Navy Fighting Against Surging Russian Disinformation Ahead of Potential Ukraine Invasion

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS California
The Virginia-class attack submarine USS California underway during sea trials. (U.S. Navy photo by Chris Oxley)

A Russian-language website alleged Wednesday that locals had found "a sonar countermeasure device" washed up on the shores of Urup Island, south of Vladivostok on Russia's western coast.

The story went on to suggest that the device had been launched by a Virginia-class submarine after the vessel allegedly was discovered in Russian waters on Feb. 12.

The article featured a photo of a long, torpedo-like device lying on a beach, partially submerged in water.

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None of it appears to be true.

The image -- which is of a piece of Russian hardware, not American -- was apparently taken several months ago on a different beach thousands of miles away. And the U.S. Navy insists the alleged run-in between one of its subs and Russian forces never happened.

It's just one example of the escalating information war being waged by Russian operatives, a tactic designed to muddy the waters and potentially give Russian forces a justification to invade Ukraine, according to experts.

Hours after the post first appeared online, the tale made it over to social media posts in English, with a few added details. Now, the same photo was being described as having been "released by the Russian Ministry of Defense" and that the submarine fired the device "to mask the acoustic signatures of the sub in order to facilitate an exit from the area."

The story hinges on Russian allegations that an American submarine was chased out of its waters over the weekend -- something the U.S. has strongly denied.

"To be clear, there was no engagement or interaction between U.S. and Russian forces Saturday as claimed by Russia," Capt. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told in a statement Wednesday.

The "evidence," in the form of the included image, has more obvious issues.

The photo cited in both the Russian and English versions of the story is old and doesn't actually show American equipment. A reverse image search revealed that the photo in question, along with similar images from other angles, first appeared on the internet around October 2021. Captions for the photo of a washed-up Russian submarine countermeasure described it as having been taken on the shores near Severodvinsk in northern Russia.

Raines echoed's analysis of the image's origins and noted that "as [office of the Secretary of Defense] mentioned this week, this Russian information campaign appears to be a piece of their playbook aimed at laying a foundation for military action."

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that he "wouldn't be surprised if the Russians had found a U.S. submarine and played a little hide and seek."

"I believe that there's an element of truth on which they have built a story … and maybe it's part of the broader narrative that they're trying to build for action in Ukraine," he added.

An earlier statement from Raines did note that he would "not comment on the precise location of our submarines but we do fly, sail, and operate safely in international waters."

The U.S. military has struggled to push back against the flood of Russian-driven narratives that have percolated across the internet during the last few weeks of the standoff with Ukraine. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of Russian efforts to lay the groundwork for a "false flag" attack that could justify pushing its massed troops across the border with Ukraine.

The situation has gotten so murky that it's not clear whether the conflict is even escalating or cooling. On Tuesday, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that many of the troops dug in near Ukraine's border would be leaving following the completion of military exercises.

Yet the U.S. Ministry of Defence said that they "have seen no evidence that Russian forces are withdrawing from Ukrainian border regions" in a tweet this morning.

On Wednesday, the U.K. intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Sir Jim Hockenhull, said that there have been "sightings of additional armoured [sic] vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine's borders."

"Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine," Hockenhull added.

To Cancian, this buildup is an important context through which to consider events like the alleged submarine incident. However, he is quick to note that "the Russians have a long history [of information warfare] that is probably more elaborate than most countries -- you go back to the Soviet era and even back into the czars."

Cancian notes that this history can sometimes make it challenging to tell whether an incident like the one alleged in the Pacific is a one-off incident or part of "a single tapestry" in which the Russians take an event and "weave it into a couple of themes of Russia as victim and also the competence of their armed forces."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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