A new front in Russia’s information warfare? Validity of Western democracy is primary target



Russia is working on defensive measures to prepare for possible new sanctions from the United States and other countries, the Kremlin said on Wednesday, Reuters reports:

U.S. and EU sanctions imposed over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, remain in place. But U.S. allegations that Moscow interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election, something Russia denies, have spurred calls for more sanctions.

France this week witnessed a classic rhetorical gambit by RT, the Russian public broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today, which is ultimately financed by the Kremlin. Detractors say that RT is part of a disinformation campaign that peddles exaggerations and untruths to undermine confidence in Western institutions and destabilize democracy itself, the New York Times reports.

“Ideally for the Russian authorities, the main goal remains to increase the public’s distrust toward their political elite and their media, in order to end up paralyzing the decision making process,” said Julien Nocetti, a research fellow who specializes in Russia at the French Institute for International Relations.

Information warfare on massive scale

Russian security services have an opportunistic and laissez-faire attitude towards mounting cyber attacks abroad, according to the latest annual report from the UK Intelligence and Security Committee, according to reports:

The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, which works exclusively in foreign intelligence gathering, describes Russia as “formidable adversaries” when it comes to offensive cyber weaponry and activity. It cites the attack on French television station TV5Monde in April 2015 as just one example, which had been ‘false flagged’ as an attack by Islamist extremists.

“Russia conducts information warfare on a massive scale… An early example of this was a hugely intensive, multi-channel propaganda effort to persuade the world that Russia bore no responsibility for shooting down… MH-17,” claims the report.

Russia’s propaganda campaign exacerbated the crisis in Spain triggered by Catalonia’s illegal referendum on statehood in October, Bloomberg reports:

Western officials have expressed concern that sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine and alleged meddling in the U.S. election last year have done little to curb the Kremlin’s appetite for political offensives that involve everything from overt news outlets to covert hacking networks…. Britain’s top national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, urged lawmakers this week to read “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu for advice on dealing with Russia in the digital age. One nugget from the ancient Chinese general: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

“Spain was a secondary target,” said Ben Nimmo, who tracks Russian disinformation campaigns at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab in Washington. “The primary target is the validity of Western democracy.”

Russia aggressively tried to hobble U.S. democracy during the 2016 election, and is still working to destabilize parts of the world with propaganda, a top Trump adviser said Tuesday. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Russia’s goal was not merely to undermine the election, but also our way of life, Newsweek reports.

“I believe that Russia was engaged in a very sophisticated campaign of subversion to affect our confidence in democratic institutions, in democratic processes, including elections,” he told the BBC. “What they want to do is create the kind of tension, the kind of vitriol that undermines our confidence in who we are.”

“We have to look at what Russia is actually doing,” he said. “Of course we have to counter Russia’s destabilizing behavior and the sophisticated campaigns of propaganda and disinformation [as well as other “active measures”]. Efforts to polarize communities and pit them against each other especially in the democratic world.”


There are a number of ways to promote timely, accurate, and civil discourse in the face of false news and disinformation, analyst Darrell M. West writes in How to combat fake news and disinformation (right), a new report from the Brookings Institution:

In today’s world, there is considerable experimentation taking place with online news platforms. News organizations are testing products and services that help them identify hate speech and language that incites violence. There is a major flowering of new models and approaches that bodes well for the future of online journalism and media consumption.

Russia has sought to take advantage of domestic divisions in the U.S. to sow chaos and reap the benefits of a weakened Western alliance, says Robert W. Orttung of George Washington University. Each week brings new revelations about what techniques Russia has employed, but it remains unclear to what extent Russian actions had an impact on the thinking or behavior of American citizens, he contends.

Disinformation has contributed to a “democratic legitimacy crisis”, notes analyst Reema Patel, generating “a paradigm shift in the way the relationship between experts and citizens has been configured, the way in which the public access and trust information, and in the way power itself is distributed.” She calls for a “radical rethink of the relationship between technology, citizens and expertise” in order to address the global implosion of trust and legitimacy of decision makers, as reported by the Edelman Barometer of Trust.

The US Congress is developing legislation to counter foreign interference: a bill “to improve and streamline information about cyber threats between state and federal entities” will be introduced next week, notes Kremlin Watch. The Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE) put forward proposals to act on fake news and misinformation and call on platforms to provide more transparency. Moreover, they emphasize education and media literacy as a crucial tool.

During the Cold War, the KGB’s disinformation operations and their psychological and disruptive influence earned the catchall name of active measures, according to Jolanta Darczewska and Piotr Żochowski at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies. Today too, similar actions are being treated as a strategic asset in operations carried out by the Russian special services to influence the external environment. These actions, as tried and tested systemic mechanisms for confrontation with the West, support the implementation of the Russian Federation’s foreign policy, they write for the Russia Analytical Digest.

Soviet and Russian intelligence services have engaged in many of the same disinformation techniques and active measures for decades, but in 2016, they finally worked. Why? Cipher Brief analyst John Sipher asks:

  • Social media: Although the Russians were up to their old tricks in 2016, the internet and social media provided new means to weaponize information. The Russians no longer need to rely on a small army of spies to spread propaganda and lies from Indian tabloids.”
  • We’ve seen the enemy and he is us: In 2016, the dysfunctional U.S. political environment was dry tinder for the Russians; the success of the Russian attack was proportional to the ferocity of the partisan divide in the United States.”
  • Putin’s rage: “The scale and brazen nature of the 2016 attack can be attributed in part to the personality of Vladimir Putin, whose animus toward Clinton increased his tolerance for risk, and willingness to show his hand.”
  • U.S. wasn’t prepared: “By 2016, the years of focus on terrorism and the Middle East had fooled many into assuming that the Russians were no longer a threat. Greater familiarity with the Russian threat led to a better defense during the Cold War.”
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