The View From Here: The Disinformation War

Volodymyr Kish.

It should not be news to anyone that closely follows world affairs that Russia has for quite some time been engaging in what is being called a “hybrid” war against the western democratic world and the values it represents. Having fallen precipitously in the last few decades from its lofty position as a leading global military and economic power, the new autocratic and reactionary Russia is reverting to the only thing that it apparently is good at, namely to undermine, destabilize and destroy a peaceful world order in an effort to salve its wounded ego and pride and re-assert its ability to dictate world affairs.

Russia’s economy is in free fall and it currently sits in 12th place in the world rankings of GDP, behind such countries as Brazil, Italy, Korea and even Canada, and just barely ahead of Australia, Spain and Mexico. Although it still has one of the largest military forces in the world, a lot of its equipment is aging, and it cannot compare in either quality or effectiveness to the high-tech arsenals possessed by the U.S. or its NATO allies. It simply does not have the economic strength to engage in an arms race with the west. It should be noted though that it does still have a potent nuclear force, which does serve as a deterrent to the rest of the world to not push it too hard in any geo-political confrontation.

Recognizing its military limitations, Russia’s latest bunch of despots have been increasingly resorting to more subversive methods in waging war on the west. Their playbook has been developed and refined over the past century by their secret police and intelligence forces, starting with the Cheka, the NKVD, the KGB and more recently the FSB. Their stock and trade include infiltration, extortion, blackmail, sabotage, assassination, subversion, fomenting revolution, sowing division and disinformation. In waging war on their perceived enemies, there is no limitation or restraint on tactics used, and no ethical or moral boundaries to constrain what they do.

With the advent of the internet and modern communications technologies, they have become very adept at manipulating the news and using the various forms of media to influence political opinions and movements. This has been particularly handy when they have been caught engaging in blatant criminal activity, such as the recent assassination attempt on a Russian defector in London or the shooting down of a passenger airplane over Ukraine several years ago. First step of course, is to deny any involvement. The next is to blame the country or people being victimized. Invariably, there are accusations that whatever happened was the result of a nefarious American CIA plot aimed at unfairly discrediting Russia. Over time, various scenarios, conspiracies and alternative explanations are dreamt up and floated in the media, aimed at sowing confusion and undermining the real facts behind what happened. To accomplish this, the FSB has a large network of either paid, coerced or sympathetic “fellow travelers” in the western media, academia and assorted organizations willing to lend credence to the FSB’s disinformation efforts.

As well as such reactive tactics, the Russian authorities have also invested heavily in proactively manipulating social media. They have created a number of large well-staffed and well-equipped “troll farms” that flood Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media with postings, blogs and other material aimed at spreading “fake news” and polarizing public opinion in western democratic countries.

This proved particularly effective in the last U.S. elections when a concerted effort was made by these trolls to discredit Hillary Clinton, boost the campaign of Donald Trump, and stoke the populist fervor of both the extreme left and right. It remains to be proven whether President Trump is really a Russian pawn, but there can be little doubt that there was a focused campaign by the Russians to subvert the American elections. Further, the same has been or is being repeated in other democratic countries around the world.

In the west, we have been slow to recognize how potent the internet and social media are in manipulating public opinion and influencing political affairs, particularly elections. Further, the security of our financial, political, social and physical infrastructures is being exposed as increasingly vulnerable to expert hacking. It is imperative that our governments recognize the urgency of these threats and make strong efforts to build adequate defenses against Russian efforts to exploit these vulnerabilities. The wars of the future will be determined less by how big your armed forces are, and more by your digital expertise and abilities to wage cyber war.