Combatting Russian Active Measures
Evan David Shields
This article examines the effects of Russian Active Measures in the United States’ domestic information environment, and explores potential countermeasures that may be implemented to combat these ongoing non-kinetic operations. For the purpose of this discourse, Active Measures is defined as covert or overt actions aimed at influencing major world events, and is often conducted within the various virtual domains that comprise the information environment. Despite the deep history of information warfare between the U.S. and Russia, we have failed to effectively adapt our strategy to reduce the impacts of these destabilizing operations in an ever-expanding domestic information environment. In order to counteract Russian Active Measures “…there needs to be a coordinated effort across the U.S. Government to organize in a manner that encompasses the full spectrum of the information domain” (Kozloski, 2008, p, 4). While there are a variety of ways in which to realize this concept, we will analyze three distinct courses of action, distinct by the three separate instruments of national power they respectively leverage against Russian Active Measures – Information, Military, and Law.
From 2016 to 2019 the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted an investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Over the course of nearly four years, the committee published five separate volumes describing their findings. The second volume concluded that, “…Russia’s targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society” (U.S. Senate Select Committee, July 2018). In November 2020, elections were held for the President of the U.S., 435 seats in the U.S. Congress, and 35 seats in the U.S. Senate. This election cycle presented Russia with an ideal opportunity to replicate the effects they were able to generate during their 2016 Active Measures campaigns. As a result, the U.S. needs to actively leverage open source media to contest with and reduce the effects of Russian Active Measures in our domestic information environment for all future elections.
Russian Active Measures can be traced as far back as the Soviet Union’s spetspropaganda (special propaganda) doctrine, which was first introduced in Soviet military academia in 1942. By the 1960s, this doctrine evolved to what we now know as Russian Active Measures (Darczewska, 2014, p. 9). The current adaptation of Active Measures doctrine is a direct and calculated reaction to the notable asymmetry between U.S. and Russian conventional military power, a disparity that manifested over the course of the Cold War. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and 2016 U.S. election interference campaigns present two of the most prominent cases of Active Measures operations in recent history; cases in which Russia demonstrated its ability to conduct operations in an adversary’s virtual information environment and produce measurable effects in the physical domains. When aggregated, these two cases provide a holistic overview of Russia’s successful implementation of Active Measures theory across multiple points on the conflict spectrum. However, when contrasted, they offer a stark reality of the rapid tempo at which operations in the conflict spectrum’s “Gray Zone” can be seamlessly transitioned to kinetic operations with little to no warning (Asymmetric Warfare Group, 2019).
Annexation of Crimea 2014
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 had multiple implications for the international community. The operation demonstrated the broad capabilities and consequences of an effective Active Measures campaign. Additionally, the annexation exhibited how Russia was able to operate below the threshold of conflict, known as the Gray Zone, until it determined that conditions were set to rapidly transition to kinetic operations. Lastly, “The Ukraine conflict has provided clear demonstrations of how Russia sees cyber activity as a subset, and sometimes facilitator, of the much broader domain of information warfare” (Giles, 2016, p. 4). To adequately adapt to this emerging challenge, the U.S. must reverse engineer Russian Active Measures doctrine and deliberately develop its own information warfare doctrine in a manner intended to systematically dismantle Russian virtual combat power in the information environment.
This misaligned strategy presents yet another policy misstep; one in which the U.S. has failed to appropriately align its own instruments of national power to effectively combat this unconventional threat. The Kremlin views this technologically enhanced information environment as one in which “an entire battle could be conducted in the information domain and the results would appear in the physical domain” (Kzloski, 2008, p. 1). Russian tactics and strategies are predicated on the assumption that cyber warfare is but a single subcomponent of the much larger information warfare system. Meanwhile, the U.S. holds an opposing conceptual viewpoint; that information warfare is in fact a subset of cyber warfare. Currently, the 1st Information Operations command falls under the operational control of U.S. Army Cyber Command, which is one of the seven service components of U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM). Without a deliberate structural realignment, this strategic mismatch could manifest in a way that causes U.S. information operations to be conducted in a vacuum, exclusively under the authority of CYBERCOM. This design flaw is indicative of the Unites States’ ongoing belief that information warfare is a subcomponent of cyber warfare, and further demonstrates the asymmetry that has manifested in the virtual domains of war.
2016 U.S. Presidential Election Interference
After an extensive investigation and review, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), at the direction of the Kremlin, sought to influence the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They utilized the vast networks of social media, further amplified by Russian Web Brigades (aka Bots, Troll Farms, Putinbots), to sow social discord and virally spread content intended to be emotionally provoking. The operational focus of the 2016 Active Measures campaigns was “… on socially divisive issues – such as race, immigration, and Second Amendment rights – in an attempt to pit Americans against one another and against their government” (U.S. Senate Select Committee, July 2018, p. 6). It has been made clear that these Active Measure campaigns were designed to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning and improve those of Donald Trump’s.
Contrary to popular belief, the primary goal of Russian Active Measures is not simply to sow discord and distrust in the democratic system, those are just advantageous byproducts of the process. The primary objective is to leverage these Active Measures campaigns of polarizing topics to identify the political fringes in American society, and subsequently identify the politically-moderate majority of the population - the true target audience. To achieve this, “No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016” (U.S. Senate Select Committee, July 2018, p. 6). The systematic exploitation of politically controversial topics, coupled with the vast social freedoms inherent to American culture, make this strategic approach doubly effective.
A modern-day example of an Active Measures campaign would depict the deliberate dissemination of polarizing or radical content, specifically aimed at provoking an emotional response from the fringe left and right respectively. The effect of this dissension is two-fold, as content both polarizes the population and promotes political disenfranchisement between key constituents and policymakers. By utilizing user data collected by Facebook and other social media platforms, Russia would target the far left with content (which may be true or false) that would provoke immediate outrage - a video or narrative of unwarranted police brutality against an unarmed black suspect. They would then target the far right with contradictory content – a police officer being physically attacked by a black suspect during a routine traffic stop. By following this methodology, they’ve effectively identified the far right and left political limits of U.S. society. Having identified both ends of the spectrum, they are now able to isolate the political moderates who make up the majority of the country and target them with narratives that advance Russian interests. An example would be a narrative or video demonstrating an extremely well-trained Russian police officer flawlessly executing de-escalation tactics leading to the arrest of a suspect with no bodily harm inflicted; effectively spreading pro-Russian sentiment on a highly contested issue in the U.S.
The rapid technological advancements have drastically increased the complexity of responding to Russian Active Measures. While it is clear that open source social media platforms will serve as the primary operational environment, the distinguishing feature will be defined by which instrument(s) of national power we leverage against actions taken in the Gray Zone. This paper will apply the MIDFIELD (military, informational, diplomatic, financial, intelligence, economic, law, and development) model for instruments of national power, as described in Joint Doctrine Note 1-18, April 25th 2018. I will explore three potential courses of action to counteract Russian Active Measures during all future election cycles: Leverage the informational instrument of national power by establishing a new intelligence discipline (Public Intelligence), leverage the military instrument of national power by establishing a 12th unified functional Combatant Command, or leverage the law instrument of national power by imposing strict regulations to prevent American companies from providing a medium for Russian Active Measures.
Establish a New Intelligence Discipline (Information)
This course of action takes a decentralized approach while leveraging the informational instrument of national power. By establishing a new intelligence discipline, rather than a single organization or entity, we would effectively enable all 17 agencies of the Intelligence Community to integrate themselves into the counter-Active Measures campaign. This new intelligence discipline “…must come from the U.S. Intelligence Community, as it can repurpose a portion of its resources and personnel into a new discipline: public intelligence…” (Kozloski, 2018). The public intelligence (PI) analysts would directly engage Russian efforts through open source social media to rapidly identify and discredit both the origins and the byproducts of Active Measures. In doing so, and by utilizing the most popular virtual media available, PI analyst cells would work toward providing timely, accurate, and objective unclassified intelligence products that can easily be shared and understood by the general public. In some cases, this concept is already being employed by certain organizations – DIA Military Power Publication, DIA Connections Podcast, and NGA Tearline to name a few. Each of these sources provide excellent open source intelligence (OSINT) products, but are unfortunately utilizing the wrong delivery platforms. To ensure this intelligence reaches the largest audience, it should be disseminated through the most widely used social media platforms.
A major consideration of this approach is that it relies on the public perception that leaders of the intelligence community “…enjoy unique access to secret information and have a reputation for objectivity and independence” (Rovner, 2011, p. 36). By properly maintaining this longstanding reputation, leaders of the intelligence community will be better equipped to discredit Russian active measures in the public information environment. Potential consequences associated with this course of action include the increased risk of the politicization of intelligence and subsequent loss of the intelligence community’s reputation for objectivity and independence.
Establish a Unified Functional Combatant Command (Military)
This option takes a unified approach and leverages the military instrument of national power to address Russian Active Measures by establishing a unified Combatant Command exclusively dedicated to information warfare. This will be achieved by creating a 12th unified (functional) Combatant Command, one that is solely committed to directly engaging information warfare employed by our nation’s adversaries. This would be an appropriate response as “Recently, the Russian minister of defense acknowledged the existence of their cyber warriors in a speech to the Russian parliament, announcing that Russia formed a new branch of the military consisting of information warfare troops” (Prier, 2017). While Active Measures have been utilized for many decades, it wasn’t until 2008 that Russia began leveraging both its soft and hard tools of national power to achieve its strategic objectives. It is important to note that the Department of Defense does have an information operations element within each Combatant Command, as well as the 1st Information Operations Command which falls under US Army CYBERCOM.
The issue with this structure is that “Cyber warfare and information warfare are separate challenges, with some overlap, which require different countermeasures” (Kozloski, 2018). The implication being that these two problem sets must be addressed by separate entities that are specifically designed to operate effectively in their respective domain or environment of warfare. Pursuing this course of action would likely provide the U.S. with the greatest level of resources and capabilities to leverage against Russian Active Measures. The disadvantages associated with this option are that it will significantly increase the defense budget, require a realignment of DoD resources, and further promote our nation’s over-reliance on hard tools of national power.
Implement Regulatory Standards for all Social Media (Law)
The final alternative course of action utilizes the legislative branch (policymaker) to impose regulatory standards on all companies categorized as social media platforms and leverage the law instrument of national power. These regulations, passed by the U.S. Congress, would hold private companies accountable for providing an effective and unregulated medium for Russian Active Measures campaigns in our domestic information environment. When creating user accounts, social media platforms would be required to authenticate user profiles using a government issued ID and/or a valid phone number. An emerging platform called Parler, is a new alternative social media platform that is adopting this very policy. When asked about the criticism associated with this forced identity authentication procedure, Parler founder John Matze asserted that “On Parler, people get verified, people have phone numbers related to their accounts. People know they're acting and behaving as they would in a town square” (Wellemeyer, 2020). In addition to most users being dissuaded from overtly sharing radical content, this system would also serve as a preventative measure to the automated Russian bots and troll farms that were employed in the 2016 election.
There are several challenges associated with this course of action. First, social networks are transnational platforms, which means the authentication process needs to be individually tailored to each country. For example, in the U.S. a driver’s license is the most common form of identification, in Russia it is the domestic passport, and in Israel it is a government identification card. This identification variability across the globe must be accounted for when establishing the regulations. Second, the regulations must be designed in such a way so as not to infringe upon the first amendment rights of American citizens. This will require a very thorough and methodical approach, to ensure that accounts that have been disabled or blocked were done solely due to lack of authentication. Accounts must never be manipulated due to political affiliation, and content must never be filtered due to controversy. The final concern is the enforcement of these regulations, as well as the potential reaction by many of the top social media companies. Some companies may opt to relocate their headquarters abroad, so that they are no longer bound by the new regulations. In that situation, it is recommended those platforms simply be banned from public access in the U.S., until they adjust their policies to adhere to the new regulations.
In order to reduce the effects of Russian Active Measures in our domestic information environment in future elections, I recommend the third option as it is best positioned to achieve the desired end state, while relying on one of the softer tools of national power and committing far fewer resources than the other two options. By implementing regulatory account authentication standards upon all open source social media platforms, the U.S. would not only apply indirect virtual opposition to combat Russian Active Measures, but would also effectively alter the very composition of the domestic information environment to one that disfavors Russia’s current tactics. Lastly, this course of action would recalibrate U.S. strategic policy to directly combat Russia’s use of soft power tools, as a single subcomponent of contemporary great power competition.
The resurgence of great power competition and rapid technological innovations have created complex challenges for our nation’s leaders in both the intelligence and policy fields. The Kremlin’s approach to this contemporary Cold War is one that has been meticulously crafted in response to the overwhelming dominance of the U.S. Military’s hard power. In order for Russia to alleviate this disparity, it has developed strategies to use the vast virtual information environment to project soft power and degrade the U.S.’ geopolitical standing. Rather than meet this challenge with hard tools of national power and directly confront Russian Active Measures, the recommended course of action would take an indirect approach aimed at altering the fundamental composition of the domestic information environment through legislative means. To successfully implement this course of action, the following conditions need to be met:
- Authentication standards need to be versatile and tailored to each individual country.
- An oversight committee must be established that is exclusively dedicated to conducting efficacy reviews to ensure companies adhere to these new regulations and that first amendment rights are not infringed upon in the process.
- Contingency plans need to be in place in the event that companies relocate abroad to avoid the new domestic regulations.
This soft power approach will ultimately enable the other U.S. instruments of national power to continue furthering American interests, both domestically and abroad. We must remain adaptive to the dynamic nature of this renewed great power competition, and never again become complacent in any domain, virtual or otherwise.
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