Influence Campaigns and the Future of International Competition

The Intersection of Increased Democratization and a Revolution in Information Technologies

The international system is at the onset of a new period of transformation brought about by the interaction of two forces: increased democratization and the revolution in information technologies. There are more democracies than ever before, and there are more tools to easily influence public opinion. Public opinion and the voting preferences derived from it are the center of gravity of democratic states. If a foreign state can shape the opinions and preferences of a democracy’s voters, they can, in effect, shape the policies of that state. As a consequence, public opinion shaping strategies have become more attractive to competitor states seeking to influence their democratic rivals.

General Valery Gerasimov, the Deputy Defense Minister of Russia. (Sputnik/Evgeny Biyatov)

Russian policymakers recognized this dynamic early on and updated their strategic doctrine accordingly. In a 2013 article in the Military-Industrial Courier, the Russian Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov outlined what is now referred to as the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” which states, “the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Gerasimov also declared that Russia can defeat its enemies through a “combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns.” Gerasimov’s leadership role is an important indication of the growing importance of information operations in Russian strategic calculations.

Translated chart taken from Gerasimov's “The Value of Science in Prediction,” from the Military-Industrial Courier. (Michael Kofman/War on the Rocks)

For the last few years, we have witnessed Russia using nonmilitary tools of power to achieve strategic goals, which include undermining NATO, the EU, and the U.S.-led international order. In January 2017, the U.S. Intelligence Community released a report detailing Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The report concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at supporting Donald Trump’s election against his opponent. His reasons for doing so are not hard to surmise: Hillary Clinton promised that she would “deter” Russian aggression in Europe if elected, whereas Donald Trump supported the UK in leaving the EU, spoke ambivalently about NATO, and said he would consider lifting sanctions against Russia. Accordingly, a strategy to shape the preferences and opinions of U.S. voters in support of Donald Trump was the logical coercive action to take in support of Russian strategic goals.

Regardless of how these new incentive structures play out, one thing is clear: the success of Russia’s influence operations illustrates the new normal.

Evidence of Russian operators engaging in similar influence campaigns—shaping public opinion in support of candidates and parties based on Russia’s national interests—is prevalent across Europe. These influence operations are not just limited to shaping preferences during electoral campaigns. In 2016, Russia mobilized its public opinion shaping tools in an attempt to undermine public support for a military partnership between Sweden and NATO. Russia also used similar tools to support the “leave” campaign in the UK. On both occasions, Russia prioritized public opinion shaping tools above traditional hard power tools as a means to achieve two of its highest priority objectives: undermining both NATO and the EU.

Experts may argue that these actions do not represent a new international dynamic. In fact, some may even propose that Russia’s strategic doctrine represents a return to Soviet era active measures. While this may be true, what is different about these strategies is their rising efficacy because there are more democracies in the post-Cold War era, and with the rapid expansion of information technology, even more ways to directly influence their voters.

According to a 2016 Pew Poll, 62% of American adults now get their news from social media sites. Meanwhile, in another 2016 study, Stanford researchers found that even young, savvy social media users were easily duped by fake information sources online, concluding “we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”

Russia has cleverly exploited the new media landscape by creating a well-produced, multilingual television “news” network, building armies of social media users, and promoting viral fake news stories. Russia’s new media tools work in concert, manufacturing and then spreading narratives designed to shift public opinion to benefit Russian national security interests. Norms of free speech and freedom of the press protect Russia’s disinformation campaigns, allowing them to proliferate.

The more that democracies spread and the more their citizens connect online, the more vulnerable they will become to outside influence, subtly shifting international competition into the theater of public opinion.

Russian policy in one country can also have an impact on public opinion elsewhere. Take Syria, where Russia has intervened in a deadly and ongoing civil war. Russia’s motives in Syria have generally been analyzed through a traditional geopolitical framework, emphasizing energy routes, hegemony in the Middle East, and the warm water port in Tartus as motivating factors. However, Russia’s actions in Syria have also had a major impact on attitudes in Europe, where the civil war sparked a refugee crisis and a resultant nativist backlash. As Ian Bremmer stated, “the rise of the far right coincides with fears aroused across Europe by a tidal wave of desperate migrants.”

The far right, anti-immigrant parties of Europe benefiting politically from the refugee crisis also happen to be the pro-Russian parties Russia is actively engaged in influence operations to support. This includes Germany, where the refugee crisis sits at the center of a constellation of activities intended to bring down German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of Russia’s chief rivals both geopolitically and economically.

General Philip Breedlove, U.S. European Command. Testimony on Full Spectrum Security Challenges in Europe. U.S. House Armed Services Committee: Feb 25, 2016.

Perversely, Russia is incentivized to maintain the flow of refugees from Syria to undermine its opponents in Europe and feed disinformation campaigns. This incentive may go a long way towards explaining Russian actions in Syria where it has engaged in seemingly senseless acts of brutality against civilians and refused to negotiate seriously towards a political solution in spite of American acquiescence on core issues. This explanation is corroborated by the March 2016 testimony of former Supreme Allied Commander Europe and U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, “Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration…these indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces—I can't find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else's problem.”

Regardless of how these new incentive structures play out, one thing is clear: the success of Russia’s influence operations illustrates the new normal. The aforementioned 2017 U.S. Intelligence Community report assessed that Moscow will apply its lessons learned from the 2016 U.S influence operation to its future campaigns. This implies that future operations, intended to be covert, will become opaquer and even harder to detect. Russian expertise will only grow with increased attention, as Russia’s defense minister recently announced an expansion of their information warfare capability.

Beyond Russia, there is little doubt other states will see its success and seek to mimic its capabilities. This will be true particularly in authoritarian states, whose bastioned societies ensure asymmetry and shield them from reciprocity. The more that democracies spread and the more their citizens connect online, the more vulnerable they will become to outside influence, subtly shifting international competition into the theater of public opinion.

Ben Sohl is a foreign policy writer and researcher who works at a leading Washington, D.C. think tank. The views provided here are his own, and do not reflect any official position of his employer.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov watch military exercises in Russia's Zabaykalsky region, July 17, 2013. (Newsweek)