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Manipulation of Information as Viagra for Russia's Military Failure

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Photo: Manipulation of information as Viagra for Russia's military failure. Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: Manipulation of information as Viagra for Russia's military failure. Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

The Kremlin’s focus on degrading US decision making is not opportunistic, new, or limited to Ukraine. 

Perception manipulation is a key element of Putin’s offset strategy – a way to achieve goals beyond the limits of Russia’s power. In 2020 ISW assessed that Putin’s center of gravity is increasingly his ability to shape perceptions of others and project the image of a powerful Russia based on limited real power.

We wrote: “The Kremlin often generates gains based on perception without changing Russia’s capabilities. These gains emerge at the nexus of the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate perceptions and the West’s inherent blind spots about Russia’s intent and capabilities. Minimizing the West’s perception of its own leverage over Russia is a core component of this effort.”


The Kremlin depends on this strategy in Ukraine. Russia does not have sufficient military capability to achieve its maximalist objectives if Ukraine’s will to fight persists alongside Western support. Degrading US decision making is one of the few, possibly the only way, to narrow the gap between Russia’s goals and means in Ukraine.


Russia uses perception manipulation to advance its interests globally. Information operations have been a key part of the Kremlin’s toolkit for decades. Russia’s national security paradigm shifted heavily toward the information space after 2014, however, as a recognition of the increasingly vital requirement to shape global perceptions to advance Russia’s goals.

The Kremlin has been working to create an environment that would simply accept Russian premises. If the world accepts that Russia can do whatever it wants within its self-declared sphere of influence, Russia will need fewer sticks and carrots to impose its will on its neighbours. Or, for example, if the Kremlin succeeds in creating conditions in which NATO is forced to abandon its principles, such as Article 5 or the Open Door Policy, Putin would have succeeded at his goal of breaking NATO.


The ability to control perceptions inside of Russia has been an existential requirement for Putin. In 2020 ISW wrote that Putin’s rule depends on his ability to maintain the perception that an alternative to him in Russia is either worse or too costly to fight for.

The Kremlin has succeeded in instilling inaction as a default instinct within the Russian population through physical and informational means. Submission takes time to achieve, but the self-deterrence it generates pays off. The submission of the Russian population is the reason Putin can afford to rule with a suppression apparatus short of Putin’s likely suppression needs – if his regime were ever to be tested again (with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin providing a glimpse of such a test during his June 2023 mutiny).


Herein lies Putin’s core problem with Ukraine. Ukraine has demonstrated the capability to defy Putin’s centre of gravity – his ability to shape the will and decisions of others. Ukraine is not immune to the Kremlin’s reflexive control, but it achieved strategic clarity in pivotal moments.

In 2014, barely-equipped Ukrainian volunteers saw past the Kremlin’s hybrid cover and rushed to the frontline to combat Russian aggression – even in the absence of Ukraine’s conventional military and Western willingness to counter Russia. Ukraine did not fall prey to the Kremlin’s campaign in 2019 to force Kyiv into political concessions that would have compromised Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukraine resisted Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion in 2022.

Growing antibodies to Russian manipulations within Ukraine’s civil society are among the key reasons Ukraine continues to exist as a state. The Ukrainian instinct to run to the sound of the guns whenever Russians invade to “protect” Ukrainians from themselves should be a clear indicator of the falsehood of many Kremlin premises for its aggression. The fact that those premises continue to persist in the Western discourse despite these obvious contradictions is a testament to Russia’s successful reflexive control techniques.

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