How Putin does it: well-trained in ideological warfare


RUSSIA DEZINFORMATSIYACold War notions of “fake news” and “Soviet-style propaganda” are back in style, except now people say them about shiny new concepts such as cyberattacks and WikiLeaks. Whether or not the Kremlin is guilty of doing all the things Western accusers say it is, Russia is now considered a master purveyor of geopolitical disorder. And that, for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, is a win, The Washington Post reports.

“Of course the Kremlin likes the fact of such an atmosphere of chaos,” Gleb Pavlovsky (right), russia pavlovsky_headshota former Putin adviser, said in a recent interview. “Because we are traders of chaos. We sell it, and the more chaos there is in the world, the better it is for the Kremlin.”

Russia is expected to interfere in the forthcoming elections in Germany and France, analyst Edward Lucas told NPR today.

The main reason Mr Putin appears a victor is that he identified right-wing populist movements as potential winners from the start, notes The Economist, adding that Putin is well-trained in ideological warfare:

In November 1984 the Kremlin tried to stop Ronald Reagan from being re-elected. As part of its active-measures programme, Moscow promoted the slogan “Reagan Means War!” To discredit him, Russia propagated stories about Reagan’s militaristic adventurism, rising tensions among NATO allies, discrimination against ethnic minorities and corruption. In the end, Reagan won a landslide victory, exposing the limits of Soviet power. A student of the Andropov Academy, Vladimir Putin would almost certainly have undergone training in active measures. In a book of interviews, Mr Putin described how he used these techniques against dissidents at home, spoiling and hijacking their events.

putins-kleptocracyThe West can retaliate by exposing the kleptocratic underbelly of Putin’s regime, say Hudson Institute Research Fellows Hannah Thoburn [a Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy] and Benjamin Haddad. Corruption has become a key mode through which the Russian government actively undermines Western democracies, they write for The Hill:

Yet despite our government’s accumulated knowledge of the criminal syndicates that underpin the Russian government, it has been left to journalists to expose such crimes through leaks like the Panama Papers. Hundreds of billions of dollars in illicit money has flowed out of Russia in the past years and has found a comfortable home in New York or Miami real estate and Delaware shell companies. Putin himself is said to be worth over $40 billion dollars, much of it stolen from Russian citizens. The president could release directly or through journalists the U.S. government’s knowledge of where this wealth is hidden and how it was accumulated. 

The West would be mistaken in copying the Kremlin’s strategy of spreading disinformation through state-controlled faux news media like RT, says a leading analyst.epaselect epa04169907 An elderly Crimean woman watches a TV broadcast with Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during his annual call-in live broadcast, at the geriatric home in Simferopol, Crimea, 17 April 2014. The decision to send tanks and combat aircraft to eastern Ukraine is another serious crime committed by the authorities in Kiev, Putin said. He called on the Ukrainian government to engage in 'real dialogue' with its Russian-speaking population, adding that the deployment of 'military planes and tanks' would not solve the crisis in eastern Ukraine. In his televized call-in show Putin said that Kiev's decision to curb the protests in the eastern region of Donetsk with military force was a 'crime.' EPA/ARTUR SHVARTS

“The United States has foreign outlets, too. But don’t be fooled by their old-fashioned names (like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty),” notes Georgetown University’s Jeffrey Gedmin. “These outfits, once feted for their success in penetrating the veil of the Iron Curtain, have evolved over last two decades to become modern, tech-savvy global media organizations,” he writes for Foreign Policy:

Our adversaries’ half-truths may sometimes look successful, but that does not mean we want to emulate them. American foreign broadcasting must continue to reflect the American values of free speech, openness to criticism, and tolerance of divergent opinions. That is why our democratic system is better, and in the long run, that is why it will win.

“As we detail in our recent report, based on 30 months of closely watching Russia’s online influence operations and monitoring some 7,000 accounts, the Kremlin’s troll army swarm the web to spread disinformation and undermine trust in the electoral system,” note George Washington University’s Clint Watts and Andrew Weisburd. This how Putin does it, they write for POLITICO:

  1. Pick close contests: In [recent] votes, Russia happened upon an almost perfectly divided electorate. It took a nudge of just a few percentage points in each case to achieve victory….
  2. Know your audience: In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama’s strategists conducted a surgical influence effort, mapping key votes down to the neighborhood level. Russian operatives have borrowed from this playbook and targeted audiences vulnerable to their influence across the West…..
  3. Start early and be persistent: …. Dating back to the earliest parts of 2015, Russian media outlets incited fear of immigration and promoted Brexit-thumbadvocate Nigel Farage’s accusations of American manipulation to foster popular support for the British to leave the EU.
  4. Try everything. Stick with what works: Today’s Russian propagandists borrow from the playbook of their Soviet forefathers. RT and Sputnik News push political, financial, social and calamitous messages stoking fear and conspiracy into the information environment of any democratic audience suspicious or outwardly hostile to Russia. ….
  5. Hack and release: Russia’s synchronization of hacking and influence operations provides a one-two punch for manipulating democratic audiences. In the old days, Soviet Kompromat, or compromising materials, were used by KGB agents to encourage Western officials and public figures to speak and act in ways more amenable to Soviet objectives, via threats to expose criminality, corruption or sexual misbehavior. Today, Russia’s hacking teams, two of which security researchers have dubbed Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, conduct wide-ranging kompromat hacking into thousands of current and former Western government officials, media personalities and national security experts. ….
  6. Use brute force to overwhelm adversaries: Soviet military doctrine employed the principle of mass to counter Western forces—employing three to four times the artillery of their enemies. Once the Soviets found a break in enemy lines, they’d exploit the breach, occupy a position in the rear area of the enemy and then fight from a defensive position. Today’s Russian social media influence operations employ a similar approach. After using hacked information to craft manipulated truths, Russia propagates and amplifies stories using automated bots. ….
  7. Win even when you lose. Russia would prefer that its chosen candidates be victorious, but losing is almost as good: Putin and company are happy just to foment chaos, confusion and doubt. RTWT

Russia has been taking advantage of the weaknesses and freedoms of the West, so the West should similarly strike back against Russia’s vulnerabilities, argues Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague. The West should retaliate thrugh punitive measures like sanctions [which] can be a very powerful weapon against the opportunist kleptocrats on whom Mr. Putin relies for support, he writes for The New York Times:

The West also needs to stand together against the Kremlin’s divide-and-rule tactics. NATO members are committed by treaty to defending one another from military attacks, but there aren’t similar provisions for cyberattacks or information warfare. ….All of this requires a new mind-set. It means accepting that Russia has chosen to be at war with us — albeit a special and limited war. Russia needs to be treated as a political combatant.

It also means remembering how much stronger the United States is than Russia, economically, militarily, diplomatically and even politically. Mr. Putin is a geopolitical guerrilla who has adopted a strategy he hopes can play to his own strengths and circumvent the West’s. Now the West needs to demonstrate that it has a strategy to combat his adventurism.


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