The Non-Triviality of Russian IO
Written By: CENSA Editorial Board
With the resignation of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Chairwoman in the rear view mirror and talk of the Russian hand behind the hack of the DNC for the purpose of political warfare seemingly old news, it would appear that many within the decision making circles are ready to move on. With US intelligence agencies reporting a “high confidence” that the Russian government operatives are behind the theft of 20,000 emails and documents, discussion of the DNC hack has been largely relegated to security reporting and cyber blogs and buried under the caustic environment of the US election season. There are some obvious reasons that the injured party might want the news cycle to move on or to focus rather on the role the opposition candidate may have played. However, there are some very compelling reasons why more focus should be brought to bear on the larger pattern of Russian engagement in information warfare and on Moscow’s inherent capacity and capability in this area, rather than dismissing such behavior as normal intel gathering or “dirty tricks.”
A former U.S. national intelligence officer said the Russian cyber-penetration of the DNC fits into a longstanding pattern of how Moscow has pursued its objectives – “It’s a pretty diversified toolkit of espionage, information operations, disinformation, bribery, hacking, and financial manipulation.” Indeed, within intelligence circles it is accepted that Russia presents a serious cyber threat and that under Putin’s leadership, Russia has returned to many of the Soviet Cold War – era techniques. But the conversation has not moved much beyond this passive, academic-leaning characterization and far too often ignores what is truly new in Russian political warfare and how Russia has begun to marshal and channel all available tools of political warfare within the context of the digital age. Since the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russian techniques – based on Soviet era Maskirovka, Agitprop and “Active Measures” tradecraft – are remarkable for both their level of sophistication and sheer volume. To be sure, the totality of Russian actions can be accurately termed “total infowar for the digital age,” given the pervasive nature of resources dedicated to what many perceive to be insignificant issues.
With the employment of vast resources from its Intelligence community, Russia has developed what one researcher has termed a “firehose of falsehoods” with operations in every form of social media, using rapid, continuous and repetitive, high-volume, multichannel communication that makes no attempt to conform to any standard of objective reality but counter-intuitively enjoys rather high levels of success (at least in achieving immediate efforts to influence perceptions). Fake accounts are often employed through the use of the “Troll Army” and “Web Brigades” and seen as prepping the environment (or often, “operational preparation of the environment,” or OPE).
In addition to prepping the environment for, and support to, political and military operations in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine, the Russian political warfare machine has employed the firehose approach to undermine support for NATO and to disrupt support for its expansion. Finland is one example where Russian influence is evident, as Russia has supported various political leaders and both challenged and smeared the reputations of journalists, politicians and researchers. Additionally, Russia has allocated significant financial resources to boost the popularity of at least 15 fringe parties across Europe known to share Putin’s interest in preventing the enlargement of the EU and the larger project of European integration.
Russia’s behavior would seem innocuous if not for the fact that a plethora of falsehoods has accompanied so many (if not all) of Russian actions on the world stage. Examples include: the fabricated story of a rape of a Russian teen by Syrian refugees; the harassment of Zvezda “reporter” Viktoria Schmidt (who was actually actress Natalia Weiss) in a propaganda piece entitled “Europe – Paradox of Tolerance;” the explanations of the Malaysia Airline flight 17 disaster; and the Channel One report that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a three-year-old boy. What’s perhaps most disturbing is that many of these stories experience traction with and gain support from both Russian viewers and interested westerners, giving life to the dictum that sometimes quantity has a quality all its own. Complicating this phenomenon even more, US policy makers appear to lack any strategic understanding, and instead tend to engage each incident in isolation and apart from the total Russian pattern. Furthermore, little meaningful discussion has taken place publicly about effective countermeasures to engage the aims of the resurgent Russian Bear – especially when the claws of the bear are by no means trivial. Perhaps, then, and as one researcher has expressed, “the first step is to recognize that this is a non-trivial challenge.”
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