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The Kremlin Subverts Media Abroad to Cement the Narrative at Home

In the intervening year since the U.S. intelligence community (IC) assessed Kremlin-orchestrated meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Washington and the general public have undergone a re-education of sorts on the subject of “active measures” – the Soviet-era term encompassing political subversion, including disinformation and propaganda. Prior to this affair, Russian state-run media coverage of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and the subsequent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over separatist-controlled territory superbly illustrated the art-form, reconfigured for the information age.

Beyond mere rhetorical inconsistency, the deliberate innuendo, obfuscation, and outright fabrication were designed by the Kremlin to create a veritable smokescreen around verifiable information on the ground, and to shield the Russian populace from any plausible accounts that ran counter to those narratives that didn’t bolster Russian policy objectives.

A primary factor undermining Washington’s ability to assess and counter this Russian threat is the refusal by partisan political commentators to disaggregate Moscow’s well-documented mischief from the more opaque allegations of collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. More importantly, however, despite the echoes of Cold War intrigues in Moscow’s disinformation campaigns, the U.S. foreign policy, and national security establishments should guard against a historical tendency to render the U.S. the focal point of every Russian action, and temper nascent “Red Scare” impulses with a reminder that some politics truly are local.

A key point in the IC assessment reads: “In trying to influence the U.S. election…the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order…” This passage and its implications have dominated the post-mortem examination, while the subsequent clause, which warrants equal attention, has gone relatively underexplored: “…which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.” This regime and Russian public consciousness have become co-dependent and mutually reinforcing – a symbiosis Putin fought hard to achieve over the past eighteen years. Coincidentally, this was the same era during which his regime’s main adversary invented and refined the tools that make manipulation of public consciousness easier than ever before. The resultant dilemma—alongside centuries of fearing foreign encroachment – serves as the best context in which to study Russian behavior in the so-called “information space.”

Putin at the Komsomolskaya Pravda offices. (Sputnik)

Financial Times reporter Arkady Ostrovskiy brilliantly mapped the chaotic post-Soviet media landscape in his 2015 book, The Invention of Russia, in which he posited: “Russia is an idea-centric country, and the media play a disproportionately important role in it.” The centrality of mass media—particularly television, the medium still preferred by most Russians – to Boris Yeltsin’s unlikely re-election in 1996 was an object lesson for Russian tycoons, who by the early 2000s had consolidated control over all major outlets. These magnates viewed the enterprise foremost as a means to assert political influence, less as a commercial venture. Recognizing this fact, Putin promptly set about reallocating control to his loyalists, and ultimately to the state, thereby conclusively seizing the domestic narrative.

Drawing lessons from blistering journalistic coverage of Yeltsin’s brutal and inept 1994 military incursion into Chechnya, the Putin system also effectively quashed investigative journalism’s looming threat to his budding kleptocracy. His administration allowed, if not cultivated, a campaign of murder and intimidation against dogged reporters and critical voices like Anna Politkovskaya and Oleg Kashin. With most independent outlets being largely neutralized by the end of his first two terms (remaining outliers such as Dozhd TV, Novaya Gazeta, and Ekho Moskvy enjoy only marginal audiences), the sole remaining dangers to Putin’s perception-dominance now largely emanated from abroad.

Guided by what he and his cadre perceived to have been U.S. overreach (and relative Russian weakness and naivety) after the Soviet collapse, Putin duly noted the centrality of media narratives to any regime-ending scenario. Particularly after Iraq, Libya, “color revolutions” in former Soviet states, the “Arab Spring,” and finally the Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow in 2011—all thought to be orchestrated by U.S. operatives and fueled by Western media – the Kremlin set about steeling itself against such narratives. To do so, Moscow refined its information warfare doctrines and tactics, secured its so-called “information space” through legislative and technical means, and clamped down on “undesirable” entities from abroad that might foment unrest.

Last September, the Kremlin press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, frankly and concisely outlined this calculus to New York Times Magazine’s Jim Rutenberg. Betraying a sense of unease and perplexity toward the free flow of information writ large, Putin’s mustachioed spin-doctor characterized social media as the antithesis of stability—unironically citing a single Twitter user’s ability to shape the views of millions instantly. In his telling, Russia is a victim, vice antagonist, in the field of the information battle—in which its offensives are all merely “counteractions.”

While readers might be forgiven for assuming some level of mendacity behind Peskov’s assertions, they warrant being taken at face value on this issue. Demonstrating an acute sense of vulnerability, his comments on the indigenous designs behind Russian information warfare largely align with those of several Western scholars. For example:

Keir Giles of the NATO Defense College outlined in 2016 how Russia’s historic threat perceptions drove its approach to information security, noting that “most perceptible of all in Russia’s approach to the free circulation of information is the existential threat to its own security and stability” that free-flowing information poses.

In his extensive treatise on Russia’s intelligence apparatus for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Galeotti noted: “Every external operation is first and foremost a domestic one…So it was under the tsars, then the Bolsheviks, and now the new Russians…This means carrying out operations to…divid[e] strategic rivals” – with the advent of the Internet and social networking there are vastly expanding opportunities to do so.

Putin masterfully uses Kremlin-backed media to convey his message. (Russia Today)

Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College detailed the emergence and applications of Russian information warfare in 2012, even going so far as to characterize the Russian approach as “counterinsurgency.” To illustrate, he quoted the President of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences Makhmut Gareyev’s assertion that “domestic public opinion, not the hearts and minds of the enemy, is the critical center of gravity.”

Blank’s predecessor Lt. Col. Richard Zoller homed in on the disparity between Russian and Western views of the cyber domain – the former clearly more concerned by its ability to shape perception: “Where Western definitions of cyberspace focus on technical aspects of information technology… more than any other nation-state, Russia uses the cognitive domain…What this means is that Russia uses cyberspace more to disrupt an adversary’s information than to steal or destroy it.” Disinformation campaigns are thus more likely Moscow’s preferred tool to halt the advance of hostile narratives than necessarily a tool to advance its own.

Moreover, the Russian Empire historically sought to pad its periphery with instability as a bulwark against invasion—the Kremlin’s destabilizing influence on foreign media should be viewed through this same prism. As former UK Ambassador to Russia Andrew Wood noted for Chatham House: “The regime’s perception of reality and its message to domestic and world opinion laid increasing stress on the proposition that Russia was a besieged fortress, and ultimately the belief that a Russia risen from its knees meant that others, and especially its ex-Soviet neighbors, had to fall on theirs.” In this regard, Moscow’s current approach to its neighbors mirrors that of its approach to the foreign media environment – those entities that cannot be coerced and cajoled must, at a minimum, be subverted and disoriented to maintain Russia’s own stability. To do so, those methodologies that had been perfected at home in the early 2000s – obfuscating and distorting unfriendly narratives; undercutting free inquiry through crude imitation – were made ready for export.

All of this is not to say that Moscow’s behavior, particularly in Putin’s third term, has not been more aggressive and expansionist in nature – it clearly has. However, the domestic roots of its behavior clearly warrant more robust examination than they have received, particularly with regard to media manipulation. While U.S. officialdom has been churning over the implications of Russia’s activities for the 2018 mid-term elections, far too little ink has been spilled about the prospect that the Kremlin’s own insecurities about 2018 factored heavily into its affronts to U.S. public discourse. As former Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky put it to The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe “We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia.” The ensuing years would see factors arise capable of eroding that perception: declining oil prices, bloated defense budgets eating into social spending, demographic decline, economic stagnation, and waning public enthusiasm over the Crimea Anschluss. With paltry domestic or economic successes to brandish, and a youth bloc more susceptible to Western and oppositionist messaging, it’s no wonder Moscow seeks to drown out any critical signals by amplifying the surrounding noise.

Against this backdrop, Moscow is likely to continue sowing discord in media and cyberspace, perceiving its actions to be defensive, if not counter-offensive, in nature. While the credibility of such perceptions is certainly up for debate (and has long been for historians and academics), U.S. policymakers should avoid limiting themselves to such narrow confines. Instead, they should more thoroughly factor in the view from Putin’s own front porch – certainly not out of sympathy, but to more smartly calibrate Washington’s engagement and response planning. Given the shifting power dynamic between the U.S. and Russia, an approach informed solely by post-Cold War narcissism will simply serve to feed an unproductive escalatory spiral (akin to the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in early 2017 and compulsory “foreign agent” registrations by RT and CNN later that year). Greater familiarization with the siege mentality that has driven Kremlin behavior for centuries will sharpen U.S. precision in imposing costs for malign activities and avoid emboldening Moscow by amplifying the very effects such activities were designed to achieve.

Given Russia’s relative military, technological, and economic inferiority to rival powers, information warfare is “an approach born out of weakness that provides more flexibility while avoiding direct military confrontation,” according to Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Valeriy Gerasimov has himself noted that “no matter what forces the enemy has, no matter how well-developed his forces and means of…conflict may be, forms and methods for overcoming them can be found. He will always have vulnerabilities, and that means that adequate means of opposing him exist.” In light of recent events (and in preparation for future ones), Washington ought to study the re-emergence of Russian “active measures” less as a manifestation of newfound strength, and more as a sense of vulnerability on full display.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.