Russian Information Operations

While I’ve generally tried to stay away from the current partisan mudslinging, anyone who has read Lex Talionis should know that I don’t see the current hyper-ventilating divide getting better anytime soon.  And that I also don’t see it as completely homegrown.

There has been a lot of hysteria (and casual dismissal) about Russian Information Operations in regard to the election, lately.  The Democrats are claiming that the Kremlin “hacked” the election, while the Republicans are demanding proof of actual Russian cyber warfare to effect the election results, which so far is not forthcoming.  But what keeps getting lost in the shuffle is what Information Operations are.

IO, as it is known colloquially, is a combination of propaganda, carefully selected leaks of real information, and equally carefully calculated misinformation.  It doesn’t necessarily invent a narrative, as it starts by telling the target what they want to hear, then subtly moving the goalposts until you can essentially tell the target anything and they’ll believe you and act on it.  And that’s the key: altering the target’s actions by tailoring their perceptions through propaganda and misinformation.

The KGB called it “Active Measures.”  It’s an old science, as described by KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov here.  (There’s a reason Bezmenov gets name-dropped in Lex Talionis.)  The Russians have been practicing this for a long time.

I began to suspect that such Active Measures were still in play about five years ago, when I began to see that the majority of the sources being used by many of the Three Percenter and other “Patriot Movement” groups were consistently going back to two primary sources: Russia Today and Pravda (yes, that Pravda).  Some of the claims being made were becoming increasingly outlandish, often based on one or two sentences (or even a sentence fragment) taken out of context, that could easily be refuted by simply searching out the video of the remarks in question (a few minutes of research can fairly easily counteract Active Measures, which is why the intellectual laziness of the social media culture works in the IO operator’s favor).  Obama may have been an arrogant, elitist social democrat, raised from childhood to despise Americanism, but he was not the second coming of Josef Stalin, which many of the alarmist Patriot sites were painting him as.  And they were getting their information from the Russians.

Now, with the President of Russia being a former KGB officer, who is on record saying, “there is no such thing as an ex-Chekist,” and who has a documented history of authoritarianism (and the conduct of an actual “false flag” operation: there is considerable evidence that the bombings in Dagestan that led to the Second Chechen War were triggered by the Russian security services as a cassus belli to bring the Chechens to heel), would the Russians really be that interested in becoming the new Defenders of Liberty?  Doubtful.

So, why would they be encouraging the Three Percenters/Patriot Movement?  Well, some of that requires a bit of a look into the Russian character.

Russian culture has been shaped by invasions.  The Mongols from the east.  The Teutonic Knights from the west.  The French from the west.  The Wehrmacht from the west.  There is a deeply ingrained national paranoia in Russia, that goes along with the equally ingrained national pessimism (yes, these are simplifications, but they tend to explain a great deal of Russian foreign policy).  With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the Russian Federation suddenly found itself essentially alone, all of its former “allies” (however much those nations had been allied at the point of a gun) seemingly abandoning ship to join the West, along with NATO, an organization that had been specifically formed around the possibility of war with the Soviet Union.

With the economic problems, societal chaos, and rise of Salafist Islamism to the south (weaponized against the Russians in Afghanistan), there was enough insecurity in Russia that many of the population started longing for the good old days, where life might have been miserable, but at least it was somewhat stable.  Enter Vladimir Putin.  Through a combination of ruthlessness and bringing together all of his old chekist buddies (now known as siloviki, the security apparatus personnel turned government boss), he brought the oligarchs (many of whom were also former Communist Party/KGB officers) to heel and restored some level of stability.  He also started working on foreign stability, which to Russia means “buffer zone.”

Why do you think the Russians have been pushing Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics, and even the Balkans and tiny Moldova for all these years?  They want some semblance of control over those countries as a buffer against NATO, that has been their enemy since its inception.  To Russians, NATO isn’t automatically the “Good Guys” because it’s on the side of “democracy.”  NATO guns and bombs were aimed at Russia just as much as Warsaw Pact guns and bombs were aimed at Europe and the US.  We might think we can just erase that in a couple of decades, but most of the world doesn’t work that way.  And Russia doesn’t work that way, either.

Okay, so the Russians want a buffer zone.  What does that have to do with IO aimed at domestic politics in the US?  Simple.  The US is the backbone of NATO.  That makes the US Russia’s primary strategic rival.  How do you weaken a strategic rival?  Attack their interests overseas (through proxies, if you can).  Attack their economy through trade wars (we’ve been doing the same thing to the Russians with economic sanctions, and they’ve essentially done the same thing to themselves by pitting their entire economy on petroleum, just before the bottom dropped out of the oil market, in large part thanks to our own domestic oil production).  Erode their alliances abroad by getting friendly with their allies, and sowing doubt and discontent among those same allies.  And, finally, disrupt their politics at home.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Well, we’re pretty divided these days.  And yes, the Russians have been subtly fanning the flames.

They told the Right what it wanted to hear for the last eight years, and then carefully kept moving that narrative farther and farther from political disagreement toward outright hate.  The Left certainly didn’t help, having reveled in denigrating their political opponents as subhuman, inbred bigots and superstitious fools on the wrong side of history (which is an entirely Marxist concept in the first place) to the point of inviting such hate, even without the encouragement of propaganda efforts that warned of coming death camps and purges.  What’s the result?  We’ve seen the result for the last several years.  Riots, acts of terror, attempted assassinations.  And it’s not getting any better.

Now, why did the Russians target the Right?  That’s equally simple.  The Left was in power.  Even after both Houses of Congress went Republican, the Executive Branch, being the most visible branch of government, was still Democrat, and pretty hard left Democrat, at that.  The Right was the Opposition.  So there was a lot more discontent to be fed, there.

I’ve been saying since the election that, now that the Executive Branch (and Congress, but that’s less important, for the simple fact of visibility and perception) is Populist Right, the IO campaign will start to shift.  Keep the Opposition stirred up and ready to fight their “oppressors” and you can keep a constant, low-level unrest, if not full-blown insurgency going.  Of course, for the most part, this hasn’t been a light-switch move, but check this out:
Putin Offers Political Asylum To James Comey, Citing Potential Prosecution In U.S.

Not a smoking gun, yet, but it’s a sign of shifting winds.  The Opposition is now the hard Left.  Unless I miss my guess, the IO campaign is going to start moving toward the usual hard Left talking points, and encouraging the “resistance” that has already gotten violent in several places.

A strategic rival dealing with violent unrest within its own borders is less of a threat than one that has a solid national consciousness.  The Russians haven’t played us because they have any actual sympathy for Right or Left.  They’ve played us because they want us turned against each other so that we can’t effectively get in their way.

Russia’s endgame is only ever Russia.  No more, no less.

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11 thoughts on “Russian Information Operations

  1. Alex Shishkin

    “Russian culture has been shaped by invasions. The Mongols from the east. The Teutonic Knights from the west. The French from the west. The Wehrmacht from the west.”

    As a Russian by birth, and having lived there until I was 30: yes, it is. But not just by the ones you are mentioning.

    Russia’s history is a history of continuous expansion through invasions and subjugation of its neighbors. Sometimes the neighbors were states, sometimes – stateless territories, but in both cases the expansion of the original tiny Muscovy into what is now Russia had been conducted mostly by the sword.

    Yet the national historical myth is exactly as you are describing: Russia as a permanent victim of foreign invaders. The hypocrisy of this myth is well understood by many Russians, and has been a source of many a popular joke over the centuries. And yet this myth is, indeed, the basis of most Russians’ view of the outside world. Including those, who, if you press them a little bit in a friendly conversation, will freely admit that it is, indeed, a myth, and that Russia throughout its history gave a good deal more aggression than it received.

    So, yes. Shaped by invasions. Both Russian ones and OF Russia. Into a highly hypocritical mindset that will find a thousand reasons to justify an invasion ‘by us’, while pinning all the world’s ills on invasions ‘by them’.

    “The Russians haven’t played us because they have any actual sympathy for Right or Left. They’ve played us because they want us turned against each other so that we can’t effectively get in their way.”

    Absolutely. I still read quite a bit from Russian news sources and blogosphere, and started having similar thoughts awhile ago. Russian government actors absolutely _are_ screwing with our internal political process and societal cohesion, with their primary goal being to make US as close to impotent on the world stage as possible. Right now the most obvious path to this goal is to stir the Left’s ‘resistance’, and given that our press is already hell-bent on that all by itself – it’s not a very hard path to follow.

      1. Alex Shishkin

        Sure. Can use my name, too. ‘Alex Shishkin’ is not a ‘pen name’, it is my actual name.

        I always make one important caveat, though: I have not lived there for 25 years; modern Russia is essentially a foreign country to me, where people somehow speak my mother tongue. Whatever I think about current Russia, is extrapolated from my knowledge of USSR where I actually lived, and from what I read – as an outsider looking in – in the Russian blogosphere and news. Having said that, I am pretty comfortable with my conclusions.

    1. It is also notable that one finds the same sort of hypocritical victim complex among Salafist jihadis. Some of the most psychotically violent aggressors, justifying murdering men, women, and children by their so-called “victimization.”

      1. Alex Shishkin

        Yep. No idea if it is a case of parallel evolution, or if both ‘victim complexes’ have their roots in the Soviet propaganda. Or both.

        After all, at least some jihadi groups (PLO is the first that comes to mind) have originally been KGB’s brainchildren. Their founders absolutely had to have been taught the basics of Soviet propaganda aikido – such as posing as a perpetual victim and enlisting useful idiots in the Western press to make it stick. No matter how much the later, purely religious, startups might hate the more secular oldsters, some cross-pollination in the field of most useful tactics and tricks must have been going on.

    1. I had not. It jives pretty well with what I’ve found elsewhere, though it tends to leave out Russian involvement in the ME, which goes back to the USSR days as well (though, granted, I left that part out above, as well).

  2. Brad

    Agreed – it’s not really a take on Russia that includes current events. That said it does cover Russia’s need for unblockable warm weather ports which could be available through the ME. Of course that sort of thinking only happens when Russia is at it’s most powerful, most recently when the USSR was at it’s height.

    Looking at the book, thanks for the recommendation.

  3. thepersonleavingacomment

    A solid assessment, and one that, until after the election didn’t really hit as like everyone else, I got sucked into the short term goal of “never Hillary”, plus I half expected Trump to be installed as more as “safety valve” to protect the left’s interests long term, given the unrest on the right brought on by the previous eight years of Obama…
    And then afterwards it was like “oh yeah… I see what you did there…”

    On the bright side, it’s kind of funny to watch the left jump at every murky accusation and half-sentence like they’ve complained about the right doing for years…
    It’s just easier for them to make it believable, given the leaning of the media/entertainment industry.

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