Russia’s information warfare – strategic ‘social engineering’


Russia’s ongoing information warfare against Western democracies goes well beyond hacking, according to leading expert.

“It’s political engineering, social engineering on a strategic level,” said Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London:

Great powers have long meddled in one another’s affairs. But Russia, throughout 2016, developed a previously unseen tactic: setting up fronts to seed into the press documents it had obtained by hacking…. Because everyone has secrets, even if it’s only a few embarrassing personal emails, and because no network is impenetrable, skilled hackers can dig up compromising material on virtually any target.

Democracies, which give privilege to competitive politics and free media, are particularly susceptible…. The more that journalists and readers understand the motivations of foreign government leakers, he argued, the better they will be able to place those leaks in context, undercutting the hackers’ agenda without hiding newsworthy information. He compared this to a healthy body developing antibodies against a disease — foreign influence operations — that cannot be wholly immunized against while maintaining democratic openness.

“An open society is by choice more vulnerable than a closed society to some form of influence operation,” said Mr. Rid. “That is why we’re strong, but it’s also why we’re weak.”

President Obama acknowledged in an interview that aired Sunday he “underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyberhacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating.”

President Putin’s aggressive election meddling, like his broader foreign policy, has at least two motivating factors, argues William J. Burns (right), president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Deputy Secretary of State who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008:

  • The first is his conviction that the surest path to restoring Russia as a great power comes at the expense of an American-led order. He wants Russia unconstrained by Western values and institutions, free to pursue a sphere of influence.
  • The second motivating factor is closely connected to the first. The legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s system of repressive domestic control depends on the existence of external threats. Surfing on high oil prices, he used to be able to bolster his social contract with the Russian people through rising standards of living.

“So what to do? Russia is still too big, proud and influential to ignore and still the only nuclear power comparable to the United States. It remains a major player on problems from the Arctic to Iran and North Korea. We need to focus on the critical before we test the desirable,” adds Burns, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, writing in The New York Times:

  • The first step is to sustain, and if necessary amplify, the actions taken by the Obama administration in response to Russian hacking. Russia challenged the integrity of our democratic system, and Europe’s 2017 electoral landscape is the next battlefield.
  • A second step is to reassure our European allies of our absolute commitment to NATO. American politicians tell one another to “remember your base,” and that’s what should guide policy toward Russia. Our network of allies is not a millstone around America’s neck, but a powerful asset that sets us apart.
  • A third step is to stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe, and Russia, over the next generation. This is not about NATO or European Union membership, both distant aspirations. It is about helping Ukrainian leaders build the successful political system that Russia seeks to subvert.
  • Finally, we should be wary of superficially appealing notions like a common war on Islamic extremism or a common effort to “contain” China. Russia’s bloody role in Syria makes the terrorist threat far worse and despite long-term concerns about a rising China, Mr. Putin has little inclination to sacrifice a relationship with Beijing.


We can only confront this by fully understanding how the Kremlin sees the world, argues analyst Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew), an adviser to Georgian President Saakashvili’s government from 2009-2013 and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat in 2014-2015. Its worldview and objectives are made abundantly clear in speeches, op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, interviews, and, in some cases, fiction writing of Russian officials and ideologues. We should understand several things from this material, she writes for POLITICO.EU:

  • First, it is a war. A thing to be won, decisively — not a thing to be negotiated or bargained. It’s all one war: Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, the Baltics, Georgia. It’s what Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s ‘gray cardinal’ and lead propagandist, dubbed “non-linear war” in his science fiction story “Without Sky,” in 2014.
  • Second, it’s all one war machine. Military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural, criminal and other tools are all controlled by the state and deployed toward one set of strategic objectives. This is the Gerasimov doctrine, penned by Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of the general staff, in 2013. Political warfare is meant to achieve specific political outcomes favorable to the Kremlin: it is preferred to physical conflict because it is cheap and easy. The Kremlin has many notches in its belt in this category, some of which have been attributed, many likely not. It’s a mistake to see this campaign in the traditional terms of political alliances: rarely has the goal been to install overtly pro-Russian governments. Far more often, the goal is simply to replace Western-style democratic regimes with illiberal, populist, or nationalist ones.
  • Third, information warfare is not about creating an alternate truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all. It is not “propaganda” as we’ve come to think of it, but the less obvious techniques known in Russia as “active measures” and “reflexive control.” Both are designed to make us, the targets, act against our own best interests.
  • Fourth, the diplomatic side of this non-linear war isn’t a foreign policy aimed at building a new pro-Russian bloc, Instead, it’s what the Kremlin calls a “multi-vector” foreign policy, undermining the strength of Western institutions by coalescing alternate — ideally temporary and limited — centers of power. Rather than a stable world order undergirded by the U.S. and its allies, the goal is an unstable new world order of “all against all.” The Kremlin has tried to accelerate this process by both inflaming crises that overwhelm the Western response (for example, the migration crisis in Europe, and the war in eastern Ukraine) and by showing superiority in ‘solving’ crises the West could not (for example, bombing Syria into submission, regardless of the cost, to show Russia can impose stability in the Middle East when the West cannot).
  • This leads to the final point: hard power matters. Russia maintains the second most powerful military in the world and spends more than 5 percent of its weakened GDP on defense. Russia used military force to invade and occupy Georgian territory in 2008 to disrupt the expansion of NATO, and in 2013 in Ukraine to disrupt the expansion of the EU. They have invested heavily in military reform, new generations of hardware and weapons, and expansive special operations training, much of which debuted in the wars in Ukraine and Syria. There is no denying that Russia is willing to back up its rhetoric and policy with deployed force, and that the rest of the world notices. RTWT

West is “weak willed”?

But it is essential to understand that the West’s weakness is born out of our own lack of political, economic and cultural cohesion, of our patchy understanding of the consequences of long-term geopolitical shifts like globalisation and massive migration, and of our lack of direction about how to organise our multicultural and multi-ethnic societies, argues Linda Risso is an expert on European defence and security based in the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS).

Edward Lucas – one of the most influential Kremlin observers – has argued that while the West is not militarily or economically weak, it is “weak willed”, she notes on the LSE’s EUROPP blog:

The West does not have a convincing narrative of what it stands for and why: we stand up for democracy but we do not know to what extent, for example, the right to free speech should be restricted to ensure that all groups are represented but not threatened.

In order to be able to respond effectively to Russian trolling, it is not sufficient to silence the trolls themselves. Governments and civil society must put forward a strong narrative of what it means to live a western democracy today. Schools and universities must teach students how to deal with the information they find on the internet, how to recognise reputable sources and how to know the difference between being entitled to an opinion and understanding the value of expertise, evidence-based thinking and adopting a long-term perspective. RTWT

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