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US, NATO military plans leak: Actual war strategy or pro-Kremlin shenanigans?

'Russia is the king of disinformation and hybrid warfare' expert tells El Reg

Analysis War plans apparently detailing secret US and NATO support for a Ukrainian offensive to regain land invaded by Russia were leaked via social media Thursday – and almost as quickly as they appeared, their legitimacy came under fire.

The purported classified documents surfaced on Twitter and Telegram, and immediately sparked a US Department of Defense probe. "We are aware of the reports of social media posts, and the department is reviewing the matter," a Pentagon spokesperson told The Register Friday. 

The documents, if genuine, appear to have been modified to, among other things, overstate supposed American estimates of Ukrainians killed, and understating Russian deaths, which could be a sign of a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign, military analysts told The New York Times. It could also be the work of private miscreants who are pro-Putin.

"I do believe it is an example of hybrid warfare meant to shake the faith of the Ukrainian population," Tom Kellermann told The Register. Kellermann is senior veep of cyber strategy at Contrast Security, and he has also held cybersecurity-related posts in the US government. 

"Russia is the king of disinformation and hybrid warfare," he added.  

By Friday, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the military plans "virtual fake leaks."

"Moscow is eager to disrupt [Ukraine's] counteroffensive but it will see the real plans on the ground. Soon," Mykhailo Podolyak said.

Ukraine and its allies, however, aren't the only ones calling the shared blueprints bogus or doctored to mislead.  

Down the rabbit hole

Gray Zone, a pro-Russian Telegram channel, called the leaks "disinformation by Western intelligence in order to mislead our command in identifying the enemy's strategy in the coming counteroffensive."

The reaction to the supposed leaked papers from both sides of the war on Ukraine indicate a growing awareness of the role of online information operations during wartime. It's also worth noting the military plans surfaced about a week after another series of high-profile leaked documents made headlines, allegedly showing how NTC Vulkan, a Moscow IT consultancy, supports Russia's military and intelligence agencies with cyber warfare tools including automated propaganda efforts.

Google-owned Mandiant examined those documents, and described one of the tools as "a framework used to control the online information environment and manipulate public opinion, enhance psychological operations, and store and organize data for upstream communication of efforts."

Winning the disinfo war?

Indeed, Russia has been waging a disinformation battle since its ground invasion of Ukraine began.

These Kremlin-pushed false narratives have run the gamut from accusing Ukrainian Nazis of being the aggressors in this conflict and committing war crimes, to downplaying the effect of Western nations' sanctions against Russia. Kremlin-controlled news outlets, social media networks, and GRU-run Telegram channels amplify pro-Putin brainwashing. 

"This is a very dangerous activity, fighting for the minds of people, and this is the game in which Russia won on their territory," Viktor Zhora, who leads Ukraine's cybersecurity agency, said last year.

To be fair, Russia isn't the only country adept at information operations. China, Iran and even the US and UK are quite good at it.

The most recent purported military leaks should be met with skepticism, John Hultquist, head of Mandiant intelligence analysis, told The Register.

"Russia has tried to undermine confidence in the Ukrainian military with disinformation delivered through a variety of schemes," he said. "They regularly leak realistic, but fake disinformation, like documents."

"On several occasions they have planted fabricated disinformation in real leaked data," Hultquist added, and this is important as analysts have notified that the supposedly new US and NATO documents appear to be modifications of original materials. 

"In all cases, the goal is to launder their disinformation through careless intermediaries," Hultquist said. "We are very fortunate that this leak has received such a skeptical reception." ®

Updated to add

According to a study by Bellingcat, the documents made their way onto social media from Discord channels and then 4chan. Some of the files are marked top secret, and date to early March or January. It's increasingly looking as though the documents may contain genuine classified information but have been through so many hands, and had details changed, that they are by now totally unreliable.

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