The Kremlin’s disinformation activities pose a direct threat to the democracies, both emerging and established. They are aimed at our society’s stability, undermining and manipulating our views and choices. The strategic goal of these campaigns is to weaken and destabilize the states that are the aim of destructive influencing.
Information operations tactics
As a totalitarian state, Russia has always precisely planned and conducted information and disinformation campaigns about its neighbours. Its tactics were crafted by the Soviet secret services. The New York Times identifies the following stages in the article “Seven Commandments of Disinformation.”
Rule 1. Find weaknesses
Look for weaknesses in a society that you want to influence, any social differences that you can use – economic, regional, linguistic. Look for the ways to emphasize and strengthen these differences, forcing people to lose trust in each other.
Rule 2. Big lie
Create a big, outright lie. Something so shocking that no one could believe it could have been fabricated at all.
Rule 3. A grain of truth
Add a grain of truth to this lie. Propaganda is most productive when there is some truth in it, then misinformation is perceived as a whole.
Rule 4. Hide your presence
Hide your participation, come up with another source. When people start looking for the source, make sure they never realize that you are behind it.
Rule 5. Useful idiot
Find helpful idiots, people who will take your message and disseminate it to your target audience.
Rule 6. Deny everything
If your actions are under attempts to expose, deny everything, even if the truth is obvious. This works well because we have a short concentration, so denial gives enough time for the next news series.
Rule 7. A long game
Be prepared to play a long game and invest resources in something that will bear fruits only after a long time.
Implementation practice in the Eastern Partnership countries
The Kremlin’s tools, techniques, and methods used have become increasingly flexible, resourceful, and targeted at specific social groups. In particular, a significant change in Russia’s approach to information operations took place in 2008. After the invasion of Georgia, Kremlin realized that it had missed providing its aggression with media coverage. Since then, Russia has been actively developing a hybrid war strategy. The Kremlin received the opportunity to demonstrate new methods during the illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, the disinformation direction to other countries has become Russia’s main foreign policy tool.
Now the very term “information operations” is often associated with Russia’s activities. After all, Moscow considers the Eastern Partnership countries a zone of its priority influence. To increase this influence on its closest neighbours, the Kremlin does not use a “soft power” but prefers blackmail – a political pressure, economic blockade, hybrid disinformation and direct military intervention, as has happened in Ukraine. And Russia aims at other Eastern Partnership countries for sure – first of all, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia. At the same time, the Russian capital is actively used to gain control over regional and national media both in Ukraine and in Belarus.
As a result, Russia’s hybrid aggression strategy has become a major disinformation source. Moreover, the closer other countries are to the Russian Federation borders, the more acutely they feel a threat leak from the Kremlin and the need for cooperation to develop countermeasures.
Characteristic features of Russia’s information operations in a region include the set up of information space chaos, the truthful messages defamation. It is carried out either in half-truths or outright lies via many different channels. At the same time, Russian propaganda uses many sources, multiple repetitions and various arguments.
Modern Russian propaganda is operative, continuous and cyclical; it reacts quickly to current events. Since the Russian media do not seek to cover the objective reality, they do not need time to verify the facts and confirm their opinions – they spread their interpretation of events and fake news.
It is those factors that make such a propaganda model efficient and, at the same time, complicate the development of countermeasures. The huge volume of narratives and the use of many channels for their transmission ensure the entire Russian propaganda system’s stability, even one can discredit and block some of its elements. Besides, fabricating facts takes much less time than verifying them.
Very often, Russian information operations are accompanied by a demonstration of military forces and have a strategy of dominance escalating (large-scale military exercises, provocative actions at the borders, offensive cyber operations, special sabotage and reconnaissance operations). Their goal is to heighten tensions to such a level that countries are forced to negotiate and potentially make concessions to Russia.
Specific counteraction mechanisms
Although the Russian Federation information operations are based on a limited set of methods and tools, the Kremlin shows high variability in their application. Thus, counteraction to certain elements and manifestations has a limited perspective.
The main problem is that we often try to act reactively and react post-facto in Ukraine. Misinformation deconstruction is certainly extremely important for understanding the Russian propaganda machine mechanisms. However, we need to apply more proactive actions and cooperation in combating information aggression.
Since Russia has entered the active phase of information operations conducting to achieve foreign policy goals, the expert community, government agencies, international organizations and businesses try to find efficient mechanisms to neutralize them.
In particular, information attack monitoring systems are being actively developed to continuously collect and document cases of pro-Kremlin misinformation.
The states recognize that the media and information itself are strategic national assets. The invasions of these assets must cause responsibility. Besides, the implementation of the coordinated sanctions against foreign officials who head state bodies that engage in information warfare should be considered.
Fake news and propaganda narratives, revealing by public organizations independently or with the support of the state together with specific methods of their exposing development, have also proved their positive impact.
Besides, strengthening of other protective mechanisms is highly recommended to prevent misinformation. A promising area is to increase media literacy. A well-informed society, the media and public authorities provide greater resilience to foreign disinformation campaigns. Initiatives aimed at media literacy and critical thinking improvement should explain the mechanisms of information warfare, the methods of counteraction, the goals, objectives and the threat of Russian information influence.
With this purpose, there is a need to conduct targeted campaigns to increase awareness about the negative consequences of misinformation, as well as educational activities, aimed, in particular, at election process integrity protection.
Effective counteraction also requires the joint efforts of the state and civil society, based on mutual trust. The very destruction of trust is one of the Kremlin’s propaganda directions.
To do this, and resist external pressure and falsifications, there is a need to develop resistance to misinformation. This means that the states have to continuously adapt to the new situation through legislative changes, launch government programs to increase information literacy from an early age, support civil society organizations working to expose misinformation, and strengthen national media markets.
It is also necessary to improve communication between the government and society, which will make all these mechanisms much more efficient.
How to minimize Russian influence
Another effective counteraction mechanism is the disclosure of information transactions. Joseph Nye argues that the best defence against the “sharp force” usage by authoritarian regimes is to reveal and publicize such attempts.
In this regard, the analysis and description of Russia’s influencing methods, as well as the development of baseline scenarios to counter them is needed. This will make the identification of them easier under political instability, especially during elections. For example, 16 electoral processes in Europe have been affected by disinformation campaigns through Kremlin-backed groups since 2014.
Under such circumstances, one should learn to detect and counter Russian disinformation, to study the Kremlin’s tactics, especially in the countries where Russia uses similar mechanisms.
Notably, the Kremlin exploits the factors of language similarity, the presence of border areas, and common historical moments, both in Belarus and Ukraine. So, the creation of their expert alternative procedure would be wise to minimize the hybrid Russian influence on the media sphere in these countries.
Taking further steps to reduce the Kremlin’s resource potential in the Eastern Partnership countries’ information field remains highly important.
One should note, that the EU prefers non-regulatory initiatives and self-regulation. The main trends in the struggle at the European institutions level are:
– the extent of the problem and the possible impact on the electoral system and elections evaluation,
– private sector efforts stepping up,
– establishment of communication between EU institutions and national governments, as well as coordination between the Member States directly,
– increase of the public and media resilience to fake news.
A good example of this is the European Electoral Cooperation Network’s work, which brings together national election authorities, audiovisual media regulators, six cybersecurity and data protection authorities, and relevant expert groups, particularly, on media literacy development.
Over the past six years of hybrid confrontation, Russia has been actively improving its tactics, although its strategy of provoking and escalating controversy in other countries remains unchanged.
The Kremlin has always used misinformation methods flexibly and continues to develop them by adopting modern information dissemination technologies. However, a clear understanding of the aggressor’s goals, the ability to predict the direction of Russia’s information attacks, and the use of accumulated positive experience will ultimately allow us to build an efficient system for counteracting the hybrid aggression.
Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert