Russia and the informational approach
In recent years, Russia has been in the news for the various information operations it has carried out—with varying degrees of success and discretion—to influence the population, as it did in Ukraine during the Donbass conflict. If the Russian interference attempts during the 2016 U.S. elections caused a lot of ink to flow, the spectre of these influence campaigns haunted the French and German presidential elections, the Brexit referendum or the one organised by the Catalan separatist government on 1 October 2017.
More recently, the Kremlin’s hand has been seen in disinformation campaigns about COVID-19, in the “Frapp France dégage” movement in Senegal, but also in several other African countries, including the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Sudan, and Mali, where forces from mercenary companies like the Wagner Group are also present.
In this context, it is interesting to observe the evolution of the Russian approach to the concept of information and its use for geopolitical purposes—including destabilisation.
A slowly maturing concept
Although Russian influence operations are nowadays very much in the limelight and make extensive use of cyber means, the potential of such actions carried out in the traditional way was already mentioned in a text written in 1927 by Shil’bakh and Sventsitskiy on military intelligence, which emphasised the value of influencing the opinions of the population to encourage the launching of popular uprisings. Later still, the concept of Maskirovka was used in the Second World War. It refers to the methods of camouflage, concealment, and deception applied to the Soviet military sphere, and leads to thinking in three or even four dimensions. This approach will be particularly useful in a conceptual recycling applied to modern conflicts, often called hybrid conflicts.
Much closer to us, we have seen the importance that the Russian Federation attaches to the informational component, quickly conceived as having a double nature—technical and cognitive. This posture is clear from Vladimir Putin’s 2007 speech, in which he stated that “the notion of ‘soft power’ is increasingly used. It implies a matrix of tools and methods to achieve foreign policy objectives without resorting to weapons but by using information and other levers of influence.” Whether it is the Russian doctrine on the defence of Russian information systems or the 2010 military doctrine, military means and integrated non-military forces are an integral part of modern armed conflict.
This evolution of thought was illustrated in the Ukrainian conflict but also in Russian writings, notably those of Chekinov & Bogdanov—published in 2015, in the midst of the Ukrainian conflict—who spoke of the ‘New Generation War.’ While these texts go down in history, one can note the emergence of notions such as ‘hybrid warfare’, ‘hostile measures’, ‘cross-domain coercion,’ and ‘grey zone tactics.’ These expressions all refer to the use of informational weapons in conflicts, sometimes upstream of the kinetic phase, sometimes concomitantly, echoing the ‘no war, no peace’ of the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty.
More recently, the 2014 Military Doctrine explained that the concomitant use of military force and of political, economic, informational, and other non-military measures that broaden the use of the population’s protest potential must be considered in conjunction with the use of special operations forces. Furthermore, by referring to ‘the use of information and communication technologies in the military and political spheres to undermine sovereignty and violate the territorial integrity of states‘, the 2016 Russian Information Security doctrine directly refers to influence and disinformation through informational and influence operations as well as through cyber means. Finally, in his 2019 speech to the Academy of Sciences, General Guerasimov spoke of Russian active defence, suggesting the primacy of non-military measures over weapons power, even if these are only implemented when conventional military means fail to achieve the intended objectives.
The integration of influence operations into conflicts and their use in the service of geopolitical projects marks a clear evolution in Russian strategic thinking. Moreover, this approach has the double advantage of allowing an efficient and relatively inexpensive power projection while authorising the use of the “fog of war”, dear to Clausewitz. More than ever, doubt about the attribution of a political act symmetrically favours the ‘plausible denial’ customary in Russian diplomacy.
A plausible denial reinforced by the multiplication of actors
While this plausible denial is recurrent in the Kremlin’s dialectic, it becomes particularly easy to use in the context of influence operations. Indeed, the latter can be carried out by state services (including the GRU and the FSB, to which several cyber security companies link the APT 28 and 29 groups) as well as by more or less independent groups, which are difficult to link directly to the Russian government. Moreover, private companies and actors reputed to be close to mercenary companies such as the Wagner Group can intervene in the same way as the Kremlin. One can think of the Internet Research Agency (IRA)—known for being behind the Olgino troll farm—and the unavoidable Yevgeny Prigozhin. This oligarch is also widely involved in influence operations on the African continent. Finally, this multiplication of actors makes it possible to consider influence operations on a global scale in terms of the spectrum of populations. For instance, in the case of the Central African Republic, local journalists were paid to write or produce radio reports for global interests. The same is true of Lion Bear, a cartoon aimed at children, which praises the courage and legitimacy of Russian action and stigmatises the ‘failings’ and dubious support of the West. Subsequently, in May 2012, the action film “Turist” was screened in Bangui’s stadium in front of 20,000 spectators. In this film, Russian soldiers protect the population against violent and immoral rebels supported by the West.
These examples demonstrate a comprehensive approach that uses a variety of media and does not merely exploit and reinforce arguments from troubled local contexts. The means of production and dissemination used increase the visibility and persuasiveness of the arguments. This has been the case with the sharing, reposting, and dissemination of the words of Kémi Séba, whose discourse draws on levers that exacerbate the tensions between local authorities and France.
The informational approach is the result of a long maturation that has taken advantage of the opportunities offered by the explosion of new technologies, primarily the Internet. By making it possible to create sharing and communication platforms quickly and relatively cheaply, the Web has offered a real opportunity that some people have been able to seize, while reserving the right to use the traditional means of communication, such as the press, television, and radio (particularly used on the African continent). Finally, the use of influence strategies modernised by technological advances has opened the way to a profusion of actions that make use of a wide variety of methods to generate virality and persuade individuals and audiences that have been previously targeted. It is now possible to envisage that, in the very near future, these operations will be optimised, whether they take place in a period of peace or of war, or simply in a particularly competitive economic context.
For more information: Influence and manipulations, Christine Dugoin-Clément
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