Headlines Matter, the power of (dis) information – making the right call.

Headlines Matter, the power of (dis) information – making the right call.

Headlines Matter, the power of (dis) information – making the right call.

By Philip Ingram MBE

On October 17th, the eve of an unprecedented US Presidential visit to Israel and the Middle East, in an attempt to diffuse growing tensions across the region because of the War against Hamas – declared by Israel after the shocking terror attack by Hamas killing 1500 Israelis and taking 199 hostages just over a week beforehand – an explosion occurred at the al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza.

Within an hour of the explosion major media outlets across the globe, including many UK sites, were describing it in their headlines as an Israeli Air strike, immediately putting a level of credibility on what was being reported, as most people believe the press somehow have access to information that the general public doesn’t. Often, they are right, responsible press verify independently where the public generally doesn’t.

Those reports and their associated headlines do more than just inform, they influence. Recognise, then, that it’s not just the main body of the report, but the headlines that matter. They influence public perception and influence their belief as to what happened. Once someone’s mind is made up, even if further information is provided, few change their minds, and they will cherry-pick what comes next to reinforce their decision. It is human nature. So, where there is potential for doubt, it is critical that reporting reinforces that doubt and doesn’t enhance mis or disinformation.

For those that don’t know, misinformation is information that is incorrect but is disseminated accidentally. Disinformation is incorrect information deliberately disseminated for effect. In war, in conflict, disinformation is rife and is an integral part of many military operations. The first report received is often the least accurate even if it fits a perception of what you think may have happened, that is what targeted disinformation is designed to do.

Unfortunately, in a conflict situation, it is not unusual that you receive report of a civilian target being hit. In operational headquarters it often takes hours to get to the truth even though operations are constantly monitored. That is because everything must be checked, rechecked, and checked again. That principle isn’t one used on social media, or by those pushing disinformation and those reposting misinformation.

Very often, the first report received about an incident is wrong. Instead of reacting immediately, the best thing to do is leave some ‘soak time’. Make a cup of tea, and think about the incident, asking some fundamental questions. Who has the capability to do what?

What would a potential perpetrators motivation be, what is their intent? Both sides have the capability but from an intent perspective, then for the Israelis it could only spell disaster, polarising opposition to what they are doing on the international stage even more – and we saw that with many Middle East leaders cancelling their meetings with President Biden.

If it was deliberate from groups in Gaza, then their timing was perfect, as was the immediate (dis)information campaign to undermine Biden’s visit and polarise the region, and world, more towards an anti-Israeli stance. It looks like they may have achieved that by accident, and rapid exploitation of the information domain.

The difficulty, once people’s minds are made up, is that it is almost impossible to change them back. So, when the IDF offered a very comprehensive briefing of the incident, utilising analysis of photographs, structural damage, lack of impact points, with video and thermal analysis of the explosion and fire – they could suggest it was a missile being fired at Israel that dropped short. Radar analysis added further weight to this analysis as did intercepts of phone messages – especially of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group.

Combined with checks on Israeli missile activity that couldn’t have accidentally hit the hospital, then there is overwhelming evidence to say this was a PIJ missile that fell short and tragically killed many innocent Palestinians. That is not a message the PIJ or Hamas would want to put out, so they doubled down on the Israeli attack claim, knowing that many wouldn’t believe the Israelis. President Biden’s backing of the Israeli assessment will have been based on other intelligence as well.  Simple scientific spectral analysis of the explosion and fire will tell what caused it. This type of intelligence analysis is called MASINT or Measurement and Signature Intelligence.

A few key lessons for headline writers and commentators, as headlines matter:

  • Initial reports are likely inaccurate so acknowledge the uncertain nature of what is happening.
  • Patience is a virtue. Have a “soak time” allowing you to question everything. Confirm, confirm, confirm and don’t be afraid to say there isn’t enough information to make a call.
  • Early speculation doesn’t inform, it influences, and once influenced it can rarely be undone. Don’t speculate.
  • Avoid being influenced by others who jump to conclusions quickly – remember people look for information to reinforce their beliefs – this is confirmation bias, ignoring the totality of what is being presented.
  • MI6, in its reports, often put that ‘this source may be trying to influence as much as inform’ – you may be being influenced!
Ukraine – Russia being backed into a corner

Ukraine – Russia being backed into a corner

Ukraine – Russia being backed into a corner

By Philip Ingram MBE

It has been a while since I wrote an assessment of my thinking on Ukraine, so I will start by way of a summary as to where we are today and how we got here. Putin’s aim when he stated his Special Military Operation in February was to topple the increasingly West leaning Zelensky Government. His secondary aim was to open a land bridge between Crimea, annexed in 2014 and Russia, via what has become known as the disputed Donbas Region.

With vastly superior troop numbers on paper, and different command structures Putin launched his attacks and plucky Ukraine, war hardened by eight years of fighting Russian backed separatists in the East and emboldened by Western training and weapons such as the UKs NLAW anti-tank missile, defended.

Militarily, Russia was found wanting, their command and control was poor, their equipment unreliable, logistics and troop motivation close to non-existent. Their ability to conduct what are known as combined arms operations, fighting tanks, infantry, artillery, and airpower together, proved impossible, embarrassing many western analysts but embarrassing the Russian military and political leaderships more.

Ukraine defended its capital and government, giving ground in the East and South, trading space for time and it used that time to defeat Russia’s main effort of capturing Kyiv. Ukraine continued to defend, forcing the Russians to pay a high price in equipment and personnel for every village captured in the South and East.

Ukraine used the time they gained to plan their counter offensives, to train on and deploy new western equipment’s, including longer range NATO 155mm artillery and of course the infamous HIMARS missile systems.  Ukraine knew the Russian weak points, their logistic bases and their command headquarters and put the HIMARS missiles to good use destroying those whilst preparing their counter offensives.

Launching an attack towards Kherson in the South, using social media to suggest this was the expected main counter offensive, Russia rushed to reinforce its positions there, the bluff worked, and Ukraine launched its main attacks further North towards Kharkiv, recapturing 3000 sq Km in days, when it took the Russians months to gain the same territory.  The Ukrainian counter offensive has switched back to the Kherson area in the South as troops in the North secure the re-captured ground and wait their next move.

Putin’s response was to deliver the referendum on Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zapopizhzhia joining Russia, with his pre-decided results, to mobilise 300,000 reservists and increase the economic war on the West by blowing up the NordStream 1 and 2 Gas pipelines. At the same time, he increased his nuclear threat rhetoric, hoping he could hold what he had till winter, allowing the 300,000 to be trained and equipped and deployed, but to what effect? Ukraine has already defeated Russia’s best units and troops; the reservists are merely more lambs to the slaughter.

He is pinning his hopes on Western support dissolving over a fuel crisis filled winter in Europe with a nuclear threat hanging over the world. However, China and India have warned him to be careful. They still want Russian gas and oil but also want to keep some relationship with the West.

Underpinning where we are is the fact that Ukraine has the initiative on the ground and is giving the world a master class in combined arms operations.  In conjunction with these combined arms operations Ukraine has learned from the allied SOE operations of WW2 and this is evident with facilities across Russia blowing up, airbases in Crimea blowing up and the latest, the destruction of part of the Kerch Strait bridge, being the latest master class in strategic effect. All of this will likely lead to the Russians further collapsing and being pushed much further back before winter sets in, recapturing more territory, further embarrassing Putin and stimulating unrest in Russia.

Putin, increasingly isolated, will likely lash out, especially with the Kerch Bridge attack the day after his 70thbirthday. His information operations aimed at splitting the West will become more vocal as will his threats.  Undersea pipelines and cables could be at risk, cyber could grow, economic warfare is certain. In Ukraine, he will likely target infrastructure and cities more violently in retaliation.

However, he could still decide that using a tactical nuclear device, 1 kilo-tonne , destroying an estimated 1 square kilometer area could send a strategic message, ‘negotiate and accept what I have captured, else the next one in on Kyiv, or Kherson.’ If he did, international condemnation would have to include China and India, for their sakes, and his isolation would be complete.

NATO and the Wests response would probably be conventional and against Russian troops in Ukraine, but once a foot has been placed on the nuclear escalation ladder, it can be climbed very quickly. We are entering the most dangerous phase of Putin’s folly.

Influence and messaging, the Zelenskyy effect

Influence and messaging, the Zelenskyy effect

Influence and messaging, the Zelenskyy effect

by Philip Ingram MBE

The headline recently appeared in the Daily Mail saying “Zelensky declares social media WAR: President launches campaign telling the world to demand politicians act by swamping the internet with signs reading #ArmUkraineNow amid Russian assault on the Donbas.”  In March President Zelensky delivered a historic address to the House of Commons that was beamed into the chamber via a live feed invoking Churchill in only a way a seasoned orator could.  To the US Congress he invoked memories of Pearl Harbour, to the German Bundestag, memories of the Soviet days splitting Germany into East and West and the Berlin Airlift.

In his address to every country and institution his messaging has been personalised, focused and expertly targeted. However, it is not just his addresses to parliaments, congress, institutions that have an effect but his regular phone calls with world leaders and his nightly address to the Ukrainian people but also the world. Messaging, the power of words is at the core of his political and military defence and this is something we must understand an learn from quickly.  President Zelenskyy is delivering a masterclass in the use of information in crisis.

However, the public master class we are seeing is reflected in an understanding of manipulation in the widest sense of the word that has underpinned Ukraine’s transition from a former Soviet State to one courting EU and NATO membership such that Russia felt compelled to act. Russia’s own information campaign is straight out of their books of враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but told often enough through as many outlets as possible and control the truth through маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking, propaganda to many the lie becomes the reality.

Putin, usually through his foreign minister, Lavrov, frequently masks his intentions in an inflammatory way by stoking up the nuclear threat, knowing it will panic different countries in different ways. The statements we have heard the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Nebenzya deliver, beggar belief in their warping of reality, but Russia doesn’t care.  What is good about Russia’s information war is their maskirovka and vranyo are so obvious to the free world. In Russia where the state has total control over all media, it is a different matter.

Their use of information is to reinforce their own beliefs, groupthink, and aimed domestically with the odd poorly aimed snipe internationally. An example of the latter is when Putin made his first nuclear threat, he said it was because of comments Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary made. He saw this as a way of worsening a perceived post Brexit rift between the UK and EU and in particular the Germans, he ignored the reality that the international community was coming together as never seen in recent years.

So where did Ukraine come from in the information sphere, to properly understand their development I talked to a former senior Foreign Office official and ambassador, (not to Ukraine) but someone who was involved with many interactions with the Ukrainians before Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Ukraine had been sending officers to the UK Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College since at least 1997 and were trained in complex combined arms and joint operations.  They had been courting NATO countries and the UK for many years before then.

Scale and capability is important to understand.  The Ukrainians have one of the largest armed forces in region apart from Russia. They have at least 6 times as many tanks and APCs as UK and an Army c126K, with 900K reservists. They have some serious military capability and the Foreign Office official said in visiting Ukraine he was at the “Largest live fire power display I have ever seen, including major Close Air Support, battlefield breaching, manned APCs para dropped from Antonov’s.”  The “so what?” from this is Western military support in terms of Armour offered from a numbers perspective is almost militarily irrelevant in terms of its scale; it is all about the message it sends and locking the Wests involvement into Ukraine’s conflict.

“The approach by Ukraine pre 2014 to diplomacy was aways to try to get signature to agreements tying us to support to Ukraine of similar nature to NATO commitments and of course support for NATO membership.” The Foreign Office Official went on to add, “Ukrainian delegations arrived for official Ministerial visit to Secretary of State with agreements for signature despite clear agreement before visit that we did not intend to sign yet another support agreement with Ukraine,” the tactic of trying to bounce the government into different positions was commonplace.

He added, “On official visits to Ukraine, the general tenor/approach was very Soviet, a massive reliance on bulk consumption of vodka morning noon and night, raunchy entertainment at official events as well as regularly being implicitly offered female staff as prostitutes,” as was ever, influence and manipulation was conducted the old Soviet way.

Since 2014 the Ukrainians have worked hard on improving their approach, moving from the very Soviet to the more western approach, but not forgetting what worked in the past. President Zelenskyy is giving global leaders a masterclass in leadership under pressure. The messaging, the influence operations he is conducting are all aimed at getting support from NATO the EU and the wider international community, tying them into the outcome of the war, so that Ukraine is not left on its own and the conditions are set for as rapid a rebuild of the country and its welcoming into other international institutions, as quickly as possible.

He has successfully courted the international community to cooperate in a way that has not only helped and continues to help Ukraine but has also brought international organisations and alliances closer together than they have been for many years. His words, his messaging, his actions have brough billions of dollars of aid in financial and equipment terms, he has pushed the boundaries of what the EU and NATO have ever done before, he has united a dividing world and refocused some interesting polarisations. What we have seen from President Zelenskyy is true effects-based influence and messaging.

The effects he is achieving are seen domestically where his relationship with the West maintains hope for the people of Ukraine. The effect he is achieving internationally is an increasing perception that Ukraine is fighting to protect the wider international community. He has achieved this in a very careful and subtle way. His actions, methodologies and achievements show a real lesson in the information sphere that the West needs to learn from.

We must ask why the West ignored genocide in Africa with the Tutus and Hutsis, why the International Community didn’t respond to Russia’s first invasion if Ukraine in 2014 but has responded now, and the answer, or a major part of the answer is the Zelenskyy effect.  We must learn how to do this given the growing importance of information and messaging, we must take a leaf out of Zelenskyy’s book.

Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.

Russia’s next move in the East

Russia’s next move in the East

Russia’s next move in the East

by Philip INGRAM MBE

The appointment of General Dvornikov to be the overall Russian commander in their new phase of operations which will concentrate on seeking full territorial control of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, part of which make up the disputed Donbas region, is an attempt to bring unity of effort to Russian operations. It makes military sense, and a lack of unified command is one of the reasons why the Russians have failed in their objectives so far.

Dvornikov has experience in Syria, however, Syria was and is not an all arms, combined, high intensity military operation. His experience in high intensity warfighting will only have been tested since 24th February when Russia re-invaded Ukraine, so he is likely the best of a bad bunch of commanders.

So, what is his plan likely to be?  I would think that to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and enable rigged referendums in each he needs to attack towards the city of Dnipro, a key city on the Dnieper River and Ukraine’s 4thlargest city. As such it has a political significance, but it has geographic significance with transport hubs controlling access to SE Ukraine from the West and economic significance as a manufacturing hub critical to Ukraine’s export market. Ideally, to gain a favourable position for a negotiated settlement, Dvornikov would want to capture Dnipro.

Of course driving this are the Russian updated Strategic Goals of February 2022, which are:

  • Ukrainian recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea
  • Ukrainian declaration stating rejection of future NATO membership
  • The ‘demilitarisation’ of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
  • Recognition of the Donbas People Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic as sovereign states at their pre 2014 Oblast borders

In addition, Dvornikov would want to move to capture Zaporizhzhya again on the Dneiper River, south of Dnipro and utilise land and naval forces to threaten an attack on Odesa, to fix Ukrainian defenders. He will likely continue to pressurise Kharkiv and Sumy in the NE of Ukraine again to fix Ukrainian defenders and protect the flank of his main attacking force. In doing so he could attack from the South and Northeast in a pincer movement to fix the Ukrainian defenders whilst a main effort tries to smash through the centre of their defences towards Dnipro.

Focusing on a more limited objective, given the heavy defeat the Russian forces have suffered so far gives an improved chance for some potential tactical victories. However, one man and a reduced objective won’t make this next phase easy for the Russians.

For the Russians, concentrating on Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts has the advantage of shorter lines of communication for logistic supplies and combat formations from Russia into Ukraine. It allows air support, strategic missile support and other shared capabilities to be concentrated where one commander wants their effect, not split across multiple areas of operation. These are the positives for the Russians.

However, Russian formations will be no better than those that have been defeated by the Ukrainians thus far, their commanders are no more experienced and still not able to carry out complex armoured manoeuvre warfare. Russian logistics and logistic planning will not have improved dramatically as they prepare for this new operation and the Russians still do not have air superiority. In addition the ground is unlikely to have dried out enough to enable armoured formation manoeuvre. This will severely hamper their ability to properly manoeuvre and fight as armoured formations.

The Ukrainians have been defending against attacks from the disputed Donbas region of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts successfully for the past 8 years and have had real successes defeating Russian attacks elsewhere in Ukraine. If they have sufficient manpower, weapons, and equipment available, they are perfectly capable of stopping further Russian advances, especially if they use a tactic of blocking Russian advances with disruptive activity in the Russian rear areas destroying logistics, command and control and artillery as a priority. The question then comes if they can generate enough of an armoured manoeuvre capability to forceable eject the Russian forces from at least further parts of Ukraine.

Should that happen, then the clamour for further international community involvement will continue to grow and the Russian response would be to further up attacks on centres of population to destroy the morale of the people, the economic viability of Ukraine and break political will to continue the fight. A sound planning assumption date, is that Putin would want to be able to announce some success at his annual Red Square Parade on 9th May.

If Putin doesn’t get a victory, then it is the people of Ukraine who will suffer further as Putin has the ability to sustain the attritional battle against civilian centres of population in a policy of ‘rubblising’ towns and cities. If he achieves his objectives or even partially by capturing the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts he is likely to try for a negotiated settlement as quickly as possible. The trouble for him is the price the Ukrainian people have paid already is too much for them to countenance giving Putin one square metre of Ukrainian territory. I believe we have many more horrors to come.

Philip Ingram is a former Senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.

 

 

 

 

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

By Philip Ingram MBE

The Russian messaging machine has gone into overdrive on its claims that the Ukraine and the US are developing chemical or biological weapons for use against invading Russian forces, as they brought the accusation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday.  So that is the reality, a question I have been asked frequently by many press outlets in the past 24 hours?

At the end of February Vladimir Putin issued a statement where he raised the alert level of his nuclear forces and later his Foreign Minister Lavrov blamed comments from the British Foreign Secretary for forcing them to do so. This one act of putting your foot on the nuclear escalatory ladder then taking it off again says so much about Russia’s approach to diplomacy.

Russia has a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” so threatening the unthinkable to then back down is something in their psyche but they also have a history of following thorough, in particular when it comes to bombing, rocketing and shelling civilian built up areas and in Syria, helping to facilitate the use of chemical weapons.

In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has become bogged down and in some areas fixed. They have little freedom to manoeuvre. That is why we are seeing what many refer to as the playbook tactics being rolled out. Whenever Russia has been fixed or bogged down in the past, they have rapidly resorted to surrounding cities and pounding them from the air, with rockets, missiles and artillery, in an indiscriminate manner, all to try and break the resolve of the people.

The agreement for humanitarian corridors and ceasefires is also playbook stuff as is mining those routes and shelling fleeing civilians. Again, looking at the response from the international community in the past to these atrocities, there has been none; Russia has been allowed to get away with it.

Many of the commanders involved in invasion of Ukraine will have served in Syria, some may even have been in Grozny in 2008, but that playbook tactics will be in their psyche, Putin likely won’t even have had to order it as it will have been in the wider contingency plans for cities showing too much resistance. What Russia hadn’t expected was that is every city! The last time this level of resolve was shown, in Syria, to break the deadlock, Chemical weapons were employed.

It is that playbook combined with the statements from official Russian MoD channels and the calling of the UNSC meeting that makes the threat of use of chemical weapons in Ukraine all the more real.

I will dismiss biological weapons quickly by saying they are not an act of war. Biological weapons are very difficult to weaponise into battlefield delivery system and their effects more difficult to control. You also need superb medial facilities for your own troops in case of accidental exposure, and the Russians don’t.

However, a real threat doesn’t automatically translate into their actual use. Key to this is that in Syria, Putin had a plausibly deniable outlet for blame when the international community called out the false flag attacks blamed on the Syrian opposition fighters, he could blame Assad and say he was misled too. This is a combination of  маскировка (maskirovka), masking the truth behind disinformation and  враньё(vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed, both are frequently exercised Putin tactics.

There are 2 scenarios where Putin may use chemical weapons in Ukraine, one is in a false flag incident in the vicinity of a Ukrainian research facility giving an excuse for him to go to the Russian people as say, “told you so, this is why we have to invade all of Ukraine.”  This remains a possibility but the fact that western intelligence has already called it out may take that option off the table as it has done before with other potential false flag incidents.

The second is horrific, Putin uses chemical weapons in order to break the blockades around Ukrainian cities. Here I am going to assess this as being less likely to unlikely as no matter what messaging Putin puts out, he knows that personally this gives him nowhere to hide within an international context, ever. He may be a psychopath, but he is in some ways still rational. He knows that use of chemical weapons would have to be authorised by him and that would mean automatic prosecution and a massive withdrawal of the tacit ‘turning a blind eye,’ he is getting from the likes of China and India. His pariah status would be further set in stone; irrecoverably so.

He also doesn’t need to go there yet. He has much more he can do with conventional military capabilities, if he can manoeuvre them and support them logistically, in this case that if is probably the biggest word in the English language.   He can threaten other disasters such as nuclear meltdowns in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities currently under Russian control but blame that on counter attacking Ukrainians. He has much more conventional terror to rain down on Ukraine’s cities before he even needs to consider the unthinkable.

The worrying final issue is no matter what the outcome, Putin has lost this war. He has failed, his military have failed. He has strengthened the Ukrainian people as a nation, strengthened the international community including the EU, caused the conditions for possible further NATO expansion.

Sun Tzu says, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”  Putin’s forces didn’t listen and are fixed. Unless there is a palace coup in Moscow, this conflict could go on for a long time with all of the associated suffering and deaths. The only other tiny green shoot of hope is that the Russians are becoming so fixed, that if the Ukrainian defenders can generate manoeuvre capabilities to counterattack, their time to push the Russian back in a significant way could come. Supporting the Ukrainian defenders more and enabling them to become attackers is the Wests next logical step.

 

Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.