If you want evidence of how technology has made diplomacy less diplomatic and information warfare less subtle, take a look at @RussianEmbassy, the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London, the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor writes:
In recent years, the account has gained global fame for its sardonic tweets. Generally, these messages seemed less about projecting Moscow’s policies abroad and more about criticizing the apparent hypocrisy of the United States and Europe. And despite a relatively modest 51,000 followers, tweets from the account often go viral. The account borrows its tactics from Twitter trolls — repurposing crude memes from Reddit, 4chan and other dark corners of the Internet to make a point and tagging Western journalists to ensure the message is spread.
On Tuesday, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a sign of just how seriously world leaders are taking Moscow’s attempts at destabilizing Europe, Foreign Policy reports:
The combination of military posturing and disinformation has become the backbone of Moscow’s modern day military doctrine as it tries to reassert itself along its borders and beyond. Violations and provocations near borders are meant to test a neighbor’s resolve, while information attacks are meant to inflame internal problems and sow discord.
“The use of hybrid strategies puts the internal cohesion and resilience of our societies to the test,” said Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini. “What is needed in response is not only state, but societal resilience, a comprehensive approach to security.”
On their own, the Kremlin-funded Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik have very limited reach in Europe. When their stories catch on, it is often because they are amplified online by networks of conspiracy-minded activists, Russian trolls and “botnets” (clusters of fake, automated social-media accounts), The Economist reports:
Ben Nimmo, an authority on online disinformation, says many of the Twitter accounts that most keenly share RT Français and Sputnik France stories are “almost certainly automated”, so frequent are their posts. Whether they are French or Russian is unclear. Testimonies by former employees tell of a “troll factory” in St Petersburg that churns out anti-Western stories, comments, “likes” and shareable media.
“U.S. skills at cyberwar have no equal,” analyst Martin Libicki argues in an essay recently published in Strategy Studies Quarterly.
“Serious thought may be needed on how to build an information warfare authority, whether housed under one organization or achieved through intense coordination among the various communities: cyber warriors, cyber intelligence collectors, electronic warriors, psychological operators, and, in some cases, special operators,” he suggested.
According to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, there are 5 ways in which Russian active measures are designed to topple democracy (HT: BigThink):
- Undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance
- Foment and exacerbate divisive political fractures
- Erode trust between citizens and elected officials and democratic institutions
- Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations
- Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction
Other Russian measures involve old-fashioned ideological patronage, The Economist adds:
Last summer Vladimir Yakunin, an ally of Mr Putin, launched a pro-Russian think-tank in Berlin. Moscow supports Zem a Vek, a magazine that peddles conspiracy theories in Slovakia. The Kremlin-linked First Czech Russian Bank lent €9m ($9.5m) to the National Front of Marine Le Pen (pictured). Rumours of Russian cash for nationalist parties in Italy, Greece and Hungary are more tenuous. But Ms Le Pen, Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League and Frauke Petry of Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) have received profile-boosting invitations to Moscow. All are Eurosceptics who want to lift sanctions on Russia.
But the Putin regime is very brittle, according to Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., a fellow at the Stimson Center and former assistant secretary for political military affairs at the State Department.
“Information is omnipresent, but they’re trying to control the media,” he said during recent congressional testimony. “Russian television never told the Russian people that they had troops in Ukraine. They hid the fact, so they are extremely vulnerable to a reverse information campaign from the West.”
Western states, mostly in Europe, should start taking defense seriously, argues Jyri Raitasalo, docent of strategy and security policy at the Finnish National Defence University. However, it is time to stop the unanalytical, slogan-based overemphasis around the possibilities that Russia has to control Western narratives, he writes for the National Interest.
“Hybrid warfare, information war and the misperception that Russia has the potential to alter our narratives have received way too much media coverage during the last three years,” Raitasalo contends. “The ability to make headlines does not equate to the ability to change deep-seated Western narratives.”
Russia’s disinformation campaigns seek to “crumble democracies from the inside out” by “winning the second cold war through the force of politics, as opposed to the politics of force,” according to national security expert Roy Godson.