You’ve probably heard about the Russian special operations troop killed recently in Syria. As the story goes, he was alone, low on ammo, and surrounded by Daesh attackers. He called in an air strike on his own position, martyring himself to kill the enemy hordes converging on his position. If you read SOFREP regularly, you’ve probably already seen Jack Murphy’s scathing deconstruction of this narrative. Unfortunately, that piece wasn’t the final nail in this absurd coffin. No, the story continues.
Russian psychological warfare operatives are astute. As Murphy observed, it doesn’t matter if informed consumers see the propaganda for what it is. What matters is that their audiences don’t. Undoubtedly this story has created a swelling of national pride among Russians, and good for them. The problem is that Russian propaganda continues to gain unfathomable traction here in the West. Although Moscow is pushing the narrative through Kremlin mouthpieces like Russia Today and Pravda, British tabloids were more than eager to spread the message. Despite enormous cause for skepticism, even mainstream sources like the Washington Post began including this tale in reports on Syria.
It isn’t old media that’s the primary vector for delivery, though. Russian propagandists don’t have to engage in traditional underhanded methods to slip their stories into journals of record anymore. The Internet provides delivery platforms that are faster, have deeper penetration, and take almost no effort to compromise. The story has spread like wildfire across social media, from Reddit to Twitter. Shepherded along by Russia’s web brigades (or Internet trolls), the story has tens of thousands of likes, upvotes, comments, and shares across multiple sites. In what continues to be an amazing 21st-century information coup, even stalwart and patriotic U.S. veteran pages are eagerly promoting Russian propaganda. Think about the brilliance of that for a moment.
Murphy’s aforementioned article focused on challenging the narrative based on factual aspects of the story. For example, if the Russian was killed in an air strike, how did Daesh recover the Russian’s pristine and dust-free gear?
In analyzing organizational deception and disinformation, finding contraindicating facts is extremely important, and we’ll look at some more of those below. We will also explore some of the more murky areas of deception analysis. Do we find ourselves naturally pulled into a compelling story arc? Do we see melodrama that targets us emotionally the way Hollywood might? Let’s take a look.
Early reports were stating that a GRU (Russian military intelligence) operative, Denis Tukhmanov (seen above right, in the striped shirt), was the soldier killed. Within days, that identity was changed to a young officer, Lt. Alexander Prokhorenko (above left, in white). Different images were provided for both individuals. Clearly we are talking about two different people. Regardless of the Kremlin’s intention, this story is without a doubt colored by deception.
Now take a moment and examine the story as told by the Daily Mail, complete with compelling family pictures of the young lieutenant.
Army WTF Moments, a hugely popular social-media presence for the veteran community, tells the tale as follows:
The Russian JTAC officer that died in Syria on March 19 reportedly ordering an airstrike on himself to take as many enemy fighters with him and not be captured alive has been identified as Lieutenant Alexander Prokhorenko, 25 from the village of Gorodki in the Orenburg region of Russia. He was a husband to his wife Katya and a father to a child not yet born.
Lieutenant Prokhorenko could have been our enemy yesterday or tomorrow, but as soldiers we respect the valor he displayed as a soldier himself on the battlefield and will raise a drink tonight in his honor.
Below in the comments is the transcript of his last radio call as it was posted on the pro Kremlin semiofficial website Pravda.ru .
Prokhorenko : command I am compromised, I repeat I am compromised.
Command: Please say again and confirm.
Prokhorenko : They have spotted me, there are shooting everywhere, I am pinned, requesting immediate extraction.
Command: Extraction request acknowledged.
Prokhorenko : Please hurry I am low on ammo, they seem to [be]everywhere, I can’t hold them for too long please hurry.
Command: Confirmed, hold them off, continue returning fire, retreat to a safe position, air support is monitoring, state your coordinates
Prokhorenko : [gives coordinates which are blurred in the transcript]
Command: [command repeats coordinates which are blurred.]Confirm
Prokhorenko : Confirmed, please hurry I am low on ammo, they are surrounding me, bastards!
Command: ETA on evacuation 12 minutes, return to the green line, I repeat return to the green line.
Prokhorenko : They are close, I am surrounded, this may be the end, tell my family I love them dearly.
Command: Return to the green line, continue returning fire, help is on the way, followed by air support.
Prokhorenko : Negative, I am surrounded, they are so many of these bastards!
Command: Extract ETA 10 minutes, return to the green line.
Prokhorenko : I can’t they have surrounded me and are closing in, please hurry.
Command: return to the green line, I repeat return to the green line.
Prokhorenko : They are outside, conduct the airstrike now please hurry, this is the end, tell my family I love them and i died fighting for my motherland.
Command: Negative, return to the green line.
Prokhorenko : Unable command, I am surrounded, they are outside, I don’t want them to take me and parade me, conduct the airstrike, they will make a mockery of me and this uniform. I want to die with dignity and take all these bastards with me. please my last wish, conduct the airstrike, they will kill me either way.
Command: Please confirm your request.
Prokhorenko : They [are] outside, this is the end commander, thank you, tell my family and my country I love them. Tell them I was brave and I fought until I could no longer. Please take care of my family, avenge my death, good bye commander, tell my family I love them!
Command: [No response, orders the airstrike]
If you’ve clicked on the hyperlinks and explored the story as it’s being presented, you are probably thinking to yourself, “This could be right out of a movie.” You’d be right. Real life very rarely follows a narrative story arc. Analyzing the material skeptically, we’ve already established that someone, somewhere, was engaged in disinformation regarding the identity of the soldier.
With Lt. Prokhorenko, Western media was given a wealth of personal and persuasive information about the subject’s life, marriage, and even his wife—mother to his unborn child. Our heartstrings are so predictably plucked. Russia reports having lost seven soldiers in Syria. This is the only instance where information was made public without weeks of delay. It is the only time that any personal information at all has been released about the deceased, much less such intimate and private details.
Looking at those details, another unlikely aspect emerges. Prokhorenko is identified as as lieutenant (not even a senior lieutenant), which, like in the U.S. Army, is a very junior grade of officer. Prokhorenko is essentially fresh out of his commissioning. Are we to believe that in Russia, a newly minted officer can train and qualify into the Spetsnaz and then be assigned a solo recce mission to call in air strikes? Really?
Reading through the transcript gives us additional grammatical and semantic clues regarding the veracity of the story. First, you’ll notice the extensive use of polite communication. Now, there are those who argue that Russian is a very polite language and others who argue it is not. This disagreement largely has to do with the distinction between formality and politeness. While not an absolute, it would be safe to presume that when facing certain death and communicating via radio, Russians (like Americans) aren’t likely to express repetitive use of the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’
Inappropriate politeness is an indicator of deception. As we get to the end of the transcript, could Prokhorenko’s last two transmissions have been more evocative, more patriotic, more heroic, if they were carefully scripted? Not likely. When under fire, verbose eloquence and respectful goodbyes to your family (not to mention your commander, who happens to actually be receiving your air strike requests) are not easily produced. Is it Russian protocol to remain dramatically silent in the case of a danger-close air strike, conveniently leaving the story’s protagonist with the last heroic words? Maybe, but if they are anything like every other military in the world, they communicate when a fire mission is out.
There are simply too many markers of deception in this narrative to accept it without skepticism. We have elements that are unrealistic, elements that contradict each other, and elements that are very unlikely. We have a compelling and persuasive story arc, an artifact of good fiction. We have deviations from organizational response baselines. We have individual markers of deception and scripting in the transcript.
We can say with near-absolute certainty that not only is this story Russian propaganda, but that it is riddled with significant markers of deception and disinformation.
So, Americans, especially veterans and service members, please stop making the jobs of Russian psychological warfare operatives so easy.