How the US lost the (dis)information war

How the US lost the (dis)information war
Image Source: “File:2012-02-15 Владимир Путин, Владислав Сурков; Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov” by licensed under CC BY 4.0 

It was a war that America apparently didn’t even know was being waged – until the 2016 elections turned out to be the front line. Now the U.S. is scrambling to catch up with Russian infowar capabilities. But how did it get left so far behind?

A film called “Brother” became an unexpected hit in Russia in the late 1990s. Part gritty crime thriller, part historical document, it held an unflinching mirror to Russian society in chaotic, difficult and often violent times.

In 2000, just after Putin became president, the sequel was released: “Brother-2”. Interestingly, around half of the sequel takes place in America. It’s not the America of democratic ideals, the place where dreams come true–instead, the filmmakers chose to show pimps and prostitutes, racism, and organised crime. There’s a crucial scene in Chicago where the lead, Danila, confronts a corrupt American business mogul. “Power isn’t money,” he tells him, “Real power is in the truth”.

‘Truth’ is power: Controlling the narrative

Looking at what has happened since then, Danila’s potted wisdom seems prophetic. Back in the 90s, post-Soviet Russia had lost a great deal of conventional, ‘hard’ power, and it certainly didn’t have the economic clout to match the new acclaimed hegemon, the United States. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia gradually rebuilt its economy – but perhaps more importantly, it also evolved an approach to soft power that rested on projecting its own version of ‘the truth’. At first, this was reflected in a strategy of gaining state control over domestic media; later, projecting a specific image of Russia abroad; and finally, in using various media as a tool of foreign policy.

Putin’s KGB background would undoubtedly have made him aware of the value of disinformation and controlling the public narrative. Where the Soviet Union had communist propaganda, the new Russia had PR–public relations. Specifically, it had Vladislav Surkov. Generally credited with being Putin’s key ideologist and strategist, in the 90s Surkov had been head of advertising and PR for the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s assets, Bank Menatep and Rosprom. In 1997, he moved on to do PR at Alfa Bank (now of server-gate fame). Surkov’s disinformation tactics were reportedly already being honed during this period. According to ex-colleagues, he pioneered the ‘letter to the editor’, which smeared competitors with angry complaints, or spread rumours about their internal problems. Fast forward to the Ukraine crisis: hackers obtained thousands of Surkov’s emails from 2014, including the draft of a ‘letter’ from citizens of the separatist Donbass region to the Ukrainian people, which had subsequently appeared in Russian media. (The Kremlin, needless to say, denies the authenticity of the emails.)

Surkov became the presidential Deputy Chief of Staff in early August 1999, mere days before Putin was appointed acting President–indeed, Surkov claims to have helped orchestrate the transition of power from Yeltsin to Putin. A consolidation of the Putin regime quickly followed. This consolidation rested, essentially, on four pillars: the suppression of Chechen militancy; the formation of the United Russia party (2001); the bringing to heel of the oligarchs (Surkov’s former boss Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, was arrested in 2003); and the nationalisation of large swathes of the print and broadcast media. Regaining control of the media was rooted in the newly developed Information Security Doctrine of 2000, a document that continues to be updated and is important to understanding what Russia sees as threats in the information space.

Vladislav Surkov and ‘sovereign democracy’

In 2006, Surkov made a rare public appearance where he spoke about “Sovereignty as a synonym of competitiveness”. This speech is best known among Russia-watchers for introducing the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’, which has since been used as shorthand for a special type of democracy with a distinctly Russian flavour. But there are also a host of fascinating clues in the speech about the Putin administration’s strategies for maintaining power.

For one thing, Surkov covers themes which make it clear that he must have had a hand in moulding the four pillars mentioned above. He warns against the dangers of a society controlled by an offshore oligarchy, deftly justifies the state regaining control of the media, asserts that the United Russia party needs to dominate politics for at least 10-15 years. And in amongst all of that, he reveals his theory of democratic evolution:

“Society gradually moves from the use of coercion to the technologies of persuasion; from oppression to co-operation; from hierarchy, to networks of horizontal connections…the balance of modern civilisation is shifting to favour the skills of persuasion and negotiation, to ensure that the maximum number of people consciously take one or another decision, and preferably of their own free will. It’s impossible to imagine a modern society, consisting of educated, intelligent, developed people, that can be dictated to, without explaining anything.”

Here, clearly laid out, was the vision that has underpinned the Kremlin’s approach to sustaining and projecting power, both domestically and abroad. Particularly interesting is the phrase, “preferably of their own free will”. Why not simply “of their own free will” – why include the seemingly unnecessary condition, “preferably”? The subtle implication is that the people’s free will may also be determined by some other actor, the one doing the ‘explaining’. Whoever controls the narrative, controls society. Surkov seems to confirm this elsewhere in his speech:

“As democracy develops, the information war grows more acute. The battle for minds.”

Under the guidance of Surkov and other ‘political technologists’, Putin and the United Russia party had already launched the information war and applied ‘technologies of persuasion’ at home. In 2004, events in Ukraine prompted them to deploy those capabilities in a very different arena.

The ‘orange threat’ (and no, it’s not Trump)

Explaining his concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ back in 2006, Surkov emphasised that Russia needed to protect its sovereignty in the face of several key threats: international terrorism, direct military confrontation, and an uncompetitive economy. These are all fairly conventional. But there was one more threat on his list: “the ‘soft’ capture of the state, with the use of modern ‘orange technologies’, when the national ‘immunity’ to external influence is low”.

Surkov was referring to the grassroots Orange Revolution that had taken place in Ukraine in 2004-2005, which the Kremlin believed–or wanted Russian citizens to believe–had been orchestrated in the West, specifically by America. During that period, so-called ‘colour’ revolutions also took place in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, uncomfortably close to Russia. In his speech, Surkov asks, rhetorically: “If they achieved this in four countries [he includes Iraq’s ‘purple’ revolution], why wouldn’t they do it in a fifth?”

From the Kremlin’s perspective, the West had projected values that, directly or indirectly, led to instability and undesirable political change in its immediate neighbourhood. Whether or not the political elite really thought that Russia might be the next target, the narrative was a useful one.

In Brother-2, Danila ‘rescues’ a Russian woman from prostitution in America, bringing her back to Russia at the end of the film. It’s a remarkably apt analogy for Russia regaining her national pride–which had been compromised by the losses of territory and wealth that followed the fall of the USSR–by ‘saving’ herself from subjugation to the West.

And this appeared to be the very strategy that the Kremlin embraced in the mid-2000s: rebuild a strong, sovereign Russia by defining a national identity that was rooted in opposition to the West. Such a strategy makes sense as an approach to maintaining the ‘national immunity to external influence’ noted by Surkov. It’s important to remember that in addition to the colour revolutions, 2004 was the year that another major perceived threat to Russia’s sovereignty materialised. The Baltic states joined NATO–which polls had shown more than half of Russian citizens opposed. So depicting the West as a threat was not a hard sell. Increasingly, Western values and alleged double standards were picked apart in Russian media and political discourse. It seemed to work. By 2015, progressively worsening attitudes towards the West peaked at 81% of Russians having negative perceptions of the U.S., and 71% feeling negatively towards the EU.

The PR effort was not only domestic. Russia’s new self-image and special, non-Western form of democracy, were being projected on the world stage. A state-owned English-language news channel, Russia Today (RT), was set up in 2005, ostensibly to redeem Russia’s image abroad. But the RT experiment would evolve into something much more significant–pioneering what the channel calls ‘alternative perspective’.

Infowars: The U.S. left behind?

Just a few weeks ago, in mid-November, the International Conference on Cyber Conflict took place in Washington, DC. A collaboration between the Army Cyber Institute (West Point) and the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, the conference has been an annual event since 2016. The theme this year was ‘Cyber Conflict During Competition’. One of the sessions covered the topic of ‘Cyber Sovereignty’. Sovereignty, competition–the concepts could have been taken straight from the title of Surkov’s speech more than a decade before.

The conference took as its starting assumption a finding of the 2018 National Defense Strategy: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

Competition is the state of affairs that persists between outright conflicts, during which adversaries deploy non-kinetic measures against each other, disrupting alliances and blurring the line between peace and war. Specifically,

“Conflict during competition combines cyber, electronic, and information operations to infiltrate systems and infrastructure, influence the sentiments of the populace and national decision makers, destabilize partners and allies, and set conditions for a ‘fait accompli’ campaign with conventional forces.”

A frequent refrain among CyCon’s panelists and speakers was that Russia had progressed far beyond the U.S. when it came to cyber and information operations capabilities, and that America urgently needs to catch up. If true, at one level this lament seemed wilfully naive. The U.S. has of course been incredibly successful–much more so than Russia–in projecting its own values around the world, culturally and linguistically, and at times, perhaps less successfully, through direct political or military intervention.

At another level however, what the U.S. security establishment seems to mean is that Russia has been able to cultivate and deploy the tools of information warfare in new ways, and that it has done so largely unnoticed, hidden in plain sight.

Missed signals

How did the U.S. and its partners, apparently, so badly underestimate Russia’s ability to project influence using modern soft power technologies? Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20–but it’s also a necessary exercise to try now to understand which aspects of the intelligence landscape would have been relevant in diagnosing Russia’s intentions and capabilities.

Much of the initial phase of the Putin regime’s experimentation with narrative, disinformation, and influence–some would say, a continuation of Soviet approaches–has been described above: its internal beginnings, with Surkov and the political technologists, and then its evolution into a tactic that was projected outwards in the mid-2000s.

The next key stage came in 2009, when Russia Today rebranded as RT, removing the explicit Russia focus. Shortly afterwards the channel launched an advertising campaign with the tagline, ‘Question More’, which remains RT’s motto. The phrase is an indicator of a new approach to controlling narrative: make your audience question everything, until they are no longer sure who can be trusted, eroding faith in traditional institutions. Adam Curtis describes this process in his surreal and uncomfortable documentary, Hypernormalisation.

One example of how this works can be seen in the way that over the years, RT produced documentaries about the U.S. on hot topics that seemed innocuous enough taken individually. Collectively, however, it becomes a steady drip-feed of ‘things that are wrong with America’. 

Fracking. Homelessness. Racism. GMO risks. Discrimination against same-sex spouses. Forgotten veterans. Police brutality. Veterans crippled by PTSD. Vietnam war crimes. Water poisoned in Flint. It was uncannily like an extension of the disillusioned, “Brother-2” vision of a decaying country. But the target audience was no longer Russian, it was in America itself, where such stories end up aggravating internal divisions.

Here is Surkov describing the process of ‘soft state capture’ in 2006: “Values are eroded, the state is declared ineffective, internal divisions are provoked”. At the time, these were the methods Russia believed were being used against it. So naturally, it made sense for the Kremlin to take these methods and turn them around, against the West.

This approach was confirmed in early 2013, when the Armed Forces’ Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, made a speech at the annual meeting of the Academy of Military Sciences. In it, he described the ‘asymmetric’ approaches that he perceived as characterising modern warfare.

“Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy’s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special-operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected.”

The speech was largely ignored until 2014, when Russia expert Dr Mark Galeotti dredged it up to explain Russia’s covert actions in Ukraine. He coined the phrase ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, which came into wide usage (he has since claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that he never intended for this to happen). More importantly however, Galeotti’s dissection of Gerasimov’s words failed to highlight some key indicators–the points in the speech where Gerasimov explicitly states the route that Russia needed to take. First of all,

“The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy. In North Africa, we witnessed the use of technologies for influencing state structures and the population with the help of information networks. It is necessary to perfect activities in the information space.

And secondly,

“We must not copy foreign experience and chase after leading countries, but we must outstrip them and occupy leading positions ourselves.”

Russia’s top military official was advocating for Russia to take a leading position in, among other things, information warfare. Yet the full and accurate translation of his remarks, together with a cogent analysis by Charles Bartles, only appeared in the January-February 2016 edition of the U.S. Military Review–three years after the event.

Gerasimov doctrine

Lessons learned

One of the main messages of CyCon18 was that the future of the democratic world relies on the ability of democratic state and non-state actors to “anticipate, adapt, and innovate”. This actually provides a convenient yardstick with which to assess the West’s performance. 

Clearly, there have been failures of anticipation when it comes to Russia’s actions. The war in Georgia was a surprise, the annexation of Crimea was a surprise. And despite the use of cyber attacks in Estonia in 2007, disinformation and ‘fake news’ during the Ukraine and Georgia conflicts, the application of similar tactics in the U.S. was also a surprise.

Such failures of anticipation can, in turn, be attributed in large part to failures of adaptation. Perhaps the most glaring of these was a desire to put a specific version of history–indeed, the End of History–over top of reality. The Cold War was won; Russia was no longer a formidable adversary. Across Western foreign and defense ministries, Russia desks were cut back, Russia specialists overlooked in favour of Middle East specialists.

In 2006, the same year that Surkov made his speech about sovereign democracy, a survey of the American public showed 71% believed that Russia would continue to become more democratic, despite all signs to the contrary.

Complacency and bias also came from the top. In 2009, Barack Obama went to Russia and even before meeting with then-Prime Minister Putin, declared that the latter was stuck in the ‘old ways of doing business’, in a Cold War mentality. As recently as 2016, Obama again dismissed Russia as smaller and weaker than the U.S.

It’s impossible to prevent mistakes and oversights completely, but a few guiding principles may help to improve state actors’ ability to anticipate and adapt in future.

First, be aware of bias, but also of exceptionalism along the lines of “Sure, this is happening over there, but it could never happen to us!”

Second, avoid being dismissive of ideas that challenge the status quo. Ironically, General Gerasimov advocated precisely for this: “A scornful attitude toward new ideas, to nonstandard approaches, to other points of view is unacceptable in military science.”

To illustrate – in 2005, General James Mattis published an article on “The Rise of Hybrid Wars” in which he emphasised the importance of information operations and wars of ideas. Reportedly, Mattis’ resignation under Obama came about because “Mattis was pushing the White House to think deeper and harder” and this came into conflict with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who pushed back.

Third, pay attention not just to political cues but to cultural ones as well, and act accordingly, laying foundations for engagement beyond the Putin era and thus dialling down the need for infowars. At present, for instance, there is a glimmer of hope: polling by the Levada Centre has shown that Russians’ negative perception of the West is being reversed from its 2015 high, and that increasing numbers of Russians believe rapprochement with the West is necessary. In 2018 alone, Levada found, the proportion of Russians who have a positive perception of the U.S. doubled to 42%.

Fourth, maximise the diversity of intelligence sources being analysed for clues as to Russian behaviour, and be clear about the indicators that matter. This may be obvious but seems not  always to be practiced. Official statements and speeches, laws and doctrines, academic research, nuanced Russia-based analysis (it exists!), state-owned media, as well as Western experts. Peter Pomerantsev was one of the few who accurately assessed what Russia was doing – albeit also with a significant delay, sounding warnings in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, he wrote about Ukraine in a way that presaged the 2016 U.S. election interference:

“The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action.”

That said, Pomerantsev falls into another pitfall that should be avoided: exaggerating Russia’s intent and capability. “Reinventing reality” and “creating mass hallucinations” reads a bit hysterically. Russia did not do anything revolutionary. It perceived that its competitors were using certain strategies, so it adopted those strategies. Russia is simply adapting, sometimes opportunistically, sometimes tactically, and on occasion strategically, to the same chaotic new environment in which all countries find themselves. It’s often an experimental process in which approaches that ‘work’ are sustained, and those that don’t work are discarded.

Douglas Carman’s 2002 analysis of Russia’s Information Security Doctrine makes a delightfully apt analogy with Franz Kafka’s story ‘The Burrow’. Carman warns that in controlling information, authentic meaning and identity, Russia risks becoming like the creature in Kafka’s tale, who “digs an intricate labyrinth of underground tunnels to escape the beasts it imagines lurk outside, but in the end cannot tell the difference between the noises outside and the noises created by its own digging.”

Ultimately, this reliance on confusion is a weakness of the Putin regime, not its strength. In counteracting it, we must not get lost in burrows of our own devising, and instead have faith that the truth–not ‘the truth’–will win out in the end.

About Author

GRI Executive Editor, Alisa Lockwood

Alisa has more than 14 years of experience in political analysis. She began her career at a political risk start-up, Exclusive Analysis, and most recently spent five years Head of Europe/CIS Country Risk at IHS Global, where she advised major corporate and government clients on political and security risks in the region. She also led the development of IHS’ counterparty risk assessment product and oversaw global investigations. Alisa’s commentary has frequently appeared in the media, including Bloomberg, CNBC and Sky News. She has lived in Canada, France, the UK, and Russia, where she worked at the European External Action Service in Moscow.