Study Decodes Russian Propaganda Plays, Reveals Putin’s Crimea-Ukraine Playbook

February 3, 2020


NATO Stratcom Centre Collaboration Reveals Putin’s Crimea Playbook. And Game Film for Ukraine?

BETHESDA, MD, USA  Feb. 3, 2020 – A new article published by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Decoding Crimea: Pinpointing the Influence Strategies of Modern Information Warfare, reveals precise strategies that power Russia’s information warfare machine and propaganda programs.

Coauthored by Alan Kelly of Bethesda, MD-based Playmaker Systems and RAND Corporation’s Dr. Christopher Paul, the study merges a RAND Corp. analysis of Russia’s annexation of Crimea with a tested taxonomy of influence strategies, pictured below, to create first-of-a-kind illustrations of the Kremlin’s information warfare playbook and by extension the mindset and motives of Russia President Vladimir Putin.

The collaboration demonstrates how a system of proven strategies can be identified in a body of work and mapped to decode what are typically coded words and rhetoric of influencers. For example, when in the mid-2000s the Ukraine Parliament repealed Russian as an official language the Kremlin, principally through surrogates, repositioned the move as a threat to Ukraine’s sizable ethnic Russia population. The influence strategies (aka, plays) that supported this handiwork were Recast (def., Revise to reposition;  the reinterpretation of information, positions and platforms) and Invoke (def., Relate to accentuate; the referencing of an idea, issue, event, player or brand). See below for details.

While the findings offer lessons to western allies of eastern enemy methods they also give clues to Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and control over its western neighbors, most especially Ukraine.

Broadly, the Decoding Crimea study finds that in the soft-power game of information warfare (i.e., wars of words), Russia resembles a kind of two-headed practitioner of influence strategy. As shown in the graphic below, it is on one hand subtle and hard to detect, bold and easy to read, and on the other assertive without showing aggression. The Kelly-Paul paper offers four more specific findings:

  • Coded plays from all six families of the Playmaker taxonomy (Probe, Frame, Divert, Freeze, Press, Provoke) suggest that Russia’s information warfare capability has strategic range.
  • Detections of all four framing plays (Label, Inform, Invoke, Filter) reveal Russia’s determination to shape, not dictate, the regional narrative.
  • Diverting strategies (esp. Recast and Decoy) hint at Russia’s willingness to reframe storylines, even to the point of misdirection.
  • High-engagement plays (e.g., Contrast, Declare, Call Out) indicate Russia’s readiness to engage without apology.

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Alan Kelly is founder and principal of Bethesda, Maryland-based Playmaker Systems, LLC, and a lecturer of strategic communication at the University of Maryland. He can be contacted at and followed on twitter @playmakeralan. Dr. Christopher Paul is a senior social scientist at RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He can be contacted at Both are available for media interviews, podcasts, webinars, speeches and consultations.


NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence is a multi-nationally constituted and NATO-accredited international military organization, which is not part of the NATO Command Structure, nor subordinate to any other NATO entity. As such the Centre does not therefore speak for NATO. Based in Riga, Latvia, NATO StratCom COE contributes to improved strategic communications capabilities within the Alliance and Allied nations. Strategic communication is an integral part of the efforts to achieve the Alliance’s political and military objectives, thus it is increasingly important that the Alliance communicates in an appropriate, timely, accurate and responsive manner on its evolving roles, objectives and missions.


Playmaker Systems, LLC, based in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, is a strategy and analytics firm. We offer analysts, strategists and students of influence the tools, techniques and training to decode, predict and control the plays and players of their markets – from friendly allies to covert competitors, CEOs to politicos, and activists to terrorists. Our touchstone, the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies, is like no other. First described by founder and principal Alan Kelly in his landmark book, The Elements of Influence, it is the centerpiece of a precise, patented and proven decision system that powers our standard-setting services and software. These include Playmaker ConsultationsPlaymaker Signatures and Maps, Playmaker Workshops and Playmaker Simulations and Wargames – used by Fortune 500 companies Abbott, AbbVie, Bayer, Booz Allen Hamilton, Dell, GSK, HP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intel, Pandora Media, Royal Dutch Shell, SAP and VMware, and taught at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, USC Annenberg School for Communication, and University of Maryland Department of Communication.


Decoding Crimea: Pinpointing the Influence Strategies of Modern Information Warfare:

Online-Interactive: Taxonomy of Influence Strategies:

Infographic: Taxonomy of Influence Strategies:

Infographic: Glossary of Influence Strategies: