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Russian Infowar: Continuity and Evolution
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Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Russian Infowar: Continuity and Evolution

James Sherr

Information and its ugly sibling, disinformation, are once again core dimensions of Russian state power, both internally and abroad.  Since his re-election in 2012, Vladimir Putin has reconstituted the political regime in a defensive and illiberal direction. The distinctive traditions and methodologies of the Russian military, security and intelligence services now provide the optic through which the motivation and capacity of external actors are assessed, threats analysed and objectives formulated and pursued.

The objectives are twofold and intertwined:  first, to break out of a perceived geopolitical and ‘civilisational’ encirclement by the West and its rules and rights-based normative system; second, to preserve the system of power in a neo-patrimonial ‘network state’  that has blurred the distinction between state and private, civil and military, domestic and foreign, and peace and war. Russia’s leaders are far from untutored in the material dimensions of power, let alone are they unaware of the enormous economic challenges they confront in a prolonged struggle with the West.1 Yet they perceive that the West is as weak politically as Russia is economically, and their policy aims to make this political variable decisive. They also have invested steadily and intensively in acquiring a regional war-waging capability. It is in these contexts that ‘information war’ acquires its importance.

‘Active measures’ and its analogue, infowar — actions designed to deceive and disorient an opponent, influence his actions and undermine his effectiveness — are rooted in the Soviet political-cum-security culture, which viewed political reality through the prism of ‘ideological struggle’. They also are grounded in Soviet military art and the Leninist orthodoxy that peace should be treated as a pre-war period.  Yet they also have pre-Soviet antecedents. The precursors to active measures had been instinctual to the Cheka’s forerunners, the Tsarist Okhrana, as well as the revolutionary conspirators arrayed against the imperial order. Well before the founding of imperial Muscovy, the Tatar-Mongols attached high importance to knowledge of enemy customs and weaknesses, careful reconnaissance, feigned retreats as well as other forms of manipulation and deception.  In this domain, Putin’s Russia has sought to achieve a synthesis between traditional principles and practice, present-day social conditions and up-to-date technologies.

Active measures [aktivniye meropriyatiya] and information war [informatsionnaya voyna] are omnibus terms, and their individual components are rarely employed in isolation.  The former concept embraces propaganda, disinformation, deception, provocation, agent-of-influence operations and kombinatsiya (complex operations that integrate several objectives and instruments). One should note that the goal of disinformation is not to disseminate lies but messages, both true and false, that are designed to deceive.

In the Soviet period, active measures were the prerogative of the CPSU.  The Politburo set objectives and exercised ultimate authority.  Substantive planning was entrusted to three entities:  the Central Committee’s International Department, its International Information Department and Service A of the KGB First Chief Directorate (which had direct responsibility for covert propaganda, forgeries, disinformation, agent-of-influence operations, manipulation of foreign media and paramilitary operations outside the remit of the Soviet General Staff).

Upon the liquidation of most of this apparatus after 1991, active measures did not collapse:  they metastasised.  By 1994, 400 retired KGB generals had taken positions in banks and joint ventures. Finansovo-informatsionnaya bor’ba (‘financial-informational struggle’) by means of opaque business practices, shell companies, concealed financial flows and covert penetration of political structures became a standard mode of business in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ and, in its energy sector, they acquired a European scale. The collapse of ideological confrontation and the expansion of Russian business spawned transnational lobbying structures and multiplied opportunities for enlisting agents of influence and ‘trusted contacts’. According to a 2009 Russian publication on ‘business intelligence’, the aims of active measures by then included:

Developing strategic and tactical disinformation against competitors and opponents, undermining and weakening their positions in the market as well as their influence in politics.2

Other contrasts with Soviet practice deserve attention but should not be exaggerated. It is becoming customary to note that whereas Soviet propaganda aimed to persuade, present-day efforts aim to confuse. It is also observed that whilst the USSR invested massively in the ‘power of attraction’ (the essence of soft power) the object of current active measures is to discredit others. Yet what many now perceive as new is little more than old wine in new bottles. In the 1920s, three combined operations, Syndikat I, Syndikat II and Trust, were designed to persuade the West of nothing but its own ignorance about what was taking place inside the USSR. By doing so, these special service operations paralysed Western intelligence services and helped to consolidate the Soviet regime. As Richard Schultz and Roy Godson noted some sixty years later in their seminal study, Dezinformatsia,  ‘discrediting and weakening governmental opponents…and distort[ing] the target’s perceptions of reality’ have always been core priorities.3 In the latter half of the Brezhnev era, Russia’s ‘power of attraction’ was at its nadir. Nevertheless, Soviet-financed and -infiltrated movements for ‘peace and disarmament’ nearly derailed NATO policy. 

Since the Ukraine conflict began, it is infowar, rather than active measures, that has moved to the fore. Now as in the past, its purposes are disinformation, deception, diversion, provocation, intimidation and ‘reflexive control’. To this catalogue, one must also add razvedka boem:  intelligence by combat. According to the ‘Conceptual Views’ of the Ministry of Defence 2011, the objectives of infowar comprise:

undermining  the political, economic and social system, and massive indoctrination of the population for destabilizing the society and the state, and also forcing the state to make decisions in the interests of the opposing party.4

Although the Soviets pursued the same objectives, today’s thinking has substantially evolved by comparison with the latter Soviet period.  In the 1970s-80s, the requirements of waging combined-arms warfare by conventional and nuclear means and on a strategic scale put emphasis on maskirovka (‘masking’), ranging from technical and tactical measures (e.g. camouflage and ‘radar struggle’) to large scale political and psychological deception.  The roots of today’s much more expansive concept of infowar lie in the threats Russia deduced from NATO’s 1999 Kosovo campaign: the employment of 'coercive diplomacy', humanitarian intervention, the ‘mythology’ of Western values and mobilisation of civil society to produce regime change in ‘problematic’ states. Within a few years, the ‘coloured’ revolutions of 2003-4 deepened the Kremlin's appreciation of the civic factor.  Four years later, the seven-day Georgia war, albeit victorious, exposed serious deficiencies in the utilisation of social media and web-based communication. Eight years on, these deficiencies have not only been diminished. In several respects they are now areas of Russian proficiency and advantage.5 

Without victory in infowar, it is most unlikely that there will be victory in ‘hybrid war’. The latter, more commonly described in Russia as 'non-linear' war [nelinnarnaya voyna], 'network war’ [setovaya voyna] or ‘ambiguous war’ [neopredelonnaya voyna], not only characterises the war in Ukraine. It describes much of the precariously fraught relationship between Russia and the countries on its borderlands, and increasingly with Europe as a whole.  In this condition of ‘neither war nor peace’, infowar appears to have become the overarching concept, and the complementary practice of active measures has been largely subsumed by it.  Whilst infowar's prominence gives point to the growing weight of the GRU in the Russian system, it would be perilous to forget that it is a full spectrum activity.  In media terms alone, it embraces multi-lingual broadcast media, trolling, false flag and puppet websites and Twitterbots, not to say cyber attack. Whereas the West regards ‘strategic communication’ and cyber attack as two separate activities, the Russians view them as interdependent and integral components of  informatsionnaya voyna.

Western Vulnerability and Russian Successes

Whatever the intensity and scale of Russian infowar, the critical and limiting factor will always be the target itself. The axiom of Stanislav Levchenko (former Deputy Rezident in Japan) is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago: ‘look for your vulnerabilities, and there you will find the KGB’. Had the United States not discredited itself in Iraq (as in Vietnam), it would have been more difficult for Russia to discredit it — or convince others that in Ukraine and Syria, Russia is no worse than (and therefore just as good as) anybody else.  The April 2016 Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is possibly the greatest victory of Russian infowar since its annexation of Crimea. But the Dutch Prime Minister, who is no friend of Putin, has been his unwitting accomplice.  Had he not conceded the referendum demands of a Russian-supported fringe, Russia would have had no victory to celebrate.

The larger, if paradoxical, point is that the post-modern liberal society that Russia derides instils the very attitudes that make its approach effective.  Whereas Russia’s elites have emerged in a semi-Darwinian world, European political elites are the product of consensual, rules-governed cultures that value mutuality of interest and equate compromise with political wisdom. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has no love of Russian policy, plainly felt it was incumbent upon him to act passively in the face of a permissive referendum law rather than oppose 300,000 hardened Euro-sceptics backed by Russian political technologists who have no respect for rules at all.

Whereas Russian diplomacy is devoted, pace Putin, to the ‘strict promotion of national interests’, in a number of Western chanceries ‘seeking agreement’ is an imperative in itself even where interests are harshly opposed. So indefatigable is John Kerry in seeking agreement with Lavrov and Putin that his imperviousness to experience has become almost a point of principle.

Whereas the tendency in Russian society is to seek certainty, today's European electorates distrust it, not to say the competence and honesty of their own governments. In Russia, black lies are taken for granted. Electorates in Western Europe live in a culture of white lies and find it easiest to believe that a black lie is merely a white lie in disguise. In a post-modern world, truth is always disputable, but what is ‘perceived’ must be respected. Equidistance is equated with objectivity and ‘balance’ with virtue. So ingrained is this ethos that over a year after Putin honoured the Russian Armed Forces for their services in Crimea and months after the OSCE confirmed the presence of Russian forces in Donbas, the BBC adheres to the formula that the conflict is being waged by ‘Ukrainian separatists supported by Russia’.

Infowar and War

Two years into the war in Ukraine, it is puzzling that there is so little discussion of infowar in actual military operations.  At least four examples warrant scrutiny:

The Minsk Accords. Minsk-I (5 September 2014) and Minsk-II (12 February 2015) were the products of infowar as much as force majeure. Neither were the result of equable agreement. The latter in particular marked a retreat from core Western objectives enunciated in early 2014: upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The negotiations were launched without proper consultation with allies, without Western military input and with precipitate haste, entirely out of keeping with Angela Merkel, who for months had been a stalwart of Transatlantic unity and firmness. Russia’s offensive of 21 January not only brought onto the field fresh forces, but munitions, weapons systems and electronic warfare capabilities that were new to the conflict. It was also accompanied by rumours about the employment of fuel-air explosives and other unconventional devices, as well as Kremlin deliberations to escalate the conflict to the nuclear level. It is not known what points Putin made to Angela Merkel on the eve of her joint desant on Kyiv with François Holland, though he had rattled the nuclear sabre with European Commission President Barroso only a few months before. Minsk-II was a triumph of Russian intimidation. Its target was not only the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but EU policy.  Whatever its military and territorial aims, it served to bring the parties to the table on Russia's terms, and that probably was its main purpose.  

South Ossetia.  On 10 July 2015, Russia moved the border of South Ossetia 1.5 km further into Georgian territory, incorporating 1 km of the Baku-Supsa pipeline in the process. This was not the only example of creeping annexation of Georgian territory since 2008. But this particular provocation was noteworthy for three reasons.  First, it coincided with a well-advertised NATO-Georgia military exercise; second, it was the first such occurrence since Russia's military intervention in Ukraine; third, it occurred in the context of a growing pattern of aggressive signalling towards NATO since Crimea's annexation.  NATO's exercise ended on schedule, as if nothing had happened.  If Russia was conducting a razvedka boem, then this quiescence was doubly unfortunate. A key aim of Russia's policy in Georgia is to show that NATO is irrelevant to its security. It has the same aim in the Baltic states, irrespective of the fact that they are NATO Allies.  Moreover, Baku-Supsa is part of the West's energy infrastructure. Deterrence against 'hybrid' threats rests upon the perception that threats of potentially strategic importance, however indirect or small in scale, will be countered swiftly and effectively. Russia might have been provoking NATO in Georgia, but it might well have been thinking about Latvia and NATO's ability to respond to ambiguous action.

Turkey.  After several overflights of its territory and multiple warnings, Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 on 24 November 2015. Given the fact that Russian aircraft were bombing the very Turkmen tribes in northern Syria that Turkey was supporting against Assad, it might have chosen to be more careful. But it chose to be provocative.  Since ramping up its military support for Assad, one aim of Russian policy has been to isolate and discredit Turkey, the one neighbouring state actively opposing Russian policy and calling for a forceful and concerted Western strategy.  NATO's pro forma response scarcely concealed the extent of division and apprehension in the Alliance. As in the Ossetia episode, Moscow learned more than it deserved to know about NATO's cohesion.

Syria and Paris.  Taken in the round, Russia's deployment in Syria illustrates how a single military campaign can be used to advance objectives on several axes at once.  Suspicion that strategic diversion counts amongst these objectives is not without foundation. In the weeks before Russia's campaign, Western positions toughened regarding the Ukraine conflict. In a meeting in Paris in October 2015, the 'Normandy' partners agreed a revised package of Minsk implementation measures contingent, inter alia, upon an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire in Donbas. For the first time, a full cease-fire came into effect, and it lasted for almost two months.  But as Russian military operations in Syria began in earnest, fighting in Donbas resumed. Two days after the Paris terrorist attacks of 25 November, the fighting sharply escalated.  There was virtually no Western media coverage or discernible diplomatic activity. Despite the clearest conditionality and warnings issued weeks before, Paris and Berlin have limited their response to protests.  It is now Ukraine that is under increased pressure to implement its part of an accord that Russia shows no sign of honouring.

These examples not only illustrate Russian infowar at work, but the Russian mode of employing military force to achieve political ends. In these overlapping domains, Russia's current leadership has demonstrated its proficiency at playing along the diagonals, linking instruments and theatres of operation that Western specialists, civilian and military, are trained to compartmentalise and examine on their own terms. The fastidious demand for evidence (a dishonest euphemism for proof) further handicaps timely analysis and reaction to an opponent and governing system that prides itself on opacity and regards deception as an essential tool of policy. Although there has been a revolution in Western defence establishments since 'polite little green men' took over Crimea in 2014, our habits of mind remain the greatest impediments to overcoming the challenge we face.

  • 1. What the West calls ‘hybrid war’ is frequently referred to in Russia as ‘network warfare’, whilst its diplomatic analogue is termed ‘network diplomacy’
  • 2. Aleksandr Doronin, ‘Aktivniye meropriatiya: informatsionno-psikhologicheskoe vosdeiystie’ [Active Measures: Informational-Psychological Influence] in Bizness-razvedka [Business Intelligence], reprinted in Agentura, August 2009.
  • 3. Richard H Shultz and Roy Godson, Dezinformatsia (Oxford: Pergamon-Brasseys), 1984 p 2.
  • 4. ‘Conceptual Views Regarding the Activities of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the Information Space’ [Kontseptual’nye vzglyady na deyatel’nost’ Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii v informatsionnom prostranstve], RF Ministry of Defence, 2011.
  • 5. For a thorough analysis, see Keir Giles, Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power, Chatham House, March 2016.

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