By Vladimir Sazonov, for Diplomaatia
This article is the author’s first in a new series on Russia’s information warfare.1 This short general article aims to focus on a few aspects of the propaganda2 of Vladimir Putin’s regime—namely, that the Kremlin’s propaganda is absolute and without any moral boundaries.
Some of the tools of today’s soft power are informational and psychological operations, but these ideas are not new.3 Only the technology and methods are.
The first information and psychological warfare occurred when the first civilisations, such as the Sumerians and Egyptians, developed in the Middle East at a time when urbanisation and statehood emerged.4 Harri Mägi and Lauri Vitsut note correctly in their book Information Warfare: Visions and Reality that “It has been used for thousands of years in communication between states, politics, diplomacy and warfare”.5 There are examples of information warfare from the ancient Middle East, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Ancient China.
Estonians should never forget that Russian media and information channels are a threat to them. It is therefore important for Estonian national defence to study Russia’s information warfare, the more so since Russia carries out information attacks not only in Ukraine6 but also elsewhere, including against Europe, the US and NATO. Russia is waging total information warfare against the West but at the same time is also producing massive amounts of propaganda to influence its domestic audience. Naturally, Russia produces different propaganda narratives for its domestic and external audiences, although these overlap to some extent. For example, in the West Russia is trying to divide Europeans and increase their fear of refugees but uses several other narratives as well. The domestic Russian audience receives information about the rotten nature of the US and the immorality of the West, Western policies in the Middle East having failed, a fascist junta being in power in Ukraine, and so on.
An example of Russian information warfare came during the recent field exercise of Russian armed forces in Pskov and Leningrad oblasts near the Estonian border: a woman’s voice was broadcast through the speakers, calling on NATO soldiers to surrender.7 This is a genuine example of a Russian informational-psychological operation that targets Estonia’s security. Russia has directed similar calls to surrender at Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbass since 2014. Using speakers for propaganda is a relatively old technique, and well known in history—it was used in both WW I and WW II.
Complete “Brainwashing” in Putin’s Russia
In order for propaganda to have a major impact in the country and to be effective, Russia had to re-establish a totalitarian regime. Putin’s regime managed to demolish all existing democratic institutions, repress freedom of speech and subjugate the media to the authorities. Every totalitarian state wants total control over everything—from the birth of their citizens to their death. Totalitarian regimes usually manage to establish an effective propaganda system, as was done in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. A similar situation has evolved in Russia. In a series of cases Putin’s regime has managed to achieve some success through informational-psychological influencing, especially with Russia’s domestic audience. This is, without doubt, the Kremlin’s greatest achievement.
Many view Russia as the legal successor to the Soviet Union using Soviet propaganda methods. There is a grain of truth in this. However, Soviet propaganda was tied quite rigidly to communist ideology; it was not flexible or innovative. It often used satirical elements and sometimes manifested itself in a naïve and primitive manner. This is why a considerable part of the Soviet people did not really believe it; there were even those who joked about it. Putin’s entourage has taken the mistakes of the Soviet era into consideration. Nevertheless, Soviet propaganda should not be underestimated. It was immensely important and, according to the Ukrainian information-warfare expert George Pocheptsov, was
a key factor in building the country, as important as the military or special service[s]. The military prevented the division of “us” [and] “them” in the physical space, [while] the propaganda of special services in the information space did the same in the virtual space —for example, by battling the spread of rumours and jokes. Propaganda’s influence was even more noticeable because it always “suffocates” alternative world models.”8
Soviet propaganda was undoubtedly all-embracing and, as Pocheptsov noted, “This all-embracing nature of propaganda, which included all three spheres, led to it being identified as total, and the country totalitarian. Propaganda is one of the most important mechanisms without which the country could not have existed.”9
But the Soviet era lacked the influence of television that exists in Putin’s Russia; there were no glamorous talk-shows or TV debates—all of which is in abundance in the Russian media today. Nor was there a worldwide internet to connect everyone with almost unlimited options, including social media.10, 11 In Putin’s era, talented Russian political technologists have created all-embracing and effective propaganda, which has managed to affect the majority of the Russian population in line with the Kremlin’s demands.
Kremlin propagandists managed to break through the limits of an ordinary Russian citizen’s critical thinking and, as a result, Russians are forced to believe all kinds of lies—for example, that a fascist junta rules in Kyiv, Russophobia and fascism prevail in the Baltic States, Europe is an immoral nest of homosexuals and the US is the empire of evil and plans to destroy Holy Russia. According to Russian propaganda, Russia is the world’s only stronghold of good and Putin is the defender and saviour of religion and family values, just like St George battling the dragon. Thus, one of the main narratives in Russia’s information warfare is the so-called Holy Russian state fighting fascism in Ukraine. The Kremlin claims that Ukraine is only one of several global battlefields because, according to Russian propagandists, the US—the force of evil—is behind everything. Among other things, the Russian propaganda machine uses Cold War rhetoric to try and restore the bipolar world-view that was rooted in Russian society in Soviet times when there was a clear black-and-white opposition between the Soviet Union and the West.12 It was a primitive and antagonistic but easy-to-understand world-view, which is why it worked.
The constant aggression towards Western countries in the rhetoric that Russian media channels deliver has recently intensified. In reality, Russia’s information warfare—which has been going on for years—is now in full flow, becoming all-encompassing and taking on global proportions. It seems that the Russian propaganda machine began making preparations more than 16 years ago when Putin had just come to power—if not earlier, at the beginning of the 1990s, just after the Soviet bloc collapsed. This is why we are where we are right now. It owes much to the fact that the West missed signs that were clear indications of danger even back then, probably around 2000 or slightly later. In any case, Putin’s regime has slowly but very consistently completely brainwashed its citizens and tried to extend its influence in Ukraine and elsewhere. All of this only intensified and escalated in 2013–6.
It is clear that the Putin regime’s propaganda machine uses all known methods and mechanisms to brainwash the Russian-speaking audience within the country and abroad—especially Russian-speakers in neighbouring countries (the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Ukraine, the Baltic States).13 Meanwhile, the effects of Russian propaganda are also visible in the West, where they are considerably less significant than in Eastern Europe but still cannot be underestimated. For example, the propagandistic Russian channels RT and Sputnik are broadcast in Europe, and even in the US. As recently as 2011, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton14 noted how the US was losing the information war to foreign channels such us RT, Al Jazeera and China Central Television (CCTV).15 Another important thing worth mentioning is that the Russian propaganda machine is a flexible, constantly evolving and fast-adjusting organism. The nature of Russian propaganda could be well described with the biological term “mimicry”. Its arsenal is known to be extremely rich and varied, and it uses everything it can, including historical myths, narratives and symbols, especially WW II narratives. It also uses the possibilities of the more innovative aspects of modern information operations, such as televised debates and social media—huge numbers of Russian trolls are active on the internet. As the Russian saying goes, “на войне все средства хороши” (“all methods are good in war”).
Russia’s Information Security Doctrine and the Importance of Information in Hybrid Warfare
What is the role of information for Russia today, also in the context of military conflicts and especially so-called hybrid warfare?16 The Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, stressed the importance of information in today’s warfare in his famous article “The Value of Science is in the Foresight”:17
The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures—applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.
All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.…
New information technologies have enabled significant reductions in the spatial, temporal, and informational gaps between forces and control organs.
Gerasimov is not saying anything new. Mägi and Vitsut were right to note that:
Information warfare has sometimes been called the typical postmodern warfare which is asymmetrical in its basic nature. What makes information warfare special is that despite its military origin and primary output, it is shifting more and more to the nonmilitary sphere. In other words, information warfare can take place in all aspects of our everyday life and the lines between war and peacetime are becoming more and more blurred.18
In recent years Russia has focused seriously on information-security matters and ways in which to wage information warfare. An important document that deserves special attention is the Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which is being actively prepared.19 The draft doctrine is available on the website of the Security Council of the Russian Federation.20
In Brief: Russia’s Influencing Activities in Eastern Ukraine
Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine did not begin with the Maidan events21 in the late autumn of 2013, nor around 2005–9 when the so-called gas disputes occurred between Russia and Ukraine, nor even with the Orange Revolution of 2004–5. It began much earlier—really no later than when Ukraine became independent, although more covert and modest at the time. This is confirmed by several Ukrainian experts with whom the author has spoken repeatedly in 2015–6, and also by several studies. Moscow has paid special attention to Ukraine since the Orange Revolution. In addition to extensive propaganda against the Revolution on all levels (TV, social media, journalism, etc.), Moscow instigated the so-called gas disputes with Ukraine, which were also a part of the wider information war.22 In his 2009 book Drumroll of Propaganda, Pocheptsov wrote:
Russia has sources in Ukrainian territory to inform the public, [while] Ukraine does not in Russia. There is separate information warfare for each audience type[;] in this case there were at least three: Ukraine, Russia and Europe. Proceeding from this, there were three different battles in the war.23
Russian media controlled the Ukrainian media sphere for decades; it was thus in the Soviet era and continued to be so after Ukraine became independent in 1991. Russian influence was evident everywhere in Ukraine—journalism, the private sector, politics, the education system, security, etc. Russian influence agents acted in key positions in several public offices (Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, security, the army, central government, local government). Years of propaganda in the Crimea, and especially in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, enabled Russia to take over the Crimea24 quickly and painlessly and establish separatist puppet states in the Donbass. The same political technique was used to establish the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and during the periods when the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated, although it did not go as smoothly there. The so-called “Novorossija” (“New Russia”) project is probably a failure to a great extent, although the Russian propaganda machine did unfortunately achieve some success in eastern Ukraine as well. Without this it would have been impossible to destabilise Ukraine’s security system and create separatist quasi-states in eastern Ukraine.
In interviews in May 2015, Ukrainian strategic communication experts outlined how Russia initiated massive information warfare against Ukraine. They also described the process:
Over the course of several years the Russian Federation had established an infrastructure and developed strategies that enabled information aggression against Ukraine to be developed and intensified. Day by day, stage by stage, the amount of information was increased. Extensive information warfare started de facto a year before the annexation of the Crimea.
It appears that by August 2016 the state of affairs in Ukrainian information security had become quite dire and the situation has once again become dangerous for Ukraine. This is confirmed by several experts, such as Ukrainian information-security expert and retired officer Colonel Gusarov, who believes that “For Ukraine, this August is becoming a period of intensified informational activity on the part of the Russian special services and, unfortunately, a period of informational inactivity in cyber defence measures on the Ukrainian side”.25
Interviews conducted in Ukraine by the author and members of his research project (Vladimir Sazonov, Igor Kopytin and Kristiina Müür) with media, political, information-security and other experts revealed that Russian forces and Russian-minded separatists also used megaphones and speakers in the Donbass to disseminate information that would damage the morale of Ukrainian soldiers, such as “you are all going to die soon,” “Russian tanks are coming,” and “your generals are traitors”. There are many other means and techniques of influencing.26 Ukrainian media, security and strategic-communication experts described the working methods of the Russian propaganda machine in general and in detail, and there is an abundance of them. For example, when the war started in eastern Ukraine in 2014, text messages were sent to the mobile phones of Ukrainian soldiers and potential recruits and the phones of their family members as one of many ways to affect their will to defend their country. Messages to soldiers included “run” and “you have been betrayed,” while texts to their wives and mothers included false reports that their husband/son was dying, wounded or imprisoned by separatists. This happened before each new wave of mobilisation in Ukraine or before big battles.
Messages also spread extensive disinformation about how Russian troops and military hardware were moving, including panic-inducing rumours such as “Russian tanks are about to take over Harkiv” or “a huge Russian military contingent will reach Kyiv in three days”. The aim of all this was to spread fear and panic among civilians, but also to demoralise the military. Leaflets and pamphlets were given out on the streets; there were conversations with people and calls to give up mobilisation, rebel against the government in Kyiv, and more. Information was spread that the Ukrainian army was robbing people in eastern Ukraine, pillaging, beating, raping, drinking alcohol and using drugs, etc. The most influential tools were still probably TV news, reports and shows that created negative images of the Ukrainian army and government. It must be kept in mind that Russian TV channels also have a great impact in the Baltic States.
I will deal with Russia’s information-warfare technology and methods in a more detailed article and a joint article that is to be published together with military historian Igor Kopytin.27
What conclusions can be drawn from all this? Russia is waging global and total information warfare against the West on all strategic levels. It is also worth mentioning that distrust of the media is increasing in today’s world and this makes it easier for Russia to wage information war.
Moscow tries to take into account the characteristics of each state and nation that it is targeting with information warfare. The strategy against a country is usually built on pre-considered and prepared informational campaigns for which all possible scenarios have been rehearsed. But this is also only a small part of the global hybrid war in which the Kremlin is engaged not only on an informational level but also in cyberspace and on the economic, political, social and other levels. In the case of Ukraine, Moscow is also using aggressive military pressure, supporting separatists and terrorists in the Donbass and direct military intervention.28
Putin’s state ideology as well as his propaganda is characterised as being extremely immoral, unprincipled and without any moral limits or norms. Lies, deceit, blackmail, threats, hypocrisy and more are in the Putin regime’s arsenal.
The author writes here in a personal capacity.
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1 See the author’s previous work on information warfare: Sazonov 2015; 2016a; 2016b; 2016c; 2016d, 2016e; see also the study on Russian information operations against the Ukrainian army (Müür, Mölder, Sazonov and Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt 2016, pp. 28-71).
2 On propaganda, see G. Pocheptsov, Strategic War (2009a), Drumroll of Propaganda (2009b).
3 On information warfare see e.g. Armistead 2004.
4 Barjamovic 2012; Larsen 1979.
5 Mägi and Vitsut 2008, 49.
6 See Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Sakwa 2015.
7 На учениях ОДКБ призывали «солдат НАТО» сдаваться – Риа.новости, 18 August 2016.
8 Почепцов 2015.
9 Почепцов 2015.
10 For more about the internet, see Bahovski 2016.
11 On social media as a weapon, see Nissen 2015.
12 On Soviet propaganda, see Miil 2014; Evans 2007.
13 See e.g. Winnerstig 2014.
14 Secretary of State 2009–2013.
15 Tharoor 2011.
16 Berzinš, 2014; Galeotti 2015, 157–64.
17 Gerasimov 2013, 2.
18 Mägi and Vitsut 2008, 11.
19 Shtepa 2016.
20 Доктрина информационной безопасности Российской Федерации (проект).
21 See more at Дневник Евромайдана.
22 Pocheptsov 2009b, 158–65.
23 Pocheptsov 2009b, 164.
24 Mölder, Sazonov and Värk 2014; Mölder, Sazonov and Värk 2015; Darczewska 2014.
25 Гусаров 2016.
26 Müür, Mölder, Sazonov and Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt 2016.
27 Sazonov and Kopytin 2016.
28 Rácz 2015.
Vladimir Sazonov holds a PhD in history.
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