The Kremlin’s Operations in the Information Space as part of its Global Campaigns
The Kremlin’s efforts to shape the information space is a key component of its wider global campaigns. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s core objectives include preserving his regime, reestablishing Russia as a global power, and diminishing the global influence of the U.S. and NATO. Putin seeks to break the West’s unity and reestablish suzerainty over the territories of the former Soviet Union. Putin is reestablishing a global military footprint that aims to shape the behavior of his adversaries at low cost.
Russia wages a wide array of information campaigns in support of these various strategic objectives. The Kremlin, for example, is currently trying to shift the narrative regarding its war in Eastern Ukraine in order to achieve Putin’s preferred political outcome and gain relief from Western sanctions. The Kremlin seeks to frame, falsely, the violence in Eastern Ukraine as a ‘civil conflict’ and present itself as a mediator despite its role as a belligerent. The Kremlin’s most recent information efforts in Ukraine include an attempt to blame the pause in the peace process – caused by Russia and its proxies’ violations of the ceasefire – on ‘Ukrainian radicals who want war.’
Information operations are also a major component of the Kremlin’s relatively newer campaigns, such as its recent push in Africa. Russia is amplifying a set of narratives to portray itself as a great power, peacemaker, humanitarian actor, counter-terrorism partner, and counter-narcotics partner in Africa. Russian media outlets have started to launch new local partnerships in Africa, including in Eritrea and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Kremlin is also working to expand the reach and depth of its information networks. The Kremlin’s state-controlled media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, broadcast their content globally. The Kremlin is adapting, however. Both organizations have started to collaborate with local outlets around the world. Russian media outlets have signed numerous cooperation agreements in the past two years with local media outlets in the countries ranging from Mexico to Vietnam to Saudi Arabia. These deals may enable Russia to launder its narratives and obscure the true origins of its information campaigns.
Russia’s information space goes far beyond its media networks. Putin has been working hard to build Russia’s networks of alliances and to create multiple international groupings centered on Russia as a counter to an international order led by the U.S. The Kremlin is growing the reach of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) through free trade agreements with countries ranging from Singapore to Serbia. The Kremlin is trying to interlink the various groupings it is a part of, such as ASEAN and the EEU. Putin is building interlocking ties among a number of rogue regimes it supports – from Syria to Venezuela – in order to enhance their collective legitimacy and support Russia’s strategic interests. The Kremlin is investing in creating new forums and frameworks, such as the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit convened in Sochi in October 2019. Russia is promoting a new Russia-led “security concept” in the Persian Gulf. The Kremlin uses all of these platforms as a unified medium to recycle and spread its narratives in an effort to cast itself as a revitalized great power, while portraying the U.S. as a discredited global hegemon.
Russia is also outlasting the West in the information space. The Kremlin exploited the West’s inability to sustain attention on the fact that Russia is engaging in unprovoked hostility in violation of its own commitments and of international laws. Russia managed to reinstate its voting rights at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this year. Some Western leaders have expressed willingness to consider Russia’s return to the G-7 organization of advanced industrial economies. The Kremlin likely tapped into a sub-generation of politicians in the West for whom an “anti-Russian policy” was an inherited stance. Russia thus gradually shifted the narrative without making any meaningful concessions.
The Kremlin’s success in its information operations stems not just from the West’s inability to sustain attention, but the remarkable continuity of the Kremlin’s narratives. First, Putin has been in power for 20 years along with his close circle of advisors. The Kremlin has been recycling and amplifying fundamentally the same set of narratives for the last two decades. They have become self-sustaining and rebounded back into the national security debate in Russia and, in some cases, beyond. Second, Putin’s close circle of advisors consists of trusted officials with intelligence and military backgrounds who have been working with Putin since the 1990s. Most of them were exposed to the long tradition of Soviet information operations and to the related concept of “reflexive control.” Reflexive control aims to cause an adversary to choose from options advantageous to his own objectives and information operations are a key component of it. Putin continues to use this concept in Ukraine and beyond.
Breaking Western unity is one of Putin’s key foreign policy objectives. Putin seeks to invalidate the collective defense provision of the North Atlantic Treaty, weaken the European Union, and undermine the faith of Western societies in their institutions. The Kremlin’s information operations will continue to play a core role in this effort. Europe should not silo Russian information operations that are focused on the European theaters, however and closely watch Russia’s campaigns and its geopolitical adaptations globally in order to forecast the direction and changes of the Kremlin’s information operations in Europe.
By Nataliya Bugayova, Russia Team Lead and Russia Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of War (ISW)
This publication is written for the Nordic IT Security Forum