The Kremlin’s ‘New Generation Warfare’ Is Just Getting Started
Wait for the sequel
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Whether or not you believe the CIA’s claim that Russia hacked into the Democratic Party’s servers to help Donald Trump get elected — and you should be skeptical of anonymous sources — it should be blindingly obvious that we’re in the middle of a new kind of conflict.
This kind of conflict doesn’t rely on bullets or conquest of territory, but control of information. So be skeptical, but also remember the Kremlin barely hides its embrace of propaganda-driven hybrid warfare, expounded at length in Russian military publications, and which has accelerated in intensity during the past several years.
And don’t just take the CIA’s word for it.
According to the German BfV domestic intelligence agency, Russian tactics have extended to “automated opinion-shaping” methods via social networks.
Methods include “propaganda and disinformation, often executed as ‘false flags,’” the BfV noted. “This methodology represents a previously unobserved MO in campaigns that are controlled by Russia. In these cases government agencies execute cyber-attacks under the false cover … of alleged hacktivists.”
Alternatively, read the Russian Defense Ministry’s own policy papers which discuss similar tactics under the heading “New Generation Warfare.”
“The Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind,” Janis Berzins of the National Defense Academy of Latvia wrote in a 2014 paper. “And, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare.”
“In other words, the Russians have placed the idea of influence at the very center of their operational planning and used all possible levers to achieve this: skillful internal communications; deception operations; psychological operations and well-constructed external communications.”
The Latvians know a thing or two about these tactics. The Kremlin honed them in the Baltic States, but have only recently expanded them westwards on a large scale, according to experts.
Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, described the shape of Russia’s strategy in similar terms. “The Putin regime evidently believes that it is at war with the West — a geopolitical, even civilizational struggle — and is thus mobilizing every weaponizable asset at its disposal,” Galeotti wrote at War on the Rocks.
“This extends to mining society as a whole for semi-autonomous assets, from eager internet trolls and ‘patriotic hackers’ to transnational banks and businesses to Cossack volunteers and mercenary gangsters.”
It’s almost comical how this popped up in the 2016 U.S. election. One interesting anecdote came from when reporter Adrian Chen noticed that pro-Russian separatist Twitter accounts he collected during the Ukrainian war switched in late 2015 to passing themselves off as pro-Trump Americans.
Not that the Kremlin cares. Trolls will still flood online discussion boards, and the reputations of Russian dissidents abroad still go up in smoke from targeted disinformation campaigns. Basically: “You are completely screwed,” is how cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr explained to the New York Times about what happens if the Russian state decides to fuck with you.
But most people don’t live on Twitter, and it’s unclear whether these tactics can determine the outcome of an election. It’s an impossible counter-factual question, especially given the Clinton campaign’s shocking ignorance of its problems in the Rust Belt — let alone Hillary’s unpopularity — until it was too late. And center-left parties like the Democrats have bled badly across the Western world.
Still, I don’t think these tactics end here, and if I can make a prediction, it’s that we’ll begin seeing it escalate in different contexts — and by a wider variety of actors. Bear with me on this, but there’s a dangerous scenario which may well be possible. Consider it a warning.
First, take the Americans who oppose Trump. They now face the distinct possibility that over the next four years, the Russian intelligence services might well continue its tradecraft but directed at Trump’s domestic opposition.
Why wouldn’t the Kremlin do it? They haven’t paid a price for it thus far. And look — I’m not trying to single out Russia as a particularly bad actor here. The CIA has long sought to undermine the domestic opponents of friendly governments around the world. It would be surprising if Russia doesn’t do it.
It also depends on what the Kremlin thinks of Trump in a few months. “I’m not your friend, I’m not your bride or your groom, I am the president of the Russian Federation,” Putin said in 2016 during an interview with German journalists.
For Putin, relationships between states are not like ones between individuals. Being a personal “friend” is irrelevant. And it’s exceedingly likely America’s entrenched foreign policy and national security institutions will attempt to stymie unwanted ideas pushed by Trump administration officials, because it’s what they always do to some extent under every presidency.
Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents may decide that since the president does not play by normal political rules, they shouldn’t either. This also depends on Trump’s actions in the White House, but it could be uncontrollable given the country’s increasingly polarized urban-rural politics.
Now I’ll point you to a scenario sketched out by John Robb at the forward-looking Global Guerrillas blog. He described Trump’s campaign as a flexible, technology-empowered “open-source insurgency” well before he had the nomination wrapped up, and sharply observed last winter that Trump could win a general election.
“Trump is in the White House,” Robb wrote after the election, “and the success of open source insurgency guarantees we will see more of them in the future… Perhaps sooner rather than later.”
Robb then predicted a “Tahrir square moment” in the United States. I believe there is a chance something like this is possible.
Or even more provocative — Euromaidan. When protesters concentrated in Ukraine’s urban centers, who could plausibly claim to represent a majority, went outside the “normal” political process to topple a pro-Kremlin billionaire president.
That couldn’t happen in America, could it? Anything could happen.
Correction: This article originally stated that Mark Galeotti was affiliated with New York University. He is a former clinical professor of global affairs at NYU, but is currently affiliated with the Institute of International Relations Prague.