Russian Information Warfare: You’re Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Over the past few days – and months – we’ve seen an enormous amount of frothing DERP about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 Elections. Again. After Comey’s testimony, the left predictably screeched that his testimony was damning – that the President tried to obstruct justice when he urged the former FBI Director to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The right – again inevitably – celebrated the fact that Comey confirmed Trump wasn’t personally under investigation and that the New York Times report about contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians was mostly incorrect.

I’m not going to rehash my take on Comey’s testimony. I did so amply the other day, so if you’re interested and haven’t read it yet, please do.

But as I continue to read the vast mental flatulence on both the right and the left, I have to wonder why it is that both sides are ignoring the elephant in the room: Russia’s sophisticated, complex information warfare – not just against the United States, but also our allies. While the right derps that it’s time to forget the Trump/Russia thing, and the left screeches about impeachment, the Russians are engaged in some of the most advanced information warfare I have ever seen, and neither side seems interested in talking about it.

It’s not about the Trump/Russia nexus. It’s about Russia and its assaults on us and our allies.

It is quite obvious Russia cannot match us in conventional warfare. It’s largest State Armaments Program, approved in 2010 and intended to modernize its military and spend billions of dollars on procurement of new armaments over a 10-year span, was stymied by declining oil prices (at the time the SAP was approved, the Russians counted on oil prices staying above $70 per barrel) and western sanctions, among other things. The new 10-year SAP (the Russians approve one every five years) should be much lower than what the Defense Ministry likely wants, given the poor economic forecasts and continued sanctions by both the EU and the United States. And while they spend a lot more for their national defense as a percentage of GDP than we do, their real defense spending is a bit over $50 billion, compared with roughly $660 billion America alone spends on its defense (not to mention the more than $254 billion spent by other NATO members last year).

So let’s not kid ourselves. Russia is no match for us, and no match for the rest of NATO when it comes to conventional strength.

But I think they’re light years ahead of the West when it comes to propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, and manipulation. They know and understand their enemy (that would be us, boys and girls), and they are particularly good at exploiting vulnerabilities to achieve their goals through soft power and propaganda.

This is how they gain their advantage. They work to support public officials who they perceive will be either most supportive of or most easily manipulated into supporting Russia’s long term goals. And they do so surreptitiously and in a manner that uses witting and unwitting agents to spread propaganda and disinformation in support of its strategic goals.

Such operations could include anything from the spread of false information (are you thinking of the goofy Trump/Russia/hookers “dossier” leaked during the Presidential campaign?), to secret funneling of funds into the coffers of pro-Russian politicians, to planting manipulated or outright false news stories, to paying hackers to troll western news sites and post comments that support Russia’s long-term strategic goals, the Russians are experts in information warfare. Hell, they have an entire doctrine and military force just for information operations, which makes our IO efforts look amateurish by comparison! And if you think this new IO unit is only meant to “counter” western propaganda, there’s this bridge I want to sell you…

Recent reporting indicates that U.S. investigators believe Russia may have planted false news stories after having hacked Qatar’s state news agency last month.

The stories about Qatar’s support for terrorist groups caused a diplomatic crisis in the Gulf country, and FBI investigators sent to Qatar to examine the incident noted they believed Russian hackers were behind the intrusion – a claim the Kremlin, of course, denies. But there’s no denying that the move could have driven a wedge between the United States and its allies in the Middle East by quoting false remarks to Qatar’s ruler that appeared friendly to Iran and Israel and questioned whether the American President would even last in office, causing its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to cut their political ties.

Was the fake news story planted by transnational criminal groups, and if so, for what purpose? And given the Kremlin’s ties with criminal organizations, and the fact that Moscow uses criminals to further its policy goals, does it really matter whose fingers were physically on the keyboards? Using criminals affords Russia some plausible deniability when it comes to their information operations, and Russia doesn’t appear at all hesitant to use them, given their more conventional tools are no match for the West.

Comey told lawmakers one of the reasons he decided to announce no charges in the Clinton private email server probe was because he was concerned about an apparently fake piece of Russian intelligence that suggested the Russians had communications indicating former Attorney General Loretta Lynch had assured Democrats she wouldn’t allow Clinton to be charged, and he feared that if the fake intel was released, it would undermine the Justice Department’s role in the probe.

Nuanced? Sure. Indirect? Yes. Cognizant that Comey would likely do everything possible to ensure the integrity of his agency – that nothing was more important to him? Absolutely.

The Russians knew their target and understood his likely motivations. It was a win for them either way. Either they release the alleged email from Lynch, undermining the DOJ probe, or they use Comey as an unwitting actor in their game, knowing he would sacrifice everything to ensure the integrity of his Bureau was not compromised, and they undermine his and the Bureau’s credibility in the eyes of at least half of the American public.

And let’s remember, it’s not just the West that the Russian hackers – witting or not – are targeting. In 2011, on the date of the Russian parliamentary election, a number of liberal internet sites experienced DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, including Ekho Moskvy, the New Times and Bolshoi Gorod magazines, the election monitoring organization Golos, and the business news and blogging site Slon.Ru.

Coincidence? If you think so, wanna buy a bridge?

They don’t just target the West. They use information operations to ensure their own populace and Russian nationals abroad toe the line in their “understanding” of world events and become politically involved to promote pro-Russia agendas wherever they live.

The Russian information warfare is vast and diverse, according to NATO research, and we appear to be far behind the power curve in this arena.

Furthermore, information warfare can cover a vast range of different activities and processes seeking to steal, plant, interdict, manipulate, distort or destroy information. The channels and methods available for doing this cover an equally broad range, including computers, smartphones, real or invented news media, statements by leaders or celebrities, online troll campaigns, text messages, vox pops by concerned citizens, YouTube videos, or direct approaches to individual human targets.

As I said a while ago, I doubt Trump wittingly colluded with the Russians, and no one has assessed this to this date (save for progtards who still refused to believe that Hillary Clinton lost the election). But I also said the Russians very subtly worked to manipulate public opinion in favor of Trump and erode confidence in our election system. It’s impossible to say whether this insidious campaign was in any way successful, and no reliable assessment exists to that end.

No one claimed the Russians successfully hacked election systems or manipulated votes, and frankly, that would be beneath them. They’re much more intricate and Gordian than that. While there is evidence of a GRU attempt to hack into a voting software supplier prior to last year’s election through spear phishing, no assessment of the effort’s effect on the actual election was made.

Besides, wasn’t it much more effective to hand certain documents to WikiLeaks instead? While Julian Assange still claims the Russians didn’t give WikiLeaks that information, as I have previously said, it’s doubtful he would know. It’s not like documents arrived on his doorstep postmarked “With Love, the Kremlin.”

Wouldn’t it be much more effective to work to discredit a certain candidate?

Wouldn’t it be easier to plant certain information that would influence an adversary’s actions and decisions in Russia’s favor?

NATO research shows:

Control of an opponent’s decision is achieved by means of providing him with the grounds by which he is able logically to derive his own decision, but one that is predetermined by the other side. This can be achieved:

  • By applying the pressure of force.
  • By assisting the opponent’s formulation of an appreciation of the initial situation.
  • By shaping the opponent’s objectives.
  • By shaping the opponent’s decision making algorithm.
  • By the choice of the decision making moment.

Do you not believe that spreading disinformation to manipulate your adversary’s decision making process is much more sophisticated than hamhanded attempts at hacking election software?

I do.

The whole point of this is that both sides are so focused on politics, they’re ignoring the very real threat of Russian manipulation of candidates, elections, and societies writ large.

Our focus shouldn’t be a simplistic question about whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians (although, if anyone is proven to have done so, which they have not so far, they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law), but how Moscow used its information warfare efforts to exploit our vulnerabilities and impact our society and our political landscape, and gain insight into our leadership and their intentions.

This is the broader question that both the right and the left seem to be ignoring in their efforts to respectively defend or impugn the President.

We shouldn’t drop our investigation into Russian attempts to influence and manipulate, as it’s critical to understanding this sophisticated adversary. But ultimately, the threat is much bigger than the two political sides choose to acknowledge. While I see nothing but disdain and snark from certain people on the right about Russia hacking, fact is it’s a thing, and the hacking is part of a much bigger effort that needs to be analyzed and investigated, lest we fall even further behind the Russians in that realm.


34 responses

  1. Easily one of your BEST posts… Hands-down. Great job of explaining IW.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree. Often, the mere THREAT of doing something is much more powerful than actually doing it. Russia didn’t have to hack the voting machines, the only had to allow some parts of the American public, such as the media and certain outspoken Democrats, to THINK that they did, to cause great problems with the actually influence the entire thing. If Hillary had won, Donald Trump would have been the one screaming bloody murder, you can bet a dollar to donuts on that. And the Russians get what they want, either way. In the future, more mistrust by the American people that their votes mean anything, and further mistrust of the government by the people in our country. Any type of gridlock between the people and the government in any nation that Russia can sow is a win as far as they are concerned. And it doesn’t cost them lives on the battlefield.


  2. What bothers my most is that it seems like GOP doesn’t care about Russia at all. It seems that members think that since they may have influenced the election towards their guy, that’s fine. Spot on, Nicki.


    1. The GOP seems to care about Russia only in the context of defending Trump, while the Dems seem to only care about Russia in the context of trying to invalidate the election. Both are using it for political ends, when there’s a much greater threat there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep! Great minds and all that. Great, yours. Mine? Eh. How they can forget the history of the Soviet Union and its attitude towards all countries of the West is boggling. They’re too focused on saving what’s “theirs” and destroying what the others have as “theirs”.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very much like their indirect backing and funding of certain radical groups back in the 60s and 70s…


    1. Yes. Their IW doctrine doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years. They just have much more sophisticated tools they use nowadays.


  4. “So let’s not kid ourselves. Russia is no match for us, and no match for the rest of NATO when it comes to conventional strength.”

    Funny, if memory serves me a short, Bohemian Corporal with a funny mustache said almost the same thing once. Huh


    1. NATO wasn’t in existence back then. Why was NATO created?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, really? Someone just equated the US and NATO with 1930s/WWII Germany?

        Seriously, pull over. Now.


        1. IKR? Especially since NATO is not in any way an offensive force.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Your delusional if you think the NATO of today could stop the Russians if they feel paranoid or pissed off enough. As for the WWII reference Russia got their ass handed to them by the Finns which led Hitler to believe that Russia would be a push over. Both Napoleon and Hitler got their clocks cleaned. Today the US couldn’t shit a full strength division on the continent. And for the cherry on top we haven’t done a REFORGER since 87.


        3. It’s a completely different situation today. There’s zero comparison. The Russians back then had the advantage of terrain and their troops were acclimated to the climate. NATO won’t invade Russia in the middle of winter, and their capabilities put together far surpass Russia’s capabilities. Shit, the Russians took how long to get the upper hand in Georgia in 2008? Then they looked at their armed forces and said, “Oh shit. Maybe we need to modernize. We should have won that a lot quicker.”


        4. Except for Reforger 88 90 91 92 and 93 that is. Bright Star has basically taken over because we’re much more likely to need to deploy there.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. BTW, NATO was never a “defensive” force. It was/is a deterrent force.


        1. What I said was NATO is not an offensive force.


  5. I had to rush thru this article quickly so maybe I misinterpreted some things. Specifically, you seem to have a higher opinion of Comey than I do. Miles higher. He strikes me as someone who would dance on his grandmother’s grave if it kept him in his job. Other than that, it was a good article.


    1. This particular article has nothing to do with Comey.


  6. I’m taking a different viewpoint on this, Nicki, because a few months ago, Putin/Russia sold 50% interest in the Rosneft drilling platform to Swiss-based Glencore and Qatar. I was surprised by this, because Vlad is a control freak. That cash was most likely to partially fund Putin’s war business in the MIddle East, and partially the infowars you describe.

    But why didn’t you include North Korea in this? I know your focus was on Russia, but the Norks (whom I have been following closely because of Fatty Kim da T’ird) have, since 1986, had children in IT hacking training starting in their elementary school level. They are tested for that talent that early and a sent through a program that is focused on it. They are suspected in the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank account at the NYC Federal Reserve, and also suspected as the people behind the most recent ransomware attack, the WannaCry virus. They may even be behind the fake FBI ransomware attack. I got hit by that, but got it removed from my computer. The Norks, in fact, just as likely to promote infowars as the Russians, if it suits their purpose. If anyone could do some real damage, they can, including hacking the Russian/Putin’s infowars.

    I’m just askin’, that’s all, because I don’t think it’s just the Russians behind the nonsense. Yes, they do know the liberal media in this country quite well. They may enjoy making them look like fools. But I see no reason that the Norks could not do the same thing.


    1. If you do a little research into the sale of Rosneft, you will discover, Russia basically sold the company to itself. It was kind of a loan to themselves.

      I was focusing on Russia, because North Korea has different motivations. For them, it’s not about shaping the political and social landscape, but attacking and profit.


      1. Okay, that’s new. The Qatar-Glencore deal was in December 2016, per Bloomberg. I should have kept closer watch on what the Bear is up to. Thanks for the heads up!


  7. So basically what you’re saying Nicki is that the folks on the Rott ten years ago who were making fun of the DoD looking into memetic warfare are dorks.

    or in other words…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t remember that. But then again I was deployed at the time, so I didn’t have great internet. What was the debate?


      1. its so long ago i dont remember.


    2. I stand corrected. ’87 was the last large scale REFORGER. They got incrementally smaller until they finally quit. Today the US ARMY has 38,000 troops left in Germany unlike 1987 when the had 250,000 in germany


      1. Reforger 88 was larger than 87. Then it declined. Reforger 88 was billed as the largest troop exercise since WW2. We’ve since focused on Bright Star because it has been much more likely we’d need to suddenly deploy a lot of troops to the middle east then Germany. Just because we haven’t been deploying to Germany doesn’t mean we forgot how to deploy.

        Also, Russia doesn’t have the operational MBTs anymore, and we’d kind of notice them pulling the T-80s and T-72s out of mothballs.


  8. Sounds like we have a Russian administration actively looking out for Russia’s interests. And doing it on the cheap.

    We could use some of that…


  9. It seems to me that there were few people more unwittingly gullible and easy to manipulate into sowing distrust in our elections systems than Jill Stein. While I think the Russians have specific people targeted to advance their agenda, Jill Stein was the super surprise gift for them that kept on giving. She did more damage than the Russians likely expected from a nobody and unserious presidential candidate. Then there was a whole passel of dumb-as-dirt democrats parroting the “Russians hacked our election” mantra that no one but other dumb-as-dirt democrats would take literally causing more distrust. Which in turn made some obtuse and largely incurious republicans run in an equal but opposite direction declaring the Russia has nothing to do with anything.

    In the meantime I’m doing whatever I can to harden my investments for my old age and stocking up on …. things.


    1. Lord I wish you had an edit function so I wouldn’t display so many typos so regularly 🙂


    2. Jill Stein was completely irrelevant, has no influence, and is dumber than a box of hammers. But she did attend the RT gala along with… Flynn, who went on to become national security adviser (for less than a month).


  10. Are we in those ‘interesting times’ yet? I kind of miss the days of the Cold War. You knew who was who and what was what, and spies were spies, not nerds online.


  11. […] All I know is this testimony on the “Weaponization of Information” echoes broadly what I wrote in a recent post about Russian information warfare. […]


  12. […] warfare – something I’ve discussed previously when I talked about Russia’s information operations. We are not fighting a war with guns and grenades. We’re fighting a war for the very heart of […]


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