Mar 10, 2022 - World

CIA director: Putin's "propaganda bubble" is failing in Ukraine

Bill Burns

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

CIA Director Bill Burns testified Thursday that he believes Vladimir Putin is "losing the information war" in Ukraine, undermining the Russian leader's ability to rally support at home and abroad for his war of aggression.

Why it matters: Putin has spent two decades building a "propaganda bubble" and laundering disinformation through state media, Burns said. That's why the U.S. has adopted the novel approach of attempting to preemptively debunk Russia's narratives about Ukraine, blunting the impact of "false flag" operations that succeeded in the past.

Driving the news: The Biden administration has in recent days warned that Russia may attempt to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, after Kremlin-controlled media began propagating stories about dangerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine allegedly funded by the U.S.

  • The U.S. government has rejected these claims as complete fabrications and suggested that Russia may use them as "false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine."
  • Exploiting disinformation around chemical weapons has long been part of Putin's "playbook," Burns said, pointing to Russia's poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in 2017 and opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020.
  • Russia has also sought to cover up the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in Syria.

What they're saying: "I am convinced that our efforts at selective declassification, to preempt those kind of false flag narratives and the creation of false narratives, have been so important," testified Burns, a former veteran career diplomat and U.S. ambassador to Russia, to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

  • "In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians," he continued.
  • "In this case, I think we have had a great deal of effect disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is premeditated and unprovoked aggression built on a body of lies and false narratives. So this is one information war that I think Putin is losing."

The big picture: Even as Putin has "intensified his domination of state-run media" and "strangulation of independent media," Burns suggested Russia is struggling to fully control the narrative at home.

  • "There are lots of Russians who have VPN accounts, who have access to YouTube to this day, who have access to information, and I don't believe he can wall off indefinitely Russians from the truth," Burns testified.
  • The bombing of a maternity ward and children's hospital in Mariupol on Wednesday is one particularly potent example, as Russia has scrambled to rationalize the brutality of an attack that has triggered outrage all over the world.

Zoom in: Some Russian officials have claimed that the hospital was occupied by a neo-Nazi militia, and that no civilians were targeted.

  • Others have said the airstrike was "staged" by Ukraine.
  • The Russian embassy in London suggested on Twitter that a wounded pregnant woman photographed at the site of the bombing was a crisis actor — prompting the platform to remove the post for violating its rules on "denial of violent events."

The bottom line: "The realities of killed and wounded coming home in increasing numbers, the realities of the economic consequences for ordinary Russians ... the realities of the horrific scenes of hospitals and schools being bombed next door in Ukraine — I don't think he can bottle up the truth indefinitely," Burns said.

Go deeper