Caught Unaware and Unprepared

Lessons learned from NATO and partner countries in countering information war

Katarina Klingova
18 April 2017

In 2013, Russian General Valery Gerasimov – currently the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and the first Deputy Defense Minister of the Russian Federation – published an article describing Russian military thinking and strategies. Known famously as the “Gerasimov’s Doctrine”, it defined information warfare as the combination of electronic warfare, cyberwarfare and psychological operations into a single, coordinated military effort. Information warfare, however, is not new and, in various forms, psychological operations and propaganda have been a part for warfare for ages. What is new is our increasing reliance on the information sphere in every aspect of our lives, which is making us even more susceptible to such tactics.

Organized state-sponsored disinformation campaigns have become an important tool of hybrid warfare weakening the institutional framework of the European Union and NATO, democratic values and undermining the security architecture of Europe. According to available information, the Kremlin has significantly increased its budget for media spending, which includes disinformation campaigns. The RT (formerly known as Russia Today) television network alone operates in 100 countries with a budget of some 300 million EUR from the Russian government and Sputnik – an online news service established by the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya and spreads the Russian narrative of online news in 32 foreign languages and countries.

According to unofficial sources, thousands of people in Russia – including those in Internet troll factories, where workers produce dismaying amounts of fake online content and stories – are actively working on producing and spreading disinformation and Russian narratives of the “evil West”, think of the combination of an aggressive NATO and the EU in shambles. According to the Kremlin, this is a world where democratic protests turn into coups organized by the CIA, all NGOs are paid agents of George Soros and the Ukrainian government has practices similar to the Nazi regime; of course, the narrative ends with Russia being portrayed as the protector of peace and safety.

Experiences from the Neighbourhood

The 2008 war in Georgia was a warning of things to come. Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, information warfare has been employed by Russia in its own neighborhood as well as in many NATO member and partner countries. It has taken numerous and varied forms, but the overall pattern was always the same: to confuse, distort, dismay, distract and ultimately antagonize the population against the Euro-Atlantic orientation of any targeted country.

Countries not integrated into the Euro-Atlantic political and military structures such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have been exposed to these subversive activities for years, while NATO member countries, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary were caught unaware and unprepared for this new form of warfare. However, disinformation outlets have been actively spreading dismaying stories and narratives of historical events about and within these countries for some time.

For example, Russian public television, Rossija 1, published a document in May 2015 about the Soviet occupation of the Czechoslovakia in 1968 portraying the invasion as a defensive alliance, which was intended to defend the Soviet allies before the impending (and never realized) aggression from NATO.

similar narrative was used when describing the events of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. According to the commentary of Dmitry Kiselev, published again by Rossija 1, this revolution was an action of the “Western intelligence services who at that time already elaborated the technology of conversion of the initially peaceful protest into a bloody chaos”. Events have been transformed into the “pogrom” and the Soviet soldiers “with guns in the hands renewed the socialist legality on the streets of the Hungarian capital city”.

In the Czech Republic, a protest in the Old Town Square which was organized on the Independent Czechoslovak State Proclamation Day on the 28th October 2016 was described as either a possible coup d’état or another “color” revolution. Further still, Sputnik speculated when the “Czech Maidan” would be launched. These distorting speculations were spuriously linked to the recent visit of Dalai Lama to Prague. According to fringe media sources, the Czech Minister of Culture – who officially met with Dalai Lama – was plotting against President Zeman and organizing a media campaign in order to destroy the Czech President’s image.

The impact of these disruptive efforts is further strengthened by the click-bait model of the rapidly growing fake news industry, spamming social media with its distorted version of reality and bombastic tabloid headlines. There are very few restrictions on what cannot be posted on social media and no gate keepers, such as editors or accredited journalists, that control the quality of the content on social media. This has enabled the Kremlin and other foreign powers to lay the groundwork for their propaganda machine. They do have a head-start but we need to close this gap if we are to succeed.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Media literacy and critical thinking are the first barriers to deception and manipulation by disinformation and propaganda efforts. Everybody, a social media user or not, should know how to distinguish a distorted story. People should be empowered to defend their own information systems. The development of such skills and awareness among people will lead to more resilience against any hostile foreign influence. However, many NATO member and partner countries lack the adequate curricula and structures enabling the most vulnerable groups to equip themselves with such skills. Therefore, the incorporation of media literacy skills and critical thinking into school curricula is essential to successfully prevent young people from falling into the trap of false information and media manipulation by disinformation.

People should have access to information, but the concentration of media ownership threatens media pluralism and unbiased reporting on political and societal developments. In many cases in Central Europe, it is very difficult to track the real owners of media, since they use offshore companies to hide the structure of the organization. Due to their huge impact on the general public, countries should ensure media transparency and a complete ban on offshore ownership of media companies should be introduced at the national level.

In addition, NATO member states and partner countries should develop protection mechanisms for the victims of “trolling”. In general, people and institutions uncovering the “ugly truth” are often targets of the army of online trolls, cyberattacks, lawsuits, denial-of-service attacks or hacking. Therefore, governments, using appropriate measures, should provide support to such people or institutions. Protective measures for victims of disinformation or cyberbullying should be an integral part of state countermeasures developed to target hostile foreign influence.

NATO and its member and partner countries need to use every available opportunity to learn from each other if they are to succeed in winning this new form of conflict. The latest publication Countering Information War: Lessons Learned from NATO and Partner Countries, Recommendations and Conclusions of GLOSBEC Policy Institute provides a clear set of recommendations based on sharing of know-how and best practices, including the need for media literacy and critical thinking or the need to rebuild trust and credibility of institutions. Sharing lessons learned and successful models of countering and preventing the negative effects of information war across the larger NATO family is essential to our success in countering foreign subversive forces and disinformation.

Katarina Klingova used to work for the European Commission in Brussels as well as Transparency International in Bratislava. She currently works for GLOBSEC in Bratislava.