John Arquilla presciently argued in 1993 that warfare is no longer about who has the more superior capital, labor, and technology; rather, victory is determined by who has the best information about the battlefield. Over the past decade, Russian information warfare has become more openly aggressive, and the United States must go on the offensive in the information environment (IE) to deter and disrupt Russia’s strategy. Brazen meddling in the cyber domain cannot continue uncontested, and despite the image of a powerful post–Soviet Union “Russian bear” under Vladimir Putin, Russia has many vulnerabilities ripe for exploitation.
The digital connectivity and economic growth technology has brought to the United States has also created a strategic dilemma—the more networked the nation is, the more opportunities there are for adversaries to disrupt critical infrastructure and wreak havoc on U.S. institutions. This is reflected in Russian doctrine, which recognizes an information-psychological aspect of cyber confrontation. Furthermore, Russia is exploiting freedom of speech in open democracies by interjecting loudly into social media debates. This problem does not require the government to take control of private media companies or regulate social media platforms. It does require a well-structured and resourced plan to impose costs on Russia.
Currently, the United States lacks a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to counter Russian malign influence operations. Russia exploits this confusion by launching multiple disconnected and seemingly contradictory information campaigns, using Soviet tactics of deception and information distortion. Countering its attempts to create havoc is akin to a whack-a-mole tactic; a better strategy is to impose costs.
Russia has multiple vulnerabilities: an overreliance on high oil and gas prices, economic decline from sanctions, an aging population, underpaid military conscripts, disaffected civilians, anxiety about Western-backed regime change, and loss of great power status. In addition, Russia fears popular unrest within its borders. Controlling such a large nation, which encompasses about an eighth of the globe’s landmass across 11 time zones, has always been a central dilemma for Russian security. Despite Putin’s desired image of a Russian global powerhouse, its current national policy and strategy reveal weaknesses.
Russia’s obsession with color revolutions and regime change reveals a deep insecurity concerning the legitimacy of Putin’s regime—secure nations comfortable with their governance and succession policy do not obsess over regime change. Although the Russian government controls the media and restrains internet applications, Russians still are connected to the outside world via creative cyber workarounds. Russia is not yet in a position to completely control information flow in and out of its borders, and Putin has more reason to fear social media influence than the United States does. Even the smallest crack in the firewall can have existential ramifications.
Dr. Scott Fisher’s research on pressuring Russia in the IE found that Russia is more reactive to the informational instrument of power than diplomatic, military, or economic instruments. When Moscow’s narrative is undermined or attacked in the marketplace of ideas via news or social media, Russia reacts quickly to stifle the opposition and propose counternarratives.
Ideas and news accessible on the internet are a major vector for instability in authoritarian governments, because of the potential for motivating and mobilizing the population in ways that threaten the ruling party. The Bolotnaya Square riots of 2011–2012, where tens of thousands of middle-class Russians protested against a gerrymandered Putin accession to a third term, reveal the vulnerability of authoritarianism.
Other exploitable areas to foster unrest in Russia include healthcare and quality of life comparisons with first-world countries. Life expectancy for males in Russia is 13 years lower than the global average; pharmaceutical drug accessibility and healthcare infrastructure are grossly underfunded. Raising the retirement age in 2018 incited fierce protests, so much so that the regime had to back down and lower the retirement age for women to 55. The decision-making in Moscow is not above scrutiny, and the Russian population is capable of criticizing government policies.
Another Russian vulnerability is that it openly deceives, expending veracity and integrity capital as if in endless supply. While this can result in a short-term gain, there are long-term ramifications. This is evident in the Ukraine, where years of Russian propaganda oversaturation resulted in a desensitized population. Only 8.9 percent of Ukrainians trust Russian TV; among young people, only 2 percent even watch Russian TV. Allocating resources to confront Russian propaganda of this sort is unnecessary and ineffective, as Russia appears to be damaging itself by its own actions. An often-forgotten lesson in psychological warfare is that propaganda is essentially an offensive tool—to deny a lie in most cases merely gives the lie more circulation. Only the most blatant and pernicious disinformation and misinformation should be countered.
Russia Is Not Invincible
When it comes to influence, Russia’s constant interference may backfire in the long term. A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 of 33 countries determined fewer than half of adults across the globe view Russia favorably. Americans’ views of Russia are the lowest they have been in more than a decade. Even Russia’s largest victories, such as those in Crimea and Donbass, involved traditional military power and managed to galvanize Europe in fiercely anti-Russian ways. When Russia interfered in the 2017 French presidential election, it failed miserably. Once the French public was alerted to the fact that Russia was backing Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron achieved a decisive victory. Despite these failures, Russian information warfare cannot be ignored.
The United States and its allies must take to the offense to deter or disrupt Russian activities in the IE. This offense must leverage psychological operations, deception, cyber, and public affairs across the Department of Defense (DoD) in a comprehensive information operations campaign. The United States needs to rebuild linguistic capabilities and invest in expert psychological operations and information operations personnel with analytical expertise in Russian culture. DoD also needs to expand its cyber capabilities, both offensive and defensive. As outlined in the 2020 Cyberspace Solarium Commission Report, Congress should ensure the Cyber National Mission Force is adequately funded and appropriately sized to confront the Russian cyber threat. While simultaneously building these organic capabilities, the United States should encourage emigration and recruit highly educated Eastern European youth with cyber backgrounds.
Unleashing the power of capitalism and a competitive job market on Eastern Europe will draw away its best and brightest minds. Providing financial incentive to potential cyber criminals will drain Russia’s pool of highly trained cyber personnel and increase its cost of employing hackers. The FBI’s success in luring hackers such as Alexey Ivanov to the Unied States is evidence that economic incentives work. Russia loses approximately 350,000 skilled workers per year to various countries; the United States should encourage siphoning this talent from potential Russian military and criminal career pipelines.
In addition to investing in human capital, the United States should more aggressively promote human rights to encourage protests against the Russian government. Diminishing faith in the electoral system and highlighting human rights violations, although difficult under a controlled media, could increase discontent among the population. Encouraging protests focused on destabilizing the Russian regime may reduce the likelihood that Russia pursues aggressive action abroad or in the IE against the United States.
Another strategy to confront Russian information warfare is public disclosure of the activity and education of U.S. civilians—particularly as it relates to cyber and influence. DoD has used this in the past to expose Russian malign activity, bringing more scrutiny of Russian fake news to reduce the influence of the message. Cyber Command’s hunt-forward operations have also exposed Russian cyber tactics, forcing Russia to react and investigate how its malware was discovered. These countermeasures should continue, with hunt-forward operations conducted robustly overseas in partnership with U.S. allies.
National deterrence policy and strategy are just as important now as they were in the Cold War, only the weapons have changed. The United States can create multiple dilemmas and impose costs on Moscow by investing in human capital, siphoning Russian cyber talent, using protest potential, and continuing hunt-forward operations in coordination with Eastern European allies—while avoiding engaging in wasteful counterpropaganda efforts. Russia wants to operate in a gray area, and it will chip away at United States democracy and hegemony until met with an equal or greater force.