Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine that followed negatively affected Russia’s international prestige. However, in contrast to the external reaction, the domestic population demonstrated higher support for national policies. Not only did the Russian public perceive the return of Crimea as a glorious military victory, the government-controlled narrative also managed to spread the effects of such success to positively perceiving the domestic situation as well.
The Russian military is developing the doctrine and capabilities for gaining and contesting battlefield awareness that will pose a significant challenge to U.S. forces in any future conflict with Russia. The military’s focus on information dominance extends from a broader belief among Russian leadership that information confrontation is one of the fundamental ways in which states compete. While the Russian military has always been adept at bringing tremendous firepower to bear during combat operations, it has also been a brawler, needing to get in contact with its opponent before being able to fight.
Tactical, operational, and strategic success requires a cultural change to reconcile institutional aversion and reluctance toward non-lethal information warfare. To dominate the information domain before, during, and after the next conflict, significant change is required in the U.S. military’s approach toward training and education of information as a warfighting function, and information operations as a discipline.
Although the vehicle of social media has certainly increased the speed by which disinformation reaches its recipients, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to sow internal division among his adversaries is in no way a novel undertaking, and western leaders should be hesitant to paint Russian propaganda as an earth-shaking revelation in the 21st century. This isn’t a reinvention of Russia’s unconventional warfare paradigm; it’s a continuation of it.
Political warfare and a geopolitical actor’s pursuit of political dominance is not new. The Soviet Union’s success during the Vietnam era showcases the importance of political warfare as the KGB was able to sow distrust and promote anti-war sentiment in the United States. In today’s digital age, social media is a powerful and potentially a dangerous weapon that can erode trust within society and its government. I do not suggest that political warfare acts as the backbone in projecting power or influence abroad.
The international stage is complex and fluid, continuously changing, but human nature and the selfish intentions to achieve power have not changed in millennia. The Kremlin has added another facet to their political warfare through the savvy exploitation of new media. They are taking advantage of the West’s belief systems by conducting an end-around and using a form of malicious soft power to gain a position of advantage.
The United States needs a unifying information strategy. America’s adversaries gain political and military advantages every day the U.S. goes without clear priorities in the current information war. To succeed, American military leaders and political scientists emphasize prioritizing the use of resources. The prioritization of these resources requires a comprehensive strategy.
Tales of the demise of non-kinetic, information effects are greatly exaggerated, but that doesn't stop information operations from being controversial at best, and ineffective at worst. The reason is a matter of preference: deliver the emotional impact of a kinetic strike against a threat, or endure the statistical drudgery of sorting non-kinetic signal from noise. The US spends more on kinetic hardware than many militaries combined, so the Pentagon’s preferences are obvious. Yet information flows, their data generating processes, their interpretation and their implications for battlefield and non-battlefield environments are set to increase exponentially. The challenge in a national security context is not only to think all the way through the information effects of the structure behind the transmission of signal but also through how the signal is received, processed and acted upon by behavioral agents. The national security context has largely focused on the former, to the detriment of the latter.
Effects-Based Operations was the last overarching airpower strategy embraced by the USAF, but its influence has waned over the last decade, and no airpower theory has taken its place. This has had very real consequences; Airmen have come to believe airpower exists simply to support ground operations, as opposed to a mechanism to deter, shape, and win conflicts. The USAF is desperately in need of an overarching airpower strategy to explain to itself, and the joint and coalition community, what airpower is capable of, and how it will be employed in current and future conflicts across the realm of military operations.
Much has been written about the morass that is Syria, and current U.S. approaches have more limitations than opportunities there due in large part to the “war of all against all” conditions. Ukraine on the other hand, is the proverbial low-hanging, and equally importantly, ripe fruit for U.S. support. This does not mean that it is without problems; quite the contrary. But equally so, it provides opportunities for the U.S. to foster its identity as a democratic Great Power, one that supports those who bear the mantle of responsive government––in clear contrast to both Russian and Chinese dictatorships, and rival regional and non-state powers vying for influence on the global stage.
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. Even 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.
Weaponizing a narrative resembles weaponizing a disease in several ways. One similarity is that neither is kinetic, yet both can have immense effects. Both are dangerous and chaotic, but are less dangerous to the faction prepared for the risks—or with less to lose. Like viruses, narratives can combine to create overwhelming effects, and can appear and propagate with unnerving rapidity. Unlike viruses, though, the narrative is so inexpensive that almost anyone can weaponize and deploy it. Also unlike viruses, the weaponized narrative targets our minds.
The good news about China’s anti-access/area denial actions in the South China Sea and beyond may be that in apparently selecting a hybrid strategy, China has chosen to operate in the Phase 0/Gray Zone/Shaping area, thus avoiding activity that generates an overt military response. That said, the strategy involves brinksmanship, so proper use of information operations is critical to communicate intentions and avoid miscommunications leading to miscalculations and overt military conflict. Information operations can also cloud Chinese calculations to make preemptive strikes less appealing and more fraught with risk.
Russia showed the world the effectiveness of social media as a weapon system in the cyber domain. By leveraging the population against one another, it successfully took ground from another sovereign nation without the employment of massed conventional forces. Future conflicts will involve civilian populations as connected, or more connected, as those in Crimea, and the employment of social media will be essential to shaping the narrative of U.S. Army operations. As the Russian government proved, through proper timing, messaging, and population targeting, social media has the potential to manipulate the outcome of a conflict and win a complex engagement.
Looking to Putin’s intelligence apparatus is not to witness the genesis of political information warfare. In fact, the United States was birthed in a stew of information, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda projected by competing entities both internally and externally. Thus, instead of looking at the apparent success of Russian intelligence in the recent election as the perfected form of information warfare, it is worth considering colonial and revolutionary America to appreciate the historical precedent and perspective.