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The Challenge of Russia’s Anti-Western Information Warfare

Since Russia perceives the West as a threat, it continues trying to dismantle it.

Since the beginning of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in late 2013, much has been written about the disinformation campaign that Russia launched, first to discredit the Ukrainian revolution and then to justify the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and conceal the Russian direct military invasion of eastern Ukraine that resulted in the full-blown, yet still unacknowledged, Russian–Ukrainian War.1

In most cases, this Ukraine-centric disinformation campaign was correctly identified as part of Russia’s wider information war against the West. It started long before developments in Ukraine and the Russian–Ukrainian War, but, as Anne Applebaum argued in March 2014, an information war is now “being conducted on an unprecedented scale”.2 Despite these and similar warnings, as well as analytical reports,3 the West has done little so far to stand up to Russian information warfare. Tellingly, more than a year after the annexation of Crimea, The Economist registered that Europe was “belatedly waking up to Russia’s information warfare”,4 but this is very different from the actual awakening.

Meeting on 19–20 March 2015, the European Council adopted conclusions that featured, in particular, what was called “a first step” in the EU’s prospective response to Russia’s information warfare: “The European Council stressed the need to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns and invited the High Representative, in cooperation with Member States and EU institutions, to prepare by June [2015] an action plan on strategic communication”.5 While this initiative is undoubtedly commendable, it is not clear whether the EU member states will be able to consider this matter with the seriousness it deserves. Among other things, one can hardly deny that countries like Spain or Portugal are far less concerned about Russian information warfare than the Baltic States or Poland.

This article looks at the nature and forms of Russia’s information warfare, and discusses how the West might challenge it.

Russia’s hybrid information war

The concept of information warfare originates from a US Department of Defense classified directive (DoD Directive TS-3600.1) adopted in 1992, in which the term implied its dual nature, that of defence and offensive. In purely military terms, as the Department of Defense elaborated in 1995, information warfare was understood as a variety of “actions taken to preserve the integrity of one’s own information system from exploitation, corruption, or disruption, while at the same time exploiting, corrupting, or destroying an adversary’s information system and [in] the process achieving an information advantage in the application of force”.6

Writing in 1994, Winn Schwartau argued that the notion of kinetic weapons, such as bullets or bombs, should be excluded from the concept of real information warfare.7 This exclusion adds an important aspect to the nature of this type of warfare: it is information, rather than anything else, that is used to attack an enemy’s information system.

As in every other country, the information system in Russia is a complex of resources, people, technologies, methods, and processes of collecting, processing, producing and presenting information. President Vladimir Putin started to create the current information system during his first presidential term (2000–4). During this period, not only did he crush apparently disloyal oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, but he also gradually reinstated state control over the major mass media, primarily TV channels previously controlled by the disloyal oligarchs, and started subjugating the few remaining mass media to the interests of his rising authoritarian kleptocratic regime.8

The state’s control over the major TV channels became an important cornerstone of Russia’s contemporary information system. However, the product of the mass media is only one element of the system, which also includes information products of all the actors and institutions engaged in collecting or communicating information, such as NGOs, civil society, religious organisations and political parties, as well as components of the apparatus of repression (the army, police, judiciary and prison system) that provide the regime with intelligence.

Along with the repressive apparatus, the aim of the information system of Putin’s Russia is to protect it from competing models of political, economic, cultural and social development. It is for this reason that the mass media, NGOs, civil society, religious organisations and political parties can freely operate in Russia only if they, at the very least, remain loyal to the regime.

Putin instrumentalised the perceived threat of Islamism as a potential model of development in certain regions of Russia in the early 2000s, in order to consolidate his rule. However, this was never an attractive model for Russia as a whole, and the only viable and, eventually, more convincing model of development was that of Western liberal democracy, which is incompatible with Putin’s regime.

In times of peace, an information system in any state simply reproduces itself, while its “hard element”—the apparatus of repression—gathers intelligence on perceived internal and external enemies. The crucial difference between information systems in Western liberal democracies and that in Putin’s Russia is that the Russian version has been increasingly functioning, since Putin’s first term as president, in a way that implies conflict.

Indeed, while cementing the authoritarian kleptocracy, Putin’s regime has been constantly alarming the Russian information system with references to various perceived threats. These have included Islamist terrorists in Chechnya and Dagestan, the allegedly disrespectful attitude of Estonian authorities towards the Soviet monument in Tallinn, the “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, a potential challenge of a “colour revolution” in Russia, the invasion of Georgia, protests by the political opposition (“fifth columnists”) and, finally, the Ukrainian revolution. Despite the diversity of these alleged threats to Putin’s regime, the Kremlin believes that Russia is under attack from one enemy—the West—which is behind all of them.

The Russian information system has not been totally weaponised in recent months, and its external repressive apparatus—the army—is not deployed on a full scale. Putin’s Russia is not waging a full-blown information war on the West. That would imply complete denial of access to information about developments in Russia, the informational isolation of Russian society, blocking or disrupting access to command-and-control capabilities of the enemy, cyber-attacks aimed at destroying the enemy’s networks in the political, military and economic spheres, powerful and sustained psychological operations (misinformation and propaganda), etc.

However, it can be seen that Putin’s Russia employs almost all the instruments of a full-blown information war in a limited manner, while at the same time totally denying their use. The limited nature of warfare and denial of it can be considered characteristics of hybrid warfare; hence, we can interpret the Kremlin’s actions in the information sphere as hybrid information warfare against the West.

Almost every instrument that the Kremlin has deployed in its hybrid information war has been, to a certain degree, successfully tested on Russian society when Putin was building the closed information system in the country. The following table compares some of the domestic and international actions of Putin’s Russia in the information sphere.

Domestic actions

International actions

State control over major mass media; constant pressure on, and intimidation of, the remaining free mass media

Creation of Russian international mass media such as RT and Sputnik engaged in disinformation campaigns; buying foreign mass media

Subjugation of political parties

Buying political influence in foreign countries

Fraudulent elections recognised as fair by GONGOs (government organised non-governmental organisations)

Creation of, or support for, pro-Russian election monitoring organisations that endorse or deny the legitimacy of elections in the post-Soviet space in line with Russian foreign policy

Use of paid bloggers and Internet trolls to conduct psychological warfare in the comments sections of web-based and social media

Use of Internet trolls to conduct psychological warfare in the comments sections of web-based and social media

Repression of NGOs (“foreign agents”); creation of GONGOs

Creation of Russian diaspora NGOs and pro-Russian think tanks in the West

Cyber-attacks against Russian opposition leaders, mass media and social media

Cyber-attacks against foreign political and economic structures, and mass media

It is difficult to measure the success of the Russian hybrid information war on the West, as we do not always know exactly its short- and long-term aims.

On one hand, in Russia itself, the success of the Kremlin’s propaganda is unambiguous. According to an opinion poll by the Levada Centre in January 2015, the number of Russians who had negative attitudes towards the US rose from 44% in January 2014 to 81% in January 2015. The corresponding figures for the EU are 34% and 71%, and for Ukraine 26% and 64%.9 It is easy to measure the success of the Kremlin’s propaganda in Russia because its aims there are clear: to secure the existing information system and, hence, consolidate the regime. Moreover, the short- and long-term aims coincide in this case.

On the other hand, the long-term aims, at least, of the hybrid information war in the West are unclear. It is reasonable to assume that the cementation of the kleptocracy at home is the Kremlin’s major long-term aim in international relations too. The problem is that the Kremlin believes in the alleged Western attack on Russia. Thus, in order to defend the regime, the Kremlin will—as its cynical and aggressive behaviour in recent years has suggested—continue “dismantling the West”,10 i.e. attempting to minimise the role of the US in global politics, weaken transatlantic relations, undermine NATO and demolish the EU. Yet we can only speculate about how far the Kremlin is willing to go to neutralise the perceived threat on the way to cementing Putin’s regime.

Taking up the challenge

However unclear the exact nature of the Kremlin’s long-term aims are with regard to its hybrid information war on the West, three points are evident:

1. The information system of Putin’s Russia is mobilised to the extent that it is engaged in a hybrid information war against the West, which it perceives to be in conflict with Russia.

2. Russia’s hybrid information war is aggressive and aims to divide and subvert the West; it therefore poses clear risks to the national security of Western states, especially those geographically close to Russia.

3. Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Western countries are more receptive than other citizens to Russia’s hybrid information warfare.11 Moreover, Russia considers ethnic Russians and Russian speakers as its “compatriots”, while its hybrid information war aims to shift their loyalties—a process that contributes to political and socio-cultural tensions.

Given these challenges, it only seems appropriate that the West should take up the challenge of Russia’s hybrid information war, and the European Council’s decision finally to address the problem is a step in the right direction. The recommendations produced by Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss could be recommended as guidelines in this process.12

One of the most widely discussed initiatives that could help the West counter Russia’s hybrid information warfare is the creation of an EU-based Russian-language TV channel(s). EU members states have offered three different visions in this regard: the creation of national TV channels aimed at their own Russian-speaking audience; a pan-Baltic TV channel; and a Russian-language TV channel that would broadcast into Russia’s territory.

The most rational option would seem to be a combination of the first and third visions: a Russian-language TV channel broadcasting into Russian territory but with slots available for national coverage and special programmes. The length of these national slots would depend on the significance or size of the Russian-speaking communities in particular Western countries. Conceptually, they would highlight and focus on the successful integration of ethnic Russians into their chosen Western society, and thereby align their political loyalties accordingly.

At the same time, a departure from a narrow national approach in this context would allow funding for such a TV channel to be sought not only from national bodies and EU-based structures but also from US-based and Western organisations in general. Information penetration on Russian territory is crucial and the West should be interested in changing the information system that Putin has created in Russia. After all, the suppression of the free mass media remains the cornerstone of his authoritarian kleptocracy. Russia’s broadcasting of its RT in the West should give the latter leverage over the expected unwillingness of the Russian authorities to allow the broadcast a Western Russian-language TV channel. The West would benefit from such a TV channel, as there is a small chance that changing the current information system in Russia would lead to making this state a more predictable, responsible and, eventually, more democratic political actor.

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1 On developments in Ukraine, see Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

2 Anne Applebaum, “Russia’s Information Warriors Are on the March – We Must Respond”, The Telegraph, 7 March 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/10683298/Russias-information-warriors-are-on-the-march-we-must-respond.html.

3 See, for example, Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money (New York: Institute of Modern Russia, 2014), http://www.interpretermag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The_Menace_of_Unreality_Final.pdf.

4 “Aux armes, journalistes!”, The Economist, 21 March 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21646756-europe-belatedly-waking-up-russias-information-warfare-aux-armes-journalistes.

5 “European Council Meeting (19 and 20 March 2015) – Conclusions”, European Council, 20 March 2015, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/european-council/2015/03/european-council-conclusions-march-2015-en_pdf/.

6 Cited in Edward Waltz, Information Warfare: Principles and Operations (Boston: Artech House, 1998), p. 20.

7 Winn Schwartau, Information Warfare: Cyberterrorism: Protecting Your Personal Security in the Electronic Age (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1994).

8 On the nature of Putin’s regime, see Karen Dawisha, Putins Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

9 “Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya”, Levada-Tsentr, 9 February 2015, http://www.levada.ru/09-02-2015/mezhdunarodnye-otnosheniya.

10 Janusz Bugajski, Dismantling the West: Russias Atlantic Agenda (Washington: Potomac Books, 2009).

11 See, for example, Current Events and Different Sources of Information (Tallinn: Saar Poll, 2014), http://oef.org.ee/fileadmin/user_upload/Current_events_and_different_sources_of_information_ED__1_.pdf).

12 Pomerantsev and Weiss, The Menace of Unreality, pp. 40–3.

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