Russia has accused Ukraine of attacking civilian shipping, and indeed Ukraine has conducted four or more attacks on Russian ships since the beginning of August. At least one of the ships in question were being used to transport military equipment, rendering it a legal and potentially valuable target despite being a civilian-flagged vessel.
Ukraine and its backers should debunk or preempt Russian disinformation about these attacks by declassifying intelligence related to Russia’s misuse of civilian-flagged vessels. Publicizing Moscow’s deception requires overcoming certain institutional barriers and risks antagonizing Turkey, but doing so would insulate domestic political opinion from Russian influence and help maintain the public support for Ukraine on which military aid depends.
Analysts have accused Russia of using civilian ships to move military material since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. However, research by our team at the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows military equipment alongside a civilian ship at both the beginning and the end of its voyage, and demonstrates the shipment is much more likely to be part of a military movement than it is to be an arms sale, which makes the ship a legitimate target for Ukrainian attacks.
Russia’s deceptive use of civilian-flagged vessels undermines the distinction between civilians and combatants, a core principle in the laws of war. Russia has recently taken advantage of this fact to assert that Ukrainian attacks on its shipping are illegitimate. These claims of Ukrainian aggression should not be dismissed as bluster. Disinformation targeting political opinion within democracies that support Ukraine is a key weapon in Russia’s war. Painting Ukrainians as war criminals is a tactic Russia has used before, and one it will likely try again.
Ukraine and its backers must be prepared to respond. Support for Ukraine is already slipping, and disinformation that Ukraine is committing war crimes against international shipping will only exacerbate the problem.
Ukraine’s backers have responded to or preempted previous disinformation operations in two ways: Independent researchers and civil society organizations have dissected and debunked Russian claims using open sources like commercial satellite imagery and social media videos, while the United States has declassified and shared intelligence that undermines Russian claims.
Open-source information is valuable in exposing Russia’s deceptive activity, but it was unable to clearly show where Moscow was sending its arms, if military personnel were accompanying them or if its civilian-flagged ships were traveling under military command.
Declassifying intelligence is often difficult for institutional and security reasons. But declassification has proved effective in maintaining international support for Ukraine despite these barriers.
Declassification also risks antagonizing Turkey, which is attempting a difficult balancing act between Russia and its NATO allies. Russia’s use of civilian ships to move arms circumvents the 1936 Montreux Convention, which prevents Russian warships from moving through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Turkey invoked the treaty in late February 2022 and has blocked Russian warships since then, leaving Russia dependent on civilian shipping to move military equipment between Russia and its naval base in Tartus, Syria.
More proof that Russia is violating the spirit of the treaty would put Turkey in a difficult position, both worsening relations between Ankara and Washington and potentially delaying Sweden’s accession to NATO.
The danger of antagonizing Turkey is less than it appears. Neutrality is popular in Turkey, meaning that the pressure on Ankara will not come from domestic sources but from the international community. Turkey’s relationship with Russia is no secret, and Ukraine’s backers can minimize backlash by allowing Turkey to turn a blind eye to the shipments. Absent evidence that proves the shipments are vital to Ukraine’s war effort, there is no pressing military need to stop them altogether.
There is little reason to believe that declassifying information will change Russia’s dangerous behavior in the Black Sea. Russia was not deterred by U.S. disclosures before its February 2022 invasion, so policymakers should not expect a new round of declassifications to compel a shift in behavior. Only Ukrainian attacks are likely to shift Moscow’s calculus regarding its deceptive behavior in the Black Sea.
Declassification is therefore an incomplete solution that carries some political risk, but these facts should not prevent declassification. The corrosive effect of Russian disinformation endangers political support for Ukraine, and it is in the interest of Kyiv and its backers to aggressively combat Russia’s attempts to paint the Ukrainian military as war criminals.
It is Moscow, not Kyiv, that is endangering civilians on the Black Sea. People everywhere deserve to see the truth for themselves.
Alexander Palmer is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, where Delaney Duff is a research intern.