Putin's New Wars
A student of European Studies is studying Russia’s propaganda activities in other countries for his thesis.
Feb 22, 2017
Bruno Kahl, the head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s federal intelligence agency, is worried: Could the Russian government affect the outcome of the Bundestag elections? He has warned about hacking in interviews, drawing a parallel to the U.S. presidential election. American intelligence agencies are certain, at any rate, that IT experts acting on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin stirred up negative sentiment against Hillary Clinton in social networks and hacked Democratic Party e-mails during the 2016 election campaign.
“I was surprised how many elements of disinformation I recognized in the U.S. election campaign,” Steffen Dobbert says. A journalist by trade, Dobbert is a graduate of the master’s degree program in European Studies, which was established in 1998 at the initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office and is offered jointly by Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, and Technische Universität Berlin.
His thesis is entitled Die Lügen des Kreml: Wie die EU in Anbetracht des Georgien- und Ukraine-Krieges auf die neue russische hybride Kriegsführung reagieren kann [The Kremlin’s Lies: How the EU Can Respond to the New Hybrid Russian Warfare in Light of the War in Georgia and Ukraine]. “These days, successful warfare is defined less by military weapons systems and more by superior social organization and dissemination of information,” Dobbert says. “Information that can influence the public is the most important weapon in the new, hybrid wars we see today.”
This kind of targeted disinformation is part of a new form of military conflict, known in the literature as “hybrid warfare.” A country attacks another country’s computer systems – in some cases, through secret operations – spreads disinformation aimed at the public, develops a kind of diplomacy to accompany a war that focuses particularly on political and economic pressure, and conducts conventional military operations, including air and land strikes, at the same time.
Admittedly, this is not a new strategy. On their campaigns of conquest in the 13th century, the Mongols made sure to allow some survivors to escape and tell others what had happened, spreading fear throughout the area; during World War II, the RAF scattered airborne leaflets over German cities, calling on citizens to resist.
And Iraqi head of state Saddam Hussein might still be in power today if Colin Powell, then the U.S. Secretary of State, had not lied to the UN Security Council about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in prime time in February 2003, as has been proven in the meantime.
But Dobbert argues that the Kremlin’s actions are different. He has studied Russia’s role in the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine and concluded that the Russian military provided targeted support to pro-Russian separatists in both countries right from the start, deliberately relying on a strategy of deception in the process.
These military operations, Dobbert explains, were accompanied by a sophisticated information policy. “In the war in Georgia, for example, Russia was still confirming that the disputed territory of South Ossetia was part of Georgia weeks after the official end of the war,” Dobbert says. “And yet, the Duma had issued a declaration back on March 21, 2008 – long before the official start of the war – instructing the President to look for an option that would allow both South Ossetia and Abkhazia to become independent of Georgia.”
At the time of the decision, Dmitry Medvedev had just been elected Russia’s new President, but his predecessor – and successor – Vladimir Putin was still in office.
In addition, TV, radio, and print journalists from state-owned Russian media were brought to the disputed region of South Ossetia shortly before the start of the war to prepare to report on a war that had not even officially begun yet.
“This meant that Russia was able to use TV images of military action that it had produced itself. The Georgian side, by contrast, was not as well prepared for a war of information,” Dobbert says. The Kremlin also used a professional military spokesman who reported live every day, a first in Russian military history, Dobbert explains. “He gave interviews on TV, announcing an interpretation of how the war was going that was aimed at the Russian public, thereby serving as a source of information for news agencies in Russia and the rest of the world.”
In his analysis, Dobbert has discerned the three phases of preparations for this kind of hybrid war on the Russian side in both of the wars he has studied. First, preparations for the conflict were made in secret in order to exploit the element of surprise, both in military terms and with regard to public opinion.
During the attack phase, operations generally involve soldiers without insignia who disarm local police or integrate them into their own ranks with new objectives. Use of the country’s own troops is denied to the world public. Finally, during the stabilization phase, referendums are held, borders are secured, and the Russian ruble is introduced as a currency. Russia ensures that the population is supplied with goods, and international diplomacy is used to urge understanding and recognition of the new territories.
European Media Strategy Needed
Anyone who – like the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel – criticizes Russia’s new war policy becomes a target for disinformation campaigns and propaganda. This is apparent from an analysis of 59 million Russian media articles published between January 2014 and May 2016.
In them, Russian media outlets even go so far as to invent facts to harm Merkel’s public image. In January 2016, for example, Russian TV channels claimed that a 13-year-old girl of German-Russian descent named Lisa had been kidnapped by asylum seekers in Berlin and raped for 30 hours.
Police investigations went nowhere, and it quickly became clear that the case had been invented. The investigation was halted, but the allegations lingered, and the Russian TV station’s segment, which was subtitled in German and racked up millions of views on YouTube, ultimately sparked demonstrations in Germany.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, even had stern words for Germany about the incident. Was it a foretaste of future campaigns from Russia in the run-up to the Bundestag elections this year? And can these attacks be countered?
Dobbert suggests that Europe take a unified approach, with a newly designed EU press council increasingly scrutinizing credibility across the European media landscape and naming media outlets that are unfaithful to the facts. An EU foreign intelligence service could also unmask disinformation campaigns and ward off cyberattacks.
“Still, with the European Union currently in crisis in the wake of the Brexit vote and with elections looming in several Member States, both of these approaches seem more likely to remain visions than to become reality,” Dobbert says. With that in mind, he believes another approach might also be promising: “Individual EU Member States could also take effective action against hybrid threats from Moscow through their intelligence services and with the support of the media.”
Steffen Dobbert, Email: steffendobbert [at] gmail [dot] com, http://www.steffendobbert.de/ueber-steffen-dobbert/