Russia’s greatest weapon

Russia today is one of the top weapons manufacturer in the world, its weapons are, however, not limited to arms and ammunition but have extended to the state manufacturing of disinformation. The disinformation campaign is a very 21st century form of weapon based on the increased and instant access to information via the various information platforms that exist. The European Union is probably the first to recognise this new Russian weapon, essentially because of the direct harm it caused them in form of false news about violence and terrorism in East European nations spread by Russian news outlets. In response, the EU has set up a the East StratCom Task Force in 2015, which acts as a fact checking mechanism.

Its aim is to detect the disinformation generated and countering it with factually correct information, especially in regard to the policies of the European Union. This should strengthen the media environment in East Europe in particular, and the European Union in general. To further strengthen its resolve against disinformation, a High-Level Group on fake news and online disinformation has been appointed by the European Commission on January 12. The Group, comprised of 39 experts, will “contribute to the development of an EU-level strategy on how to tackle fake news, to be presented in spring 2018”, according to the Commission.

While the process of countering disinformation is in a way continuous and constant, the larger question that looms is the motive and intent of this disinformation and how it plays into furthering the pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Preferring to draw from its imperial past, Russia has never been a big supporter of democracy. While a constitutional democracy itself, the Russian Federation is authoritarian to a high degree, ruled by an authoritarian President, in which the constitution of the country has vested immense power.

This is evident from the fall of Russian Freedom rating to 7 (0 being most free and 7 not free) and has been declared as a state without freedom by Freedom House for two consecutive years so far. Therefore, the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign plays into the larger aim of the government of Russia, which lies upon three levels:

First level – rewrite history. In the month of January last year, we saw some creative attempts to adjust history in pro-Kremlin media. For example, it was claimed that President Putin never waged a war on Chechnya and Chechens, but was in fact fighting Western-funded international terrorists and freeing Chechen people from their destructive influence and violence. Another, more absurd news stated that the ancient language Sanskrit is of Russian origin, for which there was no historical evidence to back this claim. These news cycles attempt to construct a narrative of the history that validates the governments action, as in the case of Chechnya, and also creates a sense of historical superiority of the country, as seen in the attempt to associate Sanskrit with a Russian past.

The second level is to confuse the audience. As in the case of the nine rounds of disinformation cycle relating to Malaysian plane MH17, the pro-Kremlin groups have weaved nine different stories by many sources such as, to amplify and strengthen the false message and clutter the facts of the Joint Investigation Team which points towards the role of Russia in shooting down the plane. By flooding people with varied ‘truths’ it not only confuses people, but also at times makes people sceptic towards all versions.

Both the first and the second level play into the larger third level that is to create aversion towards liberal democracy. This can be seen in the form of the anti-western news broadcasts that suggest that the West and/or NATO planned to reduce Russia after the fall of the USSR to the size of the historical Grand Duchy of Moscow.

Like in any good spy novel, it all supposedly came from secret documents obtained by Russian intelligence services. There was no further information concerning why the West and/or NATO had a plan to divide Russia according to medieval territorial borders, but the curious disinformation was repeated both in Russian and English outlets. Needless to say, the claims were not accompanied with any proof of the existence of such a ‘Grand Duchy plan’.

The disinformation campaign helps the Kremlin create a Russia that is susceptible to an authoritarian rule since the people have no sense of hope or belief in the institution of liberal democracies. Domestically, it creates a sense of helplessness and despair among the people. The three levels of the campaign are working towards weaving a society that lacks civic participation and a healthy democracy and in a way is manufacturing the consent of people through a ‘brain-wash’. This can potentially lead to change of regime type in the future.

However, it is not just the dying Russian democracy that is the worst victim of the Russian disinformation campaign. 2017 saw series of countries and their election mechanisms – the foundation of democratic institutions – come under attack, be it the US presidential elections, the French elections or elections in Germany

. Particularly, in the case of the US election, which was relatively more effected by the disinformation news cycles, President Donald Trump passed it off as ‘fake news’ and continues to dismiss and ignore the larger threat of disinformation that looms over.

The weaponisation of information, also termed as a form of hybrid warfare, is not some project devised by a Kremlin policy expert but is an integral part of Russian military doctrine – what some senior military figures call a “decisive” battlefront. Rather, it is now become a military as well as a foreign policy tool, through which Russia is contrasting narratives across countries and at times completely distorting domestic processes, especially in East European Baltic nations, Poland, and Scandinavia.

Even now, it is only the European Union through its East StratCom Task Force, as well as the independent polices of Member States, that are actively engaging in this battle of information. Even in the East StratCom there is only a tiny group of merely 13 people, together with the soon-to-be-added 39 members of the High-Level Group, who have to fight against thousands of disinformation channels.

If other relevant parties soon do not accept the reality of the Russian weaponisation of information, their domestic communication channels will be clogged with disinformation and will fracture the spirit of democracy. Information today multiples like a hydra, this battle to set the narrative by manipulating information can only be won by countering fake and wrong information with correct and verified information.

This piece was a joint effort between InPRA and GA monitoring 

Varya Srivastava

Varya Srivastava

Intern at InPRA
Varya Srivastava is presently pursing her undergraduate degree in Political Science from University of Delhi. Her work with the United Services Institute, Global Youth India and SheSays has nurtured her interest in security studies, international relations, conflict analysis and feminism. As a part of her undergraduate research she is writing on the application Democratic Peace Theory as foreign policy tool and the conception of positive peace.
Varya Srivastava