Editor’s Note: Russian disinformation is extensive and growing, with major efforts in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world. The content of Russia’s campaign is increasingly understood, but the motives behind it are often simplified. CNA’s Kasey Stricklin explains Russia’s efforts, detailing how it fits into Russia’s worldview and broader strategic concerns.
While there is much discussion about Russian disinformation in today’s popular discourse, the conversation about why Russia uses disinformation usually doesn’t get beyond general notions of Moscow wanting to “divide us” or “muddy the waters.” After the revelations that Russia is working to help Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary, a Wired article stated, correctly, that Russia doesn’t actually care if Sanders gets elected, but the headline went further to propose that, instead, Russia wants “chaos.” Similarly, at a recent conference on disinformation that I attended, a senior U.S. government official working in cybersecurity said Russia’s goal with regard to disinformation is just to “watch the world burn,” comparing the country to the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight.
This is dangerous thinking. If Russia has no desire beyond destruction, then it is difficult to deter it from engaging in this kind of malign behavior. It is also incorrect. Russia has a number of strategic goals that it hopes to advance through its use of disinformation, including restoring Russia to great power status, preserving its sphere of influence, protecting the Putin regime and enhancing its military effectiveness. Those aims are intimately tied up in Russia’s history, geography, culture, domestic situation and perceived place in the world. (For the purpose of simplicity, this essay will use the word “disinformation” to refer to the broader array of information tools used for psychological influence, including disinformation, propaganda, manipulated media (such as artificial intelligence-generated photos), and the creation of polarizing memes and social media pages).
Awareness about Russian tactics and how to identify them has begun to spread, even as Russia’s methods change and adapt to remain effective. In Fiona Hill’s November 2019 public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, she explained to millions how the U.S. political establishment has fed into and repeated narratives “propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” This powerful statement seemed to strike a chord on Twitter and in the media, where awareness about how Russian narratives become ingrained in our minds could be seen spreading. However, this blossoming understanding of what is happening stands in sharp contrast to the blind spot about why it is happening.
Goal #1: Restore Russia to Great Power Status
Disinformation is one way for Russia to roll back U.S. global influence and bolster Russian great power status in what it views as a zero-sum game. According to this perspective, Russia can gain influence only if the United States loses influence, and vice versa. Despite its decline from the height of Soviet superpower status, Russia has not stopped aspiring to be a great power and regain the clout it used to wield. As the successor to the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the owner of a massive nuclear arsenal, and the perceived protector of Russian peoples globally, the leadership in Moscow and many members of the Russian general public believe Russia has a rightful place among the world’s great powers, irrespective of its economic or geopolitical status. Though Western commentators most often view Russian behavior as malign and sometimes belligerent, Russia views itself as trying to right the global power imbalance and correct the injustices inflicted on it since the end of the Cold War.
Russia uses disinformation to propagate narratives that damage perceptions of U.S. global leadership. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia entered a decade marked by unemployment, resource scarcity, crime and corruption. During this time, Russians watched as the United States capitalized on the post-Cold War “peace dividend” to assume a position approaching unipolarity. Moscow believes that the United States, along with its allies, took advantage of this position to cripple Russia to the point that its views are not taken into account in the global community. Russian leaders believe that if it were to gain back a seat at the table and keep the United States and its allies from making all the important decisions, it could assert its own interests more effectively and exert veto power in any decisions that could threaten those interests.
Russia considers disinformation useful for diminishing U.S. stature, which it hopes will create more maneuvering space to regain influence and for its contrasting narrative to become more appealing worldwide. Its efforts—including the use of bots, trolls and hackers—are thus made with the aim of finding and exploiting preexisting divides within U.S. society, making the United States appear dysfunctional and the Russian view seem more legitimate. Similar operations aim to drive wedges between the United States and its Western allies, potentially creating rifts that would make it difficult to achieve unity on policies that would negatively affect Russia, such as economic sanctions.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union put immense resources into employing “active measures,” a suite of political warfare tools including disinformation and propaganda, as well as political assassinations, forgeries and other methods. In an attempt to overcome various economic and social shortcomings that could potentially hold them back, the Soviets sought to take advantage of the West’s open media space as a venue for undermining confidence in the U.S. government and its democratic institutions. Fake stories, including a claim that the CIA invented the AIDS virus, were propagated; and divisive issues in the United States, like race relations, were amplified. These methods helped erode U.S. global prestige. Today’s disinformation is rooted in Soviet active measures and makes full use of current technologies to bolster Russia’s position and roll back U.S. influence.
Goal #2: Preserve Russia’s Sphere of Influence
Disinformation also introduces a major domestic problem for the United States that requires it to focus more internally and less externally. This inward focus means the United States has fewer resources and less attention available to prioritize its international goals, including the advancement of democracy in the former Soviet space. In the Russian worldview, great powers are entitled to their own spheres of influence in which they are able to exercise a veto over smaller countries’ strategic orientation. Moscow believes each great power should keep to its own sphere, allowing others sovereignty over theirs. This is fundamentally at odds with the Western vision of a liberal international order wherein small states are sovereign in their own right.
A sphere of influence, or buffer zone, is particularly important for Russia due to the country’s vast territory, which has proved difficult to defend and has instilled a deep sense of vulnerability in the Russian leadership. To secure its borders and safeguard its sovereignty, Russia considers it necessary to have compliant governments installed in its “near abroad” (that is, the countries of the former Soviet Union) in order to shore up Russia’s vulnerable position. Failing that, hostile governments in the region must be kept weak. Russia’s worst-case scenario is for those governments to leave the Russian sphere of influence and align with the West. Disinformation helps lessen the chance that this will happen by making Russia seem more appealing and the West less appealing in media aimed at Russia’s neighbors. In addition, when Russia carries out actions in its near abroad, the use of disinformation can increase Russia’s freedom of action and create a greater chance of success by scrambling the information space. If governments lack situational awareness, they will be less likely to take effective action.
Through the use of disinformation, Russia also hopes to break up NATO and the European Union by creating internal discord between the member states and by damaging the alliances’ reputations globally. As the West moves further into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, it heightens Russia’s sense of vulnerability and isolation. Thus, Moscow wants to prevent the countries in its near abroad from joining these Western alliances at all costs, ideally by dissolving the alliances completely. After the Baltic countries and several former Soviet partner countries joined NATO following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s 2014 military doctrine highlighted NATO expansion as the most pressing military risk facing the country. Russia views disinformation as a relatively cheap, low-risk tool for countering this perceived threat.
Goal #3: Protect the Putin Regime
Discouraging both the domestic Russian population and citizens in the near abroad from aspiring to Western-style democracy is a top priority for Russia, and disinformation serves as a handy way of discrediting democracy. The Russian leadership does not want democracy to be seen as a preferable alternative to the Russian system of governance, and, through disinformation, Russia can highlight cracks in society that make the West seem chaotic and unappealing.
Putin heads an extensive network of regime-tied elites who profit from the current system, so both he and those connected to him have a strong interest in regime preservation. Since coming to power in 2000, the Putin regime has viewed the “color revolutions” and “Arab Spring” with great alarm and considered them a threat to Russian stability and global influence. Moscow views these movements as Western-backed conspiracies aimed at furthering U.S. democracy promotion efforts. In March 2015, Putin said that the West “us[es] so-called color technologies, from organizing illegal street protests to open propaganda of hatred in social networks” to foment unrest.
The Putin regime worries about revolutions occurring in countries geographically near or politically friendly to Russia, as well as inside Russia itself. The thinking goes that if a popular uprising can lead to regime change in Ukraine or Georgia, for example, then it can happen in Russia as well. Russian leaders are concerned that the West would seek to thwart Russia’s influence in its sphere of influence through such a revolution, thereby weakening the Russian regime and ultimately replacing Putin with a ruler more amenable to the Western worldview. Therefore, Putin and his government consider this an existential threat. It is cited in Russia’s 2014 military doctrine and often listed as one of the most serious dangers to the Russian regime.
Therefore, the long-term erosion of confidence in democracy is one major goal for the use of disinformation that is broader than the installation of a certain candidate as U.S. president or the hijacking of one election. However, it is certainly a bonus if disinformation can pave the way for a candidate favorable to Russia and its policies, especially if that effort serves to undermine democracy and U.S. leadership.
Goal #4: Enhance Russia’s Military Effectiveness
In 2013, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov famously said that nonmilitary tools, including disinformation, are at least as important as traditional hard military power. By weakening the internal coherence of an adversary through information influence, risks and costs can be minimized, the foundation for victory in a conflict can be laid, and fighting can possibly be avoided altogether.
In the United States, we most often speak about disinformation in terms of its meaning for democracy because the problem entered our collective conscience during the 2016 elections. However, for Russia, disinformation is intimately tied to the military sphere as well. While democratic governments tend to see the world as being either in a state of war or at peace, the communist view did not dichotomize these conditions and instead contended that all political activity inherently involves conflict. Most contemporary Russian experts who study information warfare believe that Russia and its adversaries use these tactics during both war and peace, and that the current Russian leadership considers itself to be in an information confrontation with the United States.
In a fight with NATO, the hard military balance is not in Russia’s favor, despite current military modernization efforts, and the Russian leadership is well aware of this disadvantage. Disinformation serves as an equalizer and perhaps even a way for Russia to gain the upper hand in some instances, since Russia can capitalize on an asymmetric advantage over the West in the information sphere. Rather than thinking of information as a force multiplier to hard military power, Moscow thinks of kinetic and nonkinetic measures (including information) as mutually supporting, with the nonkinetic measures being potentially even more important. Tactics below the level of armed conflict are most effective if an adversary is severely polarized or unable to respond adequately to Russian actions, and they are also difficult to deter. As mentioned previously, disinformation serves to promote discord in democracies and potentially disintegrate Western alliances, all of which could divide the West to a point at which Russia may even be able to avert a conflict entirely.
In addition, Russia can use disinformation to obscure facts on the ground. If Russia’s adversaries are unable to get an accurate picture of a conflict situation, Russia then has more freedom to act as it desires. For example, Russia used disinformation to conceal its involvement following several recent incidents, including the Crimean annexation and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), in an effort to shift the blame and avoid a confrontation. In such scenarios, disinformation can make the truth seem unknowable and foster decision paralysis, with the potential effect of helping Russia to escape global consequences. In the case of MH17, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (commonly called a “troll farm”) sprang into action immediately after the accident, spreading a multitude of narratives to exculpate Russia and its proxies, though investigations eventually attributed the crash to a Russian missile.
Russia wants more than just chaos or “to watch the world burn.” It hopes to further clear, tangible goals through the use of disinformation. If Western policymakers can accurately assess Russia’s goals, they can counter them more effectively, strengthen their allies more efficiently and avoid misunderstandings that could prove disastrous. A study of history and its resulting motivations is a good place to start.