February 5, 2018

Disinformation: A Fight for Crimea, Ukraine and the World

A woman pushes a stroller while passing by a billboard with an image of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and lettering "Strong president - Strong Russia!" in Simferopol, Crimea, on January 18, 2018. Russia's presidential election is scheduled for March 18, 2018.
A woman pushes a stroller while passing by a billboard with an image of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and lettering "Strong president - Strong Russia!" in Simferopol, Crimea, on January 18, 2018. Russia's presidential election is scheduled for March 18, 2018.

In discussing disinformation as a component of contemporary military conflicts, it is necessary to point out three key issues.

1) Russian information operations are the major strategic ingredients of a hot war. It should be noted that hot war in different parts of the world was a proxy component of the first Cold War;

2) Russia has a century-old history of promoting disinformation on a global scale. Russia has been present in different countries at the same time, interfering in their internal affairs in order to push its own political, economic, etc. agendas.

3) Russian information aggression is targeted not only at external audiences (in Ukraine, the European Union, the USA, and other countries), but also is aimed at fostering new identities among occupied populations, thereby ultimately changing their behaviour.

Silence in the West regarding Crimea not only make efforts to counter disinformation on the peninsula more difficult, but also is itself tantamount to complicity in Russia’s crimes. In order adequately to respond to Russian aggression, it is important to keep the Crimean issue highly visible both in global media and on the international political agenda.

To talk about a new multipolar world order and current threats to global security, without mentioning the annexation of Crimea, is the same as using a compass that indicates only three of the four cardinal directions.

Instead, EU and NATO countries, together with other democratic forces and elements of civil society, should act collaboratively not only in terms of proposing new agendas, concepts, models, and investigations based on methods of counteracting disinformation, but to chart a responsible policy course while improving our understanding of the most critical aspects of global security. Russia’s occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea traumatized Ukraine and shocked the West. Like other situations to which one can draw parallels—such as the Anschluss, or annexation by Hitler’s Germany of Austria—the Crimea case happened in part because outsiders turned a blind eye to its realities. Let us recall the history of another peninsula. Its story has taught the Euro-Atlantic community some important security lessons, even if they seem to have been insufficiently well learned. We speak, of course, of Korea, where the “Forgotten War” took place during 1950-53—a war that officially has never ended, and may yet be restarted. It began when China, armed by the Soviet Union, initiated a military campaign against Korea. This effort was shaped by the same motives that drove Russia in its campaign against Ukraine in Crimea. Mao Zedong talked about the necessity of preserving a centuries-old community and of protecting it from Western influence—rhetoric that has been used, and developed further, by the modern aggressors.

General Douglas MacArthur compared the desire of the British to pacify the Chinese Communists by giving them a strip of land in North Korea to the pacification of Hitler in Munich in 1938.

The Korean War became one of key incentives that pushed NATO countries to begin preparing to defend all members of the Alliance. By 1950, NATO countries had total of fourteen understaffed and poorly armed divisions that lacked a unified command. Only two of these divisions were American. Three years later, the Alliance had fifteen well-armed divisions—of which six were American—in West Germany alone. The total number of servicemen in Allied forces approached seven million, while a Supreme Headquarters, Allied Forces Europe (SHAFE) was established in the suburbs of Paris to serve as a basis for joint planning.

But in May 1953, General Matthew Ridgway, commander of UN (and US) forces in Korea, reported that the disproportion between the forces at their disposal and the forces that Soviets can expose against them is so great that it allows us to conclude that the UN Command is extremely weak. “If it faces a full-scale Soviet attack in the near future, it will not be able to fulfil its task,” – concluded General.

Another historical parallel concerns military exercises. Soviet attacks were rehearsed during numerous such exercises, like those held in Budapest in January 1951 that preceded its intervention in Hungary by some five years. Soviet plans for an offensive against Europe also included a strike against Yugoslavia. In the period from 1949 to 1952, numerous armed incidents were reported along that country’s borders, including the participation of some five thousand Soviet saboteurs. Unlike Hungary, however, Soviet aggression against countries outside the Warsaw Pact was hampered by two factors: the high state of readiness of US tactical nuclear weapons, as well as the 1951 US-Yugoslavia agreement on military-technical mutual assistance and collaboration. The death of Josef Stalin in 1953 also played a restraining role.

In January 2018, Estonian Defence Forces commander Riho Terras argued in an interview with Bild that “at the Zapad-2017 military exercises, Russia modelled a full-scale military attack on NATO. The manoeuvres were a threat not only to the Baltic states, but covered an area stretching from the Far North to the Black Sea. The scale and scope of the manoeuvres were both much higher than officially declared“.

The tools of disinformation and propaganda used by Russia were developed decades ago. Accordingly, we have huge practical experience with the aggressor in today’s information warfare environment. Current Russian propaganda in Donbas and Crimea is very much reminiscent of the style of propaganda in the German Democratic Republic. An imagined heroic Soviet past is celebrated, while the crimes of Communists against humanity are neglected if not denied entirely. This propaganda aims to change people’s thinking or behaviours by the use of patterns, whether conscious or unconscious.

After the fall of Berlin Wall and the first months of euphoria, it became obvious that the “Ossis” were very different to West Germans in their life preferences, behaviours, everyday habits, and attitudes. These differences exist even today, despite the fact that €1.3 trillion (at current values) and more than twenty years were spent on reintegrating the GDR and its citizens.

More than three years have passed since the occupation of Crimea by Russia. However, the duration of military occupation is not the main factor in determining its cost; a much more important one is the conditions under which “de-occupation” is carried out. Obviously, in order to minimize damage to Ukraine and Europe as a whole, this “de-occupation” process needs to facilitate the adaptation of Crimean identity to European values while preventing exposure of its population to further Russian influence.

Putin’s Crimea campaign is not a madman’s project. It is instead an illustration of a well-designed and carefully prepared multidimensional military campaign in which disinformation played a major role.

Disinformation does not only mean fake news. Fake stories are only the tip of the iceberg. It makes no sense to build a response strategy based only on the prevention or denial of fakes.

To recognize and counter threats in the informational domain, it is important to create a comprehensive response policy tailored to a nation’s human resources, networks, and infrastructure. It is necessary to develop a modern approach to analytics, based on collaborative collection and analysis of data from open sources both domestic and international in origin. Such an approach could not only provide for the early detection of destructive informational campaigns, but even predict their emergence in advance.

Today the Institute for Social and Economic Research in Kyiv is developing exactly this kind of project, in an effort to develop a leading example of providing specific incentives to encourage public, private, and government sectors to lay out the first and essential steps for defending Ukraine against this new information warfare reality.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on November 7 of last year that that many measures to reform the structures of the Alliance are rooted in a response to the events in Ukraine. Just like the Korean War pushed NATO into a sober assessment of its ability to defend the territory of its members, Russia’s Crimean campaign has brought to life the need for new ideas in other areas.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, formerly Commander of US Army Europe and currently the Pershing Chair at the Centre for European Policy Analysis is encouraging European leaders jointly to develop a strategy for the smooth movement of Allied military equipment and personnel in Europe. This “military Schengen could be an optimal way to achieve this task. At the July 2017 US Army-led military manoeuvres in Romania, Hodges said: “In addition to improving the speed at which countries recognize an emerging crisis and make decisions on how to respond, the “speed of assembly,” is critical to get capability in place to prevent a crisis or react to a crisis.” Flexibility, speed, mutual trust, and military movement without obstacles are the major advantages of such a zone. According to Hodges, it could give political leaders an opportunity to send a strong message that might well encourage an aggressor to stop. In his work both in and out of uniform, Lt. Gen Hodges provides an excellent example of how not to be silent.

Because silence, in the end, leads to complicity—and to defeat.