Mark Laity on the Information War between Russia and Ukraine

(Photo: Flickr)

Transcribed by Owen Buchan – Editor-in-Chief of YPR

Mark Laity is a York Alumni who completed a BA in History and Politics and an MA in Southern African studies. He has been involved in media, information and strategy for over five decades, having a plethora of jobs including as a BBC Defence Correspondent. On the 4th of May, Mark was invited by the University of York’s Politics Department to talk on a panel discussing the Information war during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The following article is adapted from an interview YPR had the privilege of conducting with Mark. 

If you could just introduce yourself? 

My name is Mark Laity. I am the retired director of communications at SHAPE. Before that I was a BBC defence correspondent and I am now a Senior Director of the StratCom academy. 

So you’re here today to talk on a panel about the Information War in the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.. Could you tell us what is meant by an “information war” ? Is this a new phenomenon of the 21st century or is there a historical precedent? 

No, information war has always been there. You go back to Sun Tzu and all that. There is nothing new about information warfare, but what happens is technology changes. Information warfare now is probably more pervasive simply because information is more pervasive. We live in the information age, that’s an unexceptional comment, and therefore information is a far more fundamental part of warfare. The morale of troops, that’s about information. The support of populations; information. Deception, disinformation; all these things, they’ve always been there but the technology of today means it’s more important than ever before. 

There has been lots of discussion about Russian disinformation spread by their state propaganda. How does this work and has it had an major impact on how the Russian population perceive the war? 

The thing is, we shouldn’t just talk about the conflict in terms of disinformation. We need to recognise this in military terms, that any nation in order to successfully execute a war or foreign policy needs at the centre of gravity the support of its domestic population. So the Russians require the support of its domestic population, anyone does. In their terms they don’t require actual support but at the least passivity. They require the population to not get in the way. 

So what they’ve done is to create an information bubble in which they make it very hard for information to get in and they then put in play narratives and historical things that appeals to Russians sense of exceptionalism, to Russian greatness, to the great patriotic war. Russians, like anybody, don’t want to believe that their soldiers are war criminals. So it’s very easy to persuade them that they’re not war criminals because they don’t want to believe it in the first place. And if you can stop the images from getting to them, then they’re in effect in cognitive dissidence. 

At the same time you put in a system of the price you pay for being truthful. You want to call it a war? Off to prison you go. So you put these systems in. Some people will support, some people will not but nobody is going to say damn all because of the price. So this combination of pull and push, of attraction and repelling, all of this comes together in order to make sure that the Russian public basically don’t do anything. Their passivity is the primary thing. 

Has Russia’s effort with information warfare been partially effective? Is Ukraine doing a good job? 

Ukraine is doing a fantastic job. Russia is doing a fine job with its own population. Its own population is doing what it wants them to do, which is to do nothing. Russia is not doing a very good job at persuading the world. Ukraine is doing an exceptional job at maintaining the morale of its people and maintaining the sympathy of the people of the world. So their information warfare is very good. And if you look at the international scene, NATO, nations and so on are also doing a good job. If you look everywhere you go, you see Ukrainian flags, we all know the side we’re on. So overall, the Russians are not doing very well. Their electronic warfare has not gone very well, their hacking has been moderately effective but most cyber attacks have been repelled. We all thought they’d be able to shut Ukraine down and they haven’t. 

There have been claims that NATO, Europe and the UK have not been doing enough to combat the crisis, what do you make of these claims? 

Britain is doing a good job. A number of countries are doing a good job. This is not the premier league, I don’t think we should be ranking. Britain is doing ok; it’s doing a decent job. America is doing a very good job. Even nations like Germany; if you told me that the Germans were going to up their defence spending to 2%, that they were going to stop Nord Stream 2, I would have asked you if you were taking some funny drugs. So the Germans haven’t gone where people wanted them too but they have taken action. 

Other countries are doing a lot of good stuff. The EU, ok. Would it be good if they stopped all Russian oil tomorrow? Sure, but they will be doing it in a year. Again, the level of unity that there has been has been extraordinary. It’s not helpful to say I’m doing better or that they are doing better. Take each country as it comes and ask yourself could you do better than you’re currently doing. 

Will historians look back at the information war between Russia and Ukraine and see it as a watershed moment? What lessons will be learned? 

I wouldn’t say it’s a watershed but certainly a significant evolution. I think we made a lot of assumptions about what the Russians could do, what the Ukrainians could do which have proven to be wrong. I think they’re is a lot more resilience out there, again proving the value of narrative.

I use this analogy; don’t get obsessed with the facts about disinformation, get obsessed with the results and whether they’re effective or not. Bad people can always throw more mud at your wall than you can wash it off. The issue is how strong is your wall, and that’s about narratives and so on. The Ukrainians have proven that you can resist in a way that we didn’t think they could, both in information terms and in physical terms, and that is an inflection point rather than a watershed. 

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