Russia’s Unconventional Warfare: Moscow’s domination of the Information Space

U.S. intelligence and defense services, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) 2023 Threat Assessment recognize China and Russia as the two greatest threats to U.S. national security. The U.S. has more firepower than either of the two and is a member of the world’s most powerful military alliances NATO, Aukus, and the Quad. Consequently, the U.S. would have a distinct advantage in a direct conflict. However, direct conflict remains a future possibility. Meanwhile, Russia and China have both been attacking the U.S. through unconventional warfare for decades. Because Russia is better at understanding American language and culture, and owing to their vast experience, dating back to World War II, arguably, Russia tends to be more effective at unconventional warfare than China.

George Kennan, the father of the containment policy, defined unconventional warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” Unconventional warfare can be military or quasi-military operations, other than conventional, direct warfare. Called the Gray Zone, an area between peace and conflict, unconventional warfare can include the use of covert forces or guerilla warfare in a hot conflict. Proxy wars, such as those fought in Vietnam and Korea would be examples of a conflict between the United States and the USSR which did not involve overt, direct combat between the two. More recent examples would be the Syrian Civil War, where Russia provided military support to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States was backing various opposition groups. Similar indirect conflicts have taken place in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, as well as Georgia. The most obvious example today is the Ukraine war. Although the direct combatants are Russia and Ukraine, the war can be seen as a great-power struggle between the U.S.-led west and the Russian Federation, although no U.S. troops have taken part.

In addition to backing local forces and actively engaging in combat operations, Russia also deploys the Wagner mercenary group into conflicts around the world. Wagner supports the Kremlin’s objectives, often fighting against third-forces supported by the U.S. The group has taken an active role in conflicts in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Syria, and Ukraine, among others.

Although China sometimes has an economic stake in these conflicts, such as buying oil from Russia to fund the Ukraine war or underwriting the Tatmadaw army in Myanmar, China’s participation is generally much less direct than Russia’s.

As much as Russia is a capable combatant in a hot conflict, it is in a cold conflict where Moscow has been the most damaging to the interests of the United States. In a cold conflict, unconventional warfare can include subversion, political, economic, or psychological warfare, as well as informational competition. This extends to influence operations, propaganda, cyber-attacks, espionage, and hacking. An example would be how Russia uses its influence in Iran to undermine U.S. policy in the Middle East. The Kremlin exploits its close ties with Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to hinder U.S. objectives in the Americas. Across Latin America and in Africa, Moscow pushes an anti-colonialist message which threaten U.S. policy. Ironically, Russia has been heavily involved in Africa, supporting various militias, dictators, and paramilitaries, while claiming not to be meddling in the internal, political affairs of sovereign nations.

Moscow uses the sale of weapons, as well as cheap oil and energy as a foreign policy tool, driving a wedge between the United States, India, Myanmar, and to some extent Vietnam and Turkey. Russian weapons turn up in conflicts all over the world and very often, the Wagner group does as well. Countries helping Russia bypass international sanctions have refused to condemn the Ukraine War. These would examples of the Kremlin employing diplomacy and trade as nonconventional weapons.

According to the ODNI, Russia remains the top cybersecurity threat to the United States and its allies. Russia is constantly improving its ability to damage critical infrastructure, including underwater cables, industrial control systems, telecommunications networks, and power grids. However, the most powerful and prevalent Russian weapon is control of the information space. In this realm, Moscow poses the greatest foreign influence threat faced by the U.S. Russia deploys its intelligence services, proxies, and a vast array of influence tools in an attempt to divide Western alliances and undermine U.S. global standing. To this end, Moscow sows discord within the U.S. while attempting to influence voters as well as lawmakers. Russia is particularly good at capitalizing on news and current events in the U.S. and turning them to Moscow’s advantage.

The five pillars of Russia’s information wars strategy are: official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation. Moscow attempts to build relationships with media personalities in order to feed them state-sponsored messages. Pro-Kremlin content is also broadcast through an array of state media, social media, influencers, and proxy websites. Moscow’s message is also published by individuals and organizations often disguised as independent news sources. Divisive stories might be wholly fabricated. Real stories are sometimes altered to create derision. Existing conspiracy theories may be amplified or fake news stories created to substantiate conspiracy theories. In some cases, real stories are simply targeted at the audience where they are most likely to evoke the desired reaction.

Within days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the administrators of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube discovered coordinated networks of accounts disseminating disinformation. Some were hacked accounts, while others were fake accounts with AI-generated profile images. These accounts were all sharing similar information about the war which was detrimental to Ukraine.

The Russian messaging is targeted at specific audiences, tailored to evoke a response. Messaging to the right and far-right in America included accusations that Zelensky was gay, or that he was pro-trans, or a globalist puppet, and that Russia, a Christian nation, was fighting for conservative values. The messages sent to the American left included claims that Ukrainians are Nazis. Some messages were meant for general consumption, allegations that Ukraine was an illegitimate state or that it had never been a state, or that Zelensky was corrupt. Another story was that Russia was saving the world from Ukraine’s biological weapons. There were false protest videos, affirming that Ukrainians welcomed the Russian liberators. Videos and images surfaced of Zelensky and his wife allegedly shopping in Paris, spending aid money meant for the war. Conspiracy theories flooded the alt-right, including a narrative that democrats approved aid to Ukraine, so that the aid money could be funneled back to the U.S. to support democrat political campaigns.

Other narratives being pushed were that NATO, Ukraine, or the U.S. was responsible for the war. The goal in all of these disinformation efforts was to cause derision within the U.S. and weaken support for Ukraine. China also seized on the narrative that the west was responsible for the war, in an effort to portray itself as a peacemaker. Xi Jinping flew to Moscow to present Vladimir Putin with his plan for peace in Ukraine. Beijing launched a social media campaign alleging that the Americans would reject Xi’s plan, coercing Zelensky into continued conflict, at the expense of innocent Ukrainian lives. And that is exactly what happened. Ukraine, the U.S., the E.U rejected Xi’s plan, because it did not call for a Russian withdrawal. But this provided Moscow and Beijing the opportunity to cast themselves as peacemakers, while portraying the U.S. as warmongers.  

The term used by the Russians to denote the use of information as a weapon is “Information Confrontation”. Furthermore, the term “Active Measures” is used for political warfare, including disinformation and propaganda. As these operations have been ongoing, long before the Ukraine War started, it appears that Russia believes itself to be in a state of perpetual conflict with the west. Information warfare strategy from the Soviet era was called the firehose of falsehood and it is still in use today. Conflicting information is sent out which causes internal rifts inside of enemy nations. For example, Russia broadcast information that Zelensky was both a Nazi and a socialist/globalist. Once the contradictory information is discovered, it is still difficult to know which is true. And if enough contradictory information is disseminated, people eventually stop believing anything they read or hear, even accredited news media or messages from their own government.

Free-speech laws in the U.S. make it very difficult to fight Russian misinformation. Attempts to do so become self-fulfilling conspiracy theories about the U.S. government, media, or social media being controlled by foreign forces. These theories, thus detracting from their credibility. Elections in the U.S. present an opportunity for the Kremlin to step up its influence in support of its larger foreign policy objectives. The Russians know which party is interested in which issues and can push narratives that help or hurt certain politicians. Attempts by U.S. authorities to quell the false stories fuel the presumption that they are true.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, PhD. China-MBA, is a China economic-analyst who has spent over 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China, and 3 in Mongolia, where he teaches economics at the American university. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Additionally, he conducted three years of post-doctoral studies at School of Economics Shanghai University, focusing on U.S.-China trade, and currently studies national security at the American Military University. He is the author of 5 books about China, including Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion and The Wushu Doctor. His writing has appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Penthouse, and others. He is a frequent guest on various TV shows, providing China commentary on NTD network in the United States.