Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been giving the world a crash course in Kremlin techniques of propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, and misdirection — for anyone not already well aware. We have heard plenty about this in recent weeks, not least from the Biden administration, which has been declassifying and releasing to the press information on what they’ve called Russia’s playbook.
A big feature of this playbook is projection: in this case the process of displacing onto someone or something else what Russia itself is actually planning, or doing. We saw this in spades during Putin’s runup to the invasion of Ukraine, as he mustered his strike force along Ukraine’s land borders and coastline. Russia accused Ukraine and NATO of threatening its security, broadcasting a narrative that at the extreme suggested Russia was in danger of an invasion from Ukraine, or NATO. The opposite was true: It was Russia threatening and preparing to invade Ukraine, threatening NATO, and staging provocations.
Russia’s narrative was patently ridiculous, but for Putin such things have their uses — for domestic propaganda, for muddying the waters, for distracting the debate from the realities, and for laying the groundwork for Russia’s staged provocations. In this case, Russia stirs up trouble and blames it on Ukraine, as Russia has been doing for years in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
In that vein, there’s an item that caught my attention last Friday, near the end of a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on Ukraine. I mention it here not because I have any further information on this score. I stress that this is solely a heads up, in light of Russia’s record of projection and staged provocations.
The setting was the UN Security Council chamber, Friday evening, Feb. 25 — two days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of February, and Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, was presiding. He described Russia’s invasion as a justified humanitarian intervention, saying Russia was not bombing cities or targeting civilians.
Ukraine does not currently hold one of the 10 rotating seats on the council, but Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, was present to make a statement. Kyslytsya tore into Russia and Nebenzia, telling Russia’s ambassador “Your words have less value than the hole in a New York pretzel,” deploring Russia’s attack on Ukraine, citing some of the horrors, and mentioning among other things a concern about Russia’s capture of the Chernobyl nuclear plant — site of the huge nuclear accident under the USSR in 1986, and still a dangerous repository of radioactive material.
Russia’s ambassador, Nebenzia, then dropped into his closing remarks that Russian paratroopers had taken Chernobyl because Russia “does not want Ukraine to generate a dirty bomb.”
In view of Russia’s record of provocations and projection, that left me wondering if we should all be alert to what I hope would be an unthinkable Russian provocation. Russia right now is looking dreadful on the world stage; a brutal power ruled by a dictator with an army now killing people in a neighboring country, in service of his messianic claims. Ukraine, by contrast, is making a heroic defense. The Kremlin must be looking for ways to try to flip that picture.
Which leads me to a dread question. Is it possible that Russia might have its own dirty bomb, with plans to use it somewhere and blame it on Ukrainians?
I hope not. I stress that I have no further information on this score, except the patterns of Russia’s playbook, and the implication by Russia’s ambassador that we should be worried about a dirty bomb. This is not an accusation, certainly not some sensational revelation. But it is worth tucking away, as one more thing to keep in mind.
Here’s the relevant excerpt from the UN wrapup of the meeting (the boldface is mine):
Mr. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), Council President for February, re-taking the floor in his national capacity, while noting that there is much on which to comment following the statement by the representative of Ukraine, said he would “leave the boorishness” on the latter’s conscience. He also pointed out that units of a Russian paratrooper division took control of the area surrounding the Chernobyl power plant on 24 February. The Russian Federation “does not want Ukraine to generate a dirty bomb”, he said, and personnel are monitoring the radioactive situation. He went on to recall that the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the level of radiation at the power plant is low and does not pose a threat to the population.