By Jesse Shufro-Zletz
Russia has a long history of exploiting disinformation and subversion in service to its geopolitical goals. As it did during the Cold War, the Kremlin has developed a cohesive strategy for undermining Western interests and bolstering Russia’s power regionally and beyond through the use of nefarious actions, sometimes in concert with military force. The threat such actions pose to the US and its allies has only become more prominent with the increased ubiquity of cyberinfrastructure and social media which the Russian government has quickly exploited to spread disinformation and conduct damaging attacks. Vladimir Putin’s concerted campaign against the West requires a cohesive US response that incorporates both defensive and offensive measures. Such measures should include coordinated messaging to counter disinformation and bolster democratic institutions at home and abroad and the increased use of cyber and information campaigns to expose Russian malfeasance and corruption. All of these actions should be run through a new Directorate of Media and Outreach that will work in conjunction with the necessary executive branch departments.
Since the time of the Tsarist Empire, the Russian state has utilized disinformation and subversion to achieve political gain (Cull et al., 18-19). Under the Soviet Union, the Kremlin engaged in increasingly widespread deception operations. Over the seven decades it existed, the USSR conducted numerous concerted disinformation campaigns, often hand-in-hand with the use of military force, including in Hungary in 1953 and in the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, but also in less visible ways (Cull et al., 18-19, McCabe, & Gioe et al.). The use of disinformation and deception in militarized disputes, such as the ones mentioned, allowed the Kremlin to build the narrative of defending communism and countering destructive Western meddling. Efforts like Operation INFEKTION, in which the KGB planted articles in foreign newspapers purporting to have uncovered that the US had created the AIDS virus in a laboratory, served to undermine faith in Western democratic values by sowing distrust of such nations globally (Abrams, 19). Together, the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts served to justify its control over Eastern Europe while undermining the perception of the West as a beacon of democracy. These nefarious techniques have become known by a series of euphemisms, including ‘active measures’, ‘political warfare’, and later ‘hybrid warfare’ to explain their use alongside the use of force (Galeotti).
While the US conducted similar propagandistic and duplicitous actions throughout the Cold War in its struggle against the Kremlin, the fall of the Soviet Union saw Washington’s view of Moscow soften (Kortunov & Rumer et al.). Although there was a brief period during the 1990s in which the US and Russia seemed to be on somewhat congenial terms, by the mid-2000s, the Kremlin had begun spouting rhetoric and undertaking actions eerily similar to that of its Soviet predecessors. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia revamped its strategic disinformation and hybrid warfare operations, pushing back against what it saw as the Western encroachment on its sphere of influence and threat to its national security (Clark & Kirk et al.). First in Georgia in 2008 and then again in Ukraine beginning in 2014 and continuing in places like Belarus in 2020, Russia has once again employed duplicitous tactics to retain and expand its regional influence while seeking to demonize the West (Lambert, Summers, & Viačorka). With the exponential advance in technology over the two decades or so, the Kremlin has moved to exploit new opportunities to push its concerted messaging, particularly through social media bots spreading a range of conspiracy theories and pro-Russian sentiments which sow distrust, apathy, and anger against regional and Western democratic institutions (Cull et al., 68-71). On top of this, the use of cyberattacks and espionage has served to further discredit democratic governments by exposing unflattering secrets, disabling online abilities, and compromising states’ abilities (Flynn, 203). Many of these tactics were employed against the US itself in the 2016 election, deeply undermining faith in the democratic process (“Select Committee on Intelligence”). When taken together, the Kremlin’s diverse array of nefarious tools have all served the Russian state’s broader strategy of asserting control over regional affairs and systematically undermining the hegemony of the West, specifically the US. There is no question that the US must confront what is essentially an undeclared war, but to date, the response has been haphazard.
A Much-Needed Strategy:
With continued revelations of massive Russian disinformation and cyber attacks targeting the US as well as its ongoing campaigns in Ukraine and Belarus, it is imperative the US adopt a cohesive strategy to combat Russia’s own concerted efforts (Gordon et al, Jibilian et al.). With former US Presidential administrations’ all falling somewhere along the spectrum of unaware, cautious, or unwilling when it comes to confronting Russia’s duplicity, the new administration must not fall into the same mistakes of taking few and uncoordinated counter-measures (Mirovalev). Instead, a brand new vision of how to counter Moscow and bolster democracy must be established, one that will include both defensive and offensive measures.
On the defensive side, the US and its allies need to work together to organize their own cohesive messaging in a manner primed to counter Russian subversion. This can be done in the US through the establishment of a Directorate of Media and Outreach (DMO) to coordinate messaging between the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the Department of State (DoS), Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Security Council (NSC), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) as well as externally with NATO and other allies. Such an institution would work closely with these diplomacy, espionage, military, national security, and public relations apparatuses to coordinate messaging and quickly counter harmful disinformation. Such an institution would not be a source for government propaganda, but rather an organization dedicated to educating the public on American and allied efforts to support democracy and revealing the ways in which Russia, or other nations, seek to undermine it.
On the offensive side, US Cyber Command should be given even more authority, as has already begun to be the case (Sanger et al.), to target Russia and its proxies with cyber and information operations. By spreading true information about Russian government corruption, abuses, and aggression, the US can actively counter Russian disinformation and support the work of Russian dissidents pushing back against their government. While it is possible such operations are already in effect in some capacity, they should be coordinated with the defensive campaign through the DMO in order to create a cohesive method of countering Russian messaging. Although such actions would certainly be seen as incredibly hostile by the Russian government, it is clear no other measures have been enough to deter them as of yet.
The US must not waste any more time in meeting a concerted Russian effort to destabilize democracy and expand its influence with its own cohesive response. A comprehensive plan of action, such as the one laid out above, is desperately needed to counter that of Russia. The power of the truth and free expression can and must overcome falsehood and suppression. Moreover, not only can such a framework serve to counter Russia’s disinformation and subversion, it can also be applied more broadly, including to counter similar subversive behavior and narrative-building by the People’s Republic of China. The US is most certainly behind when it comes to this type of structural messaging, having relied far too long on the proliferation of its culture and the seemingly inevitable spread of democracy in the post-Cold-War world, but it can and must catch up and meet head-on the forces that seek to hamper and subvert democracy.
Abrams, Steve. “Beyond Propaganda: Soviet Active Measures in Putin’s Russia.” Connections, vol. 15, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26326426. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
Clark, Mason. “Russian Hybrid Warfare.” Institute for the Study of War, Sept. 2020, www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Russian%20Hybrid%20Warfare%20ISW%20Report%202020.pdf.
Cull, Nicholas J., et al. “Soviet Subversion, Disinformation and Propaganda: How the West Fought Against It.” LSE Consulting, London School of Economics and Political Science, Oct. 2017, www.lse.ac.uk/iga/assets/documents/arena/2018/Jigsaw-Soviet-Subversion-Disinformation-and-Propaganda-Final-Report.pdf.
Flynn, Matthew J. “Strategic Cyber: Responding to Russian Online Information Warfare.” The Cyber Defense Review, 2019, pp. 193–208. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26846128. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
Galeotti, Mark. “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’.” Foreign Policy, 5 Mar. 2018, foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/.
Gioe, David V., et al. “The Soviet Legacy of Russian Active Measures: New Vodka from Old Stills?” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, vol. 33, no. 3, 5 Mar. 2020, doi:10.1080/08850607.2020.1725364.
Gordon, Michael R., and Dustin Volz. “Russian Disinformation Campaign Aims to Undermine Confidence in Pfizer, Other Covid-19 Vaccines, U.S. Officials Say.” The Wall Street Journal, 7 Mar. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/russian-disinformation-campaign-aims-to-undermine-confidence-in-pfizer-other-covid-19-vaccines-u-s-officials-say-11615129200.
Jibilian, Isabella, and Cate Canales. “Here’s a Simple Explanation of How the Massive SolarWinds Hack Happened and Why It’s Such a Big Deal.” Business Insider, 25 Feb. 2021, www.businessinsider.com/solarwinds-hack-explained-government-agencies-cyber-security-2020-12.
Kirk, Michael, et al. Putin’s Revenge. PBS Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, 27 Sept. 2017, www.pbs.org/video/putins-revenge-mzz1lp/.
Kortunov, Andrei. “Russian- Russian-American Relations in the Post American Relations in the Post American Relations in the Post-Cold War Cold War Environment Environment.” Moscow Public Science Foundation, Oct. 1997, csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/pm_0016.pdf.
Lambert, Michael. “Tracing the Roots of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Tactics.” Eurasianet, 11 Oct. 2017, eurasianet.org/tracing-the-roots-of-russias-hybrid-warfare-tactics.
McCabe, Michael. “Soviet Security and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.” The Histories, vol. 10, no. 2, 2019, pp. 27–52., digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1138&context=the_histories.
Mirovalev, Mansur. “How Will Biden, Who Called Putin ‘Soulless’, Stand up to Russia?” Al Jazeera, 16 Nov. 2020, www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/11/16/how-will-biden-stand-up-to-autocratic-putin.
“Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election.” U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Apr. 2020, www.intelligence.senate.gov/publications/report-select-committee-intelligence-united-states-senate-russian-active-measures.
Rumer, Eugene, and Richard Sokolsky. “Thirty Years of U.S. Policy Toward Russia: Can the Vicious Circle Be Broken?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 June 2019, carnegieendowment.org/2019/06/20/thirty-years-of-u.s.-policy-toward-russia-can-vicious-circle-be-broken-pub-79323.
Sanger, David E., and Nicole Perlroth. “U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid.” The New York Times, 15 June 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/06/15/us/politics/trump-cyber-russia-grid.html.
Summers, Julia. “Countering Disinformation: Russia’s Infowar in Ukraine.” The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, 25 Oct. 2017, jsis.washington.edu/news/russia-disinformation-ukraine/.
Viačorka, Franak. “The Infowar behind the Belarus Revolution.” Atlantic Council, 30 Aug. 2020, www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/the-infowar-behind-the-belarus-revolution/.