This week (November 14), the Russian Ministry of Defense posted on its official social media accounts a report about the Washington-led coalition and the United States military in northeastern Syria supposedly conspiring with Islamic State (IS) fighters. The Russian military accused US forces of refusing to air-bomb columns of IS trucks and armor allegedly fleeing a militant stronghold in Bukamal, on the Euphrates River, on November 9. Bukamal was under attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by the Russian air force (VKS). The Russian defense ministry accused the US of not only refusing to hit the IS fighters in the open, while they were vulnerable, but alleged that US jets had actively prevented VKS bombers from attacking the IS columns. These online reports further alleged the US command in Syria wanted to maintain undefeated elements of the IS fighting machine intact to possibly use them in the future to “promote US interests in the region.” As “irrefutable evidence” of US collusion with the Islamic State, the Russian defense ministry provided images reportedly acquired by Russian drones overflying the retreating IS columns in the Syrian desert. This story of alleged US treachery was immediately carried by Russian state TV news broadcasts. But just hours later, it became evident the “irrefutable evidence” was faked, with at least one of the published images of “IS columns” actually being a frame from a promotional video for the “AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron” computer game, posted online in March 2015. Some of the other published photos were apparently from a June 2016 video of Iraqi airstrikes of IS vehicles near Fallujah (Lenta.ru, November 14).
In the ensuing confusion, the Ministry of Defense deleted the compromised frames and accused an unnamed “civilian contractor” of mistakenly posting them; but it did not withdraw the entire story, still insisting there was overwhelming evidence of Americans aiding and abetting the Islamic State. US denials of wrongdoing were rejected out of hand (Militarynews.ru, November 14). The defense ministry was supported by the Kremlin’s official spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, “Mistakes happen, but there is nothing terrible if they are swiftly corrected, which the MoD [Ministry of Defense] did. It is no big deal. The MoD reported that the staffer who made the mistake was appropriately punished” (Interfax, November 15).
In Moscow, such flippant attitudes have indeed become almost commonplace. The Russian intelligence services and the military regularly use so-called “open source intelligence”—or simply false or misleading materials collected on the Internet—to complement or substitute true data to promote their specific agendas. During the Cold War, when there was no Internet or a digital copy-and-paste option, glue and scissors would have been used to put together fake intelligence to feed the Kremlin to create fake Western threats or exaggerate existing ones manifold. The defense ministry’s true mistake this week was that it published the fake “irrefutable evidence” of US wrongdoing in Syria on the Internet instead of just presenting it directly to the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin is 65, he apparently does not play computer games and, on his own, would likely have never figured out this information was faulty. And, it seems (see below), he may not have even cared it was fake, if the “evidence” of US treachery accurately reflected a world view he already holds.
Last week, Putin attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Đà Nẵng, Vietnam, were he had a brief encounter with his US counterpart, Donald Trump. After the event, both presidents found nice words for each other and expressed hope of a possible future improvement in relations. Speaking to Russian reporters in Đà Nẵng, Putin rejected as nonsense alleged meddling in the 2016 US elections (see EDM, November 6, 9). Putin also refuted US assertions that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty by deploying long-range land-based cruise missiles. Putin countered by accusing the US of violating the INF by deploying SM-3 missile defense (MD) interceptors of the land-based Aegis system at Deveselu, a Romanian base west of Bucharest. Russian officials have previously implied the MD interceptors in the silos at Deveselu may be easily and secretly replaced by US long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles that could be used in a first-strike decapitation attack to suddenly make Russia defenseless by killing its military and political leaders (Interfax, February 14; see EDM, February 16). But in Đà Nẵng, Putin further expanded the threat assessment of the Deveselu base by announcing its land-based silos may be used to deploy the sea-based Trident missile instead of SM-3 interceptors, which would violate existing treaties (Kremlin.ru, November 11).
It is possible Putin was mixed up: the Trident and Tomahawk are totally different systems—the first a ballistic missile and the other cruise—but both are sea-based weapons and their names begin with a capital “T.” And while Putin could have misspoken, it cannot be excluded that he in fact referred to the Trident missile deliberately after being fed fake information by his military intelligence about the “treacherous” US secretly deploying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on Russia’s doorstep. Putin may believe and fear a sudden US strike aimed to kill him in one of his residences; and a modified Trident missile could hit such a target much faster than an air cruising Tomahawk. In fact, however, the notion that the land-based Aegis system silos in Deveselu may somehow be fitted with modified Tridents is technically, strategically and politically ludicrous. But seriously presenting “irrefutable evidence” of the US military colluding with the Islamic State on the battlefield in Syria is equally ludicrous. Intentionally fake intelligence is being treated in Moscow as an insignificant mistake that does not change the overall assessment picture. To date, Putin’s Trident remarks, made in Vietnam, have not been officially refuted or redacted from the Kremlin site.