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Russia’s information techniques in Europe: A new strategy?

Within the last several years, Russia’s information techniques and their application in Europe and elsewhere have been the focus of research of many scholars in defense, security and other areas of study. A lot of these scholars have considered the improvement and relative success of their application as part of the supposedly emerged hybrid warfare doctrine. However, a closer look at Russia’s recently displayed informational capabilities in Europe points to the presence of Soviet-inherited practices of information operations, which were used by the USSR against the West after the Second World War. Among these practices applied by the USSR and later inherited by Russia are so-called “active measures.” Recently, they have been used by the Kremlin in the Ukraine crisis as well as Europe, where it has worked on sowing discord and creating a sense of disunity among EU and NATO member states.

December 7, 2016 - Maksym Beznosiuk - Articles and Commentary

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Soviet origins of Russia’s information operations

During the Soviet period, the concept of active measures was an important instrument of influencing political attitudes and public opinion in non-communist states. This situation became possible due to the presence of a spectrum of practices that combined deceptive and covert means to reach certain Soviet political goals overseas.

It should be noted that the first use of active measures took place in the 1920s. At that time, Soviets were working on ways to discredit members of the Russian intelligentsia who resided in western Europe. To achieve these goals, a broad range of disinformation techniques, including special tricks were applied to bring them back to the USSR.

In the late 1950s, active measures became a useful instrument of the Soviet leadership after the establishment of the KGB’s Service D. They were further elaborated and applied after the KGB’s Service D transformation into the Active Measures Department in the late 1960s.

During the Cold War period, active measures used by the USSR against the US-led West were considered to be in one of three different modes: “white,” “gray” or “black.”

The “black” active covert measures were mainly implemented by the KGB’s Active Measures Department. They were at the core of influence operations conducted secretly through the use of such special instruments as agents of influence, forgeries, covert media placements and disinformation messages introduced into the media of non-communist countries. The “gray” active measures were conducted by the International Department and the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee via different Soviet friendship societies, NGOs, foreign communist parties and international front organizations used by the USSR to achieve its policy objectives in the targeted states. In some cases, the Soviet influence was partially admitted while attempts were undertaken to create the impression that these organizations and institutions had independent policies. And “white” or active overt measures were coordinated at the Ideology Department of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee through channeling particular propaganda by such news agencies as Radio Moscow, TASS and the information departments of Soviet embassies in the West.

During the Cold War period, disinformation was the key element of active measures. It combined a set of techniques to purvey misleading information that was deliberately leaked to  foreign media sources to create an alternative, negative image of the West. To ensure  effective application, the fears and concerns of the general public were examined to find room for exploiting weaknesses and manipulate perceptions to discredit the West through the use of active measures. One of the glaring examples of their use was an information campaign conducted to exploit concerns about the development of biological warfare in the US and deliberate creation of AIDS by US scientists.

With the deterioration of US-Soviet relations triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet leadership only increased the use of active measures by spreading anti-Western propaganda via news agencies, radio broadcasting, and reporting in foreign media. Furthermore, starting from the early 1980s, there had been an increase of forgery operations that were aimed at bringing disinformation stories printed in the non-Soviet papers to influence general opinion and political situations in the West.

In the late 1980s, the USSR was increasing the role of active measures and diplomatic activities to achieve its policy objectives abroad. Prior to the start of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, active measures operations were used to support Western concerns about the potential negative implications of the USSR collapse.

Back on the map

With the USSR’s collapse and Russia’s first steps towards normalizing relations with the West, most attention was focused not on active measures or the Russian military but on introducing democratic and economic reforms. Nevertheless, during Putin’s presidency, active measures started to slowly regain the attention of scholars and decision makers.

In the last twenty years, Russia has applied active measures in areas of frozen conflicts (e.g. Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh) to restore its influence in the post-Soviet space. In the course of implementing active measures, Russia has resorted to the use of media instruments to support pro-Russian propaganda, as well as intelligence and political tools to influence local political elites and the general public.

The most recent example of active measures is Russia’s engagement in the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s attempts to influence the public and political groups in the West, especially the EU. In Ukraine, active measures have been applied together with military, diplomatic and economic efforts to ensure swift annexation of Crimea by Russia and its destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine. In the case of EU and NATO member states, the Kremlin has been applying active measures through supporting anti-establishment parties in Europe and disseminating particular propaganda through its information channels to exploit concerns and fears of the general public. In this regard, the key objective for the use of active measures has been to destabilize relations among EU and NATO member states by interfering in the political life of European countries and sowing discord on such sensitive matters as energy, security, and so on.

A closer look at recent applications of active measures in Ukraine and Europe                   

In both Ukraine and Europe, Russia has mainly resorted to the use of such active measures as “gray” and “white” to achieve its political objectives.

Concerning “gray” or active measures, Russia has been implementing them through funding and cooperation with anti-establishment political parties and organizations in the EU and certain pro-Russian groups in Ukraine. 

Regarding their application in the EU, the Kremlin has resorted to the use of often clandestine funding of the far-right and far-left organizations in the EU to exploit European disunity, undermine NATO and attempt to revoke economic sanctions against Russia which were put in place after it illegally annexed Crimea.

Within the last decade, Russia has been involved in cooperation with anti-establishment organizations across Europe. It has been especially active in post-communist countries such as Moldova, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary.

In Slovakia, Russia’s use of active measures has influenced the extreme right, which has pursued Kremlin-friendly politics. For instance, the Slovak National Party and the People’s Party- Our Slovakia have voiced strong support for the pro-Kremlin stance in the Ukraine crisis while simultaneously blaming the EU or NATO for the conflict. Some of the leaders of these two parties have alleged personal connections to Russia. Apart from that, Russia has also been endorsed not only by far-right parties but also by some Slovak paramilitary organizations with right-wing ideologies.

In the case of Hungary, Russia has been successful in building closer ideological and political links to the Hungarian far-right. The Kremlin’s efficient use of active measures paved the way towards Hungary’s gradual turn to Russia since November 2010, when a newly-elected Prime Minister Orban paid his first visit to Moscow. Currently, both the governing party Fidesz and the radical right-wing party Jobbik have demonstrated a clear pro-Russian political stance. In the case of Fidesz, active measures enabled the Kremlin to skillfully use high-level political corruption to penetrate state-led networks connecting power elites of two countries on economic and policy matters. As a result, for instance, business deals such as the Paks Nuclear Power Plant Deal led to Hungary’s complete dependence on nuclear technology from Russia. With regard to Jobbik, a far-right party, Russia’s use of active measures could be observed in its early financing of this party and efforts undertaken by the Russian intelligence service to influence Jobbik’s decision-making to pursue more pro-Kremlin policies.

Bulgaria and Moldova serve as a recent example of Russia’s successful application of “gray” active measures, which enabled pro-Russian forces to gain prominence in these two countries. As a result, an environment was created in which it became possible for such pro-Russian candidates as Igor Dodon from the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova and Rumen Radev from the Bulgarian Socialist Party to secure victory in presidential elections.

Both Rumen Radev and Igor Dodon openly expressed pro-Russian views on many occasions. In the case of Radev, he showed tolerance as to the Russian annexation of Crimea and called on easing sanctions against Russia. In his recent speech, he also praised US President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on softening US-Russia relations. Dodon was campaigning for canceling a trade deal with the EU signed in 2014 and building closer links with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently invited him to visit Russia to deepen bilateral relations in the short-term.

The Kremlin’s skillful use of active measures has led to greater political influence among far-right parties in Italy, France, Germany and Belgium. For example, such western European parties as the National Democratic Party in Germany, the Flemish Interest in Belgium and the North League in Italy hold Eurosceptic views and support closer cooperation with the Russian Federation.

At the same time, the Kremlin intensified cooperation with European far-left political groups that have expressed pro-Russian sentiments. For example, members of the Communist Party of Greece, Polish Democratic Left Alliance, and the German Die Linke were sent as observers to the illegal referendum in Crimea, Ukraine in March 2014. Moreover, such far-right parties as the European United Left/Nordic Green Left and the Party of the European Left have expressed their support of Russia’s foreign policy interests.

In the course of its engagement in the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has worked on creating a broad network of supporters of the Russian world. Since the USSR’s collapse, many pro-Russian groups and organizations have worked in Ukraine, with their highest number operating in Crimea. On its territory, Russia has maintained a contingent of intelligence officers and granted support to pro-Russian organizations, which were often involved in separatist activities. These organizations ranged from Russian clubs, military associations to think tanks which all operated in Russian media environment. As a result, such circumstances laid a better foundation for subsequent swift Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

With regard to Russia’s ongoing destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin has backed such separatist projects as Novorossiya, which became possible thanks to pro-Russian groups which were supported by Russian special operations forces and intelligence units. Special operations forces assisted pro-Kremlin groups consisting of paramilitary groups and Russian Cossacks to take over the most important government premises throughout eastern Ukraine. At the same time, Russian proxy groups also provided armaments and recruitments of mercenaries to participate in the “Novorossiya” army in eastern Ukraine.

With regard to “white” or overt active measures, the Kremlin has put a lot of effort in financing such news agencies as RT, RIA, TASS, Sputnik International and many others who work for the international audience to promote relevant pro-Kremlin propaganda content to uphold Russia’s positive image and its policy decisions overseas. Moreover, the Kremlin also has been actively involved in supporting a more active use of Russian-speaking channels as LifeNews, Rossiya1, Ren TV, and NTV to transmit pro-Russian messages in the post-Soviet space, and especially southern and eastern Ukraine with the predominantly Russian-speaking inhabitants. In the case of Ukraine, the popularity of such broadcasting later made a new Ukrainian government ban their transmissions to prevent pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Hence, it could be concluded that Soviet practices of information operations and “active measures” have been an important instrument of influence in the USSR’s struggle against the West. Russia has inherited these practices and has applied them in the post-Soviet space and Europe as a whole. In the case of the post-Soviet space, Russia’s engagement in Ukraine demonstrated the Kremlin’s ability to effectively combine the use of active measures with military, diplomatic and economic efforts that have enabled Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea and ongoing destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine.

In the case of EU and NATO member states, Russia has applied active measures to support various anti-establishment parties in Europe and promote pro-Russian content through a broad range of information channels among the public in the West. The Kremlin’s key objective for the use of active measures in the EU and NATO has been to weaken pro-Western democracies by influencing political elites and institutions in these countries and sowing discord on a broad variety of such crucial and sensitive matters as security, immigration, energy, human rights, and so on.

Maksym Beznosiuk is an international relations specialist from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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