Small Wars Journal

The Kremlin Subverts Media Abroad to Cement the Narrative at Home

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 3:11am

The Kremlin Subverts Media Abroad to Cement the Narrative at Home

Gavin Wilde

Russian President Vladimir Putin established his standing early on by seizing the domestic media narrative. His assaults on foreign media should be viewed as a continuation of that process. Recognizing that Moscow lashes out from a defensive crouch will help the US avoid assuming one in response.

In the intervening year since the US intelligence community (IC) assessed Kremlin-orchestrated meddling in the 2016 US presidential election,[i] Washington and the general public have undergone a re-education of sorts on the subject of “active measures” – the Soviet-era term encompassing political subversion, including disinformation and propaganda.[ii] Prior to this affair, Russian state-run media coverage of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 the subsequent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over separatist-controlled territory superbly illustrated the art-form, reconfigured for the information age. [iii][iv] Beyond mere rhetorical inconsistency, the deliberate innuendo, obfuscation, and outright fabrication were designed by the Kremlin to create a veritable smokescreen around verifiable information on the ground, and to shield the Russian populace from any plausible accounts that ran counter to those narratives that didn’t bolster Russian policy objectives.

A primary factor undermining Washington’s ability to assess and counter this Russian threat is the refusal by partisan political commentators to disaggregate Moscow’s well-documented mischief from the more opaque allegations of collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. More importantly, however, despite the echoes of Cold War intrigues in Moscow’s disinformation campaigns, the US foreign policy and national security establishment should guard against a historical tendency to render the US the focal point of every Russian action, and temper nascent “Red Scare” impulses with a reminder that some politics truly are local.

A key point in the IC assessment reads: “In trying to influence the US election...the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order…” This passage and its implications have dominated the post-mortem examination, while the subsequent clause, which warrants equal attention, has gone relatively underexplored: “…which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.”  This regime and Russian public consciousness have become co-dependent and mutually reinforcing – a symbiosis Putin fought hard to achieve over the past eighteen years. Coincidentally, this was the same era during which his regime’s main adversary invented and refined the tools that make manipulation of public consciousness easier than ever before. The resultant dilemma—alongside centuries of fearing foreign encroachment – serves as the best context in which to study Russian behavior in so-called “information space.”

Financial Times reporter Arkady Ostrovskiy brilliantly mapped the chaotic post-Soviet media landscape in his 2015 book, “The Invention of Russia,” in which he posited: “Russia is an idea-centric country, and the media play a disproportionately important role in it.”[v] The centrality of mass-media—particularly television, the medium still preferred by most Russians – to Boris Yeltsin’s unlikely re-election in 1996 was a object lesson for Russian tycoons, who by the early 2000s had consolidated control over all major outlets. These magnates viewed the enterprise foremost as a means to assert political influence, less as a commercial venture. Recognizing this fact, Putin promptly set about reallocating control to his loyalists,[vi] and ultimately to the state, thereby conclusively seizing the domestic narrative.

Drawing lessons from blistering journalistic coverage of Yeltsin’s brutal and inept 1994 military incursion into Chechnya, the Putin system also effectively quashed investigative journalism’s looming threat to his budding kleptocracy. His administration allowed, if not cultivated, a campaign of murder and intimidation against dogged reporters and critical voices such as Anna Politkovskaya and Oleg Kashin.[vii][viii] With most independent outlets largely neutralized by the end of his first two terms (remaining outliers such as Dozhd TV, Novaya Gazeta, and Ekho Moskvy enjoy only marginal audiences),[ix] the sole remaining dangers to Putin’s perception-dominance now largely emanated from abroad.

Guided by what he and his cadre perceived to have been US overreach (and relative Russian weakness and naivety) after the Soviet collapse, Putin duly noted the centrality of media narratives to any regime-ending scenario. Particularly after Iraq, Libya, “color revolutions” in former Soviet states, the “Arab Spring,” and finally the Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow in 2011—all thought to be orchestrated by US operatives and fueled by Western media – the Kremlin set about steeling itself against such narratives. To do so, Moscow refined its information warfare doctrines and tactics,[x] secured its so-called “information space” through legislative and technical means,[xi] and clamped down on “undesirable” entities from abroad that might foment unrest.[xii]

Last September, Kremlin press secretary Dmitriy Peskov frankly and concisely outlined this calculus to New York Times Magazine’s Jim Rutenberg.[xiii] Betraying a sense of unease and perplexity toward the free flow of information writ-large, Putin’s mustachioed spin-doctor characterized social media as the antithesis of stability—unironically citing a single Twitter user’s ability to shape the views of millions instantly.[xiv] In his telling, Russia is a victim, vice antagonist, in the field of information battle—in which its offensives are all merely “counteractions.”

While readers might be forgiven for assuming some level of mendacity behind Peskov’s assertions, they warrant being taken at face value on this issue. Demonstrating an acute sense of vulnerability, his comments on the indigenous designs behind Russian information warfare also largely align with those of several Western experts. For example:

  • Keir Giles of the NATO Defense College outlined in 2016 how historic Russian threat perceptions drove it’s approach to information security, noting that “most perceptible of all in Russia’s approach to the free circulation of information is the existential threat to its own security and stability” that free-flowing information poses.[xv]
  • In his extensive treatise on Russia’s intelligence apparatus for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Galeotti noted: “Every external operation is first and foremost a domestic one…So it was under the tsars, then the Bolsheviks, and now the new Russians…This means carrying out operations to…divid[e] strategic rivals”[xvi]with the advent of the Internet and social-networking vastly expanding the opportunities to do so.
  • Stephen Blank of the US Army War College detailed the emergence and applications of Russian information warfare in 2012, even going so far as to characterize the Russian approach as “counterinsurgency.”[xvii] To illustrate, he quoted the President of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences Makhmut Gareyev’s assertion that “domestic public opinion, not the hearts and minds of the enemy, is the critical center of gravity.”  
  • Blank’s predecessor Lt. Col. Richard Zoller homed in on the disparity between Russian and Western views of the cyber domain – the former clearly more concerned by its ability to shape perception.[xviii]Where Western definitions of cyberspace focus on technical aspects of information technology... more than any other nation-state, Russia uses the cognitive domain…What this means is that Russia uses cyberspace more to disrupt an adversary’s information than to steal or destroy it.” Disinformation campaigns are thus more likely Moscow’s preferred tool to halt the advance of hostile narratives than necessarily a tool to advance its own.

Moreover, the Russian Empire historically sought to pad its periphery with instability as a bulwark against invasion—the Kremlin’s destabilizing influence on foreign media should be viewed through this same prism.[xix] As former UK Ambassador to Russia Andrew Wood noted for Chatham House: “The regime’s perception of reality and its message to domestic and world opinion laid increasing stress on the proposition that Russia was a besieged fortress, and ultimately the belief that a Russia risen from its knees meant that others, and especially its ex-Soviet neighbors, had to fall on theirs.”[xx] In this regard, Moscow’s current approach to its neighbors mirrors that of its approach to the foreign media environment – those entities that cannot be coerced and cajoled must, at a minimum, be subverted and disoriented to ensure Russia’s own stability. To do so, those methodologies that had been perfected at home in the early 2000s – obfuscating and distorting unfriendly narratives; undercutting free inquiry through crude imitation – were made ready for export.

All of this is not to say that Moscow’s behavior, particularly in Putin’s third term, has not been more aggressive and expansionist in nature – it clearly has.[xxi] However, the domestic roots of its behavior clearly warrant more robust examination than they have received, particularly with regard to media manipulation. While US officialdom has been churning over the implications of Russia’s activities for the 2018 mid-term elections,[xxii] far too little ink has been spilled about the prospect that the Kremlin’s own insecurities about 2018 factored heavily into its affronts to US public discourse. As former Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky put it to The Atlantic's Julia Ioffe: “We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia.[xxiii] The ensuing years would see factors arise capable of eroding that perception: declining oil prices, bloated defense budgets eating into social spending, demographic decline, economic stagnation,[xxiv] and waning public enthusiasm about the Crimea anschluss.[xxv] With paltry domestic successes to brandish, and a youth bloc more susceptible to Western and oppositionist messaging,[xxvi] it’s no wonder Moscow seeks to drown out any critical signals by amplifying the surrounding noise.

Against this backdrop, Moscow is likely to continue sowing discord in media and cyberspace, perceiving its actions to be defensive, if not counter-offensive, in nature. While the credibility of such perceptions is certainly up for debate (and has long been for historians and academics), US policymakers should avoid limiting themselves to its narrow confines. Instead, they should thoroughly factor in the view from Putin’s own front porch – certainly not out of sympathy, but to more smartly calibrate Washington’s engagement and response planning. Given the ongoing shifting power-dynamic between the US and Russia, an approach informed solely by post-Cold War narcissism will simply serve to feed an unproductive escalatory spiral (akin to the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in early 2017 and compulsory “foreign agent” registrations by RT and CNN later that year). Greater familiarization with the siege mentality that has driven Russia’s behavior for centuries will sharpen US precision in imposing greater costs for malign activities, and avoid emboldening Moscow by amplifying the very effects such activities were designed to achieve.

Given Russia’s relative military, technological, and economic inferiority to rival powers, information warfare is “an approach born out of weakness that provides more flexibility while avoiding direct military confrontation,” according to Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations.[xxvii] Russian Deputy Defense Minister Valeriy Gerasimov has himself noted that “no matter what forces the enemy has, no matter how well-developed his forces and means…forms and methods for overcoming them can be found. He will always have vulnerabilities, and that means that adequate means of opposing him exist.[xxviii] In light of recent events (and in preparation for future ones), Washington ought to study the re-emergence of Russian “active measures” less as a manifestation of newfound strength, more as a long-fostered sense vulnerability on full display.

End Notes


[v] Ostrovsky, Arkady. The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War. New York: Viking, 2016.

[x] Iasiello, Emilio J. "Russia’s Improved Information Operations: From Georgia to Crimea." Parameters, June 22, 2017.

[xi] Soldatov, Andrei. Red Web: The Struggle between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. S.l.: Public Affairs, 2017.

[xv] Giles, Keir. "Handbook of Russian Information Warfare." NATO Defense College, November 2016.

[xvi] Galeotti, Mark. “Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services.” European Council on Foreign Relations, 11 May 2016

[xvii] Blank, Stephen. “Russian Information Warfare as Domestic Counterinsurgency.” American Foreign Policy Interests, January 2013

[xviii] Zoller, Richard G. “Russian Cyberspace Strategy and a Proposed United States Response.” U.S. Army War College, 25 January 2010

[xx] Wood, Andrew. “Russian and Western Expectations.” Chatham House Report, 4 June 2015

[xxi] Stronski, Paul and Sokolsky, Richard. “The Return of Global Russia: An Analytic Framework.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 14 December 2017

[xxii] U.S. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. Putin's Asymmetric Assault on Democracy on Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security . 115th Congress, 2nd Session. 10 January 2018

[xxvi] Barbashin, Anton. "The Future of Navalny's Opposition Movement." Foreign Affairs. 22 January 2018

[xxvii] Meister, Stefan. “Isolation and Propaganda: The Roots and Instruments of Russia’s Disinformation Campaign.” German Marshall Fund. 15 April 2016

[xxviii] Gerasimov, Valeriy. “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” trans. Robert Coalson, Military-Industrial Kurier, 27 February 2013


About the Author(s)

Gavin Wilde has analyzed Eurasian security issues for the U.S. Department of Defense for nearly a decade. He has lived, worked, and studied extensively in the region. The views expressed here are his own.


Alex Frank

Sun, 02/04/2018 - 1:46pm

Excellent discussion of Putin's information War. This is a very important discussion to have given increased connectedness. The wide open information terrain has created unsurpassed interdependence of political narratives. That is, actors and events from across the world have much greater influence on political narrative's contest for legitimacy in liberal countries. Russia is able to dominate political contests in the US by exploiting new seems in the information terrian. We must engage on the information terrain.

That being said, I do not buy the "post-Cold War narcissism" argument. We gave Russia large amounts of aid to speed its recovery. We let countries into NATO that rightfully feared Russian expansion. Do not forget that Russia recently invaded many of these countries when allied with the Nazis. As occupiers, they were not the most magnanimous rulers.... Further, when we did expand NATO, we sought Russian approval. We cannot win the information war if we wallow in this kind of cynicism.

Bill C.

Fri, 02/02/2018 - 10:32am

In reply to by Warlock

Yep. My bad for sure.

I should have said that it was the "transform and incorporate" MISSION/AGENDA/ STRATEGY of these expansionist powers (of the Soviets/the communists during Cold War 1.0 and of the U.S./the West in Cold War 2.0 today) -- and not so much these expansionist entities themselves -- that were amazingly susceptible (likely to be harmed) by the Rest of the World's containment/roll back-oriented information campaigns; these emphasizing "identity," and the real threat posed to same, by the expansionist powers such campaigns.

Thanks for the help.


Fri, 02/02/2018 - 10:00am

In reply to by Bill C.

"In our Cold War 2.0 of today, there is one great "expansionist" entity that...

b. Finds itself to be amazingly susceptible to information campaigns...

This...expansionist entity is, of course, the U.S./the West today...."

No matter. Most people treading water in the ever-increasing information sewage flow aren't looking at it or thinking about it critically...they're plucking out the bits that reinforces or validates their view of the world. That's where your "resistance to the foreign, alien, and profane" comes from...not from any deliberate strategy to transform the world, but those threatened or disenfranchised by shifts in power convincing supporters that there's a giant conspiracy out there bent on malevolent change. The principle applies regardless of the audience, whether you're talking targets for U.S. political spin doctors or jihadist propaganda. Most of it doesn't stand up to critical examination, but it doesn't have to in order to work.

Bill C.

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 4:25pm

In reply to by Warlock

Here is a definition of the word "susceptible" (which I hope I did not screw up in using).

"Likely or liable to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing."

In this regard, when using the term "susceptible," in my comment above, I was thinking of the "likely to be harmed" aspect of this term.

Thus, much as:

a. The Soviet/the communist "transform and incorporate" efforts during Cold War 1.0, and this by their very nature, were "susceptible" (likely to be harmed) by the Rest of the World's containment and roll back-oriented information campaigns; these, emphasizing (a) the Rest of the World's unique "identities" and (b) the clear threat posed to same by the Soviet/the communists expansionist designs. Likewise, I was suggesting that:

b. The U.S./the West's similar "transform and incorporate" efforts today, during our current Cold War 2.0 -- and for the very same reasons -- are "susceptible" (likely to be harmed). This, by today's Rest of the World containment and roll back-oriented information campaigns; these, likewise emphasizing unique "identities" and the threat posed to same by, in this case, the U.S./the West's expansionist designs today.

In this regard, one is not so much interested in what the populations of the expansionist entities are reading (the Soviets/the communists during Cold War 1.0; the U.S./the West in Cold War 2.0 today); this, given that these such folks are not so much the focus of these Rest of the World containment/roll back-oriented information campaigns. Rather, the Rest of the World is looking more, re: these such containment/roll back-oriented information campaigns, to influence their own populations and to, specifically, galvanize them in resistance to "foreign" ideas and influences.

Does this help -- sorry for the confusion.


Thu, 02/01/2018 - 8:55am

In reply to by Bill C.

That is, of course, your opinion. But it's difficult to explain Russian, Chinese, Iranian, North Korean, or Pakistani actions as responses to U.S. "expansion" of anything, or threats their national identities. You've been hitting Huntington again....

The question of why we are (or are not -- it's not proven) susceptible to information campaigns is pertinent, though. It's not lack of information, or even that Americans don't read information they don't agree with (look at the comments to news articles or any blog). They just don't seem to seriously think about what they read.

From our article above -- possibly the key point/the most important passage:


A key point in the IC assessment reads: “In trying to influence the US election...the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order…” This passage and its implications have dominated the post-mortem examination, while the subsequent clause, which warrants equal attention, has gone relatively underexplored: “…which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime." ...


Now, consider the (parallel?) "threat" view expressed here:


Unlike their Cold War forebears, neither group (Russia and China rulers) sees itself as the standard-bearer for a transnational creed that it seeks to spread to every corner of the earth. To the contrary, eager to rally domestic support, bolster legitimacy, and secure their grip on political power, both regimes have crafted nationalist narratives that highlight the uniqueness, superior virtue, historical grievances, and glorious destiny of their respective peoples. Notwithstanding their efforts in this regard, both regimes believe themselves to be threatened, perhaps mortally, by the crusading ideological evangelism of the Western liberal democratic powers, led by the United States, and by certain key features of the order that those powers put into place at the end of the Second World War. It is this perceived threat, and the response of the authoritarian powers to it, that drives their growing challenge to the contemporary international system.


(Item in parenthesis above is mine.)…

Last, consider this (by me, over at the SWJ "Shaping of the Cold War 2.0: The Role of Information and Indentity" site):


From my perspective, the "role of information and identify" -- in today's New Cold War much as in the Old -- this must be understood as per:

a. The threat that alien and profane political, economic, social and value ideas, institutions and norms (for example: those of the expansionist Soviets/communists during the Old Cold War, and those of the expansionist U.S./West today) pose to the many and varied "different" states, societies and civilizations of the world. (These, yesterday as today, targeted for "transformation and incorporation" by such great power expansionist entities.) And as per:

b. The manner by which a clear, long-standing, distinctly different and much cherished "identity" -- based on distinctly different "native" political, economic, social and value ideas, institutions and norms -- can be so intelligently and so easily brought to bear, and so effectively be used, to "thwart," "contain" and/or "roll back" these such aggressive expansionist attempts. (Russia, China and Iran attempting this effort/this maneuver today versus an expansionist U.S./the West and, likewise of course, our non-state actor enemies.)


Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

In our Cold War 2.0 of today, there is one great "expansionist" entity that, much like the "expansionist" Soviets/the communists of Cold War 1.0:

a. Sees itself as the "standard-bearer for a transnational creed that it seeks to spread to every corner of the earth." And, thus, both quite naturally and quite understandably,

b. Finds itself to be amazingly susceptible to information campaigns -- which focus on different "identities" -- and which address the threat such expansionist entities pose to the different ways of life, the different ways of governance, the different values, attitudes and beliefs, etc., (to wit: to the "identities?") of the entire Rest of the World.

This such (amazingly susceptible to "containment" and "roll back-"oriented information campaigns; emphasizing different "identities") expansionist entity is, of course, the U.S./the West today; this, in our current Cold War 2.0.

Bill C.

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 11:56am

From the concluding paragraph of our article above:


Given Russia’s relative military, technological, and economic inferiority to rival powers, information warfare is “an approach born out of weakness that provides more flexibility while avoiding direct military confrontation,” according to Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations.


In stark contrast to this "inferiority"/"weakness" concept -- offered as the basis for Russia's use of such things as "information warfare" today -- consider the following:


Employed as part of a broader strategy ("containment" and/or "roll back"?) what hybrid warfare did was allow the United States to carry out open-ended competition and signal certain confidence that the value of protecting the U.S. sphere of interest was greater than any opponent’s interest in upsetting it. After all, it would have served little purpose to test the escalation dominance the United States enjoyed in the hemisphere, say by threatening direct action against Cuba or rattling nuclear sabers. Instead, the method was a low-fear, low-cost, economy-of-force way to manage superpower confrontation that remained well below the threshold that might have provoked a more energetic response.


(Item in parenthesis is mine.)

(Herein, of course, the United States, at this period in its history, being anything but "inferior" and/or "weak?")