Six ways to combat Russia’s political jiu-jitsu against democracies


Credit: War On The Rocks


Russia’s information warfare is a form of political jiu-jitsu, reflecting its belief that the simplest way to take down a democracy is to turn its most powerful asset, the open minds of citizens, into a vulnerability, says a leading cybersecurity expert.

“It’s what Russia has long called ‘reflexive control,’ or the ability to use information on someone else so they make their own decision that’s favorable to you,” Laura Galante told the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Canada.

“You need to get people in democracies to start questioning the system, to make it occur to them that their institutions are failing them, that the country they knew is in freefall,” she said. “To do that, you need to infiltrate the information spheres of these democracies.”

“The Russian government was the first to recognize how evolution had turned your mind into the most exploitable device on the planet,” said Galante, who works with the cybersecurity company FireEye.  

Moscow seeks to undermine US strength through information warfare and cyber attacks, said Joel Brenner, US national counter-intelligence executive from 2006 to 2009. “Russian efforts in the US are intense now,” he said. “The Russians know they have to play jiu jitsu with the US instead of taking us on directly.”

The West’s democracies are far from defenseless, but the transatlantic community must recognize that responding requires a comprehensive strategy to contain the multifaceted aspects of Russia’s hybrid warfare, according to Franklin D. Kramer, a distinguished fellow and board member at the Atlantic Council and a former assistant secretary of defense, and Lauren M. Speranza, assistant director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

The strategy should contain six main efforts, they contend:

Create an intelligence hub focused on Russia. NATO, the EU or, ideally, both should create an intelligence hub focused on Russia. Assessment of Russian intentions, capabilities and activities would provide the requisite agenda. Information could be gleaned and shared among the participating nations to increase the West’s collective ability to recognize and respond.

Enhance and expand contingency planning. This is important, particularly in dealing with the prospect of Russian low-level force, cyberattacks and information warfare. … Likewise, planning against cyberattacks should be expanded to include NATO, the EU and government agencies but, crucially, also key critical infrastructures like electric grid operators, telecommunications systems, internet service providers and financial entities.

Use legal tools in response to foreign violations of domestic laws. … Moving forward, in a case such as Estonia, where a national border guard was kidnapped by Russian forces, Estonian authorities should indict those involved. More broadly, when one country has been seriously violated by Russian hybrid actions, the transatlantic community should also consider multinational sanctions as appropriate. …

Bar any political finance in Europe and the United States by Russia or Russian-supported entities. As a follow-on, existing European national mechanisms that review foreign investments or other financial transactions should enhance their focus on actions by Russian entities that could lead to detrimental impacts on the national security, economy and/or the democratic functioning of a country. This would help to disrupt Russian networks of influence and build more resilient societies.

Develop a comprehensive response to Russian election interference. This could include a voluntary code of standards for media-provided information in the context of elections, which could build on the EU’s recently adopted “Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online“….. Under the existing hate speech code of conduct, governments work with private sector online companies to block and/or limit hate speech. A comparable approach could be adopted to restrict the reach of Russian information efforts aimed at impacting foreign elections that do not meet the criteria of the voluntary code.

Establish a “Coordinating Council” to work on these matters. To facilitate this coordination and go beyond the existing limited and still informal efforts between NATO and the EU, the transatlantic community should establish a “Coordinating Council.” This new entity could operate on a voluntary, consensus basis – comparably to the Financial Stability Board in the financial arena – to provide coordinated diplomatic, economic, information, security and military actions among NATO, the EU, their nations and the private sector. 

This op-ed is drawn from the authors’ forthcoming report “Meeting the Russian Hybrid Challenge: A Comprehensive Strategic Approach.”


“If the transatlantic community can remain unified and steadfast in reducing opportunities and raising costs for a revanchist Russia to undermine the world’s liberal-democratic system, it may be able to convince Putin and his allies and/or successor that a more cooperative approach to the West is more likely to deliver the economic growth required to preserve their hold on power than is non-linear war,” says a new German Marshall Fund report.



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