Information Warfare · Russia

How Russia stumbled into a winning strategy to undermine the West

By Oscar Jonsson
Best Defense office of Kremlinology

MARCH 29, 2017

As the Kremlin’s strategists look across the globe, they have reason to rejoice. It is not because their economic or military strategy will deliver any game-changing wins soon. Nor is it only about Donald Trump occupying the White House. Rather, it is their discovery that where the Russian regime can offset the West is political and ideological, through the promotion of nationalist anti-Westernism.

In the West, the community oriented to liberal values, democracy, and the rule of law is shrinking, while the community of nationalists suspicious of that agenda is growing. It also seems to like Russia. This anti-Western tide did not, of course, originate in Russia. Nor is it masterminded from there. However, its promotion is Russia’s strongest bet in the international arena.

The origins of the Russian stance were in the Kremlin’s reaction to the Color Revolutions. In response to them, President Putin adopted an approach of domestic repression and counter-revolutionary tactics. This ranged from promoting a youth organisation, Nashi, to increasing restrictions on political competition and NGOs, as well as a clampdown on broadcast and social media.

There also was a counter-revolutionary offensive that was aimed at the core of the West’s appeal to the Color Revolution. This offensive promoted networks of extremist political and “non”-governmental organizations, corruption and the expulsion of traditional values, together with a vast internal and external information offensive, all aiming to weaken the West’s core.

This strategy is also reflected in Russia’s Syrian campaign. The Russian Armed Forces have consistently targeted civilians and seldom targeted the Islamic State. While not necessarily being the primary objective, it increases the heavy flow of refugees to Europe. This both seems to help pro-Russian nationalists across Europe and increase the risk for more terror attacks, which threatens a vicious but symbiotic cycle of the two. Turkey’s abrogation of the migrant deal with the EU could only increase this pressure in time for the French and German elections.

The Western challenges are largely internal, but they are thoroughly exploited where possible and an impact of +/-1 percent on an election can be the difference between a Donald Trump or not. The Russian KGB-defector Yuri Bezmenov stated that 85 percent of KGB actions were active measures or ideological subversion and the remaining 15 percent intelligence-gathering. It is not unlikely that the focus of Russian intelligence agencies is similar today.

Beyond the well-covered Russian interference in the U.S. election, this can be exemplified by the former Wikileaks-activist who recently described how Wikileaks seems to be connected to Russia. It could be less of a surprise though, given its increasing tendency to support the Russian narrative and, after the U.S. elections, notably targeting German, French, and Dutch mainstream politicians.

The tables have turned. The threat from the West that Russia saw in the mid-2000s has now been molded to a seemingly successful counter-strategy. It is targeting the ideological foundation of the West through political, ideological, and informational operations with relative impunity. And it seems to be going well.

Oscar Jonsson (@OAJonsson) is a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley and PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.