“With declassifying specific intelligence, NATO has an edge in being able to counter disinformation

Oana Lungescu on NATO and the importance of public communication

In the months and weeks preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO declassified an unprecedented amount of previously classified intelligence. The message to Russia: we know what you’re doing. Stop doing it. It helped to convince allies that Russia was the aggressor and to rally diplomatic, military and public support behind Ukraine. Oana Lungescu, who was the NATO Spokesperson at that time, and is now affiliated with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) looks back at this, and other, innovative ways of public communication at NATO.
Maarten Muns

You have worked as the NATO Spokesperson with two SG’s, over 13 years. What has changed in the way NATO sees the importance of fighting Russian disinformation during these years?

“NATO has been fighting disinformation, particularly Soviet disinformation from its very start. But from 2014, with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, we saw a massive increase in disinformation directed against NATO. Then we realized the need to be more deliberate and more coordinated in fighting disinformation. So in 2014 NATO was, I think, the first international organization to more systematically debunk Russian disinformation. We did that by setting up an online platform called Setting the Record Straight, which you can still find on the NATO website. At that time, we suspended practical cooperation but there was still an attempt to at least maintain a political dialogue with Russia. So what we did was to identify the key disinformation narratives that Russia was using. For instance ‘NATO enlargement is a provocation against Russia,’ or ‘NATO is an aggressive organization’ or ‘NATO is in breach of international rules.’ Meta-narratives like these were being used as the basis for different types of disinformation, and we debunked them with facts, with verified information, and links to trusted sources.”

“The main aim is of Russian disinformation not to convince, but to confuse. From that point of view, it’s important to go after the key narratives rather than each individual lie. Disinformation aims to distract you from focusing on your own messaging, so that you spend your limited time and resources rebutting all the lies out there about you. So what we tried to do was to focus and distill the main disinformation narratives. And then to rebut them systematically by using facts, interviews or video material just to give people the basic facts to counter the lies.”

“What was important, was to have this as a template for NATO allies to use because, NATO as such cannot be out there at all times, on all platforms and in all languages. And NATO as an institution may not always be the most credible or authoritative source for certain audiences. So countering disinformation is best done at the lowest possible level.”

Was that enough?

“Well, what we are now seeing increasingly over the last years is a confluence of not just Russian disinformation but also disinformation narratives coming from China and sometimes also from other actors like Iran for instance. So we see a turbocharging of disinformation. Both because of the multiplicity of actors and also because of the of social media platforms and the use of artificial intelligence.”

“At the end of 2021, NATO went from debunking to ‘prebunking’, from countering disinformation as it appeared to trying to inoculate audiences to what they would be exposed to in the future – both in terms of mechanism and content. For instance in terms of exposing the methods of disinformation. How do disinformation flows work? How do you set up an account that gets the most engagement by promoting the sort of content that triggers very strong emotions, like fear or anger? So if this content triggers a lot of anger and fear, maybe I should be looking at where it comes from. What are the sources? How credible are they? Should I just click and repost it instantly or just stop and think? The aim of prebunking is to teach people how to be much more critical in their approach, especially to social media, before they actually get exposed to the disinformation.”

What role did this play around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

“Compared to the EU for instance, NATO’s resources for public communications are much more limited. But NATO does have intelligence, joint intelligence from all allies which is based on very serious sources. Nobody else has that, it is a unique selling point for NATO. But of course, it’s all very sensitive, and usually NATO does not comment on intelligence. However, at the end of 2021, when we started getting the first intelligence briefings about Russia’s intentions and plans for the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, including eliminating the government of Ukraine, taking Kyiv and basically occupying the whole country, we realized that this was such an important moment that we had to be even more proactive in terms of exposing Russia’s intentions.”

“So we deliberately decided to declassify some of our intelligence and use it in our public communications. That was totally unprecedented for NATO, and for NATO allies. The evolution in technology also made that possible. In 2014, for instance, it took us a very long time to declassify satellite imagery relating to Russia’s military presence on Ukraine’s borders, in the Donbas and in Crimea, because that sort of imagery was highly classified. The nations that had the imagery were unwilling to provide it for public use because they were afraid that it may expose some tactics and procedures in terms of intelligence gathering. But what we saw between 2014 and 2021 was the increasing availability of commercial satellite imagery and of Osint (Open Source Intelligence): people who were tweeting or posting little snippets of video from what was happening near the border of Ukraine, including geolocating the Russian military buildup. That also made it easier for us use intelligence because the information landscape had changed and had evolved. This kind of information has become much more democratized.

What exactly was the goal that you wanted to achieve with declassifying this kind of information?

“Our message was primarily directed to the Kremlin. So by declassifying detailed intelligence about Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, the types of capabilities that they were bringing in every week, the message was to Russia to say, “we know what you’re doing. Stop doing it.” Stop claiming that this is just an exercise, as they were doing. This is not true, we can see it and we are making it public. The other audiences were our own publics. And governments that were sitting around the table in the North Atlantic Council at NATO. So that everybody had the same intelligence. But many people still did not believe that Russia really was not bluffing, that its intention was actually to fully invade Ukraine. So it was important to inoculate them with the vaccine of what was actually happening on the ground. It helped them to understand that Russia was the aggressor and that Ukraine the victim of aggression. And that this was not some provocation from Ukraine that led Russia to invade, but it was in fact a totally unprovoked illegal invasion.”

“So what we did was that we declassified our intelligence and used it to tell that story of what Russia was doing and was planning to do. That’s what the US called “strategic declassification.” And if you look back at what Secretary General Stoltenberg said publicly from around November 2021 until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022, in all his speeches, press conferences and interviews, you will see that he describes the evolution of Russia’s military buildup, and also constantly calling on Russia to step back from the brink. He is also explaining why NATO supports and will continue to support Ukraine in its self-defense. And that also helped to create the basis for the unprecedented military and public support to Ukraine after the invasion and up to this day. And after the invasion, we also saw in the public opinion polls, including those that NATO did, but also many others, very strong support for NATO, and a very significant decrease in favorable opinion about Russia. We can’t obviously attribute it only to our communications, but I think that what NATO did, and what the US and the UK did in terms of strategic declassification helped do achieve this.”

“The US and the UK, and NATO to some extent, continue to ‘prebunk’ Russian disinformation with declassified intelligence. For instance, when you look at the daily updates from UK Defence Intelligence, on X and other social media platforms. Just three quick bullet points about what they are seeing is happening on the ground, or the latest updates on actual Russian losses in Ukraine. This continues to maintain awareness about what is actually happening. Another example of that is what both the United States and also NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg have made public about the type of support that Russia is getting from China in terms of machine tools or dual use components for their war in Ukraine. So it’s about using intelligence, credible solid intelligence, in a way to bring to the attention of the public what is actually going on.”

“This is about being proactive in the way you use information to counter the lies before they reach the public. Disinformation will be out there, that’s for sure. But it’s much better if people already have an understanding of what is going on. When China, for instance, says we’re not supplying a weapons to Russia, you can say to yourself “Well, that’s not credible, you may not be supplying weapons, but you are supplying the parts of those weapons.” So I think it’s important for people to put things into context and to be pre-warned about the disinformation that they may be exposed to.”

If you if you look back to this form of strategic declassification, which seems to be quite successful on multiple fronts, will it also be something that we can expect even more in the future as the technological possibilities will further evolve?

“Well, in one way, we have collectively set a template for the future, and I think that it has been effective. But it’s not always easy to do, because obviously the use of intelligence is always extremely sensitive. We have also seen intelligence in the past that has not been credible, for instance in the lead up to the Iraq war. So it’s important that whatever we do, we do on the basis of very solid intelligence and in a deliberate and carefully calibrated way. So it’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of trust and coordination among allies, policymakers, our intelligence community, military commanders and communicators. Therefore, you can’t take it for granted that it will happen again in the same way. But because we see this increased geostrategic confrontation, we should keep in mind that there is an area where NATO has an edge in terms of being able to counter false information.”

“What really matters is to be out there. Be out there first with the truth. You need to be proactive and focus on conveying your own messages, your own narrative: What is NATO doing, and why are we doing it? Rather than spending too much time on analyzing or categorizing all the various types of disinformation, that can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’. There are many think-tanks and other organizations that are great at analysis. So rather than spending too many resources on analysis, I think what NATO needs to do is to focus much more on actually communicating and engaging with our publics across all different platforms, as creatively as possible, but actually being out there and communicating. Training and investing in our spokespeople and our public affairs officers, both civilian and military. That is one of my main lessons from my time as a NATO spokesperson. Be proactive, make the best of what you have, and invest in real communicators.”

Oana Lungescu was the spokesperson and strategic advisor to NATO’s Secretary General from 2010 to 2023. She is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.