užupis, Vilnius

Russia’s psychological warfare – battles without arms


Last month representing the Lithuanian American Council as part of the Central and Eastern European Coalition (CEEC) delegation, I met in separate meetings with California Congressman Adam Schiff and Matthew Armstrong Governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The purpose of the meetings was to address ongoing Russian instigated armed conflicts and threats to the democracies in the Central and East European region. In the meetings, both representatives expressed great concern about the ongoing Russian military aggression, although incremental in scope. Special attention was directed to Russia’s use of psychological warfare unleashed on the eastern European Union (EU) countries. We concurred that Russia seeks to achieve the following goals without direct military intervention: a) to reinstate the Russian Empire with its 1989 boundaries, b) to marginalize U.S. influence in the European Union’s political, economic and military spheres, c) to spur the disintegration of NATO and d) to dismantle the EU as a perceived rival to Russia’s dominance in Europe. Russia seeks to achieve these goals not through armed confrontation but rather by utilizing the tools of psychological warfare.

According to the RAND Corp., psychological warfare can change society’s spiritual and moral values, self-esteem, attitudes, and beliefs as well as the will to resist aggression. Psychological techniques employed go mostly undetected. They are directed at the targeted audience well-disguised in an appealing format thereby gradually influencing existing beliefs and undermining the confidence of the intended population.

Psychological origins of warfare

John Maxwell Hamilton in an article on World War I in the Washington Post notes that the British were pioneers regarding information control and manipulation. Barely an hour after declaring war on Germany in 1914, its cable ship Alert entered the English Channel and severed transatlantic telephone and telegraph cables linking Germany to the United States. For the duration of the war, Berlin’s ability to communicate overseas, even with its embassies, was impaired. At the same time the British were tapping all other communication lines between Europe and the rest of the world, their goal was to marginalize as much as possible German influence on U.S. policies. It was also to assure unhindered flow of U.S. assistance to England and its allies for the duration of the war and to psychologically dispose the politicians and the public to join in the war against Germany.

The concept of psychological warfare was already known in ancient times in terms of aggressive rhetoric, deception, threats of violence, and dissemination of rumors, such as overwhelming numbers of attacking warriors and their cruelty. Its aim was to break the resolve to resist, to give up without a fight. After WWI, the art of manipulating public opinion and obtaining unquestionable support for violent government policies was significantly expanded by the German nazis, Italian fascists and particularly, the Soviet Union’s communist leaders.

The importance of psychological warfare grew rapidly during World War II. Countries at war created special and often secret psychological operations units, and extensive use of radio and other means of communication to deceive or mislead their enemies. Particularly effective were the British, developing many tricks to devastate the plans and operations of their opponents.

But perhaps the shrewdest of all the psychological warfare conductors was the Soviet Union. After World War II, as the Cold War developed, the first Directorate of the KGB substantially strengthened its deception activities, with the aim of exporting the communist model to other countries throughout the world. They realized that psychologically disarming the target audience was far more effective than military conflict. By focusing psychological operations on altering the targeted population’s attitudes and values, and by continuous flow of surreptitiously couched conflicting ideas and their manipulation and distortions, the KGB operatives were convinced that they could successfully bringing communists to power without that use of direct military force.

Traditional psychological warfare methods

Use of digital and satellite based technologies in information wars has not diminished the importance of traditional warfare methods. These include:

Forgeries and Falsification of documents and publicly available information;

Slander and undermining the legitimacy of organizations, political activities, views, theories, and the character of individuals;

Bullying through violent attacks against ethnic minorities, political opponents, threatening military exercises, “accidental” violation of target country’s borders;

Barrage – public distraction to deflect attention from significant issues by media hyped events of little significant;

Distortion by presenting facts out of context, documents, and statistics;

Infection by emphasizing social ills, gender and race inequality, national and religious discord, demonizing soldiers in one scenario and portraying them as victims of special interests wars, in another;

Rumor mongering by inducing fear and destroying hope among the populace – especially effective in emergencies and in times of high stress.

Modern psychological warfare structures and technology

Modern psychological warfare is coercive in nature. It aims to weaken or destroy an opponent’s political, social, or societal will, and force a course of action favorable to the initiating country’s interests. Such warfare may be combined with publicly induced violence, economic pressure, subversion, and diplomacy, however, the main mechanism is the use of words, images and ideas. Methods, such as economic sanctions or embargoes, are intended to inflict economic damage which would induce political or military change. The nature of psychological warfare depends on whether the state is totalitarian, authoritative, or democratic.

Most developed countries have initiated information warfare units ready for deployment as the need arises. They may be part of the regular Armed Forces or special services. These services may be deployed in peacetime against external targets and at times even against their own citizens. Most countries in peacetime incorporate information warfare units in their civilian government structures. Under such circumstances they develop and conduct propaganda and/or ideological campaigns to assure national security and in extreme cases to bolster the current political establishment.

In a market-based economy, information is a commodity. It is sold and bought by the value it represents. The media that deploys information is supported by a variety of institutions: commercial establishments, public and private interest groups, banks, foundations, political parties, and the like. Usually, laws and codes of ethics limit the sponsor’s influence on the content of the published information. Nevertheless, the funding party has some say on the direction and scope of the presented information. Past experience shows that substantial funding can at times lead to the development of distorted and degrading type of information aimed at inflicting damage to or destruction of the intended target. Such a form of aggression is difficult to combat, because most national and international laws are too vague to effectively control such toxic content. Continuous flow of derogatory information, could lead the targeted population to the development of inferiority complexes, resulting in national identity crisis, belief in government’s incompetence, distrust of their security organizations, and others. Small countries are especially susceptible to such assaults.

One example of disinformation warfare is the so-called “false flag operation.” The term comes from the days of wooden ships, when one ship would hang the flag of its enemy before attacking another ship in their own navy. Nowadays, such operations may be carried out by military, paramilitary or civil operatives. An example of a false flag operation was the wave of bombings carried out by KGB in its own country to justify the war against Chechnya, this in turn positioned Putin to assume greater political power. The most recent example is Putin’s “little green men” operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Older examples of such operations are shock troop formations disguised as Lithuanian freedom fighters destroying entire villages and killing innocent people. These operations were designed to foment national distrust and hate for authentic real freedom fighters. With the rapid proliferation of digital information technologies, false flag operations are nowadays not only part of politics, but also are employed in commercial and business activities, environmental and energy sectors, and even in professional sports. Their primary aim is to gain the upper hand by discrediting rivals, creating false images, and by leveraging public opinion in one’s favor.Untitled_Clipping_011916_042318_PM

Information warfare strategies

Daniel Lerner, former scholar at the Office of Strategic Services analyzed a variety of information warfare strategies. He grouped psychological warfare technology into three categories: white, gray and black.

White technologies deal with information that is true, but somewhat biased. Sources of information are identified and validated.

Gray technologies – Information as a whole is correct, but less reliable and punctuated by seemingly reasonable questions related to the subject matter. Sources are not identified.

Black technologies – Information is basically false and the message is mostly cleverly concealed to deceive the target audience. Sources are not identified.

Black technology warfare is simply covert operations conducted primarily by military or government secret services and in some instances by hired private organizations with concealed identities. Deception can be exercised in many ways to make the false information believable. For example, some false information is provided to some minor publication as a news item. Upon its printed appearance, the information is posted and repeated on several websites in the internet. With so many citations in the electronic media, the story draws attention of the national news media and is published by them as coming from an identifiable and verified source.

Psychological Information wars include oral, visual, and musical techniques designed to reach and change people’s motivation at neurological levels. The target audience is exposed to seemingly normal information streams without realizing that they contain encoded mind altering messages. They might be in radio and TV broadcasts, motion pictures and theatrical shows, and nowadays in widely visited internet programs. Someone listening to a musical program, watching a movie or a TV program does not even suspect that his or her subconscious mind is being manipulated and their emotional state as well as attitude are being affected.

Mr. Mazuronis, Lithuania’s EU parliament member, notes that Russia is cleverly disguising its intention to disintegrate the EU as a unified body, by convincing the EU public that western style democracy is leading to societal disarray, moral decadence, domination by Brussels’ bureaucracy, and eventually loss of national identity. Mazuronis notes that, “Treacherously attacked, Western democracies are mostly unaware of the traps that Russia is laying for them”.

The Internet and Cyber Warfare

About 1.5 million individuals in Russia are connected daily to political and economic websites. Accordingly, the internet offers Moscow significant opportunities to organize and steer the audience to whatever information it chooses to present in support of its policies. It also requires its information controlling agencies to measure the interests and importance to the public on any particular issue. The agencies know that on average, each visitor to the website usually shares this information with at least one other person. This multiplier effect exponentially increases the number of persons exposed and impacted by the disinformation. The internet has become an indispensable component of psychological information wars.

At present, Russia is employing such strategies to muster support for its unconventional physical war. With a well designed and disguised deceptive information format and content, it successfully convinced a good part of the world, that Russia has no interest in Ukraine, and that the U.S. is instigating Ukraine’s breakaway from friendly association with Russia. (However, it contradicted its own propaganda about U.S. culpability, by awarding 300 journalists for their coverage of Russia’s military “liberation” of Crimea and glorification of armed incursion into Eastern Ukraine.)

Cybernetics and space surveillance are of crucial importance in the conduct of psychological warfare and neutralization of opponents actions. Cybernetic deceptions and direct attacks are particularly dangerous to existing information infrastructures, electronic communication networks, industrial processes, economics and financial management systems, electricity and gas transmission, air traffic, etc. They can produce major operational disruptions, damage national security, create crisis in any attacked country’s economy, and result in violent break-ups of national or societal structures.

Malware named Stuxnet surfaced in 2009. It can not only temporarily neutralize a targeted information system, but also take over computer-based control systems of industrial, government or military establishments, including their destruction. Earlier this year, for example, Ukrainian armed forces in Crimea found themselves cut-off electronically from their command centers while Russian forces began Crimea’s occupation. Isolated, surprised and unsure of what to do, they surrendered without resistance.

Countering the misleading information flow

Scientific American, in its December 2009 issue, notes that emergence of internet and related digital technologies brought about effects opposite to the expected ones. What had not been foreseen is that information provided without content filters allowed the emergence of information based on falsehoods and disinformation. Misleading information was far more difficult to disseminate when the printed media predominated. Newspapers were serviced by professional journalists and their truthfulness verified by responsible editors. The digital content has displaced the printed word. This lack of editorial controls, have allowed massive inflows of partially or totally false information as well as huge quantities of purposely prepared disinformation that can be used to manipulate political, military, business, economic and other spheres of our society.

Often targeted and cleverly disguised information is nearly impossible to untangle and to establish its source. Negative, cleverly concealed, but believable and particularly appealing information, corresponding to an unpleasant or intolerable situation, is particularly effective in a society where there is no trust and transparency.

Western governments and organizations serving their societies will need to recognize and identify disinformation and develop methods to counteract it, both at home and abroad. Fraud and deception can be overcome only by a society that is mature, critically thinking, and capable of evaluating information directed at it. At the same time, transparency, integrity and honesty must be the ironclad pillars of the government, political parties, as well as business and any other entities serving that society. According to MEP Mazuronis: “If we continue to fail to understand, or pretend not to see and understand what’s going on – we will not only lose the battle, but we will also lose the war. And it is no less than our own independence.”

Dr. Stasys Bačkaitis is the Lithuanian American Council (LAC) representative in Washington and LAC representative in Central and East European Coalition