Akın Ünver – EDAM, Oxford CTGA, Kadir Has University
In recent years, Russian digital information operations, including disinformation, fake news, and election meddling have assumed prominence in international news and scholarly research outlets. A simple Google Trends query shows us that ‘fake news’ as a term enters into global mainstream lexicon starting with October 2016, peaking in the immediate aftermath of the US Presidential Election in November. Since then, disinformation has been largely synonymous with Russian digital information operations in the West, and a number of empirical research projects have begun focusing on the impact of information warfare on elections and political behavior.
Russian media ecosystem in Western democracies, including information and dis-information dynamics, are quite well-documented . This focus owes largely to increased awareness of election meddling, fake news and digital spoilers such as trolls and bots that often have real-life effects. In addition to other digital contestation types, including cyber warfare, Russian information operations are not confined to the country’s official communication policy. These strategies are part of the Russian military doctrine, most relevant of which has been the 2010 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which sought to “escalate to de-escalate” tensions encompassing the country’s western borders. To achieve this, the document advised ‘hybrid war’, which is an umbrella term to define untraceable and largely non-violent tools and methods that complement conventional military efforts. The 2010 doctrine was further bolstered by the 2013 Gerasimov Doctrine, which, among other things, diagnosed the “blurring the lines between the states of war and peace”, adding that “wars are no longer declared and having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template” . Hybrid war is not a Russian invention, nor is Russia the first state to use non-military measures to complement military efforts. Rather, the 2010 doctrine was an acknowledgment of the term ‘hybrid war’, officially coined first by the USCENTCOM in its analysis of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War . The use of conventional and unconventional tactics, coupled with the new advances in communication technology, widened the battlefield and forced the sides to fight along a broad spectrum of ideas, images and appearances, all floating in digital space. In the words of Timothy Thomas, Russian high command was deeply influenced by the 2006 USCENTCOM report and that analysis had led Moscow’s transition into a new thinking in terms of how to merge new communication technologies with strategic thinking: “a real cognitive war underway in the ether and media for the hearts and minds of its citizens at home and abroad” .
In many ways, the Internet has become a force domain, just like land, sea and air. In January 2019, the world has attained 51% Internet penetration, meaning more than half of the world is now online and digitally interconnected . Foreseeing an inevitable mass global interconnectivity, most major countries have already set up long-term strategies in place to situate themselves into a more favorable strategic position in the digital domain. For the rest of the state actors, there have been two real wake-up calls to adapt to the digital medium. The first was the Arab Spring movement that rocked the MENA capitals through 2010-12 and the second was the Occupy-inspired or related movements that did the same in the West . Both movements demonstrated the disruptive capacity of social media platforms to circumvent and bypass state surveillance and repression. It is during this period that social media has begun to transform. Instagram was launched in October 2010, following Facebook’s politically important geotag function via ‘Places’ app in August 2010. Facebook bought Instagram in April 2012 and WhatsApp in February 2014, turning itself into the biggest heavyweight in social media. In tandem, Twitter emerged as a more important political communication alternative to Facebook, as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements used primarily Twitter to organize and disseminate messages . The publicly visible 140-character platform architecture of Twitter, combined with its fast media upload system, rendered it the primary venue for critical information flows during emergencies, protests and civil wars. The Syrian Civil War, conflict in Ukraine and war against ISIS have all substantially contributed to the rise of Twitter as the primary emergency-related social media platform .
Both the NATO Bi-Strategic Capstone Concept and the 2010 Russian Military Doctrine document have underlined the threat of an adversary “with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives”. These means were fairly identical in both NATO and Russian military documents: nuclear proliferation, terrorism, cybercrime and cyberwar, organized crime and its role in drugs, arms and human trafficking, migration, ethnic and religious conflicts, population conflicts due to resource scarcity and globalization. Both documents also emphasized the digital medium as an emerging frontier of political contestation. NATO followed-up with a 2011 ‘Countering Hybrid Threats’ experiment to develop a unified alliance strategy against disinformation and media manipulation efforts. This was ultimately abandoned due to uneven interest and commitment by the constituent countries . Compared to NATO, however, Moscow was quicker to embrace the uncertainty of the new information revolution, the hybrid nature of social media and how its intricate twists and turns could be deployed to support what would later be defined as the ‘sub-threshold warfare strategy’.
Sub-threshold warfare strategy is a sub-strand within the wider umbrella term of ‘hybrid warfare’, which seeks to conduct confrontational and combative operations without triggering the NATO Article 5 obligations or a direct military retaliation by a NATO country . This strategy builds upon the late-Soviet strategy of ‘active measures’, which deployed a combination of informatics and political framing mechanisms to divert, distract and mislead institutions and agencies in Western countries . As outlined by former KGB Director of Foreign Counterespionage Oleg Kalugin, ‘active measures’ worked by creating several layers of separation between the perpetrating agency or figures, rendering the operation virtually untraceable back to Moscow . Following decades of iterations, ‘active measures strategy’ has evolved into its modern form – sub-threshold warfare – which defines the sum of non-violent and obstructionist tactics of Russia’s hybrid warfare operations within NATO countries.
Russia did not invent the sub-threshold warfare, however. It is the Russian response to the American ‘offset strategy’, which seeks to alter the balance of power in an unfavorable standoff through creating a new standoff in a more favorable contestation area . The first American offset strategy was proclaimed during the early 1950s to deter the Soviet Union through nuclear means, without spending excessively on conventional forces. The second offset strategy was during the 1975-89 period when the United States attempted to pursue technological deterrence against the Warsaw Pact to mask NATO’s comparative conventional disadvantage in Eastern Europe. Finally, the third US offset strategy, which Russia is currently challenging in direct terms, was announced in 2014 to bolster US capabilities against anti-access, area-denial (A2-AD) systems developed by Russia and China . This implied bolstering US cyber surveillance, intelligence, digital media and stealth platforms to preserve its informatics upper hand in Eastern Europe, especially along the Russian border. From Russia’s point of view, such US-origin measures targeted ethnic and religious fault lines in former Soviet countries, to uproot pro-Russian governments and leaders from power . In the same vein, Russia’s sub-threshold strategy is a mirror image of US offset strategies. By using digital media and informatics tools, Russia seeks to offset NATO’s technological and military strength, driving wedges within and around NATO countries without triggering their conventional defense mechanisms .
Akın Ünver – EDAM, Oxford CTGA, Kadir Has University