The crisis in Ukraine has caught the world’s attention. Visible is the conventional conflict between soldiers and words between leaders. But invisible is the information war that led up to the conventional war. NATO calls it hybrid warfare, but actually, it is a combination of cyberattacks, information campaigns and kinetic force. The sophisticated hybrid warfare and disinformation campaigns are being played by both Russia and the West. The aim is to create a multiplicity of narratives, which fragment the understanding of the opponent. Alongside the physical battles, the mind battles are on.
While a cyberattack is used to create panic and degrade the adversary’s capability to fight, information operations break the resolve to respond and push a narrative conducive to the attacking forces, even legitimising the aggression. Kinetic operations are thus suitably aided by softening the battlefield. This is what NATO accuses Russia of doing over Ukraine.
The credit for coining the term “hybrid warfare” goes to U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Frank G Hoffman, who in 2007 defined it thus: “Hybrid wars incorporate a range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder”.
Russian hybrid war strategies in the 2014 invasion of Crimea were very well thought out. An important element in the success of the Russian approach was the prior establishment of a dominant position for the official Kremlin media in the local population as the primary source of news. Similar agenda-setting is already underway in many Baltic states.
From the earlier experience of Georgia, Crimea and Estonia, it has been noticed that Russian aggression coincided with the dissemination of pro-Russian and anti-Estonian, anti-Georgian or anti-Ukrainian propaganda, with an active intent of public opinion manipulation elsewhere in the world too.
Russia’s rivals in the West practise this whole-heartedly as well. The American or Western approach to these influence operations has centred on perception management, by creating impressions in the mass media and other platforms and steering discussions in the desired direction. These “psy-ops” and “strategic communications” are carefully crafted by state leaders to attain predefined objectives.
The Communist bloc has long accused the West of engineering revolutions and organising regime change across the world. In fact, it was the threat of an imminent “colour revolution” overturning a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, that may have precipitated a military response by Russia, resulting in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. “Colour” and “flower” revolutions across the world, as also the Arab springs, are widely believed to have been aided and abetted by western powers using mass and social media.
In a Kremlin-produced film chronicling the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Putin declares the mission of Russian forces to be, “to save the life of the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych, to protect the rights of minorities and Russian-speakers, and to liberate Crimea and bring it back to the homeland.”
Vladimir Lefebvre, the original theorist of “reflexive control” theory, posits that an adversary uses information about the other side when making decisions. It then aims to disrupt and control the decision-making algorithm of the opponent. In practice, this is achieved by feeding selective information or providing disinformation to influence the voluntary decisions of the adversary. This tactic is skillfully used to shape public discourse, set an agenda and manipulate the understanding of events.
Some of the very successful techniques used are as follows: Show of force to precipitate a crisis; providing false information; use of surprise to force decisions; interfering with an adversary’s decision-making process. These approaches involve the use of “maskirovka” — camouflage, denial, and deception — and may even include systematic modelling by intelligence agencies and policy establishment of an adversary’s thought processes, publication of deliberately-distorted doctrines, and feeding distorted information to an enemy’s key figures.
A surprising aspect of these information operations is that the mode and manner of messaging are considered irrelevant, and a large number of different channels — from radio to mobile, word-of-mouth to government reports — are used till it reaches just a small section of the mainstream media on the other side, which then picks it up and starts discussing it in public.
The aim is the creation of a multiplicity of narratives, which fragment the understanding of the other side. Leakage of confidential information, telling of tactical truths and creation of several alternative versions, creates a situation where the official channels are no longer trusted. This technique also feeds on the trust deficit between the other government and its citizenry.
Such information operations use the techniques of elaboration, persuasion, manipulation, reiteration (repeating it again and again), wedging (causing dissensions) and seeding (agenda-setting).
Russia, with its Communist past, has substantial expertise in propaganda. It is effectively used to generate, spread and amplify narratives in various languages across several geographies and demographics. When the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 went missing in July 2014, the pro-Kremlin propaganda networks seized the opportunity to generate a huge volume of disinformation about the complicity of Ukraine in its disappearance. Russian mass media, official and unofficial Twitter accounts, bots and sock puppets created and shared a flurry of doctored images, videos and even fake first-person accounts to defame Ukraine.
Ukraine’s security service, SBU, recently took down two bot farms operating under the Russians, in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. These farms controlled more than 18,000 bots, engaged in spreading rumours of bombings and placement of “mines” etc. thereby engaging in disruptive influence operations.
The mind battles are on. So beware, whatever is read or heard about the crisis in Ukraine from any side, has to be taken with a pinch of salt, vetted with common sense and ascertained to be true, before it is passed on.
This article was first published in The Indian Express.
Brijesh Singh is Adjunct Distinguished Fellow, Cybersecurity Studies, and Additional Director General for Maharashtra Police.