to acquire VPNs, and are getting news from YouTube. Media-savvy Arnold Schwarzenegger is pursuing a multi-channel strategy to ensure his very touching address to the Russian people is seen by his targeted audience.

Another WAPO article (3/16) reports YouTube has blocked Russian government propaganda channels. And there are a lot of these! It is an open question whether Apple and Google should join the sanctions and boycott Russia – or stay, and be a channel for ordinary Russians to get true news.

Yet the power of the technology companies to shape geopolitics presents problems of its own.

As a former comic and actor, Zelenskyy is a skilled communicator! I’m sure he still has much to learn about administering a country in peacetime, but his outstanding communication skills, not to mention his and his family’s courage, serve Ukraine most admirably in this battle of words and images.

So, though Putin has things under control in Russia – and maybe will continue to do so in China –the rest of the world is rallying in the infosphere in ways Putin did not anticipate.

The social media battle, and the vigorous worldwide governmental and non-governmental cyber attacks on Russian assets, show that war has now fundamentally changed. I hope, though I don’t realistically expect, that Putin’s war will be the last war ever to be fought with guns and bombs, rather than with computers. Putin’s actions show an old-fashioned mindset.

In short, Russia’s disinformation and influence-buying campaigns, carefully nurtured for decades, blew apart when the first tanks rolled into Ukraine. Blew apart, that is, everywhere but in Russia and China. One of its few persisting successes outside Russia and China has been to create a bitter Democrat-Republican argument in the USA about whether Donald Trump’s poor treatment of Zelenskyy and Ukraine led Putin to believe that the West would not respond vigorously to an invasion of Ukraine.

Now, what about verbal signaling amongst the principals and other interested parties? We must suspect the poll that says 70% of Russians support Putin. I used to be in the polling business. When we asked people how much beer they consumed, most would either lie, or be unable to remember! Likewise, when a government pollster knocks on Russians’ doors and asks whether the occupants support Putin, how many will reply honestly?

Former Congressman and now TV host Joe Scarborough tells us, correctly, that as the weaker major power, Russia’s strategy has always been to disrupt – while America and the West have tried conservatively to preserve the stable, post WWII international order. Certainly, Putin said he wouldn’t invade, then he did invade. Putin continually moves the bar for what he’d consider a Western act of war: first, if Ukraine were to join NATO. Then, if there were to be peacekeeping troops in western Ukraine. Then, movement of Polish jets across the border, and then Western aid in the form of defensive weapons.

Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons.

Scarborough is wrong, though, to urge the West to match disruption for disruption. You should never play the other guy’s game when the other guy is clearly more experienced and skilled at it than you are. President Biden has correctly played America’s game, renewing America’s traditional strength in alliance-building, bringing back the close relationship with NATO allies that Trump had weakened.

I do like Scarborough’s recommendation that Joe Biden stop saying what he will not do – for example, no no-fly zone – and start saying what he will do. And most game theorists would agree that Biden should not have called Putin a war criminal – even though he is one, and even though Biden emphasized it was only a personal opinion. This is because, as Scarborough notes, “If Putin believes his future is inside a cage at The Hague, he will have no incentive to end this war.” 

Finally, as we’ve learned from anti-vaxxers and others, beliefs are immune to facts. Just as there are hard-core Trump supporters in America, there are dedicated Putin supporters in Russia – though these must number fewer than the mentioned 70%. The Kremlin knows that the Internet and social media can suck people farther and farther from reality. The Washington Post reports that the Kremlin is responsible for much of the online content that has drawn Americans to climate change denial and Q-Anon. Though Putin will lose the immediate information war, its effects will be sadly long-lasting.