Clash of Narratives: disinformation vital to eight phases of Russia’s hybrid warfare


Ever since the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Western capitals have been alarmed at Russia’s hybrid warfare campaigns, notes analyst Kaan Sahin. Germany in particular had already been confronted with this phenomenon even before November 2016. As the crucial player in the EU and due to its specific relationship with Moscow, Berlin is notably vulnerable to Russia’s tactics. Given this preeminent status, Germany should respond to Russian hybrid warfare in a number of ways, both domestically and internationally, he writes for Carnegie Europe:

Besides these practical reasons why Russia has a strong interest in influencing Germany’s internal debate, there is an emerging clash of narratives between the two actors. Amid the rise of often pro-Russian populists in the West, Germany’s population in the main appears to have resisted the siren of nationalism. Considering the UK’s Brexit vote, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the National Front’s growing foothold in French politics, the New York Times even called Merkel “the liberal West’s last defender.” Germany’s insistence on promoting the European idea is another indication of this refusal to adopt an inward-looking approach.

Vladimir Putin’s decade-long media campaign turned Russians against Ukrainians and Ukraine itself before he annexed Crimea in 2014, notes Taras Kuzio, a senior research fellow at the University of Alberta.

In my book Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime, I explore how Putin successfully fanned the flames of ethnic Russian nationalism, turning Russians against both the Ukrainian state and people,” he writes:

Russians believe the official propaganda that there was a “democratic referendum” in Crimea, that Ukrainians shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, that there is a civil war in Ukraine and that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Two-thirds of Ukrainians, but only a quarter of Russians, understand the conflict as a Russian-Ukrainian war. …Beginning in the spring of 2014, Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia begin to massively change – not because of any state-directed propaganda campaigns, but in response to Putin’s military aggression. By mid-2014, positive views of Russia had fallen to 52 percent.

Iryna Bekeshkina of Democratic Initiatives has written that “for the majority of [Ukrainian] citizens, Russia has turned into an enemy.”

Destabilizing propaganda is a critical element in the eight phases of Russia’s “New Generation Warfare,” which provide a good template for understanding how the Russians could conduct a state-level hybrid war, writes analyst Tony Balasevicius:

  • First Phase: deals with non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup);
  • Second Phase:special [specific] operations are used to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies. This is done by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions;
  • Third Phase: is focused on intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties;
  • Fourth Phase: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population. This is boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion;
  • Fifth Phase: establishment of no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed opposition units;
  • Sixth Phase: This phase deals with the commencement of military action, which is immediately preceded by large-scale reconnaissance and subversive missions. This includes all types, forms, methods and forces, such as special operations forces, space, radio, radio engineering, electronic, diplomatic, secret service intelligence, and industrial espionage;
  • Seventh Phase: combination of targeted information operations, electronic warfare operations, aerospace operations, continuous air force harassment, combined with the use of high precision weapons launched from various platforms, including (long-range artillery, and weapons that are based on new physical principles, such as microwaves, radiation, non-lethal biological weapons);
  • Eighth Phase: roll over the remaining points of resistance and destroy surviving enemy units by special operations…

A German court said it had ordered the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to remove a fake tweet issued in the name of top Social Democrat Martin Schulz or face a fine of up to 250,000 euros (223,498.50 pounds), Reuters reports:

A court spokesman said Schulz had asked for an injunction after the CSU youth wing sent out a tweet under the fake account “@therealMartinSchulfter” following clashes between militant leftists and police at the recent G20 summit in Hamburg. ….Arne Schoenbohm, president of the German federal cyber protection agency, told Reuters that government officials were bracing for disinformation and propaganda campaigns ahead of the election. 


Political bots, computational propaganda, and the challenges they pose to democracy feature in this must-read conversation between Dean Jackson of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies and Philip N. Howard (@pnhoward), the principal investigator of the Computational Propaganda Project at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute:

You’ve indicated that the problem is about misinformation spread by automation. To what degree is the problem really about cognition, human behavior, the way we interact with information we encounter on the internet, and the way bots are able to game that? Do we have a good understanding of how this problem plays out inside of our heads, rather than inside of our devices?

It’s a great point; I believe that there are several kinds of cognitive explanations for what goes on that are totally plausible. There are several selective exposure arguments: one is that we don’t like to be contradicted; one is that once we’ve made a decision, we come up with shortcuts for what we feel we’ve already learned; and one is that we just choose to hear good things from the people we always spend time with. Those are three variations on the “selective exposure argument.”

I think there are several levels of answers to the problem. The big picture answer is civic education. Teaching everybody Aristotle’s top argumentative fallacies in Latin and how to spot them, so that everyone would leave high school knowing what an ad hominem attack is, knowing what an argumentum ad populum is—you probably could learn the Latin, but—just being able to identify ten argumentative fallacies and to understand what they are would be a great achievement, and it would help a lot. But that is super macro, to get every American to know what logical fallacies are. RTWT

A recent think piece details a grim future where hybrid warfare combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning can create custom influence operations at the individual level, Charles Johnson, a Research Associate at Boise State University’s Frank Church Institute, writes for the International Policy Digest:

However, by combining the best minds in social media, cyber security, and intelligence, the very methods used to conduct influence campaigns could be used to expose them. Such tools would not delete intelligence operation material but show it for what it is. ….Essential reading for working members of this alliance should be Peter Pomerantsev’s 2014 book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. The book details an extravagantly structured political and information sphere in Russia where narrative is tightly controlled, and truth means only what the state wills it to be.

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