At the International Studies Association convention in San Francisco, at an especially interesting panel on cybersecurity, we were privileged to hear excerpts from a forthcoming book by Michael Warner, Historian for the United States Cyber Command, and John Childress. Warner examined the last 20 years of U.S. Russia relationships in the cyber domain and made some important observations about how that context can provide insight into the present situation.

The 1999 Kosovo war was an important break point in U.S. – Russia relations. The war was presented to Americans and Europeans as a humanitarian intervention, based on a “duty to protect.” This, Warner notes, was very disturbing to Russia, and not only because the intervention was so close to its borders. At the 2007 Munich security conference, Vladimir Putin claimed that the doctrine was extremely dangerous. The duty to protect, he feared, could be used by foreign countries to justify intervention in any country that didn’t conform to its norms. In his opinion, the West was manipulating international law to reach into states and change them. “No one feels safe,” he reportedly claimed.

This perception was exacerbated by Hilary Clinton’s Internet Freedom initiative when she was Secretary of State. Clinton proposed to export its liberal values by funding circumvention technologies and civil rights activists in other countries. The Clinton State Department seemed to be openly bragging about how they are getting around state controls on information. At the same time the U.S. resisted efforts by the Russians and Chinese to create an international code of conduct that would limit cross-border flows of “subversive” information, claiming (correctly) that such controls would justify censorship. Information content was not a cybersecurity issue, the U.S. claimed at the time. (This seems to have changed.)

What happened in Libya in 2011 disturbed Russia even more. During the Arab Spring, Internet-based social media combined with U.S. no fly zones and U.S. support for opposition forces to topple one regime after another, in the eyes of the Russians. Warner quoted a speech by Russian General Gerasimov in which he noted “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.” Gerasimov noted the effect of such tactics and strategies:

“a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”

The upshot of this historical interpretation is that Russia’s 2016 interventions in the American political process cannot be explained as simple Russian aggression. They are best understood as a response to this confluence of forces which the Russians perceived as shifting against them. The 2016 interventions, in short, were what some military analysts call blowback.

It is interesting to observe how this historical narrative contrasts with what our public media have been feeding us. Exhibit A is an article by Robert Coalson in the 2 September 2014 Huffington Post. Coalson is a writer and editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – in other words, he might be considered an agent of U.S. government-sponsored “information operations” himself. Coalson’s September 2014 article is a remarkable example of the power of framing. The title of the piece, “Top Russian General Lays Bare Putin’s Plan for Ukraine,” frames General Gerasimov’s speech as outlining “Putin’s plans for Ukraine” – despite the fact that Ukraine is never mentioned in the speech and the speech predates the Ukrainian crisis. Once Gerasimov’s statements are linked to Ukraine in the reader’s mind, Coalson’s quotation from Gerasimov seems very ominous. To repeat:

“a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”

How different, how threatening, this quote seems when framed in the context of Ukraine. Coalson’s article went on to claim that “Russian politicians, journalists, purportedly nongovernmental organizations, state companies, think tanks, the military, the courts, government agencies and the Duma were all working from the same instructions for the same goals.” Within months of Coalson’s plant in the media, Western analysts had invented a “Gerasimov doctrine” and were using it to paint a picture of a coordinated, monolithic Russian information warfare threat, a threat that extended not only to a weak and unstable Ukrainian state but (after the 2016 U.S. elections) as a threat to the entire world of Western liberal democracy. Suddenly, the U.S. and the west start to think like China and Russia that transnational internet communication needs to be regulated to prevent subversion.

But the facts tell a different story. As noted by Warner, that quotation from Gerasimov came from a speech made before the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2013. In the ominous quotation, Gerasimov was not referring to Ukraine but to the fate of Qaddafi’s Libya. Further, he was concerned about the Middle East because he considered Libya’s and other countries’ descent into chaos as a product of American operations. As Warner put it, Gerasimov’s speech was not the articulation of a “doctrine,” but “a call for help.” In Gerasimov’s view, the United States had perfected a new method of warfare, making the entire population the battlefront. Gerasimov was asking the Academy of Sciences to help them understand this new mode of warfare, because it could happen to Russia. The title of the article makes its intent clear: “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight.”

In short, a statement Gerasimov made in early 2013 about what he saw as United States activities in Libya and the Arab Spring were taken out of context by the American version of Russia Today and made to seem as if it were a Russian General talking about “Putin’s plan for Ukraine.” This has contributed to a securitization process embracing all of American social media. How’s that for effective and influential “info-ops?”

By March of this year Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert for the Institute of International Affairs in Prague, had the decency to publicly admit that things had gotten out of hand. He wrote a piece in Foreign Policy entitled “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.” There, he admits that there is no Gerasimov Doctrine, Western media have simply created a convenient bogeyman. Galeotti still believes that Russia is trying to turn democratic norms and institutions against themselves “by opening existing fault lines, and by taking every opportunity to neutralize the West.” But he cautions that it would be a mistake to “fail to appreciate how U.S. actions look to the Kremlin and the extent to which [we] have inadvertently contributed to President Vladimir Putin’s grand narrative of a Russia under threat from an insidious West. He is largely wrong, but not entirely so.”

2 thoughts on “Blowback: An overlooked truth about Russian information operations

Comments are closed.