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Russia’s information warfare

In contrast to western states, the Russian autocratic system enables the Kremlin to implement their policies faster and more efficiently, including in the information space.

December 14, 2020 - New Eastern Europe / Tomasz Kubiak - Hot Topics

Photo: President of Russia web site (CC)/ http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57063

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the bilateral world order seemed to have a pacifying influence on European security. There was a hope for a new age to come – an age of peace, justice and equality. As we see today, nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1991, Russia has been trying to return to its former position as a global power using all means possible. In order to succeed, the Kremlin has been even ready to use what appeared to be the strongest type of weapon available –military force. However, since the presidency of Vladimir Putin, something has changed. Information has become a new, forceful and much more efficient instrument for Russia’s power aspirations. 

Interest in information warfare significantly increased at the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Thanks to new technologies and the internet, it was easy for Russia to reach the international community and to impose its version of the events. Since 2014, it has been a crucial and successful form of Russian hybrid approach to its power projection. Experts agree that Russian disinformation and its conspiratorial discourse pose a serious threat to its geopolitical status and integrity. Both Europe and the United States are facing this problem and both seem to be losing this battle. The Russian elite understand that in order to increase their own position in the multilateral world order, they need to weaken their western adversaries. They are also aware of the fact that neither economically nor military are they able to jeopardise the West’s political power in the world. Their formula for success is: disinformation, disintegration and destabilisation of the western world.

The Russian concept of information warfare derives from a specific theory of propaganda that was taught for the first time at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages. Based on the Soviet tradition – it was revived in 2000 as a part of the Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation, following a rapid increase in information security. Today, there are plenty of state institutions working both on theory and practice of disinformation. In practice, in order to introduce its aggressive information doctrine, the Kremlin uses not just the state institutions, but also universities, publishing houses, television, the internet and lobbying. Such a well-functioning, efficient and easy to control propaganda machine has become a dire threat to the world.

In contrast to western states, the Russian autocratic system enables the Kremlin to implement their policies faster and more efficiently. Unlike Soviet propaganda, the contemporary Kremlin information warfare is not focused on its own agenda, but on confusing and distracting public opinion in the target countries. Its direct goal is to erode public support for European values and ideas in order to make them distrust their own governments and political system. Disintegration is a key word – by disintegrating Euro-Atlantic co-operation and the European Union, Russia aims to increase its own position in the world.

In opposition to the West and its ideology of liberalism, Russia promotes its own ideas: conservatism, tradition and “true liberty”.  It promotes the idea of the clash of civilizations, where liberal democracies and open societies threaten the Russian island of freedom and try to contaminate the infallible Russian values with their ideology. Officially, Russia just defends itself and its people. In fact, it uses emotions and historical remembrance in a very cynical, fact-free way in order to manipulate the public. Messages coming from Kremlin’s propaganda machine are simple and clear: they contain black-and-white terms and keywords, such as “Banderovtsy” or “fascists” to be stored in people’s memory. Their role is to portray Russia and Russian-speaking people as victims, for instance in Ukraine. Its goal is a massive and long-lasting impact on both the Russian society and Europe.   

Russia attempts to subordinate and control the elites and societies in other countries. In order to influence the policies of another government, the Russian information warfare machine works to undermine confidence in the leaders of other countries to disrupt their relations with other nations and to weaken their influence. It exploits regional, ethnic and historical tensions and promotes anti-systemic causes, mostly in the crucial for the adversary policy areas, such as internal integrity of the EU, political polarisation in the American public or NATO’s cooperative approach.

We can observe the increasing power of Russian manipulations in many contemporary political challenges: the support for Hungarian Fidesz, attempts to destabilise the Baltic states, Russian interference in the US presidential election or financial support for anti-systemic, undemocratic and nationalistic parties, such as National Front in France. However, the goal is not just to gain clear support for co-operation with Russia as in the case of the German Alternative for Germany (AfD). Openly anti-Russian political parties, such as Polish Law and Justice Party, might also be useful – every political subject weakening integrity of the EU does a favour to Russia.

Russian instruments of influence are more than just Russian trolls, bots and pro-Kremlin media. Sometimes it affects us and our decision-making process in an indirect and unexpected way. This is one of the reasons why this threat should be taken very seriously and why we need a common, Euro-Atlantic response to withstand it.

This text was prepared based on the podcast titled „Rosyjska wojna informacyjna z Zachodem”, and translated and written by Tomasz Kubiak.

Funding for the translation and podcast series came from a grant by NATO’s Department of Public Diplomacy, in co-operation with the “Stratpoints” Foundation for Security and Development.

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