Institute for Postinformation Society

Please describe the specific features, directions and aims of Russian “hybrid war” in Ukraine and Europe. What is the vulnerability of the Western democracies?

This question is rather exact unlike the multi-vector discourse of discussions held in the information space of Ukraine and the West. To my mind, the vulnerability of the Western democracies particularly is the key success factor in Russia’s hybrid aggression.

In my view, the overriding and basic aim for Vladimir Putin as well as for his entourage that passionately supports him is to maintain the legitimacy of their almost unlimited power and control over the masses inside Russia.

This aim can be attained only through weakening the foreign influence of the USA and the European states on the general context, dynamics, and direction of development of the countries and peoples in this part of the world. In particular, this refers specifically to Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian civil society per se.

The “Revolution of Dignity” accompanied by other events that played in favor of the preservation and development of independent Ukraine became the catalyst and excessively speeded up all the processes related to the response of the Russian Putin’s establishment to threats to their “status quo”. These threats, as I pointed out, lie in the inevitable evolution of civil society through the intensive development of the information space.

Therefore, all Russia’s actions by some means or other are aimed to:

  1. Maintain the status quo of the Putin’s leadership;
  2. Return Ukraine into the orbit of Moscow’s control or manipulations (or, in the case of failure, to turn it into the most unstable longtime buffer zone between NATO and Russia);
  3. Weaken to the utmost the USA and the European countries in terms of mutual influence (an ideal variant for the Kremlin would be: a) the maintenance of active business with the West on the basis of production and trade of hydrocarbons; b) the continuation of storing assets and educating children in the West enjoying all the “niceties of the West”; c) the absence of political pressure on Russia when it does what it wants).

It is evident that the experience, which Vladimir Putin and his closest entourage gained while working in the secret services, provided them with a successful and effective set of tools and methodologies to influence the policy of other countries through influencing the leaders of these countries and the leaders of society in these countries. The United States and the Soviet Union were actually doing the same in the 20th century.

(And the Soviet Union achieved significant success in this area. Let us consider at least the UN voting on the issues pressing for Ukraine such as not recognizing the annexation of the Crimea or human rights in occupation. Looking at the voting results, one can see that most African countries voted in favor of Russia. To my mind, this is the outcome of successful use of the foreign policy legacy of the Soviet Union on this continent).

However, such technology could be applied in the time when Putin’s main aim was to maintain the domestic focus. Today, his “KGB gimmickry” has no effect at all and sometimes even harms Putin himself. Recall at least the episode with Russian president’s Labrador and Angela Merkel.

Therefore, the foreign policy of other countries can be influenced only through the process of decision-making by their leaders. And for Putin, it turned out to be a hard challenge on the current stage. But it is clear and obvious that the essential feature of the leaders of the Western democracies and their political decision-making process is the focus on the needs of society and the voters.

And if it is not crucial for Russia, for the countries of Europe and America it is of utmost importance that the state policy satisfies the expectations of citizens and the voters otherwise statesmen will have no political perspective. Accordingly, statesmen and politicians in the Western democracies veer like a weathercock after the expectations and needs of the electorate. The “information degree” of the Western society is the basis for the development and adopting policy decisions at any time.

Consequently, it is reasonable that there is no sense in trying to influence policy decisions by influencing the leaders. It is necessary to modify the information space of the country and the society’s agenda so that there will appear preconditions for pressure on governments, and political and governmental mainstream will turn like a weathercock in the right direction.

This is a classic application of the soft power tools, but Putin has improved them significantly. He added a large number of aspects that form destructive processes and maximize entropy and chaos. For a manager who is prepared as security servant and a spy, it is comfortable to be in the conditions of chaos. For a statesman accustomed to constructive creation, it is on the contrary.

The main lever for the effective performance of the hybrid war tools is to use the “vulnerabilities” of the democratic form of government. “Freedom of speech” became one of such “vulnerabilities”. The development of humankind has reached a point when information (content, units of virtual dimension) conducts absolutely real transformations in the real world due to the changes in people’s minds.

For instance, appropriately presented information on the tragic fire on May 2nd, 2014, in Odessa inspired the entering of thousands of Russian volunteers to Donbas with the desire to “kill fascists”.

Another example is how a fake post on the page of the “Right Sector” in VKontakte (concerning the plea to Doku Umarov) became the justification for the decision of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation on permission for Putin to use troops (March 1st, 2014).

Therefore, the Kremlin is using formidable resources for changing the information space, which affects the changes in society, which in turn influences the political discourse of the state. With certain reservations, one can say that this happened with the US elections. At least Vladimir Putin believes that Trump’s victory is the result of applying the abovementioned instruments. That is why he puts high hopes on this result.

Our task is to identify and distinguish those fundamental aspects of the democratic society that transformed from the benefits of democracy to its vulnerabilities such as, for instance, freedom of speech. And to develop innovative approaches to restore the power of these democratic principles.
What are the lessons and conclusions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

The lessons of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are quite obvious and simple:

  1. The state as an apparatus of state coercion and administrative system of state institutions is unable to protect society from hybrid threats while preserving the democratic society. It is physically impossible because too many fundamental contradictions arise and destroy the state from within;
  2. The legislative system of the state (laws and regulations) is also unable to develop and maintain the approaches to countering hybrid threats. Hybrid threats themselves are created to be as polymorphic as possible. We will need to either change laws every day or to use them in a voluntaristic manner as Russia does;
  3. It is theoretically impossible to maintain the democratic discourse of the society development and at the same time to fulfill the state function of ensuring security in the conditions of hybrid and information threats (however, Ukraine is getting through it step by step). Fulfillment of the security function will inevitably conflict with ensuring the preservation of human rights. And freedom of speech will inevitably clash with the issues of ensuring safety from threats;
  4. Ukraine’s experience demonstrated that, in spite of expectations, the media community had not become the mainstream of the recovery of the information space and society, and on the contrary turned out to be the catalyst for the development of certain risks. And it happened not due to some evil intent but because journalists were unprepared and unwilling to fight and defend themselves against the threats that hybrid aggression produced and continues to produce;
  5. Despite all of the above mentioned, Ukrainian society has shown incredible results in the increase of “resilience” to hybrid threats and their information aspects, which indicates a very intense “growing-up” and the development of critical thinking and independence of this society.

How Ukraine and Europe should counter Russia’s “hybrid” aggression?

This is a very knotty question to answer in brief as the devil is in the detail, and countering hybrid threats is an incredibly extensive and complex matrix of simple steps and actions that collectively represent a reliable shield against aggression.

The first thing that one needs to “put in one’s pipe and smoke” is that this war is impossible to win by symmetrical means. In other words, Russia has invested 1 billion dollars in British Russia Today, so let us also create several TV channels. This leads us to budget war that we will inevitably lose because European bureaucrats will not spend such enormous funds for the confrontation as the Kremlin does.

Second, we should gain the upper hand of “understanding hybrid war and propaganda” from journalists. This is not because they “do not act in someone’s favor” or because they are not smart enough. But because they simply do not think in such categories and are not trained in such a way that could help them properly assess and beat off hybrid aggression.

Third, we must recognize that the state should have an information policy and the state is authorized to implement it through its bodies. You may call it “government propaganda”, “counter-propaganda”, “stratcom”, “information policy” – as you wish. State propaganda is a natural and normal thing. It is right when the state says to its citizens: “wash your hands before eating”, “reproduce yourselves”, “pay taxes”, “love your Motherland”, “honor your heroes”… All this is propaganda! And this is NORMAL!

Fourth, we should engage the public sector and civil society in the process of shaping and implementation of information policy as extensively as possible. In fact, the state function should be substituted with civil society, but some state leadership should be preserved.

This will enable us to remove the risk of the state information policy’s turning into an authoritarian propaganda tool. As a matter of fact, in perfect condition, civil society, not the state, should be responsible for countering hybrid aggression. Because, as I already mentioned, the state is simply unable to carry out this task based on its functions and principles.

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