For those of you studying Russian Information Warfare, this article gives basic rules, but there is much only learned through experience.
• The Kremlin exploits the idea of freedom of information to inject disinformation into society. The effect is not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility but to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods.
• The West’s acquiescence to sheltering corrupt Russian money demoralizes the Russian opposition while making the West more dependent on the Kremlin.
• Unlike in the Cold War, when Soviets largely supported leftist groups, a fluid approach to ideology now allows the Kremlin to simultaneously back far-left and far-right movements, greens, anti-globalists and financial elites. The aim is to exacerbate divides and create an echo chamber of Kremlin support.
• The Kremlin exploits the openness of liberal democracies to use the Orthodox Church and expatriate NGOs to further aggressive foreign policy goals.
• There is an attempt to co-opt parts of the expert community in the West via such bodies as the Valdai Forum, which critics accuse of swapping access for acquiescence. Other senior Western experts are given positions in Russian companies and become de facto communications representatives of the Kremlin.
• Financial PR firms and hired influencers help the Kremlin’s cause by arguing that “finance and politics should be kept separate.” But whereas the liberal idea of globalization sees money as politically neutral, with global commerce leading to peace and interdependence, the Kremlin uses the openness of global markets as an opportunity to employ money, commerce and energy as foreign policy weapons.
• The Kremlin is increasing its “information war” budget. RT, which includes multilingual rolling news, a wire service and radio channels, has an estimated budget of over $300 million, set to increase by 41% to include German- and French- language channels. There is increasing use of social media to spread disinformation and trolls to attack publications and personalities.
• The weaponization of information, culture and money is a vital part of the Kremlin’s hybrid, or non-linear, war, which combines the above elements with covert and small-scale military operations. The conflict in Ukraine saw non-linear war in action. Other rising authoritarian states will look to copy Moscow’s model of hybrid war—and the West has no institutional or analytical tools to deal with it.
Defining Western Weak Spots
• The Kremlin applies different approaches to different regions across the world, using local rivalries and resentments to divide and conquer.
• The Kremlin exploits systemic weak spots in the Western system, providing a sort of X-ray of the underbelly of liberal democracy.
• Offshore zones and opaque shell companies help sustain Kremlin corruption and aid its influence. For journalists, the threat of libel means few publications are ready to take on Kremlin-connected figures.
• Lack of transparency in funding and the blurring of distinctions between think tanks and lobbying helps the Kremlin push its agendas forward without due scrutiny.
For the Weaponization of Information
• A Transparency International for Disinformation: The creation of an NGO that would create an internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation and provide analytical tools with which to define forms of communication.
• A “Disinformation Charter” for Media and Bloggers: Top-down censorship should be avoided. But rival media, from Al-Jazeera to the BBC, Fox and beyond, need to get together to create a charter of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Vigorous debate and disagreement is of course to be encouraged—but media organizations that practice conscious deception should be excluded from the community. A similar code can be accepted by bloggers and other online influencers.
• Target: Offshore: A network of stringers in off-shore jurisdictions is needed to carry out deep research into the financial holdings of Russian oligarchs and officials.
• Counter-Disinformation Editors: Many newspapers now employ “public editors,” or ombudsmen, who question their outlet’s reporting or op-ed selections and address matters of public controversy that these might entail. “Counter-propaganda editors” would pick apart what might be called all the news unfit to print by traditional journalists. A handful of analysts armed with YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, or foreign company registration websites can generate headlines.
• Tracking Kremlin Networks: We must ensure that Kremlin-supported spokesmen, officials and intellectuals are held to account. Employees of think tanks, pundits or policy consultants with vested financial interests in the countries they cover need to disclose their affiliations in public statements.
• Public Information Campaigns: Stopping all disinformation at all times is impossible. Public information campaigns are needed to show how disinformation works and shift the public’s behavior towards being more critical of messages that are being “buzzed” at them.
• Targeted Online Work: Audiences exposed to systemic and intensive disinformation campaigns, such as the Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic states, need to be worked with through targeted online campaigns that include the equivalent of person-to-person online social work.
For the Weaponization of Money
• Strategic Corruption Research and a Journalists’ Libel Fund: Financial and institutional support needs to be made available so that deep research can be carried out in the sensitive area where politics, security and corruption meet; this needs to be backed up by a fund for journalists who face potential libel litigation for the offense of doing their jobs. A non-profit organization, based in Western capitals, modeled on Lawyers Without Borders but dedicated exclusively to defending journalists, is long overdue.
• Target: Offshore: A network of stringers in off- shore jurisdictions is needed to carry out deep research into the financial holdings of Russian oligarchs and officials.
• Crowd-sourced Investigations: It is in the interest of NGOs to enlist experienced bloggers, citizen journalists or adept social media users to collaborate on specific events or news stories that adhere to the same standards of empirical rigor used by traditional journalists. A handful of analysts armed with YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, or foreign company registration websites can generate headlines.
For the Weaponization of Culture and Ideas
• Re-establishing Transparency and Integrity in the Expert Community: Self-disclosure of funding by think tanks and a charter identifying clear lines between funders and research would be a first step in helping the sector regulate itself and re-establish faith in its output.
• The Valdai Alternative: A broad gathering should be convened to bring together think tanks, experts and policymakers to focus on:
– addressing fears around the erosion of tradition, religion and national sovereignty;
– mainstreaming Russia’s neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia in the debate about Russian policy; and
– engaging with “swing states” such as the BRICs and others in the Middle East, Asia and South America that are being courted by the Kremlin to join its anti-Western Internationale.
Overall, the struggle against disinformation, strategic corruption and the need to reinvigorate the global case for liberal democracy are not merely Russia-specific issues: today’s Kremlin might perhaps be best viewed as an avant-garde of malevolent globalization. The methods it pursues will be taken up by others, and these counter-measures could and should be adopted worldwide.