There’s been an un-ending stream of writing about Russia’s intensifying “information war” against the West. Rare is the day that yet another article about RT’s perfidy and malevolence isn’t written*. Entire reports have been commissioned about Russia’s “weaponization of information,” and the tendency of its intelligence services to engage in elaborate operations of deception.
There is, quite obviously, something to all of this. In comparison to Western spy organizations, the KGB, and its primary successor the FSB, really do have a knack for inventing elaborate forgeries, fakes, and other kinds of fantasies. Research has shown that more than a few conspiracy theories that are still in wide circulation (e.g. about the JFK assassination, the US military’s role in creating the AIDs virus, or even the origins of the crack cocaine epidemic) were not the random musings of oddballs and loons, were but quite deliberately invented by the KGB as part of “disinformation” campaigns.
Given this history of (extremely successful!) deceit and forgery, it makes sense to apply a very high discount rate to any information received from the FSB. No the FSB isn’t automatically wrong (over the past decade its intelligence about Iranian and Iraqi WMDs, or the lack thereof has been at least as good as the CIA’s) and it has occasionally passed along claims that have been borne out. Broken clocks are right twice a day, and all that.
But anyone with a modicum of knowledge about its institutional pedigree ought to be extremely suspicious about the veracity of FSB claims. Very few people in the West are either credulous or foolish enough to put their faith solely in unproven, unsourced allegations leaked from the Lubyanka. Not many people, in other words, trust information whose only source is Russian spies.
This background about the KGB and its long history of successful disinformatsiya serves to an introduction to a thoroughly bizarre story that recently came out of war-torn eastern Ukraine: “Ukraine rebels ‘building dirty bomb’ with Russian scientists.” The Times and Newsweek both ran essentially identical versions of the article, which alleges that Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk are planning to build and detonate a radiological device.
The article’s allegations are extremely grave. What’s been happening in Ukraine is awful enough on its own terms, it’s a humanitarian tragedy of the first degree, but the weaponry employed by both sides has thankfully remained conventional. Indeed one of the only ways the situation in the Donbass could realistically get worse is if some type of WMD was employed. The article suggests that the rebels are actively preparing to cross that bridge, and are planning to turn the conflict in Ukraine into a nuclear one. If true, the story could be a turning point in the war, rallying a reluctant West to rescue Ukraine from the clutches of madmen with their finger on the button.
The problem with the article, however, is clear: it is based entirely upon a dossier provided by Ukraine’s secret intelligence service, the SBU. This is not an exaggeration. The SBU dossier is the only source cited in the article for the allegation that Russian scientists are aiding rebels in the creation of a radiological device. Indeed the SBU is the only source of information that the rebels are even interested in the radioactive material in question, which has apparently been sealed in a vault since the late 1960’s.
Now, as you might imagine, the SBU is also a spinoff of the KGB. Just like its Russian cousin the FSB, the SBU is deeply steeped in that institution’s particular culture and modus operandi. The SBU’s top leadership, in other words, was also trained in the arts of disinformation and maskirovka and made to understand their importance.
So, just like the FSB, the SBU has also regularly leaked an enormous amount of fraudulent nonsense to the media. Since their cause is more just and their budget much tighter the SBU’s fakes have tended to be rather less elaborate than the FSB’s (there haven’t been any stories about “corpse planes”) but their approach suggests the very same disdain for truth and an almost identical “weaponized” approach to information.
Is it possible that the story is true and that the separatists are preparing a nuclear device? Yes, it is entirely possible. I have a feeling we won’t have to wait very long to find how who is right. But I have a hard time imagining that a major Western newspaper would print a front page article sourced entirely from an FSB dossier. Editors would rightly suggest that given its provenance, unless it was independently corroborated the information should be assumed be fraudulent. That’s exactly the right approach to take when dealing with an organization as steeped in institutional deceit as the FSB.
But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you’re going to distrust one KGB successor organization then, quite logically, you ought to distrust all of them. Even though it now is on “our” side of the conflict, the SBU is an organization whose outlook and operating procedures are still thoroughly Soviet. We ought to keep that in mind when trying to sift through the truth about the “dirty bomb” supposedly being constructed in Donetsk.
*I would love to see someone crunch the numbers on the ratio of articles written by RT to the number of articles written about RT. I suspect it would be far closer to 1:1 than for any other media outlet