Ukraine needs to open up about hard truths from battlefield, US diplomat says

“Sometimes the Ukrainian government may resist the kind of freedom of information that’s normal for us,” said the State Department’s James Rubin.

A senior U.S. diplomat responsible for countering disinformation says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be more open to disclosing information about the state of the war in Ukraine.

The advice comes as fighting intensifies amid Russian gains in key areas and waning international focus on the conflict.

James Rubin leads the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which highlights propaganda and disinformation efforts by hostile states and other actors targeting America and its allies around the world. Talking to POLITICO’s Power Play podcast, Rubin said “sometimes the Ukrainian government may resist the kind of freedom of information that’s normal for us.

“Some days, war reporters report things that aren’t necessarily in the interest of Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” he continued. “But in a democracy that we hope and increasingly see Ukraine becoming … they can understand that having war reporters cover the war, even if occasionally there’s bad news, is a far better life than the controlled environment that Russia has placed on all of its people.”

While Ukrainian and Western journalists have pressed for greater access to the front lines, authorities in Kyiv have limited reporting from sensitive zones in the conflict and have denied a stronger role for state broadcasting, on the grounds that the restrictions serve to stifle Russian disinformation campaigns.

Rubin, however, suggested that better access would strengthen Ukraine’s urgent case for more help from its allies. He added that while the country is “moving in the right direction,” it is not yet “a fully fledged democracy” — with some adverse consequences for the flow of information.

Rubin, a former State Department spokesman, advised top diplomat Madeleine Albright during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and also counseled current President Joe Biden on foreign policy during his time in the Senate.

On Power Play Rubin also discussed joint efforts by the U.S. and its allies to combat the use of Artificial Intelligence by adversaries in attempts to spread fake news. Security researchers believe a Russia-based disinformation operation, for example, may have helped drive social media conspiracies about the Princess of Wales’s health in the U.K. before she revealed her cancer diagnosis.

Asked about the role of artificial intelligence in fighting disinformation, Rubin replied: “I believe we are facing information warfare, both from existing technology and supercharged by the possibility of AI-generated disinformation. The only way I think we can deal with that is for the countries that believe in freedom of information, but also want to prevent Russia and China from spoiling the information environment … to band together in a coalition. 

“We’ve created a framework, a diplomatic framework to do that, which committed the British, the Canadians, the United States to work together to try to combat the existing challenge and figure out a way in the AI environment to make sure that there is tagging, there is watermarking, so that people will know when it’s generated by AI or it’s not generated by AI,” he said.