‘Geopolitical judo’ – how to defeat Russia’s information warfare


Authoritarian adversaries able and willing to use hybrid methods of attack have long studied Western democracies, searching for their possible vulnerabilities, according to a new report, After the EU Global Strategy – Building resilience, coordinated by Florence Gaub and Nicu Popescu. China did so when designing its ‘unrestricted warfare’, as did Russia when developing its ‘new generation warfare’, writes András Rácz, Associate Professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest.

The main advantage of attackers able to use hybrid methods against a democratic country is their highly centralized structures of command and control, which encompass all sectors of the state apparatus, he contends:

This enables them to coordinate the use of various non-military and military tools – including economic, diplomatic, informational, financial, cultural and military measures – much quicker and in a more flexible way than Western democracies, where separation of power is a key principle, and elaborate systems of checks and balances are in place. Information warfare, conducted mainly by misusing Western concepts of freedom of speech and media freedom, is an integral and crucially important element of the hybrid toolbox. It aims mostly at destroying trust in democratic norms, values and institutions, calling alliances into question and hampering decision-making by spreading disinformation. RTWT

All of this fits an age-old KGB modus operandi of using a variety of asymmetric methods to turn rivals’ internal weaknesses against themselves, Just Security’s John Reed writes for Newsweek:

The Russian security services embrace a fluid and confusing form of physical warfare which aims to take advantage of adversaries’ social, political, and economic weakness through what the 2016 NDAA describes as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.” …We saw this geopolitical judo used to great success in Ukraine following Yanukovych’s ouster, where Russia has employed “hybrid” warfare to seize territory and lock the nation in a state of chaos with a simmering part-covert, part-overt war.

During a press conference with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, unabashedly declared that Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik “were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign. They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda,” notes Boris Toucas, a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Three lessons can be drawn from the French presidential election experience, he suggests:

  • First, dumping authentic private information in the public domain is key for an attacker to gain credibility and build an audience they intend to manipulate. The French experience tells us that a good way to deter aggression is to make sure that confidential information becomes obsolete or dubious if published.
  • Second, while open, democratic societies are vulnerable to information warfare, they are not powerless. The target society’s response is a key factor that determines the success of an operation. There is room for counteraction, if the target maintains a reputation of credibility superior to that of the potential attacker, which requires strengthening the public’s confidence in legitimate institutions.
  • Third, with all due respect to WikiLeaks’ purported goal of increasing transparency, attempts to forcibly “open” institutions will not lead to a more transparent world. On the contrary, they will only generate more uncertainty and deception. The information sphere is and will remain an uncertain world of shadows and pretense.

Russia’s hybrid warfare against Ukraine and the European Union has also suffered a setback in the Netherlands.

In a decision laden with symbolic value, Dutch lawmakers agreed on Tuesday to closer ties and the creation of a free-trade area with Ukraine, completing a long and contentious negotiation that pushed Russia and the European Union to the edge of confrontation, The New York Times reports:

The agreement became a focal point of the geopolitical battle between Moscow and Brussels over the future of Ukraine, which President Vladimir V. Putin considers an integral part of historical Russia and a vital buffer against an encroaching NATO….Signed in 2014, the pact required the assent of all 28 members of the European Union before it could take effect. The Netherlands was the last holdout, after voters in a national referendum rejected the deal last year in what seemed to be an astonishing victory for Mr. Putin.

“The campaign added up to a hugely effective attack on the E.U. that led to the agreement being halted for months and made the Netherlands look very bad — and, for a while, it even looked as if the deal wouldn’t make it, and that would have been the ultimate foreign policy victory for Russia,” said Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies.

Russia’s Fancy Bear hackers have been caught engaging in “tainted leaks”—i.e., inserting fake information into stolen documents and then releasing them in a disinformation effort, Infosecurity reports:

The first victim of this treatment, according to an investigation by Citizen Lab, was a journalist and noted Kremlin critic David Satter. From there came the discovery of 200+ unique targets spanning 39 countries (including members of 28 governments)….Last October, Satter’s emails were stolen and later published on the CyberBerkut hacking blog after he fell for a phishing lure. Citizen Lab said that unpublished reporting lifted from his emails about Radio Liberty’s Russian investigative reporting project also was leaked to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), with carefully modified false information.

Russia’s cyber tools fall within the realm of Covert Action Information Operations (CA/IO) and are set to become the new “active measures” — the Soviet term for acts of political warfare intended to shape global events — as perpetrators use them to hide in plain sight, create subterfuge, maintain plausible deniability and shift blame to convenient scapegoats, according to STRATFOR analyst Jon Sather. Perhaps it is time for the world’s greatest powers to acknowledge that the Cold War is far from over, he suggests:

That the events unfolding before our eyes are a virtual reality created by disinformation, misinformation and manipulation, driven by motives we have not paid proper attention to. Putin’s cyber operations have undermined America’s institutions, but they have not weakened its resolve. The U.S. system of governance is resilient, fortified by a robust democracy and the rule of law. Russia’s, however, is more fragile, a fact Putin knows well.



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