How do you like that? Russia gets even, not mad, in propaganda war

Russia’s London embassy neither confirmed nor denied NATO’s charge last week, that Russian airstrikes were designed to drive Syrian civilians out of their homes and deepen Europe’s refugee crisis, to Moscow’s political advantage. Instead the embassy came back with a quip. On Twitter. “How do you like it?” they asked.

russia_tweetThe hard-edged throwaway was picked over online by myself and others in the style of Cold War Kremlinologists reviewing the seating order at a 1980s Communist Party congress. Could the tweet be an admission of guilt? A declaration of defiance? A reference to the collapse of the West’s perceived dismemberment of the old Soviet empire? A mis-translation?

Or exactly as it read: NATO General Philip Breedlove charges Russian leader Vladmir Putin and Syria’s Bashar Assad with “weaponising” migration “in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve”?

“I can’t find any other reason for them (to use indiscriminate weapons) other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem,” Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee. And? So what, the Russians seemed to reply? How do you like it?

Some Russian officials rejected the charge but retained the contempt: Breedlove’s comments were “a recurrence of the ‘sunshine of the spotless mind’.” Deputy Russian premier Dmitry Rogozin chided the US as “a specialist in bombing Afghan weddings” blaming Russia for “inaccurate bombardments”.

The bizarre thing is that it doesn’t really matter to the Russians. Any reading counts, true or false, supportive or critical, accurate or misleading, accepted or dismissed. Indecision is the objective. Certainty is the enemy. The strategy is disruption.

This is nelineinaia voina, says Small Wars Journal analyst Bret Perry, a Russian evolution of sprawling non-linear warfare that relies on effective information operations supplemented by coordinated special ‘unconventional’ operations.

As the US Army interprets it, ‘Information operations’ aim “to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries.” Here it sits on the edge of what the Russians call maskirovka, according to Perry, the use of “dummies and decoys, disinformation and even the execution of complex manoeuvres.”

The technique’s chief advocate is science fiction writer and key Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov. In a short story titled Without Sky, written under the pen-name Natan Dubovitsky, Surkov introduces non-linear warfare as a evolution of conflict from wars between two sides, into a kind of violent collision of multiple forces, all against all.

Final victory can never be secured in the ‘Grey Cardinal of Moscow‘s’ vision of non-linear warfare: “Basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.”

In the same week that General Breedlove dropped his bombshell, NATO’s most senior expert on strategic communications claimed Russia was waging an information war designed to stir up anger in Germany over refugees and topple Angela Merkel.

The German leader is a strong supporter of sanctions against Russia, notes Jānis Sārts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga. “Russia is testing whether it can build on pre-existing problems and create a momentum where there is political change in Germany.” He believes a “preparatory information war” is already targeting Latvia, led by an army of bloggers charged with flooding the internet day and night with comments favourable to Russian interests.

There were five types of troll, Sārts told The Observer: ‘US conspiracy trolls’; ‘bikini trolls’ – “adorned with images of young women who would gently ask targets to rethink their views” – ‘aggressive trolls’ driving critics offline; ‘Wikipedia trolls’ editing web pages to advantage Russia; ‘attachment trolls’ bulk posting links to Russian news sites.

The trolls are the “glue” for a wider project, says Sārts. Kremlin-backed TV channels were jammed into Latvian airspace, Russian-language papers recycled Moscow produced content, Russian funded NGOs offered up talking heads on any and every subject. Digital bots churn out messages to influence search engine results.

The official response to this is, well: How do you like it? Putin has strongly condemned foreign support for civil society & pro-democratisation programmes in his country’s sphere of interest. It heralded the so-called Colour Revolutions that swept across the post-Soviet space in 2003-2005: the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004), and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005).

“We recall the talk about the civilising role of colonial powers during the colonial era,” Putin told the Russian parliament in April 2007. “Today ‘civilisation’ has been replaced by democratisation, but the aim is the same – to ensure unilateral gains and one’s own advantage, and to pursue one’s own interests.”

According to Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, as quoted by Professor Jeanne Wilson of Wheaton College: “The US has been using various means to expand its sphere of influence since the Soviet Union (was) dismembered. By supporting pro-West opposition factions in CIS countries, Washington also tried to exert political pressure on Russia through Colour Revolutions.”

So how do we like it? We don’t. You may say that support for media with an advocacy agenda that advantages civil society; is qualitatively different to support for media with an advocacy agenda that advantages governments. Or you may be less Manichean about it and conclude that both sides are wrong, but that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Either way both sides are settling down in new territory, spaces increasingly defined not by borders, states and nationhood, but by network nodes, communities of interest and vectors of communication. As academic Anssi Paasi and other political geographers argue, “essentialist physical borders in a globalised world are being recast as fissiparous boundaries, information watersheds over which political, cultural and economic influence crosses relatively freely”.

Borders and boundaries need no longer be understood only as physical, immovable spatial entities. Russia is adapting well to this reality. Sārts’ colleague, British army Lieutenant-Colonel Simon West, noted that Russia always acts within the threshold after which the west would have to act militarily. When governments needed to send tanks over borders or drop missiles on neighbours’ land, states at least had the advantage of knowing when the war had started and where it was being waged.

Russia confidently operates within these shifting thresholds, the boundaries between what NATO can do, and what it could do, won’t do, might do, can’t do, should and shouldn’t do. Remember that ‘red line’ of Barack Obama’s that Assad would cross by dropping chemical weapons on Syrian citizens? Transformed in seconds when he did from a military act of war to a political act requiring a political response.

Small wonder that the effect is disorientating. “The questions of context, knowledge, representation and power become crucial,” writes Passi. “Thus, in addition to empirical case studies on boundaries—which continue to be of crucial importance—researchers will also have to develop abstractions to make the multi-dimensional character of territory and boundary building ‘theoretically visible’.”

Lt-Col West suffered a little mockery online for his fear that Russian broadcasters were turning up the power on their news radio station transmitters to swamp Latvian radio stations (“I sometimes think I’m imagining it…” he admitted to The Observer.)

But from his perspective, it’s reasonable for him to add such techniques to Russia’s arsenal. And reasonable, as a soldier, for him be troubled by the lack of a clear means to register when and where the attack is happening, let alone a means to stage an effective counterattack. Indecision is the objective. Certainty is Russia’s enemy.

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