To start off this second post in the “The Russian Information War” series and continue our focus on “Concepts and Terminology” let's first start of by restating that Russian Information Warfare is carried out, in part, during peacetime as well as wartime. Of course, the fact that this is stepped up during times of war is the very reason we are looking at this subject now and diverting from our normal content.
To be more specific The Handbook of Information Warfare that I have been working through cites an authoritative Russian textbook that states that information warfare consists of two types:
- Information-psychological warfare is designed to affect both individuals within the arm forces and populations of countries, in general, is carried out under what it states are conditions of natural competition, as in they are permanently ongoing.
- Information-technology warfare is designed to affect the technical systems used to process data and information, communication systems, and so forth are generally limited to times of conflict.
The actual quotes can be found on page 9 of the handbook.
Information-technology warfare or cyberwar?
There is not a direct comparison either between information-technology warfare and cyberwarfare as there are crossovers within the information-psychological warfare also. Therefore, direct comparisons cannot be made.
The main focus for our discussions then is the Russian definition of “Information” in the context of Information Warfare. For Russia that “information” can be stored on hard drives, networks, personal computers, smartphones, and devices, it can be broadcast media, print media, and even within the heads of people. Therefore, it is important to think in these terms when we look at information warfare from Russia as this is not just a digital media issue or social media issue, although these are paths of easier resistance for the Information Warfare operational deployment.
We need to take a step back and really consider what that means. Especially when we review point one above the “Information-psychological warfare”. For Russia, it is fair game to attempt to influence not only members of the military in foreign states but also the general public of those states to influence behaviour and regime change.
When we take a look at the world we live in today, fractured, nationalistic, divided from within, we have to ask ourselves how successful have they been? You may dismiss this and say that it cannot be all down to Russian influence and I would certainly agree. Apart from other foreign countries that we know take similar stances and approaches as Russia there is a multitude of complex factors that contribute to the divides we see in the world today. However, all Russia needs for their part of the Information War to be a success is to sew, or water, the seeds of doubt, frustration, confusion, and fear and let us react making them go viral.
Another important point from the handbook is the idea of “Information Weapons” which are described as being used in far more areas than just cyber and include, but are not limited to, the human cognitive domain.
This can be a scary concept and it should be. The fact that Russia proactively attempts to use what they term “Information Weapons” upon the human cognitive domain in times of not just war, but also peace should be a concept that makes us stop in our tracks.
It should give us pause for thought because it presents us with many questions to ask and points to reflect on. How are they doing this? What techniques, tools, technologies, and human resources are they using to deploy these information weapons? When are they doing this and to whom? Are there any identifying marks of Russian influence in this way in the world around us? And if so how can we stop them in their tracks? If that is not possible at least how do we protect ourselves and those more vulnerable from these weapons aimed at attacking the cognition? What can we do to not only counter these weapons but perhaps turn those weapons back on the very people who are deploying them in our nations and right now in the war in Ukraine?
It is also important to note that we as civilians of the world cannot sit back and think that this is just spy and war games and all sides are as bad as each other. Whilst of course our secret service and military operations in the west are far from guilt-free in many domains and there are many political leaders that have a lot to answer for. However, the range of operational tactics deployed by Russia and the willingness to do this during times of peace and war, as well as their willingness to take part in these campaigns of influence on the cognitive human domain outweighs anything that NATO is doing in these domains. The willingness of Russia to do what NATO can only condemn or debate puts the advantage on Russia’s side. Therefore, this battle needs to be fought not only by the security services of the world but also by the civilians too. To do so we need to be informed and prepared.
During wartime, however, all of these techniques are stepped up and more are deployed by Russia. Therefore, it is paramount for the people of Ukraine that we learn what these are and helps them get true news and information out. It is also crucial we keep an eye on things home in our own nation to detect and counter these Information Weapons as and when they are deployed. This could be online, this could be during political debates, it could come from well-meaning celebrities we trust or just the guy down the pub. It is also crucial we do our utmost to get the truth of what is happening to the people of Russia who are currently shielded by a wall of propaganda from the state-run media sources.
So, what sort of thing will Russia do during wartime in this information war?
During wartime, the Russians step up their Information Warfare. It is also worth noting that even before the invasion of Ukraine the steps that Russia was taking in this realm would indicate that they were already considering themselves as being in a state of war. But now that the invasion of Ukraine has happened they are showing their teeth in stepping up that propaganda.
During times of war, Russia will up their disinformation campaign which we can see by the blatant falsifying of events and denial of what we can all, in the rest of the world and sadly not in Russia itself, see unfolding on our television screens. For example, claiming the astrocytes that they have carried out on civilians including deliberately targeting them and their homes were carried out by a neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. They have claimed their attack on the maternity hospital that we have seen in the last couple of days was justified because it was a stronghold of neo-Nazi far-right militia, even though we could clearly see heavily pregnant women being stretchered out.
Blatant disinformation, the discrediting of the news as fake have become a staple of the Russian Information War playbook with often great success. This is something we in the west need to keep an eye on not just in Russia but also at home. Claims of fake news from trusted news sources were obviously a staple of the former president of the United States who like the current prime minister of the UK was a fan of applying the Russian technique of barefaced lying when all of the evidence, including video footage, shows them up for the lie that they are telling. We, unfortunately, see this characteristic coming into play from the UK conservative party even now during this time of war, and whilst this may not be due to any Russian influence we should still do our part in calling this out and countering this gaslighting of the public in our home countries.
Another aspect we see from the Russian Handbook of Information War is that during wartime Russia will aim to undermine the will of the opposing armed forces through disinformation and psychological pressure, which can include the pressure of seeing their homes decimated, their families, friends, and fellow countrymen and women killed, badly injured, living in constant fear and panic and fleeing their homes. When people ask why is Putin targeting homes, cities, and sites of no military significance where innocent people live? Then maybe if we considered that Russia is not only trying to kill the people trying to flee through the humanitarian corridors and decimate their homes, but they are also trying to break the will of the people and the will of the armed forces who witness these atrocities. Of course, this is backfiring somewhat in Ukraine as the people and the armed forces instead of being broken by the onslaught are becoming united and fighting back harder than Russia could have ever expected.
Another aspect of the Russian Information War during wartime is to attack and discredit the leadership of the adversary. We can see this unfolding right from the start of the invasion Putin reportedly told Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the invasion started that he was coming to kill him, his wife, and children. But instead of shaking the Ukrainian President this only emboldened him more to stand his ground to the point of even rebuffing the US offer of a flight out of Ukraine saying that he didn’t need a lift he needed military support.
Putin has also claimed that Ukraine is run by a Neo-Nazi regime despite its president being Jewish and his great-grandfather died, along with three of his grandfather’s brothers during the Nazi invasion of Ukraine during World War Two.
During wartime along with the Information-Psychological Warfare being stepped up so is the Information-Technological Warfare including hacking and attacking information systems, GPS systems, communication systems, and more. The handbook goes as far as to say: “The Ukraine conflict has provided clear demonstrations of how Russia sees cyber activity as a subset, and sometimes facilitator, of the much broader domain of information warfare.” The Ukrainian conflict it is discussing in the handbook is the 2014 conflict which was obviously a foreshadowing of what we are seeing today.
The Russian Handbook of Information Warfare also goes on to state “In the period since 2014, Russian information warfare has commonly come to be identified in non-specialist literature with the simple distribution of disinformation. But the Russian approach is much broader than simply sowing lies and denial, for instance maintaining that Russian troops and equipment are not where they plainly are. Instead, Russian state and non-state actors have exploited history, culture, language, nationalism, disaffection, and more to carry out cyber-enhanced disinformation campaigns with much wider objectives.” So, nothing is off-limits in the Information War Playbook.
The handbook goes on to say “The Western approach to cyber defense has typically focused on technical responses to technical threats, largely disregarding the interface with information warfare in the broad sense. This approach is entirely apt for some persistent or background threats, but not always sufficient for a wider and more holistic approach like the one adopted by Russia.”
The west, therefore, is prepared to some extent for what we would determine cyber-attacks but is lacking somewhat in its preparation for the more holistic attacks on the very fabric of our society through the consistent threat of the Russian Information War. For this, we need better preparations, training, technologies, and techniques to spot, stop and counter the information war upon us and more crucially right now to counter the Information War in Ukraine both the psychological one and the technological one.
Is all hope lost?
No. For the simple reason is that apart from the subversive nature of the Information War we need to find better ways of attacking head-on in the west the less subversive propaganda machine is massively backfiring on Putin. Apart from the Russian people still living in Russia, no one believes his lies or the lies of his puppets. In the age of the smartphone getting away with these atrocities and lying about them is much more difficult. The seeds of doubt they once relied on get trampled on by ordinary citizens taking film evidence that backs up the western media reporting. Therefore their blatant lie machine just makes them look delusional to the point where some media pundits are questions Putin’s mental health, probably for good reason.
The other area that is backfiring is in trying to smear and discredit the Ukrainian President. Instead of running with his tail between his legs when the US offered him a way out, he continues to lead his country in defending them against this aggressor. Becoming not just a hero in Ukraine but around the world. And he, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has shown a real skill for influence and persuasion that shows how weak the Russian equivalent is by rallying around the world leaders, making addresses straight to their inner sanctums, gaining standing ovations, pledges for support in not only humanitarian aid but in military weapons and getting the worlds media to champion his cause by holding his resolve.
And finally they, the Russian Information War Cabinet (or whatever they call themselves) have failed to break not only the spirit of the Ukrainian armed forces but also they have also failed to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people who are holding fast against the invasion and fighting back harder than Russia ever expected. Even when their cities are besieged and taken over by Russian forces they bravely go out to protest, lie down in front of tanks, and tell them to get out of their country.
In my next posts, I will aim to delve deeper into this subject. Now that we have delved into the Situational Analysis we will move on in the handbook and look at the aims and objectives that Russia has for deploying their Information Wars during times of peace and times of war.