Information Warfare · Russia

Protecting Falsehoods With a Bodyguard of Lies: Putin’s Use of Information Warfare

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies. (Winston Churchill)

In state-run media, which the vast majority of Russians rely on for news, the Kremlin no longer distinguishes between analysis and propaganda. (Gleb Pavlovsky, Advisor to Russian Presidents Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev2 ) Russia’s use of information warfare to defeat its adversaries has a long history. Lenin was, of course, the master at employing propaganda and agitation (agitprop) to achieve his revolutionary goals (even creating a formal Department for Agitation and Propaganda). In the 1970s and 1980s, KGB agents who had defected to the United States revealed that “espionage was a minor consideration of Russian intelligence. Their focus was controlling the message and it often happened through influencing media and political movements in freer societies.”3 During the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to conduct information warfare, albeit with fewer resources.4 The ascension of Vladimir Putin heralded a qualitatively different approach to information warfare. As Peter Pomeranstev asserts, “the new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action.”5 In short, Putin has engaged in “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”6 Whereas previously information warfare was an adjunct to Russian statecraft, today it is the regime’s governing modus operandi.

Information warfare is of course not an end in itself. It is employed in the service of Putin’s two fundamental and intertwined objectives: preserving his regime and enhancing Russia’s status as a great power. During his first term in office, Putin bolstered his domestic legitimacy via an unwritten social contract; he would provide the populace with a rising standard of living in exchange for their political acquiescence. As oil prices quadrupled in the early 2000s, Putin was able to deliver on his promise with annual GDP increasing at 7% per year.7 However, the 2008 global financial crisis, which caused oil prices to plunge and Russia’s economy to contract, led to Putin no longer being able to deliver on the aforementioned bargain causing him to search for other means to ensure the legitimacy of his regime.

Putin increasingly sought legitimacy and prestige through assertive—and well-advertised—moves in the international arena. His aggression outside Russia’s borders not only served to enhance his legitimacy by fostering the domestic narrative of Russia’s international resurgence, but of course also dovetailed with Moscow’s desire to assert actual great power status and reestablish what it regarded as its rightful place in the geopolitical firmament. Putin demanded that not only should Moscow’s interests in the former Soviet space be respected, but also the Kremlin’s perceived broader prerogative in the international arena should be recognized.

This paper examines how and why Russia is extensively employing information warfare to ensure regime survival and in the service of its increasingly aggressive foreign policy goals. A theme throughout is how the West has yet to grasp the full implications of the Russian word informatsia and the challenge posed by Putin’s information strategy. We examine the case of the Baltics and Moscow’s assertion of its right to protect citizens abroad to illustrate Russia’s information warfare techniques so the West can perhaps better understand how to respond. First, however, we examine how Putin understands regime preservation and Russia’s great power status and how these concerns find their antecedents in Russian history