Countering Gray Zone Tactics: Russia’s hybrid threats to Western democracies


Britain’s MI5 spy chief accused Russia on Monday on attempting to subvert Western democracies by sowing disinformation and spreading lies, Reuters reports.

“The Russian state’s now well-practised doctrine of blending media manipulation, social media disinformation and distortion along with new and old forms of espionage, and high-levels of cyber-attacks, military force and criminal thuggery is what is meant these days by the term hybrid threats,” the head of the UK’s MI5 intelligence agency, Andrew Parker, said:

EU Stratcom Task Force

Expanding on excerpts of his speech released in advance overnight, Parker, who disclosed he had studied Russia at university, said the Kremlin had the central and admirable aim of building greatness on the world stage and there were ways to pursue that through the rules-based international order.

Other European intelligence chiefs added that the Kremlin is actively seeking to undermine democracies by disinformation, cyberattacks and more traditional means of espionage, the AP adds:

The heads of Britain and Germany’s domestic intelligence agencies, as well as the European Union and NATO‘s top security officials, pinpointed Moscow as the prime source of hybrid threats to Europe, citing attempts to manipulate elections, steal sensitive data and spark a coup in Montenegro.

The warnings coincide with news that the agenda for the next NATO-Russia council will include for the first time Moscow’s increasing use of “hybrid threats” such as propaganda and disinformation, a senior NATO official said on Monday:

Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven, NATO’s first Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security, told a conference in Berlin that Russia was stepping up its use of such tools to offset its relative military weakness.

“NATO doesn’t want a Cold War. It wants a constructive relationship with Russia, but it cannot leave unanswered Moscow’s diverse hybrid attacks on democracies of other countries,” he said.

Parker said the Skripal attack was “deliberate and targeted malign activity” and condemned what MI5 describes as the “unprecedented” levels of disinformation by Russia following the attempted murder, highlighting the need “to shine a light through the fog of lies, half-truths and obfuscation that pours out of their propaganda machine”.

Sir Julian King, the EU’s security commissioner, warned that social media had “turbocharged” state actors’ ability to spread disinformation, citing the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s gathering of personal data from Facebook users to help manipulate elections.

Over half of the Facebook ads bought by Russian groups during the 2016 election to sow discord and division were tied to race, according to a USA Today analysis of the more than 3,500 ads published by House Intelligence Committee Democrats, Vox reports.

Amid criticism that it has failed to adequately respond to Russian propaganda and misinformation, the State Department says it’s adding new staff and resources to the effort, Axios adds:

State’s Global Engagement Center (G.E.C), designed to counter propaganda from U.S. adversaries, has now been exempted from a hiring freeze and plans to bring on experts on Russia, China and Iran, Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Heather Nauert told Axios. The agency also “anticipates the arrival of $40 million …  to counter propaganda and disinformation,” and will be reviewing “proposals from civil society groups to fight Russian disinformation,” she said.

A former U.S. envoy to Moscow was among the first individual victims of Kremlin disinformation.

“When I was the U.S. ambassador, I experienced firsthand this disinformation put out about me,” said Michael McFaul, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia. “I guess we call it fake news now,” the author of the new book From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, told SLATE:

They put out nasty things about me that were just untrue. They were untrue. They would Photoshop my image on posters, and made it sound like I was trying to overthrow the regime. The bottom of it, real bottom-feeding, was when they put out a video of me suggesting that I was a pedophile. That level of disinformation and just grotesque stuff, I experienced early on.

“That part that is all revelatory for people that don’t understand the Russian system as well, I knew back then, because they had been using those tactics not just against me but against opposition leaders as well,” said McFaul, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

As state and non-state adversaries continue to utilize unconventional tools to influence and coerce Western democracies, the United States and its partners must develop effective, integrated approaches to identify and counter these gray zone activities, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) writes:

This half-day conference (above) will examine historical examples of both successful and unsuccessful attempts by the West to counter malicious activity in the gray zone and, by looking at today’s current challenges from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, discuss how the West can adapt going forward.

CSIS hosts “What Works: Countering Gray Zone Tactics,” addressing the use of unconventional tools to influence and coerce Western democracies.

Panelists: former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen; former Principal Deputy Defense Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Kelly Magsamen, Center for American Progress; Michael Singh, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Jamie Fly, German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Future of Geopolitics Program; Philip Reeker, civilian deputy to the commander of U.S. European Command; Daniel Kimmage, acting special envoy and coordinator of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center; Hanna Smith, director of strategic planning and resources at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats; and Michael Tatham, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy

9:15 p.m. – May 15, 2018. Venue: CSIS, 1616 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. RSVP


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