IWP’s Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz was invited to speak at the US Army Europe Senior Leaders Forum which took place from January 12-14, 2015 in Wiesbaden, Germany on the topic of “Strong Europe.” There were several panels held, in which panelists delivered general remarks and answered analytic questions. Prof. Chodakiewicz was one of the only non-government experts to participate.
On January 13, he gave remarks at a panel entitled “Russian Military Modernization, Influence Operations, and Russian Operational Art from Georgia, ZAPAD-13, to Ukraine and Donbas.” Other panelists included high level intelligence officers, a senior civilian defense specialist, and a diplomat.
The leadership conference included NATO allies: Germans, Spanish, Belgians, British, and others. The bulk of the audience consisted of brigade and some regiment commanders, generals, State Department officials, and DoD representatives. The audience also included senior officers and NCOs, including from the units slated to be deployed to Ukraine.
A version of Dr. Chodakiewicz’s comments appear below.
An Integrated Strategy and Counterintelligence Operation
In the past few years, the Kremlin has brought forth a dazzling array of its tools of statecraft, combining political warfare, public diplomacy, active measures, disinformation, propaganda, covert actions, and military power, including conventional and guerrilla operations. In a word, President Vladimir Putin predictably has pursued power to restore the empire. Moscow has deployed methods on which it has relied from times immemorial. We deal here with continuity rather than discontinuity. Thus, the Kremlin’s moves could be anticipated. This is plain, despite the shocking surprise of some of the Western observers who failed to predict Russia’s expansion and, consequently, their flawed attempts to understand the phenomena at play. For example, some of them discovered the alleged novelty of “hybrid warfare.” Yet, what we have seen from Georgia to Ukraine is a traditional, irregular fighting method which has adopted itself to new circumstances by incorporating new technologies.
As I argued in my Intermarium, history undergirds Putin’s moves, his imperial aim remains immutable; and his tools of statecraft are fixed. Within this context, let us look at Moscow’s soft power, strategic messaging, propaganda narrative, military build-up, and new technologies, including cyber and social media capabilities. We shall also briefly consider the relationship between Russia’s economic resources and will to power, as well as the capacity of Western sanctions to diminish both.
I. The Context
The context allowing us to understand Russia requires remembering the factors which have continued to inform Russian conduct for several hundreds of years. First, the Russian Federation is a despotic and patrimonial polity with its Byzantine caesaro-papism (no division between church and state and, hence, no sphere of freedom) descending from the Mongol-controlled Duchy of Moscow and its successors: the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Second, another thread of continuity stems from the fact that the Russian Federation is a product of the transformation of Communism into post-Communism, and not liberal democracy. The transformation ensured that the institutions and the personnel of the totalitarian state have survived to haunt their subjects and the rest of the world into the 21st century. This is the deeper meaning of Putin’s famous dictum, “once a Chekist, always a Chekist.” Third, continuity in the Russian Federation pertains further to the modus operandi of the regime. Marxist-Leninist dialectics allow the Kremlin to be very flexible and pragmatic, amoral, and relativistic. No longer a millenarian ideology, which masked as “science,” promising paradise on earth by following a self-anointed vanguard of the proletariat, Marxism-Leninism serves the post-Communist successors of the vanguard as a handy tool to maintain themselves in power by deftly exercising control over the captive Russian population.
II. The Aim
What is the aim of the Russian post-Communist regime? It wants to maintain Putin and his team in power. It endeavors to restore the empire in three areas. Its first target is the so-called “near abroad” (the newly liberated nations of the old USSR); next on the list are the former Warsaw Pact countries; and, finally, there follows whatever else the logic of imperial expansion dictates. In a way, the sky is always the theoretical limit, but the resources, will, and means inevitably tend to serve as a check on the imperial appetites. Restoring the empire means anything between incorporation and satellitezation. This is accomplished through a variety of means — including cultural and economic influence, for example, the much feared energy weapon vis-à-vis the European Union — deployed shrewdly to undermine and even disintegrate the Western Alliance, NATO in particular.
III. The Tools
What are the tools? Moscow deploys the following resources:
1. Energy revenues and shady business deals. The latter usually involve raw materials and minerals. They function in a world of murky financial transactions involving a multitude of related companies acquired in the past twenty-odd years by post-Soviet nationals, mostly the oligarchs, with often rumored criminal underworld ties, whose actions are increasingly coordinated with the Russian state.
2. Integrated strategy
- Active measures (all tricks short of violence, including spies and agents of influence, e.g., the activities of the Anna Chapman group in New York; the Snowden operation)
- Counterintelligence and “wet affairs” (e.g., the Alexander Litvinienko assassination, kidnapping of an Estonian intelligence officer from his country into Russia)
- Swaggering (including Russia’s antics in the Arctic and airspace violation through overflights in the US, Canada, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, as well as coastal water penetration via submarines, as has been experienced lately by Sweden [BBC, 11 December 2014])
- Sheer force (war against Georgia in 2008, invasion of Crimea in 2014)
- The will to deploy all of the above
IV. Questions and problems
1. What are Russia’s main sources of soft power?
- Iron will of the leader and his team
- Popular resentment of the West among the post-Soviet Russian people
- Western naiveté and gullibility
2. Do Russian leaders view soft power the same way that Western leaders do? The short answer is an emphatic “No!” A long response follows:
a. True, both Western and Russian leaders recognize soft power as a tool of statecraft, but that’s where similarities end.
b. For Western leaders, the Americans in particular, “soft power” is a zinger, a sound bite, a gimmick to distinguish oneself from the allegedly troglodyte past of the previous administration. Soft power should serve to make things nice, to show that the Americans are also from Venus. At best, in the West, soft power is a stand-alone phenomenon uncoordinated with other endeavors of exercising political will.
c. The Kremlin regards soft power as just one tool in a vast arsenal of statecraft. In coordination with other tools of power, it is used to dominate, to intimidate, and to achieve strategic objectives.
3. How does Russia use social media or cyber operations to promote its strategic message?
It does so by deploying new technologies to project time-worn propaganda messages, in a protracted campaign dubbed by Russian dissidents as the “weaponization of information,” by:
a. Waging cyberwar or cyberattacks to:
- Intimidate and destroy cyberinfrastructure (Estonia – 2007; Ukraine – 2013-now; Poland – on and off; US – consistently), including once in conjunction with kinetic military operations (Georgia – 2008)
- Implement stricter controls over its own population, to counter cyberspying, and to foster paranoia (e.g., Red October virus – 2012, see https://www.iwp.edu/news_publications/detail/the-red-october-virus-a-pretext-for-putins-crackdown)
b. Using social media to:
c. As far as new cybertechnologies, the Kremlin’s methods include deploying:
- Fake websites (including on Facebook, e.g. to spread disinformation about the war in eastern Ukraine or its particular aspects, like the downing of the Malaysian Air passenger plane in July 2014)
- “Doctoring” Wikipedia pages
- Fake virtual think tanks (e.g., Center for Eurasian Strategic Intelligence, see interpretermag.com, 15 December 2014)
- Propaganda tweets and hubs (e.g., dearputin.com is set up to allow foreigners to apologize to Putin for Western “aggression” in Ukraine; the website is available in 19 languages; or so-called “source-laundry assets,” news websites, legitimizing the Kremlin’s propaganda spin in one accessible place for local and foreign media to pick it up)
- Trolls on the internet (various fora, and comment sections of on-line newspapers)
- Hackers and destruction, or at least crippling, of web news sources deemed hostile to the Kremlin
- Setting up new and improved English language news media, e.g., Russia Today (RT), Sputnik News (the latter projected to employ from 30 to 100 people in each of its 130 studios in 34 countries, including 100 staff in Kyiv, propagandizing in 30 languages, see Guardian, 6 January 2015)
- Promoting, through the Kremlin’s media empire, of the Western and “near abroad” useful idiots, agents of influence, and others parroting Moscow’s propaganda line, who otherwise would linger in obscurity (e.g., an erstwhile populist Samoobrona [Self-Defense] activist, Mateusz Piskorski, in Poland, or the leaders of a radical nationalist miniscule group, Falanga; a bevy of similar non-entities and pro-Russian extremists elsewhere in Europe; the pseudo-Atlanticists in Germany, thus ensuring that the Kremlin’s message spreads and the unity of the West suffers, e.g., Interpretermag.com, 11 December 2014, http://www.interpretermag.com/in-this-info-war-the-problem-is-not-only-russia/)
- Seemingly legitimate Russian and allied news media patiently and consistently repeating Soviet-vintage propaganda to control the narrative which, in turn infects the Western media echo chamber (e.g., one of the most popular is the canard that the Red Army “liberated” Poland in 1945, completely ignoring that liberation means bringing freedom, and Stalin merely pushed out and replaced Hitler as a new occupier. How could anyone be liberated by Stalin?)
4. What are the most salient features and themes of the Kremlin’s propaganda offensive?
a. An endeavor to occupy high moral ground, through:
- Waging a peace offensive against the West’s defending itself (e.g., vs. deploying US missiles in Romania, see TASS, 17 December 2014)
- Condemning violence (e.g., vs. torture by the CIA, see TASS, 17 December 2014)
- Exposing and branding “fascism” and “the fascists” (e.g., the new government of Ukraine and, in particular, its voluntary militias)
- Defense of Christian civilization (e.g., against “gay propaganda”)
b. An effort to purvey disinformation and sow mistrust to undermine NATO and other allies of the United States
- The Snowden affair (which has become an intelligence and counterintelligence operation by Moscow, see https://www.iwp.edu/news_publications/detail/snowden-hero-or-traitor)
- Wikileaks (which should now be considered primarily as a platform for foreign intelligence influence operations rather than merely a cyber anarcho-hactivist performance art)
- The Western paleo-conservative and libertarian duping (which afflicts Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul followers who see Vladimir Putin either as a champion of traditional values or a victim of Western aggression into “his” sphere of influence; e.g., http://sfppr.org/2014/04/putins-active-measures-buchanans-grief/)
5. How do Russia’s domestic strategic messages differ from its foreign messages?
The target audiences are differentiated according to a sophisticated variety of criteria. Sometimes propaganda messages overlap; however, oftentimes the accents on various propaganda features are distributed differently based on whether they are intended for domestic consumption or for foreign use. Propaganda for domestic use can sound quite hysterical. In the “near abroad” it can be very virulent, in particular in Ukraine. For example, in Kharkiv the pro-Russian underground stuffed mailboxes of Ukrainian activists, including those employed by NGOs, with a Christmas message that read: “We’ll get every single one of you Nazi scum,” virtually an exact replica of letters addressed to Nazi collaborators during the Second World War by Communist guerrillas (see Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8 January 2015, http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-bombing-campaign-odesa-kharkiv-mariupol-kyiv/26783218.html). The regime often practices the art of allusion that is quite readable at home, and quite obscure abroad, in the West in particular.
a. Domestic consumption:
- The Kremlin narrates its aggression in Ukraine, the Baltics, and Caucasus as if Russia were fighting the Second World War all over again. It includes attacking its opponents in the “near abroad” as “the fascists,” while assistance to the rebels and Russian minorities is dubbed “fraternal assistance,” which — at the same time — the government denies to be rendering. The assault on the near abroad (nearly identical for both foreign and domestic reception) is pregnant with the symbolism of the Second World War, which is projected in a much more emotional manner for the domestic consumer.
- Moscow claims (both for domestic and foreign audiences) to be defending Jews in Ukraine from fascists and anti-Semites. However, simultaneously, it blames the “oligarchs” — a by-word for “the Jews” — as having taken over in Ukraine, a cryptic message that is easily read by Russia’s domestic audience.
- The Russian Federation pursues a pro-active policy of support for the Russian minority (or, rather, more accurately, post-Soviet Russian speakers) residing outside of the state’s boundaries, primarily in the near abroad (but also elsewhere in the diaspora, e.g. Cyprus). The concern for these “Russians” is expressed in nationalistic, cultural, and religious terms. They are “fellow Russians,” “our [(post) Soviet] people,” and Christian Orthodox. The existence of large Russian-speaking former post-colonial remnants is the main tool of Moscow’s influence in the “near abroad.” The Kremlin meddles in the affairs of foreign countries by invoking “human rights” in defense of the allegedly “oppressed” Russian minority, and additionally boosts its strength by providing economic and diplomatic assistance, which translate mainly into cultural continuity with the Soviet times and continuous alienation from mainstream cultures through resistance to assimilation. The Russian minority is the main tool of Russian imperialism. This is not only evident in Ukraine, but in the Baltics in particular.
- Putin singles out the Poles as the greatest threat and the main troublemakers (e.g, the Poles, at the behest of the US, allegedly trained the Kyiv Maidan fighters, and “Polish mercenaries” allegedly battle the rebels in the Donbas). Historically, the Poles were the main rivals of the Muscovites in the struggle to dominate of the Intermarium, the land between the Black and Baltic seas, and the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919 – 1921 was the only time in history that the Red Army was defeated in the field. Hence, at the symbolic level, the Russian President replaced the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution commemoration with a holiday celebrating the termination of the occupation of Moscow by the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania-Ruthenia in 1612. All this is absolutely obvious at home in Russia, and uniformly ignored in the West. The Kremlin hastens not to explicate this complicated issue beyond the post-Soviet zone.
- The chief successor state to the USSR loudly proclaims its unity of purpose with Orthodox (Russian) Christian faith. It vows to uphold it as Russia’s true faith, while accommodating as junior confessions Judaism and Islam. Protestant Christianity is treated as a sect, and Catholicism regarded as “a Polish religion,” and dangerous theological and political competition.
b. Narratives for foreign consumption:
- Russia stands for freedom and protects dissidents in fear of persecution in the West (Snowden)
- Russia supports Christian civilization against the West’s counterculture, in particular “gay propaganda.”
- The Euro-Maidan Rising was a US-engineered coup
- War in Ukraine is about defeating fascism; the pro-Russian rebels are anti-fascists; the Ukrainians are fascists.
- Russia is not supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine; the foreign fighters there are uniformly volunteers.
- Ukrainians commit mass atrocities (and Russian propaganda outlets duly produce pictures from the Chechen wars which they peddle as Kyiv’s murderous actions; similarly, fake witnesses appear to testify about alleged Ukrainian atrocities, including, e.g., a ubiquitous woman who – under different guises and multiple identities – swears to have participated in at least a dozen affairs simultaneously, see Euobserver.com, 8 January 2015)
- Russia and Russian-backed rebels are a pro-Jewish force for they protect Jews from “the fascists” (this is perhaps the most blatant way to pander to the Western media and public)
- Moscow protects the “human rights” of minorities (without stressing the Kremlin’s chief, if not sole interest in the Russians)
6. Do Russians believe their government’s strategic message? Are they genuinely aggrieved and threatened by the West?
Yes, most of them do. They perceive the West as having destroyed their beloved USSR and as invading “their” space via NATO expansion, free trade, and cultural imperialism (McDonald’s, rock music, drugs, AIDS, and subversive ideologies, including feminism, gay liberation, and sexual revolution). Despite their own atheism or agnosticism, which they have dubbed as “cultural Christian Orthodoxy,” they condemn the West as “godless” and irreverent on the account of the dominant counter-cultural paradigm of the 1960s in the mainstream of the United States and its allies.
7. What are the economic limits on Russia’s ability to influence its near abroad? What about Europe?
Short of a collapse on a scale experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there are practically no limits. There is only the will of Putin and his team. The old adage that the Russians will “eat grass,” if that is what it takes to defeat the West, still applies.
8. What is the goal of Russia’s military modernization and how might it be set back by recent economic sanctions?
The goal is restoring the empire. It is to put the Russian military back on par with America’s. As far as the threat to Russia’s modernization through Western sanctions, it depends how serious the United States, the European Union, and Japan are about economic warfare. It seems that they are not too serious since they appear to want to chastise gently the post-Soviets, rather than cripple and even less destroy them. Serious economic sanctions would mean a serious setback to Russia’s military modernization campaign, but only in a long run. In the short run, Moscow has either invented or, more often, stolen enough technologies and generated enough revenue to accomplish at least some of its plans to catch up with the US. Serious sanctions — denial of credit, markets, and new technologies – would ensure that the accomplishments would not be sustainable in the long run.
9. What are Russia’s biggest achievements to date in military modernization?
The greatest accomplishments are maintaining world-class nuclear forces (as the Kremlin like to brag, the Russian Federation is the only nation that can destroy the United States for it inherited the USSR’s nuclear capabilities) and fielding fearsome special forces, as well as resurrecting the navy, its submarine component in particular. Beyond that Russia’s military is inferior and often corrupt, suffering poor morale among regular troops (which is plagued by high suicide rates and endemic hazing of the recruits). The so-called revolution in military affairs has impacted only the elite branches of the military, while neglecting most others.
10. What is the Russian military strategy for the next 3 to 5 years?
In general, it is to regain whatever it lost following the implosion of the USSR. In particular, the military is set to slowly cannibalize the “near abroad” through active measures and special operations waiting for an opportunity to strike and expand. It aims to prevent any of the “near abroad” from either joining the West or succumbing to the Caliphatists (Islamists).
11. How is Russia most likely to implement Hybrid Warfare and what is most challenging for a conventional force in countering this form of war?
“Hybrid Warfare” is a misnomer suggesting a new phenomenon, when it is a traditional Russian fighting method. It is a fancy name for a combined tactic of irregular operations (guerrilla war, asymmetric actions, commando tactics, etc.) that the upstart Muscovities learned from the nomadic Mongols from the 13th century onward. The only difference is that the Kremlin incorporated new technologies, including cyber operations, to facilitate their ongoing success. Irregular operations misnamed “Hybrid Warfare” are nothing new. The greatest challenge is to recognize them for what they are and counter them with the same and/or massive civil disobedience. Their latest Crimean and eastern Ukrainian avatar concerned the deployment of the following traditional components:
- “Tin cans” (konservy), or military intelligence officers who galvanized, organized, and led the rebellion
- “Green people” (Russian special forces infiltrators) who provided the backbone for rebel operations
- Volunteers, real and imagined (both locals and outsiders)
12. What has Russia not yet achieved in terms of military modernization?
It has not achieved a comprehensive revolution in military affairs. It has not empowered its NCO corps because that would undermine the pathological culture of denying and withholding initiative and responsibility at the tactical level. Finally, it has not yet stolen the newest technology to integrate fully all its military branches.
13. How do Russia’s use of information operations and strategic messaging benefit military operations?
Generally, information operations and strategic messaging directed at the West ensure that the responses by the United States and its allies are confused, feeble, and delayed, if any. At the tactical level, information operations and strategic messaging paved the way for a virtually bloodless victory in Crimea. This was a brilliant deception operation which confused and disarmed the defenders. The invaders claimed to have descended upon Crimea to defend the locals against the “fascists” in Kyiv. They avoided the use of violence, whenever possible, instead disarming the Ukrainian forces psychologically by invoking Slavic and post-Soviet “brotherhood,” intimidating through swaggering with an overwhelming force, and bribing many to defect.
14. How could Russia’s strategic messages be most effectively challenged?
This is a piecemeal question. I shall try to answer comprehensively addressing issues beyond strategic messaging to suggest, first, remedies to the current crisis, and, then, strategies to handle the Kremlin consistently.
- Move NATO nations and their allies beyond debating whether to counter to how to counter Russia’s “weaponization of information,” i.e. its infowars, by drawing from vast Cold War experience, in particular from the 1980s, instead of reinventing the wheel (e.g., Euobserver.com, 8 January 2015).
- Integrate strategic communications of NATO and its allies, while retaining local flavor of each of the participant crafted to particular challenges.
- Craft NATO messages pro-actively, anticipating the Kremlin’s moves
- Provide cultural translation to second tier NATO nations, in particular the Mediterranean countries to help them understand issues at stake and to counter Russian disinformation
- Carry out the same operation for Third World consumption
- Create English language multiple media platforms to influence Western public opinion to alarm it to the nature of post-Soviet aggression
- Produce social media shows on topics of interest to counter Russian propaganda, in particular where it has seeped successfully into the Western public circulation because of the complicity, conscious or unconscious, of the prestige media (e.g., NATO has produced a Youtube video to dispel the Kremlin propaganda canard that western Ukraine consists entirely of fascists, see Financial Times, 7 December 2014)
- Create a Russian language media platform (TV, radio, internet) to influence the Russian speaking public all over the world: Radio, TV, and Web Liberty (RTVWL). Open its offices in all nations of the post-Soviet zone, in the “near abroad” and Russia itself in particular.
- Create separate web-based platforms to counter each of Russia’s propaganda narratives (e.g., that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine); make the endeavor interactive; post pictures and crowdsource; get the greatest public involvement possible at all levels.
- Jam Russian broadcasts in response to jamming Western media activities; respond to Moscow’s blocking of Western web-based platforms by taking down Russian internet infrastructure.
- Require reciprocity in media access. E.g., if Sputnik News opens an office in DC, then RTVWL must be permitted to set one up in Moscow. If Russia Today (RT) is allowed to broadcast in the United States, broadband and cable access is automatically granted to RTVWL in the Russian Federation.
- Wage cyberwar against the Kremlin cybertrolls and hackers
- Launch a public diplomacy program for Russian children; make it a part of educational exchanges. If the Russians want to send neo-Line X “scientists,” they may do so at the pain of expulsion but, more importantly, only if Russian children can be exposed to the American way of life — of course in Middle America as opposed to Manhattan, Los Angles, or San Francisco.
- If the US really wants peace, it should give a nuclear deterrent to Poland or station a missile defense force there.
If we are willing to learn from history, we shall see that Russia is quite predictable in its moves. Putin simply applies a traditional combination of military power, active measures, propaganda, political warfare, and diplomacy to achieve the reintegration of the empire. However, the West has an enormous technological and resource advantage. Unfortunately, it lacks unity, focus, and will. In particular, the United States has been incapable of providing leadership as far as resurgent Russia is concerned. The solution is simple: to reverse the course and realize America’s potential to make the world a safer place by countering the Kremlin’s aggression.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Wiesbaden, 13 January 2015
Photo above by the US Army.