Opinion: Russia’s psychological warfare – battles without armed confrontation

In separate meetings, both individuals expressed considerable concern about the success of the Russian military aggression, although limited in scope, and particularly, the consequences of psychological warfare unleashed on the eastern European Union (EU) countries. Russia’s strategy aims without armed confrontation, to: a) restore Russia to 1989 boundaries, b) marginalize U.S. influence in the EU regarding political, economic and military cooperation, c) facilitate the disintegration of NATO and d) dismantle the EU as a rival to Russia’s dominance in Europe. Russia aims to achieve these objectives without armed confrontation using psychological warfare tools. According to the RAND Corp., psychological warfare can be used to change any society’s spiritual and moral values, self-esteem, attitudes, and beliefs as well as the will to resist. Psychological techniques employed are mostly unnoticed. They are presented to the target audience well disguised in appealing and interesting content without evidence of controversy, but gradually affect existing beliefs and undermine the confidence of the intended population.

In May 2014, Lithuania’s science and technology journal “Mokslas ir Technika” published an article entitled “Psychological Operations: their goals, essence and changes in concepts”. The article quoted a statement made by the Russian psychologist and psychiatrist Bechterev in 1908, that “it is common knowledge what a magical therapeutic effect a physician’s encouraging comment has on a patient’s health outcome, and vice versa by his sometimes cold and discouraging verdict”. This suggestion mechanism is particularly effective when the targeted information manages to resonate with the emotional state of the intended receiver.

Psychological origins of warfare

John Maxwell Hamilton in an article in the Washington Post on August 2, 2014, provides some insight on “How our information wars began – in WWI”. He notes that the British were pioneers of information control and manipulation. Barely an hour after declaring war on Germany, its cable ship Alert entered the English Channel and severed transatlantic telephone and telegraph cables linking Germany and the United States (U.S.). For the duration of the war, Berlin’s ability to communicate overseas, even with its embassies, was impaired. While the British were also tapping all other communication lines between Europe and the rest of the world, their main target was to minimize any German influence on U.S. policies. It was also to assure unhindered flow of U.S. assistance to England and its allies for the duration of the war and to prepare American politicians and the public psychologically for entering the war against Germany.

The concept of psychological warfare was already known in ancient times in terms of aggressive rhetoric, deception, threats of violence, and dissemination of rumours, such as overwhelming numbers of attacking warriors and their cruelty. Its aim was to break the resolve to resist, to give up without a fight. After WWI, the art of controlling public opinion and unquestionable support of even violent government policies was significantly expanded by the German Nazis, Italian fascists and particularly, the Soviet Union communist leaders.

The importance of psychological warfare grew rapidly during the Second World War. Countries at war created special and often secret psychological operations units, and extensive use of radio and other means of communication to deceive or mislead their enemies. Particularly effective were the British, developing many tricks to devastate the plans and operations of their opponents.

But perhaps the smartest of all the psychological warfare conductors was the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, as the Cold War began, the first Directorate of the KGB substantially strengthened its deception activities, with the aim of expanding the communist systems to numerous countries throughout the world. They realized that psychologically disarming the target audience was much more effective than armed conflict. By focusing psychological operations on altering the targeted population’s attitudes and values, and by continuous flow of disguised conflicting ideas and manipulation and twisting facts, the KGB operatives were convinced of successfully bringing the communist system to power without direct physical confrontation.

Traditional psychological warfare methods

Use of digital and satellite based technologies in information wars has not diminished the importance of traditional warfare methods. These include: Falsification of documents and publically available information; Slander and disrepute of organizations, political activities, views, theories, and the character of individuals; Bullying through violent activities against ethnic minorities, political opponents, by conducting threatening military exercises, and/or “accidental” violation of target country’s borders; Barrage – public distraction from attention to significant issues by noisy events of insignificant importance. Distortion by presenting out of context facts, documents, and statistics, Infection, by emphasizing social ills, gender and race inequality, national and religious discord, demonizing soldiers in one scenario and portraying them as victims of special interests wars, in another; Rumors by imbuing fright and destroying hope within the population. This is very effective in emergencies and in times of high emotional tension.

Modern psychological warfare structures and technology

Modern psychological warfare is coercive in nature. It aims to weaken or destroy an opponent’s political, social, or societal will, and force a course of action favorable to the initiating country’s interests. Such warfare may be combined with publically induced violence, economic pressure, subversion, and diplomacy, but the main mechanism is by the use of words, images and ideas. The creation, deployment, and continuation of these coercive methods can serve as potential substitute for direct military confrontation. Methods, such as economic sanctions or embargoes, are intended to inflict the necessary economic damage to force political or military change. Techniques and styles used in the conduct of psychological warfare depend on the initiating country’s political vision and composition. They may differ according to whether the state is totalitarian, authoritative, or democratic.

Most larger countries have information warfare units ready for deployment at any place and any time. They may be part of the regular Armed Forces or exist as special services. If necessary, their services may be deployed in peacetime against external targets and at times even against their own citizens. Most countries in peacetime incorporate information warfare units in their civilian government structures. Under such circumstances they develop and conduct propaganda and/or ideological campaigns to assure national security and in extreme cases to bolstert the in-power political establishment.

In a market based economy, information is a commodity. It is sold and bought by the value it represents. The media that deploys information is supported by a variety of institutions: commercial establishments, public and private interest groups, banks, foundations, political parties, and the like. Usually, laws and codes of ethics limit the sponsor’s influence on the content of the published information. Nevertheless, the funding party has some say on the direction and scope of the presented information. Past experience shows that substantial funding can at times lead to the development of distorted and degrading type of information aimed at inflicting damage or destruction of the intended target. Such a form of aggression is difficult to combat, because most national and international laws are too vague to control the contentious content. As a result, continuous and consistent flow of derogatory information, could lead in the minds of the targeted population to the development of inferiority complexes, resulting in national identity crisis, belief in government’s incompetence, distrust of their security organizations, and others. Small countries are especially susceptible to such assault. Lithuania’s journalist Gintaras Visockis highlighted Russian attempts to discredit Lithuania’s government, in the July 29 issue of the Chicago based Lithuanian daily Draugas under the title, “Russian secret services are again making mockery of Lithuanians”.

One very effective technology of information warfare is a false flag operation. The term comes from the days of wooden ships, when one ship would hang the flag of its enemy before attacking another ship in their own navy. Because the enemy’s flag was hung instead of the flag of the real country of the attacking ship, it was called a “false flag” attack. Nowadays, such operations may be carried out by military, paramilitary or civil organizations. An example of an effective false flag operation is the wave of bombings carried out by KGB in its own country to justify the war against Chechnya, which helped Vladimir Putin into power. The most recent example is Putin’s “little green men” operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Older examples of such operations are shock troop formations disguised as Lithuanian freedom fighters destroying entire villages of innocent people. These operations were designed to develop national distrust and hate of real freedom fighters. With the rapid proliferation of digital information technologies, False Flag operations are nowadays not only part of politics, but also are employed in commercial and business activities, environmental and energy sectors, and even in professional sports. Their primary aim is to gain the upper hand by discrediting rivals, creating false images, and/or by leveraging public opinion in one’s favour.

Information warfare strategies

Daniel Lerner, former scholar at the CIA Strategy Unit of the Office of Strategic Services analyzed a variety of information warfare strategies. D. Lerner grouped psychological warfare technology into three categories: white, gray and black.

White technologies deal with information that is true, but somewhat biased. Sources of information are identified and validated; Gray technologies – information as a whole is correct, but less reliable and punctuated by seemingly reasonable questions related to the subject matter. Sources are not identified; Black technologies – Information is basically false and the message is mostly cleverly concealed to deceive the target audience. Sources are not identified.

Black technology warfare is simply covert operations conducted primarily by military or government secret services and in some instances by hired private organizations with concealed identities. Deception can be exercised in many ways to make the false information believable. For example, some false information is provided to some minor publication as a news item. Upon its printed appearance, the information is posted and repeated in several websites in the internet. With so many citations in the electronic media, the story draws attention of the national news media and is published by them as coming from an identifiable and verified source.

Psychological Information wars include oral, visual, and musical techniques designed to reach and change people’s motivation at neurological levels. The target audience is exposed to seemingly normal information streams without realizing that they contain encoded mind altering messages. They might be in radio and TV broadcasts, motion pictures and theatrical shows, and nowadays in widely visited internet programs. Someone listening to a musical program, watching a movie or a TV program does not even suspect that his or her subconscious mind is being manipulated and their emotional state as well as attitude are being affected.

Mr. Mazuronis, Lithuania’s EU parliament member (MEP), notes that Russia is cleverly disguising its intention to disintegrate the EU as a unified body, by convincing the EU public that western style democracy is leading to societal disarray, moral decadence, domination by Brussels’ bureaucracy, and eventually loss of national identity. “Treacherously attacked, Western democracies are mostly unaware of the traps that Russia is laying for them”.

The Internet and Cyber Warfare

About 1.5 million individuals in Russia are connected daily to political and economic websites. Accordingly, the internet offers Moscow significant opportunities to organize and steer the audience to whatever information it chooses to present in support of its policies. It also requires its information controlling agencies to measure the interests and importance to the public on any particular issue. The agencies know that on average, each visitor to the website usually shares this information with at least one other person. This magnifying effect is considerably amplified by mandated publications in the press, radio and TV broadcasts, and particularly by information in the internet. Like never before, the digital communication system is quite a remarkable and reliable tool to prepare and implement psychological information wars.

At present, Russia is employing extensive information strategies in support of its unconventional physical war. With well designed and disguised deceptive information format and content, it successfully convinced a good part of the world, that Russia has no interest in Ukraine, and that the U.S. is instigating Ukraine’s breakaway from friendly association with Russia. However, it contradicted its own propaganda about U.S. culpability, by awarding 300 journalists for their coverage of Russia’s military “liberation” of Crimea and glorification of armed incursion into Eastern Ukraine.

Cybernetics and space surveillance are of crucial importance in the conduct of psychological warfare and neutralization of opponents actions. Cybernetic deceptions and direct attacks are particularly dangerous to existing information infrastructures, electronic communication networks, industrial processes, economics and financial management systems, electricity and gas transmission, air traffic, etc. They can produce major operational disruptions, damage national security, create crisis in any attacked country’s economy, and result in violent break-ups of national or societal structures,

Malware named Stuxnet surfaced In 2009. It can not only temporarily neutralize a targeted information system, but also take over computer based control systems of industrial, government or military establishments, including their destruction. Earlier this year, for example, Ukrainian armed forces in Crimea found themselves cut-off electronically from their command centers while Russian forces began Crimea’s occupation. Isolated, surprised and unsure of what to do, they surrendered without resistance. Cyberspace virus (V666), is a particularly powerful tool. Some versions create damaging light spots on the monitor screen and wipe out all information stored in the computer’s memory. Above all, it can also be dangerous to the computer operator. The US Army academic journal reports that the Russian version of Virus 666 manifests itself in every 25th frame as a visual display of combination of colors that allegedly put computer operators into a trance. The subconscious perception of the new pattern eventually results in arrhythmia of the heart.

Countering the misleading information flow

Scientific American, in its December 2009 issue, notes that emergence of internet and digital technologies brought about opposite effects from what was expected with abundant and easily accessible information. What had not been foreseen is that information provided without content filters allowed the emergence of information based on false knowledge and disinformation. Misleading information was much more difficult to spread when the printed word era prevailed. Printed information was mostly prepared by professional journalists and its truthfulness verified by responsible editors. However, the arrival of the computer changed all that. The digital content has displaced the printed word into secondary position. This shift and lack of editorial controls, have allowed massive inflows of partial and/or totally false information as well as huge quantities of purposely prepared disinformation that can be used to gain political, military, business, economics and other types of advantages.

Some analysts and legal professionals believe that the misleading information can be confronted and refuted through the legal process and the evaluation by special analysis centres. But often targeted and cleverly disguised information is nearly impossible to untangle and its source found. Most is very difficult to even recognize, because it is aimed to affect ones behaviour through the unconscious part of the mind. Appealing to the emotions, usually finds ready acceptance, if it supports what an individual wants to hear, believe, or see. Negative, cleverly concealed, but believable and particularly appealing information, corresponding to an unpleasant or intolerable situation, is particularly effective in a society where there is no trust and transparency.

Western governments and organizations serving their societies will need the capacity to recognize and identify disinformation and develop methods to counteract it, both at home and abroad. Fraud and deception can be overcome only by a society that is mature, critically thinking, and capable of analysis any information coming into its possession. At the same time, transparency, integrity and honesty must be the iron clad pillars of the government, political parties, as well as business and any other organization serving that society. According to MEP Mazuronis, “If we continue to fail to understand, or pretend not to see and understand what’s going on – we will not only lose the battle, but we will also lose the war. And it is none other than our own independence.”

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