Russia Reveals Information
Warfare Troops

Defense minister: New force 'stronger' than past counter propaganda efforts

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu / AP

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Russia disclosed this week that it has strengthened its information warfare forces amid U.S. charges of influence operations aimed at swaying the outcome of the 2016 election.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed information capabilities in an assessment of Russia's military power provided to Russian officials on Wednesday in Moscow.

"Over this time, information operations forces have been formed, which are much more efficient and stronger than the counter propaganda department," Shoigu said. He did not elaborate on what is regarded as one of the Russian military's more secret capabilities.

The defense minister noted that "propaganda needs to be clever, smart, and efficient."

Russian information warfare burst onto the international scene in 2014 with the takeover of Ukraine's industrial heartland of Crimea. The operation involved the use of Russian troops without military insignia who were dubbed "little green men" and deployed to the peninsula in the takeover operation. Russian intelligence also used Moscow-directed protest demonstrations along with legal and media operations to annex the territory without firing a shot.

Michael Waller, an information warfare expert, said the United States needs to improve its information warfare capabilities.

"The U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars on intelligence, diplomatic, and military capabilities, and zero on effective use of information as a weapon," Waller said.

"Information is a cheap way to combat adversaries and enemies who wage it against us so effectively that we chase our tails in a constant and fruitless defensive mode," said Waller, a founding member of the editorial board of the NATO journal Defence Strategic Communications.

"The U.S. government has no strategy, no command system, no bureaucratic structure, no procedures, and no trained professional cadre for the global strategic information battle," he added. "This is a national scandal. It has been this way for 25 years. The problem isn't hard to solve under the proper leadership."

Shoigu's disclosure highlights what U.S. military and intelligence officials have said is a well-developed Russian strategic program of information warfare observed most recently in the combined cyber attacks and influence operations during the U.S. election campaign.

U.S. intelligence agencies described the program as a "cyber-enabled" influence program involving both the civilian and military intelligence services.

The spy agencies were able to penetrate electronic systems of Democratic Party institutions and political figures, steal sensitive data, and publicize the information on pro-Moscow Internet outlets.

Before he was inaugurated, President Trump dismissed U.S. intelligence assessments of the Russian election hacking as inconclusive. However, the president toned down his criticism after receiving intelligence briefings on the matter.

The Russian operation involved hacking the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and releasing details of the information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, a Russian front called DCLeaks.com, and through Russian hackers using the handle Guccifer 2.0.

DNC emails revealed that the committee sought to discredit Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) by revealing he was an atheist. They also showed that DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz worked covertly to support Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign. The disclosures led to her dismissal.

The Russian activities were carried out by the FSB security service and the GRU military intelligence service. U.S. intelligence believes the influence operation was approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russians also hacked personal emails of John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, and made the emails public. They included information that was embarrassing to Clinton and her campaign.

U.S. intelligence agencies made no conclusions about the effectiveness of the Russian cyber influence campaign. Analysts noted that Clinton's poor election campaign effort and negative publicity from the FBI investigation into her unsecure email servers were major factors in her loss to Trump.

U.S. officials said the election campaign operation was directed by Col. Gen. Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB's Fifth Service, known as the Directorate of Operational Information and International Communications. Beseda was hit with Treasury Department sanctions in July 2014 after the Russian operation against Crimea.

Since the takeover of Crimea, Russia has continued to subvert Ukraine by supporting pro-Russian rebel forces in the eastern part of the country. Russia also was blamed for the first known state-sponsored cyber attack on critical infrastructure, specifically the temporary disruption of control networks that shut down the Ukrainian electric power grid.

Russia's Defense Ministry made no mention of the information warfare troops in a report of Shoigu's remarks to Russian parliamentarians posted on its website.

Retired Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, head of the defense affairs committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, commented on Shoigu's information warfare disclosures. He told Russian state media the troops are engaged in protecting national defense interests and "engag[ing] in information warfare."

Retired Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, former head of the Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, said Russia relies on information warfare troops to counter Western propaganda.

"We must stop offering excuses and force the West into the defensive by conducting operations to expose its lies," Ivashov said in comments published by RIA Novosti news agency.

A NATO report by Keir Giles, an expert on the Russian military at Chatham House, a British think tank, said the Ukraine operation "provides a clear demonstration of how Russia sees cyber activity as a subset, and sometimes facilitator, of the much broader domain of information warfare."

"In fact, the techniques visible in and around Ukraine represent the culmination of an evolutionary process in Russian information warfare theory and practice, seeking to revive well-established Soviet techniques of subversion and destabilization and update them for the internet age," Giles stated in a report titled "The Next Phase of Russian Information Warfare."

Beyond cyber attacks, Russian information warfare seeks "to control information in whatever form it takes," Giles said.

Russia regards its information warfare capabilities as a way for its weaker conventional military forces to achieve Moscow's objectives. Those goals include neutralizing the NATO alliance and gaining control over all countries close to Russia's borders.

Former Russian commander-in-chief Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky said winning information warfare "can be much more important than victory in a classical military conflict because it is bloodless, yet the impact is overwhelming and can paralyze all of the enemy state's power structures."

Shoigu also disclosed that Russia is building up both its conventional and nuclear forces.

Bill Gertz is the author of the recently published book on information warfare, iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age, available at iwarbook.com.