The Corner

Information War and Other Deceptions

Peter Pomerantsev, author of the remarkable Nothing Is Real and Everything Is Possible (which I reviewed for NRODT here) has a long article in the Guardian on Russia’s information war. Here’s an extract:

Late last year, I came across a Russian manual called Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide …The book is designed for “students, political technologists, state security services and civil servants” – a kind of user’s manual for junior information warriors. The deployment of information weapons, it suggests, “acts like an invisible radiation” upon its targets: “The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its self-defence mechanisms.” If regular war is about actual guns and missiles, the encyclopedia continues, “information war is supple, you can never predict the angle or instruments of an attack”. . . .

When I began to pore over recent Russian military theory – in history books and journals – the strange language of the encyclopedia began to make more sense. Since the end of the cold war, Russia had been preoccupied with the need to match the capabilities of the US and its allies. In 1999, Marshal Igor Sergeev, then minister of defence, admitted that Russia could not compete militarily with the west. Instead, he suggested, it needed to search for “revolutionary paths” and “asymmetrical directions”. . . .

In 2013 the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov, claimed that it was now possible to defeat enemies through a “combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns”. This was part of a vision of war which lay not in the realm of physical contact but in what Russian theorists described as the “psychosphere”. These wars of the future would be fought not on the battlefield but in the minds of men.

That something of this kind is going on seems beyond debate, but it’s important to remember that, as I was reminded during the course of a conversation a couple of weeks ago with an official in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, beneath all the talk of postmodern conflict lurks something altogether more traditional. For all the talk of “hybrid war”, the misery and the destruction in eastern Ukraine don’t look so very different from countless wars before. 

That’s one reason why it’s worth reading this Daily Telegraph interview with Estonia’s President Ilves:

Despite conscription and a defence budget exceeding Nato’s target of two per cent of national income, Estonia’s army has only 5,300 soldiers. Like the other Baltic states, Estonia does not possess any jet fighters, so it relies entirely on Nato to guard its airspace. Last year, the alliance quadrupled the strength of its Baltic Air Policing Mission – but only from four to 16 warplanes. Russia, meanwhile, possesses 230,000 troops and 1,200 combat aircraft.

In the event of an invasion, Mr Ilves believes that Russia would try to seal off the Baltic states before Nato’s “very high readiness” force had a chance to arrive. “It’s a great idea but it probably is, in terms of the realities, just too late,” he says simply.

Hence the importance of Nato stationing at least a brigade now, as well as pre-positioning equipment and headquarters staff. Estonia is spending £30 million on barracks for allied troops, but without knowing whether they will actually show up on a permanent basis.

The more that is done now, the less that Russia will be tempted to try its luck. 

And would Russia portray a deployment of a NATO brigade as a provocation? In public, to be sure, but it’s what Moscow understands privately that counts. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, Putin is not some kind of madman. He’s simply playing a variant of traditional great power politics, a game that only the terminally naïve had believed was over. He understands the rules of that game: shove attracts shove-back. That goes with the territory. Not sending a brigade to Estonia would send a far more provocative message, a message of weakness.

As for the ‘legality’ of deploying NATO forces in Estonia (a NATO member), back to the Daily Telegraph:

[I]n 1997, Nato signed a “founding act” with Russia stating that no combat troops would be permanently stationed east of Germany “in the current and foreseeable security environment”. In the face of every Russian provocation and threat, Nato is still observing that self-denying ordinance. One company of US infantry, consisting of 150 soldiers, is the sole contingent of Nato troops currently in Estonia – and they are only [there] temporarily.

Mr Ilves believes the time has come for Nato to point out that the “security environment” has indeed changed since 1997 and permanently deploy at least a brigade in the Baltic states. “One hundred and fifty soldiers is not a lot, so we do think that further stationing of troops at a higher number is only reasonable,” he says.

“We get exercises that take place behind our borders that have 40,000 to 80,000 soldiers. Yet we are accused of escalating the situation – or the United States is accused because they are the only ones with boots on the ground here – and Russia says that it will have to take counter-measures.”

Meanwhile, Pomerantsev concludes his article thus:

I began to wonder whether the very idea of information-psychological war – with its suggestion that Russia had discovered a shadowy weapon for which the west has no answer – was itself a species of information warfare. Perhaps the encyclopedia, and talk of “invisible radiation” that could override “biological defences”, was simply one more bluff – like the fake nuclear weapons that were paraded through Red Square in order to lead overeager western analysts down a hall of mirrors. And if this was simply a 21st-century update of that classic example of “reflexive control”, inducing your enemy to do what you want him to – then, I wondered, was this essay, the one you are reading, part of the plan?

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