Here’s a timely link to a NATO Defense College publication: Handbook of Russian Information Warfare, which I saw in a tweet yesterday. In America, a great deal of fear mongering substitutes for actual understanding of the Russian information warfare strategies and how the Russians view information warfare in their overall military strategic operations.
The Russian approach to information warfare seems to both terrify and mystify many American policymakers and journalists. The key, I think, relies on wrapping your mind around the Russian’s reliance on reflexive control, which this handbook explains in easy to understand terms.
Here’s a quick explanation of reflexive control from a Small Wars Journal article written by Ronald Sprang:
“The second modern Russian theoretical concept is reflexive control. Reflexive control is applied as a means to interfere and manipulate an opponent’s decision-making cycle. It can target human decision making and organizational decision-making systems and processes. Reflexive control can also be applied through automated systems and digital mission command architecture. Reflexive control is “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.”[x] One of the goals of reflexive control is the temporary slowdown of the adversary’s tempo and operational level decision making process.[xi] This adjustment in tempo creates windows of opportunity for Russian exploitation of changes in tempo and potential opponent decisions that shape the operational level forces into the overall Russian operational design and approach.”
To explain how the Russians approach to information warfare developed requires going back further in Russian history than the Soviet era, I think. The Russian state secret police dates back to 1565, when Ivan the Terrible formed the Oprichnina.
Recently, I began watching the Amazon Prime Russian TV series, Ekaterina, about the life of Catherine the Great, which originally aired on Russia 1 TV, a few years ago. My Russian vocabulary consists of only a dozen or so words these days, having forgotten most of what I learned in two years of high school Russian class, but thankfully this series has English subtitles. The series emphasizes the endless palace intrigue, the imperial scheming of Empress Elizabeth of Russia and especially the machinations of the secret police. Elizabeth had seized the crown in a coup d’etat, having the infant heir to the throne, Ivan VI, imprisoned for his entire life.
This long history of Russian state secret police and the Russian people being culturally indoctrinated to the supreme power of the state to control their lives, to invade their privacy at will, and to basically monitor all of their activities has been the norm since medieval times. I’ve written about this before on my blog, in a 2016 blog post, The War of Words (Part 2):
I have been thinking a great deal about what I consider cultural DNA, with how peoples the world over develop patterns of behavior ( culture) that endure, despite the changes in government. In fact, the people’s behavior determines how long and how much control they will tolerate from their government, to maintain the status quo and social order.
Above: My copy of “Letters from Russia. To the right is a folk-art wooden container my son brought back from Russia, painted in a Russian folk art style called Khohkloma.
Thinking about what to write in this Part 2 post, I ordered a book, which I had read about a long while back, that explains the Russian cultural DNA, a few years after Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America. That cultural DNA still persists in Russia today. The book is “Letters from Russia” and like de Tocqueville’s, “Democracy in America”, the book on Russia was written by another French nobleman, Astolphe de Custine. Although his trip to Russia in 1839 was only three months long, he captured life in Russia under the despot, Czar Nicholas I, in such prescient, stark detail, that historians still study his letters. His book was banned by both, Czar Nicholas I and the Bolsheviks, who didn’t much like Custine’s letters. I can relate, heck, my posts on the Excite message boards in 1998 evoked quite a response too and there I was fighting hordes of new posters who showed up to take over the boards with the Clinton talking points……… hummm, I likened them to being like Genghis Khan.
In their own words these two French nobleman present their opinions on the cultural DNA differences between a people who accept rulers and a people who don’t. In 1996, renowned journalist, Steven Erlanger, wrote a NY Times piece on Custine’s book, that gives you Custine in his own words. Here’s a short excerpt:
“In Russia, everything you notice, and everything that happens around you, has a terrifying uniformity; and the first thought that comes into the traveler’s mind, as he contemplates this symmetry, is that such entire consistency and regularity, so contrary to the natural inclination of mankind, cannot have been achieved and could not survive without violence. . . . Officially, such brutal tyranny is called respect for unity and love of order; and this bitter fruit of despotism appears so precious to the methodical mind that you are told it cannot be purchased at too high a price.
Faced with the pervasiveness of the secret police and the immensity of the bureaucracy, Custine at first is shocked. He sees the dead weight that these hordes of state employees place on Russia, and their own dehumanization.
Among Russian officials, attention to detail is quite compatible with disorganization. They go to a great deal of trouble to achieve some petty end, never satisfed that they have done enough to demonstrate their zeal. Consequently, in this rivalry between employees, one formality does not guarantee the foreigner against another. It is like a pillaging army: because the traveler has passed through the hands of one regiment, this does not prevent him from meeting another, or a third, and each of these bands spaced out along his route vies with the last in harassing him.”
Interestingly, in the introduction to “Letters from Russia”, editor, Anka Muhlstein, presents the bulls-eye de Tocqueville quote on the difference between America and Russia:
“There are on earth today two great peoples who, having started from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same end: they are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. They both grew up in darkness and whilst Europeans were busy elsewhere, they suddenly placed themselves in the forefront of nations, and the world learned at almost the same time of their births and their greatness
All other nations seem, more or less, to have reached the limits nature has assigned to them and within which they now need only to remain, but those two are still growing…. America is struggling against obstacles of nature,; Russia against men…. The principal means of action for the one is liberty, for the other servitude.”
Letters from Russia, by Astolphe de Custine, edited and with an introduction by Anka Muhlstein, page ix of the introduction.
America is the only place on earth that broke that mold completely and set up a government meant for the people to have control over the government and for the individual’s rights to be paramount.
We are a nation built by free-thinking and free-acting citizens.
The Russian/American “cultural DNA” dichotomy precludes many American analysts from easily grasping the Russian’s dependence on “reflexive control”, but looking at it from another angle helps. The Russians don’t have the military might to rely predominantly on military force to achieve their geopolitical aspirations, but they have centuries of experience developing vast spy networks, compiling massive information operations and for engaging in using psychological operations to exert control over factions inside Russia and in their foreign policy.
Americans, on the other hand, understand military force as the way America fights its enemies. Although we have the most sophisticated technological means to gather information; we just don’t seem to be very adept at developing a comprehensive strategy to utilize information for information warfare operations.
However, America’s partisans, colluding with sympathetic media, have been waging sophisticated SPIN information warfare against each other and against the American people since the early 90s. Perhaps our military and intel information experts might at some point realize that the Russians are working to fuel the extreme American partisanship, by fanning the flames of our own domestic scorched earth SPIN information war.
Ending the American scorched earth SPIN information war would be a giant blow to the Russians’ info war operations in America.