In the last two years, Russia has demonstrated its return to an assertive foreign policy by successful military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. The capabilities it employed to do so surprised the West, despite being well advertised in advance and their development described in detail by the Russia-watching community in Western nations, notes Chatham House analyst Keir Giles:
The distinctive Russian approach to operations in Ukraine gave rise to an impression among some observers that its military had employed fundamentally new concepts of armed conflict. The widespread adoption of phrases such as ‘hybrid warfare’ and ‘Gerasimov doctrine’ reinforced this perception of novelty, and was indicative of a search for ways to conceptualize – and make sense of – a Russian approach to conflict that the West found at first sight unfamiliar.
Nevertheless, the techniques and methods displayed by Russia in Ukraine have roots in traditional Soviet approaches, he writes in Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power:
Unlike in Soviet times, Russia is no longer restricted in its choice of foreign friends by considerations of ideology, and one notable result is a surge in links with right-wing and anti-EU parties, whose agenda falls in well with Russian state objectives and whose supporters are not always immune to the attraction of President Putin’s declared support for traditional values….
In addition, for Russia a strong military is an essential attribute of a great power, whether needed for actual security challenges or not. In the words of Sergey Karaganov: ‘It looks like the military buildup is expected to compensate for the relative weakness in other respects – economic, technological, ideological and psychological.’
The proliferation of mass media and instant communications has made it ‘possible for the citizens of a nation to scrutinise the conduct of war by their military forces [leading to] the possibility of a public opinion directly impacting the political decision-making of a nation’, Giles notes:
But today this is an asymmetric vulnerability since it applies to Western liberal democracies with a free media, but not – as conclusively demonstrated by events around Ukraine – to Russia…..
To dismiss the importance of Russian denials because they are implausible is also to underestimate the concept and power of the direct lie. Given the habit of leaders in democratic nations to attempt always to say something that at least resembles the truth, implausible denials are a ploy which Western media are particularly ill-equipped to respond to and report appropriately. …..
Integrity remains fundamental for NATO and for Western liberal democracies. But the principle of countering items of disinformation head on with truth has a further obstacle to overcome if it is to be effective in rebutting Russian narratives in mass consciousness. This is because the multiple evident untruths referred to by Vershbow are in part designed to undermine trust in the existence of objective truth, whether from media or from official sources. This contributes to eroding the comparative advantages of liberal democratic societies when seeking to counter disinformation, by neutralizing the advantages associated with credibility.