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Blog by Karl Altau

The Undeniable Deniable Threats of Russian Subversion

July 1, 2017

 

Hybrid warfare as a concept and a military strategy has been discussed for more than a decade and has had a revival due to recent global election meddling and increased troll activity in cyberspace. Many experts take issue with the term itself, due to its vague nature. Marius Laurinavicius of the Hudson Institute suggests referring to hybrid warfare by its Russian name; subversion. The acceptance of subversion as a prominent threat has taken time because, unlike its military component, hybrid threats are deniable.

 

In 2007 Frank Hoffmann of the Potomac Institute coined the term hybrid threats and defines it thus: “Hybrid threats incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.”

 

At the 12th Baltic Security Conference, that took place in May of this year, two panelists spoke to the issues of countering Russia subversion. Laurinavicius, who has been calling attention to the issue for more than a decade, made clear: “We are at war. Russia is at war with us [the Baltics and the West.].” The analyst Paul Goble warned of the dangers of believing that every threat is best solved by conventional force – and that perhaps graver threats we face cannot be solved by military posturing. The figure below illustrates the many components present in a subversion strategy and makes evident the complexity of the threat faced by the Baltics and the West.

 

 

A subversion strategy is manifold and cannot be countered by an isolated military, political, economic, cyber, electronic or information operations. To successfully counter refined Russian subversion strategies, the West will need to strategically consider the full spectrum and gravity of the threat.

 

The Baltic countries are in a uniquely vulnerable position to withstand Russian subversion, because of their Russian-speaking minorities, but are at the same time imminently aware of the threat posed by their Eastern neighbor. The possibility Russia repeating its strategy in Crimea strategy in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia is almost unimaginable, because these countries identify so strongly with Western values and would not be susceptible to that kind of non-violent subversion.

 

At the same time, we should not underestimate Russia’s effective ethnic manipulation, specifically targeted towards Russian-speaking minorities. Russian-language news in the Baltics is often plugged into the effective Russian propaganda machine, led by RT and have few other non-propaganda Russian-language outlets. I refer to this targeted effort above, as ethnic manipulation.

 

Scott Rauland, a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, spoke to JBANC conference attendees on May 19 and points to the issue of the vast difference between RT’s budget and the funds allotted to United States government-sponsored outlets with Russian-language affiliates, such as RFE/RL and Voice of America, which are facing cuts in the latest government budget. The RT budget for 2016 according to the station itself was $247 million, whereas the 2018 budget request submitted to Congress on May 23, 2017, by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which manages all foreign U.S. broadcasting activities, was only $685,1 million overall. Only $3 million of which would fund RFE/RL and Voice of America and only a fraction is specifically dedicated to Russian-language broadcasts. Rauland addressed the similar problem of the equally limited resources devoted to Russian-language news coming out of U.S. embassies in Eastern Europe. Even with sufficient funds, how to best counter Russian propaganda is a difficult discussion with political implications. Newly-launched Russian language RFE/RL’s modus operandi is providing a balanced objective news alternative to make the Western view prevail, rather than creating more targeted anti-propaganda effort, as have been discussed in the EU.

 

RT and similar outlets are assisted by official Kremlin rhetoric, what I refer to as general narrative. This coordination was especially evident in the buildup and aftermath of the Crimea referendum, which is widely deemed illegitimate. Statements such as “[We are ready] to protect the rights of Russians abroad,” which originated in Putin’s March 2014 speech immediately after the Crimean Referendum, sends a message to former Soviet states that Russian will not hesitate to intervene, should the Kremlin decide that minority Russian speakers abroad are being mistreated.

 

Other supporting narratives makes false legal and historical claims to try to legitimize the invasion efforts. Putin claims in the same March 2014 speech; “Crimeans say that in 1991, they were handed over like a sack of potatoes, I can’t help but agree with it.” But Crimean support for an independent Ukraine, while not overwhelming, was decided by a popular vote with 54% in favor. Similar narrative has been used by Beijing in the South China Sea dispute, where China points to a long history of Chinese trade and settlement in the South China Sea, historical claims which have not been found to be accurate. Such a strategy aims to distort the truth to create a historical justification fitting a strategy of invasion.

 

These are only some of the ways that we are losing the disinformation war. In his April edition of ‘Europe’s Edge’ Edward Lucas points out the lack of a targeted strategy to combat Russia’s subversion efforts. Despite recent developments, such as the founding of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, the Joint Framework to counter hybrid threats adopted by the European Commission and the High Representative and the national effort by the Strategic Communications team in the Lithuanian military, our response to the problem of the Kremlin’s subversion strategies, which can be traced all the way back to the 1939 Winter War in Finland, has been much too slow.

 

The broader challenge for the West is the level of coordination an authoritarian state like Russia can apply to the effort of subverting Western societies, whereas the West with its democratic societies with free spread of information cannot possibly be as coordinated. We value ‘freedom of speech’ as one of our most cherished principles, as we should, but we should not underestimate the benefits to Russia from our free society in how easily information, especially unfavorable stories about the West, can be obtained. RT is the prime tool for spinning such stories to fit the Kremlin narrative. Much too often fake news is featured prominently on a news site or goes viral online, while the retraction is not as widely read. A notable example of wide dissemination of a fake story, with an apparent right-wing agenda, was the mass New Year’s rape incident in Frankfurt reported by Germany’s largest daily, Bild, which turned out to be fabricated. But by the time a story is retracted, the damage is often done.

 

Influencing the energy supply of other countries is another political and subversive tool used by Russia. Gazprom has historically been used to this effect. The most contentious debate on energy security in Europe is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would supply gas from Russia to Germany, running under the Baltic Sea alongside countries such as Denmark and Sweden. Nord Stream 2 was funded in May through the five energy companies; Royal Dutch Shell, OMV, Engie and Uniper and Wintershall. These companies each cover 10 percent of the $10,6bn cost, while Gazprom provides the remaining 50 per cent. Denmark, Finland and Sweden could still potentially cause a political headache for the pipeline, since these countries have not yet given final approval.

 

Additionally, a proposed change to Danish law could potentially be used to halt construction of Nord Stream 2. Russia and Germany maintain that the pipeline would be an entirely economic and practical venture, but Nord Stream 2 would bypass Ukraine as a supplier and Ukraine’s fragile economy would lose $2 billion in transit revenue from Gazprom. Whether Nord Stream 2 becomes a reality or not, the fact is that Gazprom is the biggest supplier in the region and business with Gazprom comes with Russian geopolitics, oligarchs and corrupt billions. However, the 2014 construction of the Lithuanian LNG Terminal in Klaipeda drastically improved Baltic energy security, as it broke the Russian monopoly on gas, and is now supplied with gas from Norwegian Statoil

 

Russia uses economic influence as another subversive tool. Russia has typically used donations to support and thereby influence political campaigns in Europe. Russia supplied funding for the campaign of pro-Kremlin candidate on the French far-right, Marine Le Pen. The conditions of the funding are currently being investigated. Also donations to organizations, think tanks and educational institutions can serve as a subversive tool. One 2015 example is the questionable £75 million donation to Oxford University by oligarch Len Blavatnik, which was accepted by the school. Considering what else we know about Russian means of subversion, it would be naïve to assume that such “donations” does not come with strings attached.

 

White House rhetoric seems to indicate that President Trump believes he can make an ally out of Putin and that he does not recognize the threat posed by Russia; whether militarily and through subversion. This calls for increased civil vigilance in consuming news and evaluating the actions taken by the U.S. government. According to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the independent regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, Trump’s presidency has had a positive effect on reader vigilance. The organization writes that the Trump presidency can be credited with [unwittingly] ‘rais[ing] public consciousness about “fake news,”’ An increasing number of reminders on Facebook and mainstream media sites cautioning users to be critical of sources and checking facts before sharing a story, could indicate that this is true. But the very same government, who has unwittingly increased our vigilance on fake news, is currently being investigated for possible campaign collusion with Russia. A source of great concern in the U.S. and for U.S. allies.  

 

The 2016 US election was a rude awakening for many, both in terms of election meddling and election hacking. We will likely never know to which extent these factors influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, but it certainly is a reminder of the risks of cyber-attacks and interference in general. Countering Russian cyber aggression online and interference in energy and electric grids are familiar threats to many Baltic governments, but the U.S. has something left to learn. Something that could potentially be learned from Estonia, one of the most digitally-advanced countries in the world. Estonia provides digital services such as e-visas and e-residency and is now testing an innovative way to safeguard a countries’ vital data even during the worst cyber-attack. In 2007 Estonia was almost shut down by a series of attacks, believed to originate from Russia, and is now trying to create “data embassies’ outside its borders. The “data embassies”-  servers with vital Estonian data - would be hosted by a friendly government and in the event of an attack, Estonia could transfer all its data to this server and keep the country from shutting down.

 

While this is not an exhaustive analysis of all subversive tools in the Russian playbook, this text is meant to give a broad outline of the dynamics of Russian subversion, why it is vital that we consider the full picture of Russian aggression and how we start to think about a strategy to combat subversion and increase civil vigilance against it.

 

But how do we combat Russian subversion tactics in our daily lives? As with everything else, enlightenment is key: We should talk about subversion until it is commonly accepted that Russia uses these strategies against us and that is a threat to our societies.

 

In our daily lives, we can also do something:

  • Exercise personal and professional due diligence before sharing a story online;

  • Sufficiently protecting our national and personal data;

  • Keep the full picture of Russia’s subversion in mind, when considering Russia;

  • Call your Senator and Representatives and let them know you are concerned about Russian disinformation campaigns, election meddling, and military aggression in Ukraine.
     

The fact that Russian subversion efforts are not immediately visible in our daily lives, though increasingly so in cyberspace, does not mean that the threat is not present or that subversion does not have an impact on our lives. If the investigation into Trump’s campaign and Russia collusion does indeed find evidence of collusion, it will be undeniable that subversion and the spread of disinformation does in fact have a substantial impact on our lives – and it is time to create a targeted strategy to counter it.

 

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