Narrative Strategies – the weaponization of information

Thank you for the encouraging messages I continue to receive regarding the content of this website.  I would like to take this opportunity to answer a regular question regarding my academic activities with Narrative Strategies.

 I am still a member of the Washington DC based think tank and consultancy Narrative Strategies and continue to work with subject matter experts from various disciplines researching and identifying new developments in the field of information warfare which is being  conducted by state and non-state players.  

This is my personal blog and has no connection with Narrative Strategies but further information regarding the  ongoing research in this field of non-kinetic warfare including the weaponization of information can be found by visiting the link below.

Again, thank you for your positive comments

Regards

Alan

Psychological Manipulation via Social Media and the concept of self-identity (first published 2016)

Editorial: Although first published in 2016 I feel the following is still relevant irrespective of whether we are examining state or non-state players using information within the cognitive domain to influence and change behaviour among a target audience.

Although I started researching this subject 11-years ago and the research continues, after recently reading an excellent paper on ‘The Psychology Behind Social Media Interactions’, By Dr Liraz Margalt, who is now one of my LI connections, I decided to write this brief introduction to manipulation based on my own observations of the ‘virtual world’. Many of these observations support several theories put forward by various academics studying both the ‘real’ and ‘virtual world’.

During her examination of the question, ‘why is digital communications often easier than face to face communications’; after reading her views on the social interaction theory of mind and emotional involvement, I found the following of particular interest as it fits my own research observations. “When interacting with other people”, she writes, “we automatically make inferences about them without being consciously aware of it…”.  Liraz, further explains that during face-to-face interactions we subconsciously rely heavily on non-verbal communications such as facial expressions etc. This, as she says, suggests that interaction with human partners require more emotional involvement and thus more cognitive effort than interacting via a computer.

Due to this lack of ‘synchronous’ interaction (subconscious exchanges of non-verbal communications, speech structure; the use of oblique remarks etc.)  I agree with her assertion- it is easier to hide our emotions online.  Based my own observations, I have also come to the conclusion it is also easier to psychologically manipulate or be manipulated in the ‘virtual’ world due to the lack of these behavioral cues we subconsciously detect and process during face-to-face interactions. 

Contagion and Uncritical Thinkers

Fiske (2013) and others have shown that emotional states can be transferred to others by what they describe as emotional contagion which lead others to experience the same emotions without their awareness.  This ‘contagion’ may lead to the mind creating a view of the world by acquiring insights and an amalgam of rational and irrational beliefs (see Paul and Elder). This is similar to the contagion theory of crowds. One of several interpretations of this theory includes- the effect of a crowd is to assimilate individuals within it, producing and overriding psychological unity and changing an individuals’ usual psychological responses in the process (Statt. D, A Dictionary of Human Behavior, Harper Reference)

This process may contain a degree of self-deception which has been deliberately imparted, identified or exploited by an extremist groomer/recruiter who has used the lack of cognitive cues within the virtual world to his/her advantage.     

Although there are multiple drivers leading to violent extremism (VE) which are usually mutually reinforcing, one concept of particular interest is people who are described as ‘uncritical thinkers’, which Elder describes as ‘intellectually unskilled thinkers’. Some academics have also used the term ‘unreflective thinkers’.  People who fit this category, according to Elder- their minds are products of social and personal forces they neither understand and can’t control.  Taking Elder’s argument forward, by observing social media networks we see these ‘uncritical thinkers’ being manipulated by those who tend to skilfully use the rhetoric of persuasion. The rhetoric of persuasion used by extremist groomers and recruiters include oversimplification, sweeping generalizations and the use of stereotypes to enforce prejudices and false quandaries in an attempt to promote a culture of blame and the need for retribution. Over time, the groomer will identify those more likely to accept, without question, the narratives associated with VE and with it the ideology.  This ‘induction’ is the prerequisite for believing in a shared identity which embraces violent ‘jihad’. (see focal actors – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/basic-analysis-social-media-examining-use-drivers-alan-malcher-ma?trk=pulse_spock-articles)

Identity and Selective self-presentation

Identity is a construct that incorporates the way we think about ourselves and our role/position within the larger social environment. As cyberspace and VE ideology is a global phenomenon, both can have a powerful effect on ones view of the world and ‘perceived’ grievances. 

Although online identities may be difficult to ascertained due to identity cues being masked or purposely misrepresented, by careful observations and comparisons, online activities and their visible traces may be analysed. If we take LinkedIn as an example, many members who have confronted Russian trolls have identified the use of Selective Self-Presentation to reveal a number of false profiles held by one person. The term ‘selective’  is used to describe a false profile which has been selected for a given purpose. For instance, in the case of Russian propagandists some may claim to be involved in international affairs in the hope of encouraging greater credibility to their comments and other internet activities. Likewise, it is not uncommon for those with a terrorist agenda to claim they are professionally involved in ‘positive’ occupations such as human rights, humanitarian aid etc.

 Asynchronous

In the ‘real world’ human interaction and communications are of a synchronous nature- non-verbal communications, eye contact, speech tones etc., and this is a two- way process giving further meaning and substance to the conversation.

CMC (computer-mediated communications) is of an asynchronous nature and thus void of any meaningful communications and identity cues. This time delay allows sufficient time to carefully compose messages tailored to meet the needs and also appeal to the subject/s being manipulated by the focal actor (extremist groomer/recruiter).  For example, in an earlier thread a young person may have mentioned concerns regarding their home life, problems at schools or concerns regarding their employment situation. Although the focal actor may have no personal experience of these problems the natural time delay in responding provides opportunities to use the Internet to read-up on these concerns. They are now in a position to offer ‘disguised’ advice and support. Showing empathy and creating rapport are among the methods used during the induction phase.   

The above represents just some of the methods used to encourage belief in a common or collective identity which is the foundation of VE ideology. 

Reference and further reading:

The Psychology behind social media interpretation, Liraz margalt, Psychology Today, 29 August 2014.

 A Psychological Perspective on virtual communities: Supporting terrorism and extremist’s ideology, Lorraine Bowman-Grievet, Security Informatics, 2013, (2:9)

Primer of Deception, Joseph W. Caddel, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2004

Lying Words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles, Matthew Newman, James W. Penneboke, University of Texas and University of Washington, 2003.

Induced negative subliminal reactions to radical media: Countering recruiting methods in a congested media environment, Small Wars Journal, 7 August 2016.

 Manipulation through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, Susan T. Fiske, Academy of Sciences, Princetown University, 23 October 2013.

Fallacies: The art of mental trickery and manipulation, Richard Paul and Linda Elder, Foundation of Critical Thinking 2004 (Understanding self-deception)

Future Identities: Changing Identities in the UK- the next ten-years, Social Media and identity, Nicole Ellison, Michigan State University 3 January 2013. 
For current research and recent publications go to https://www.narrative-strategies.com/

Iraq- Another Sphere of Iranian Influence? (first published 2015)

Although there continues to be accounts of Iraqi security forces making increasing military gains against the Islamic State Group, many of the successful campaigns have been fought by a number of Shiite militias loyal to Tehran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their Special Forces branch called the Quds Forces (alternatively spelt Qhods or Qods). It is also known that all forces, both Shiite and Sunni, are commanded and advised by Iranian officers and they report to Major General Qasem Soliemani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Commander of Quds Forces.

Quds Forces

This is the Special Forces section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard whose members are known for their military skills and commitment to the Islamic Revolution. This elite force is responsible for all extraterritorial operations and reports directly to the Supreme Commander of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

Although this is a covert force, well-placed commentators say Quds Forces consist of combatants, military trainers, those responsible for overseeing foreign assets, politics, sabotage and intelligence gathering. In 2004 Quds Forces Headquarters was moved to the Iranian- Iraq border to monitor events inside Iraq and it soon became clear that political instability, tribal friction and a breakdown in Iraq’s internal security capabilities made the country vulnerable to Iran’s superior military forces, subversion and political intimidation.

The steady advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant into Northern Iraq provided Tehran with the excuse to ‘assist’ Iraq in expelling these extremist insurgents. Initially, a small number of military advisors from Quds Forces provided military training and small arms to various Shiite Militia groups know to be friendly towards Iran, Iranian airstrikes on extremist positions soon followed which coincided with more Iranian forces and members of Hezbolloh training and advising an increasing number of militias.

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (later called Islamic State) made further advances across Iraq, communities throughout the country became aware of the mounting atrocities and recognised that government forces were unable to stop their advance. Due to this increasing threat from extremist insurgents, many of the tribal combatants came to the obvious conclusion they could not rely on the Iraqi Security Forces for their country’s defence and saw Iran as their only option. This allowed Iran to seize the opportunity to increase their military and political presence in Iraq. Consequently, Tehran can argue that not only was military intervention essential in order to secure their borders, this intervention was as a direct result of ‘popular’ demand from the Iraqi people!

Although Iranian involvement in Iraq is not reported by the state owned media, some Iraqi officials have been more forthcoming when speaking to the western media. On 23 March 2014, Iraq’s vice president Iyad Allawi told various journalists, including Sky News, “Iran’s role, doing what they are doing, and sending officers to fight and lead is not acceptable”. He also declared that Baghdad is becoming the capital of the Persian Empire.

Allawi also said “The strong Iranian presence in Iraq is not new, but just how visible it has become is quite staggering…”

Iraqi officials and members of Sunni communities continue to complain and express concerns about pictures of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei being plastered on walls throughout the country.

“The posters of Khamenei sends shivers up my spine and there will be a high price to pay for Iranian involvement … The failure of this country means the failure of the whole region…” Allawi told western reporters.

The stability of the entire region now hangs in the balance as Iran increases its influence by filling Iraq’s political vacuum, and proving the countries’ security needs. There is a real danger that the whole or parts of Iraq will become another proxy state, an informal extension of the Persian Empire.

Russian Clandestine Operations in Ukraine and the role of the GRU (first published 2015)

The Russian intelligence community are masters when it comes to propaganda, disinformation, subversion, bribery, using agent provocateurs, and other clandestine methods. Lessons learned during the Bolshevik revolution were refined and became more sophisticated during the Cold War.  

With the advancement of electronic communications, including the internet, the Federal Security Service (FSB), formed in 1994 to replace the notorious KGB, and their foreign intelligence agency, the GRU, recognised that modern communications not only allow for the dissemination of information on a global scale, written words supported by photographs and graphics greatly enhance the psychological impact of the intended message.

 The use of paper trails- the total amount of written evidence of someone’s activities, is still relevant when it comes to modern electronic communications: Internet, videos, electronic news services etc., and a lot of information can be obtained about an individual from their Internet activities and the amount, and type of traffic to their sites. 

 Through the use of glamour or soft porn photographs, which were designed to depict ‘Slavic beauty’, 26 year old, Yulia Kharlamova, became an overnight internet success with a large number of male followers living in Russia and Ukraine.  Often dressed as a Russian Airborne soldier, it now becomes clear this was not innocent flirtation: her intention was to attract and manipulate members of the Russian and Ukraine military as well as neo-Nazis.

Analysis of her Internet activities and the traffic to her various sites sheds little doubt that Yulia Kharlamova was a GRU officer,  a driving force behind the current war in Ukraine, and her activities set the conditions essential for ‘planned’ clandestine military activities.

What do we know from her internet activities?

Yulia Kharlamova was born in 1989, in Odesa Ukraine and studied at the Lobachevsky University in Nizhni Novorod Russia.  Although her area of study is still to be confirmed, she is thought to have studied Archaeology and Ethnology of Ukraine. If this is correct, this may account for her popularity among Russia’s neo-Nazis, where she was known by the nick name ‘Nordika’, and was respected for her vocal support of their nationalist and racist views.

It is also known she served with Russian Airborne forces where she underwent full combat training and there are several references of her serving with Unit 54164 Moscow Region and 38 Separate Parachute Brigade.  Sometime in 2013, reference was made of her being a communications specialist with the Parachute Brigade. However, as we look further into her activities with the GRU there is a possibility that the use of the world ‘communications specialist’ was used to mask the fact that Kharlamova was trained in psychological warfare.

We also discover that sometime during 2013 she used social media to announce her resignation from the army. She wrote,

 “Gone in reserve. I am thankful to the army for many things, it was the best lessons of my life. I learned a lot. I have found a very good civilian job which opens my creative potential

Shortly after announcing her resignation, Kharlamova increased her internet activities and started to engage members of the Ukraine Army, their families, and anyone with grievances against the Ukrainian government. During the same period she also increased her influence over Russia’s neo-Nazi movements and renewed her relationship with the notorious neo-Nazi, Alexi Milchakov, who she had known since 2000.

Alexi Milchakov would later be accused of a number of war crimes, including the decapitation of Ukrainian POW’s. From the age of 14, most of his recreation activities involved cutting the heads of dogs and skinning dogs alive before uploading photographs of his ‘hobby’ to social media. One may argue that his ‘hobby’ fits the profile of a sadistic psychopath who would willingly be involved in war crimes. However, there remains insufficient evidence as to his involvement.

It was shortly after Kharlamova renewed her relationship with Milchakov that she publicly showed her true political beliefs by announcing on social media she was a “Novorossiya Freedom Fighter”- an historic term of the Russian Empire denoting a region north of the Black Sea, which Russia annexed as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, and which is now used by Russian propagandists to describe parts of eastern Ukraine they now wish to annex.

 Through various social media networks she used her ‘communications’ skills and ‘creative potential’ to mount a coherent psychological campaign to win support for Russian nationalism based on Novorossiya, and also created the necessary conditions for Russian clandestine military operations in Ukraine. Through a large number of posts, mixed with a blend of Russian folk lore imagery, she appealed to Ukrainian soldiers to rise-up against their government.

One of her early posts:

“Due to grandiose abuse of the authorities, violation of your legal rights, re-writing laws which led you to turning into slaves, outrageous activities and no one thinking of letting you go home. For all these reasons, among all who spent a year and a half service {military} we declare action of protest! Friends, this is our only chance to go home without waiting for years under the mercy of illegal authorities that came to power by armed overturns”

“Press the share button and share with your friends”

On 13 December 2014, Kharlamova widely published the following post:

 “All of Ukraine, parents, come to the military bases, start the uproar, take children that serve at our military units. Those parents who won’t make it, leave by yourself, this is our last chance!!! Remaining silent leaves us slaves WITHOUT RIGHTS AND SILENCED WITHOUT PERSONAL LIFE AND FUTURE don’t be a herd – you are human, you are people, you are power. Share in local media and tell your fellow soldiers. Support our honour of the whole country”

The above are just two of a plethora of messages encouraging an uprising against the Ukraine government.

Her role as agent provocateur was not confined to promoting revolution through the use of social media, she also traveled to Ukraine and actively encouraged violence against the government and directed this violence to further the nationalist cause.

 On 12 April 2015 the Independent Newspaper described the riots in Kiev as, “Plumes of black smoke billow over the city, fires rage in the scorched skeletons of cars, and hundreds have been wounded, with two confirmed dead. Hordes of riot police are on the streets and the EU’s justice chief has said the country is sliding towards civil war. Unless you’ve been following the events from the beginning it’s difficult to glean why tensions are now strained to breaking point”

This report raised an interesting question – “Why tensions are now strained to breaking point”

There is mounting evidence to support claims that the violence in Kiev was as a direct result of subversive activities which were directed by Yulia Kharlamova.  For instance, there are several eye witness accounts of seeing her increasing tensions among army conscripts outside the Presidential Administration Building in Kiev, which led to the so-called National Guards Protest, an event which was fully exploited for propaganda purposes by various Russian state owned media organisations.  There have also been several accounts of Kharlamova, along with other women she claimed to be members of her family, provoking and encouraging crowds in Kiev to commit acts of violence against police, government forces and institutions.

Military operations with Alexey Milchakov

 From his social media profile and various posts we find that Milchakov was a dedicated Nazis who openly discussed his enjoyment for torturing stray dogs.  He also said he was born St Petersburg and is known by the nickname ‘Fritz’ by his neo-Nazi friends.

Through his Internet activities it was established that Alexey Milchakov commanded the so-called ‘Batman’ Spetsnaz Rapid Response Unit, operating out of Luhansk, and this unit reported directly to the GRU.  Although details remain incomplete, Kharlamova fought alongside Milchakov on several occasions. On 5 September 2014, both were involved in an attack on Ukrainian government forces in the village of Shchastya, in the Lugansk region, in which eleven Ukrainian soldiers were killed.

Although on several occasions Yulia Kharlamova publicly denied being in Kiev during the time of the riots, due to increasing allegations of her being a GRU officer and  playing a major contribution to the war in Ukraine, the GRU planned a damage limitation exercise.  This resulted in Kharlamova making a number of television appearances designed to clear her name.

On Ren TV, a Russian channel, she denied being an intelligence officer and said she had no connection with the violent events in Kiev.  On the same day, she was interviewed by TV Zed, also a Russian channel and allegedly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, this time she was described as an activist who was born in Odessa, who was simply visiting relatives in Ukraine. Again, she denied being a GRU officer.

Russia- Shifting the balance of power (first published in 2015)

Editorial note 2019, since this was first published in 2015 Russia, China, Iran and to a certain extent NK continue to shift the balance of political power and influence to their advantage.

President Vladimir Putin is ‘old school’ KGB and his approach to international politics include the use of Soviet era tactics such as political warfare – propaganda, disinformation, subversion, espionage and clandestine warfare. His knowledge and willingness to use KGB-style subterfuge became apparent after using the ‘little green men’ approach as a prerequisite for Russia’s proxy-war against Ukraine.

 Putin’s restructuring of Russia’s Spetnaz Forces, Independent Airborne Brigades (VDV) and naval Infantry (marines) made them independent of the Ministry of Defense and become military assets of the FSB/GRU.  This army within the army provides the deniable ‘little green men’ for Putin’s foreign clandestine operations.

 Although Ukraine is a good example of Putin’s approach to resolving what he frequently calls ‘historical wrongs’ and ‘historical injustices’, we must look at Russia within a global context to glean some idea of Putin’s long-term objectives.

 According to the US diplomat, Charles Hill, “… The established world order {is} collapsing and Russia will grab what they see as their own interests” (Moscow Times 27 April 2015)

 Since the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, American influence in the Middle East greatly declined and left a power vacuum which Putin was quick to exploit. Apart from renewed Russian influence throughout the Middle East, Putin is also influential in Latin America and the Mediterranean. Russia’s close military cooperation with China and Iran has also boosted Putin’s reputation as a global leader.

Putin’s initiatives appear to be a return to Cold War politics and the projection of Russian military power.

The Middle East

Amidst the shifting uncertainties of the post-Arab spring, Russia has greatly increased its political influence throughout the region. We have also seen Russian delegations being awarded lucrative arms contracts throughout the Arab world and North Africa.

 Syria: Russia, with the assistance of Iran, continue to arm the Syrian regime against the onslaught of various rebel factions.

 After the Free Syrian Army seized a government position they allegedly found documents and photographs showing the presence of a small detachment of Russian Spetnaz and a GRU Sigint team.

Although these claims are difficult to confirm, rebel forces released the following statement:

“On the 5th of October 2014, the Free Syrian Army captured the Центр С or ‘Center C or Center S’ SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) facility (logo on top) jointly operated by the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency (logo on the right) and one of the Syrian Intelligence Agencies (logo on the left). Situated near Al Hara, the facility was of vital importance for the Assad regime as it was responsible for recording and decryption of radio communications from every rebel group operating inside Syria, making it likely the Russian-gathered information at this facility was at least partially responsible for the series of killings of rebel leaders by airstrikes…A directive issued by the surveillance office on May 31 to eavesdrop and record all radio communications of the terrorist groups, directive signed by brigadier-general Nazir Fuddah, commander of the first center.”  (The Interpreter 7 October 2014)

Although verification is still required, this facility may account for the accuracy of government air strikes against rebel leaders. 

Iran

In April Russia signed an energy deal worth an estimated $8 to 10 billion (US). Russia will export 500 megawatts of electricity and construct new thermal and hydroelectric generating plants and transmission networks.

Russia has also provided Iran with the necessary designs and expertise to develop their own arms industry. 

 In 2011 Vyacheslav Danilenko, a Russian atomic scientist, was said to be a key adviser at Iran’s Physics Research Center, which had ties to the country’s nuclear program. It has further been claimed his work was backed by the Kremlin and Iran now has the explosive element for their warhead.

 On 7 November 2011, after Israel expressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavov publicly declared, “If Israel were to launch a military strike on Iran this would be a very serious mistake…With unprecedented consequences…”  (Telegraph 7 November 2011)

After Russia recently signed an $800 million contract to supply Iran with S-300 long range air defense missiles, any Iranian agreement to stop the development of nuclear weapons will be difficult to enforce.

Iraq

Russia is Iraq’s second largest arms supplier. For instance, in 2012 Russian supplied £ 2.6 billion (3.2 billion euros, $4.2 billion) of armaments. 

Egypt

Since the Egyptian military deposed the elected President Morsi, Russia was welcomes as their main arms supplier.

Latin America

 Russia’s continued success in reshaping the balance of power and increasing its global influence is also visible in Latin America. During the Cold War, American politicians would regarded this as being too close for comfort and take steps to maintain US interests in their own ‘back yard’.  As Putin continues to take every opportunity to condemn America, his interests and future initiatives in Latin America could be problematic for the United States.

According to Putin, “Cooperation with Latin America is key to Russia’s foreign policy”(RT 10 July 2014)

 Putin also said “…Latin America’s fight to independence, for the right to decide its own fate is respected in our country. People know well the legendary Bolivar and Marti, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende…” (RT 10 July 2014)

 Putin also announced that not only was cooperation with Latin America one of his ‘key and very promising lines of Russian foreign policy’, it reflected vital national interests in the development of relations with Russia.  (RT 10 July 2014)

Argentina

In July 2014 President Christina Fernandez da Kirchnnerias visited Moscow. During a banquet President Putin made reference to the Falkland Islands which Argentina claims sovereignty over.

 According to Putin, “Colonization is a dark cloud over the 20th and 19th century and something that should be wiped out”. No mention was made of the Falkland Islands being under British rule since 1863, or a recent Falklands referendum where the Islanders voted in favour of remaining British.

 After a strategic partnership agreement was signed which may include Argentina receiving 12 Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft, the British government was forced to deliver additional military assets to the Islands.

Cyprus

According to Russian state controlled media, but denied by some Cypriot politicians, Russia is currently negotiating an agreement to allow their navy to use ports in Cyprus and to station aircraft on the Island. As Britain has two sovereign military bases on the island, RAF Akrotiri and the Dhekella Garrison, additional resources will be required to provide adequate protection to these major military assets.

North Korea

According to the South Korean newspaper, The Korean Herald, the North’s official news agency, KNCA, recently announced it will be developing cultural and business contacts with Russia.

China

Although several observers continue to say, historically Russia and China have never got on and described their new relationship as an axis of convenience, both countries share identical political aspirations and ‘perceived’ common enemies.

Vladimir Putin and China’s president Xi Jingping are strong leaders with aspirations to recapture past glories, and both believe their countries were unfairly treated in the past. They also resent the current international order which they believe is led by the United States. Furthermore, both regard their nations as imperial powers which have the right to expand their territory.

Chinese foreign policy has a strong commitment to be masters over the East China Sea.  Xi Jingping remains adamant that around 1.35 million square miles (3.5 million square km) of the South China Sea belong to China and this is hotly disputed by Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.

In 2014 China hosted a large military exercise with Russia and other SCO nations. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) consists of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, and Uzbekistan.

This military exercise, names ‘Peace Mission 2014’, included a Russian contingent of over 1000 troops, the 36th Motor Rifle Brigade from the Eastern Military District; an air wing of the Third Command of the air force and air defense troops. According to  Kremlin controlled news organisations, Russia also contributed 13 main T-72 tanks, 20 artillery and missile systems; 60 vehicles of different configurations, 8 Mi-8 Amtsh helicopters gunships, 4 Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft and 12 military transport aircraft.  According to official Russian and Chinese sources, this exercise was designed to coordinate counter-terrorist operations. 

China recently announced a joint naval exercise with Russia which is said “to deepen both countries friendly and practical cooperation and increase our navy’s ability to jointly deal with maritime security threats”. (Moscow Times 27 April 2015)

A key question is whether this alliance is against the United States and her allies?

Vladimir Putin continues to outperform western political leaders, resulting in the gradual shift of power and prestige towards Russia.  Apart from western nations needing to increase their defense budgets, the west urgently requires strong political leaders who have the determination and political skills which are essential for addressing Soviet ‘old school’ tactics based on threats, intimidation, subterfuge and military aggression.

Russian Spetsnaz – Ukraine’s Deniable ‘Little Green Men’ (first published 2015)

In February 2013 the influential Moscow based ‘Military Industrial Courier’, published an article by Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, army General Valery Gerasimov.  He explained, “That a perfectly striving country can, in a matter of months or even days, be transformed into an area of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and civil war…”

He also said, this devastation need not be kinetic. The role of the non-military elements for achieving political and strategic goals has grown and in many cases they have exceeded the force of weapons in their effectiveness. All this is achieved by military means of a ‘concealed’ nature and include acts of information conflict and special operation forces.

 The military doctrine promoted by Gerasimov and endorsed by Vladimir Putin resulted in the use of Spetsnaz troops: the deniable ‘little green men’ in the guise of local security forces who created the illusion of legitimacy- Ukrainians wanted to be part of Russia!. This was also an element of psychological warfare – local journalists did not know whether these men would answer questions or shoot them. 

  As intended, Spetsnaz troops created ambiguity: it allowed Russia to deny any involvement in the Ukraine conflict and was also designed to create a climate of indecision among multi-national organisations such as NATO, the EU and political systems based on the principles of consensus, when deciding on what actions to take. 

While NATO and the 24 hour news cycle concentrated on Russian military forces on the Ukraine border, the ‘deniable’ Spetsnaz troops were quietly escalating tensions, engaged in subversion, training pro-Russian sympathizers and conducting reconnaissance throughout Ukraine. Without raising the Russian flag they created the conditions for a proxy-war and guided so-called separatists to achieve the objectives set out by the Kremlin. Stealth, rather than conventional military forces was used to further the objectives of deniable participation in the invasion of an independent state.

 What is Spetsnaz?

 Until the late 1990s the main source of information about Spetsnaz came from the writer Victor Suvorov. In 1987 he published ‘Spetsnaz: The inside Story of the Soviet Union”. Victor Suvorov, whose real name is Vladimir Bogdanovich Rezum, claimed to have served as a Spetsnaz officer.

 Born in 1947, Rezum trained as a military officer in Kalinin and Kyiv, but there is no evidence of him serving with Spetsnaz forces.  After studying at the Soviet Diplomatic Academy, in 1974 he served as a major in the Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) and worked under diplomatic cover from the Soviet Embassy in Geneva. In 1978 Major Rezum defected to England and was subsequently sentenced to death by the Soviet Supreme Court for treason. 

 Although he undoubtedly knows the inner workings of the GRU during the Soviet period, his knowledge of Spetsnaz has been called into question.  In light of the continued effectiveness of Russia’s Spetsnaz forces in Ukraine and other former Soviet states there is a need to review our understanding of these forces which have undergone extensive restructuring under Putin’s leadership.

Spetsnaz (special designation or special purpose troops) are often wrongly considered to be the equivalent to western Special Forces.  Although in comparison with Russia’s conventional forces they can be considered elite, they should not be regarded as being at tier one Special Forces level: it is their capability of engaging in ambiguous political-military operations such as that in Ukraine, not the quality of their soldiers. (See RUSI March 2015, Igor Sutyagin)

The word Spetsnaz is not confined to the Russian military and has been used to describe special designation troops in all the Soviet states and the name is still used today. We also find the western image of an all-male military formation is not correct. As Suvorov said in 1987, these units also have a large number of women who have undergone the same training and possess the same skills as their male counterparts. This is supported by the arrest of two female Spetsnaz operators by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and several reports of females acting as agent provocateurs in Maiden Square.  The Russian government also makes no secret of their female operatives. For instance, on 21 September 2013, RT released a video of 35 women undergoing Spetsnaz training and reported that 600 soldiers, including 150 women had completed the course at the Southern Military District in the Krasnodar region.  (For further reading see my post ‘Russian Clandestine Operations in Ukraine’, 13 April, 2015)

Political Operators- active measures/ political warfare

Although there continues to be limited verifiable information coming out of eastern Ukraine, through the indiscreet use of social media, personal and Russian patriotic websites we see that female Spetsnaz operative played, and continue to play key roles in Ukraine and are officially regarded as essential within the broad concept of ‘political warfare’. A case in point is the capture of Maria Koleda by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in 2014, and the activities of Yulia Kharlamova of the 38th Separate Parachute Brigade, which I covered in an earlier post.

Maria Koleda before being captured by the SBU

During the 2006 restructuring of the armed forces Spetsnaz was completely transformed in order to create a deniable military force capable of employing Gerasimov’s ‘new’ military doctrine, which has variously been described as non-linear warfare, hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare and political warfare. To simplify this military strategy, Jane’s Intelligence Review of 2014, described Spetsnaz as an, “element of this military doctrine responsible for waging war below the radar of traditional collective intelligence”

While the restructuring included the introduction of new weapons, technology and integrating the Gerasimov tactics and concepts into their operational roles, Spetsnaz is still responsible for sabotage, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering; the assassination of political leaders and military officers.  These units are also tools of the Russian intelligence communities. Although separate from the Ministry of Defence and reporting directly to Military Intelligence (GRU) they work closely with the FSB. Consequently, they may be referred to as Spetsnaz GRU or Spetsnaz FSB depending on what organisation they are assigned to. This became apparent after the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) captured both FSB and GRU Spetsnaz operatives.

Ukraine

There have been several reports of Spetsnaz troops in eastern Ukraine operating at platoon strength and these are said to be elements from five independent brigades- the 346 of the Special Operations Command (KSO), 2nd, 22nd, and 24th Spetsnaz brigades. Of particular interest are recent reports of the 100th Brigade operating in eastern Ukraine.

Although fully operational, because the 100th Brigade is currently tasked with training, testing new weapons and technology, they are ideally suited for training separatist militias, including instruction in the use of heavy weapons. This may account for the increased efficiency of the pro-Russian militias which are said to mainly consist of ill-disciplined terrorists and Russian mercenaries.

 Each brigade has its own communications unit and during the 2006 restructuring and modernization program emphasis was placed on enhancing their signals intelligence capabilities. According to recent reports which have been supported by captured documents and photographs, a Spetsnaz Sigint unit has been operating in Syria and this has resulted in the increased accuracy of government air strikes and artillery fire against rebel leaders. In light of these documents, which are still to be independently verified, it has to be assumed the same capabilities are being employed in Ukraine.

 Spetsnaz has proved capable of operating in politically and operationally complex environments and paving the way for conventional military forces. For instance, Spetsnaz ensured the 727th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade and the 18th Independent Motorized Brigade and other regular forces entered Ukraine with minimum opposition from government forces.

Russian Puppets and Puppeteers (first published 2015)

The word ‘Troll’ has been popularised by the media and is frequently used to describe the activities of pro-Russian and pro-Vladimir Putin’s followers on the internet, especially when it comes to manipulating social media. One of several definitions for internet trolls include, those who deliberately post provocative messages to a news group or message board with the intention to cause maximum disruption and arguments.

Around 1993, the terms Puppets (sometimes referred to as Sock-Puppets) and Puppeteers were used to describe what people now frequently refer to as Russian trolls. I prefer the terms Puppets and Puppeteers because this more accurately describes the methodology currently employed to spread Russian propaganda, disinformation and the tactics used for the disruption of meaningful debates on the internet.

 Of all the instruments used to share information among people throughout the world social media is known to be the most potent. This has been recognised and is fully exploited by Russian propagandists.

The Puppets and Puppeteers

The use of the term Puppet refers to huge number of individuals who are controlled by a puppeteer. Both puppet and puppeteers also have a large number of false profiles on a multitude of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, VK, Live Journal, false blogs, YouTube and all popular social media networks.  To ensure credibility puppets act as independent third parties not connected to the puppeteer.

There is also the ‘straw man’ puppet which is a false flag profile created to make a particular point. For example, if the topic is international affairs the pseudonym may include the title PhD or a high ranking military position to generate the illusion of being knowledgeable, or an expert on the subject.  If they wish to criticise America their profile may say they live in the States. 

The puppets have several roles. For instance, the puppeteer may write a glowing post about Russian nationalism or attack Ukraine. This is followed by a large number of Puppets pressing the like button, posting supporting comments and links to false blogs and website which support the puppeteer. These links also provide additional propaganda, disinformation and further promote the Kremlin’s political objectives.

 Due to the large numbers of Puppets all opposition is overwhelmed and the puppets control the debate. These puppets also create the perception of ‘unbiased’ support- they attempt to generate the illusion of the puppeteer representing the views of the majority.  As the puppeteer appears to represent the consensus of opinion their statements are more likely to be considered true, or require further consideration before making a decision.

Apart from the coordinated approach of puppets and puppeteers to create deception, influencing public opinion and silencing all opposition on social media, this approach has also proved effective for controlling the readers comment pages on several on-line newspapers.

For instance, in 2014 the Readers Editor of the Guardian on-line, which has an international readership and receives around 40,000 readers’ comments per day, expressed concerns that the comments were part of a pro-Kremlin campaign. His descriptions of these comments fit the tactics used by Puppets and Puppeteer. It has also been reported that the New York Times, CNN and other major news outlets have similarly been targeted.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine we continue to see a number of Facebook accounts belonging to pro-government Ukrainians, activists and Ukrainian politician’s regularly being suspended or posts being deleted. This action is officially taken after Facebook moderators receive an avalanche of complaints claiming account holders have violated Facebook’s terms and conditions. The original complaint is from the puppeteer and this is supported by 100s of puppets. Due to the weight of complaints Facebook is forced to take action, often without examining the pages which have been reported.

Facebook provides a number of examples which illustrates the effectiveness of this approach to silencing  opposition: 

  • The account of Hennady Moskal, a governor of Luhansk which is occupied by Russia forces, had his account blocked. He was singled out by a puppeteer because he had thousands of followers reading his breaking news and live comments from Luhansk.
  • Oleh Lyashko, was blocked at the same time because of his large number of followers.
  •  The page of Watcher.Com. UA (Ukraine) which was a popular web portal analysing Russian propaganda was permanently deleted
  • The account of Vakhtang Kipiani, a prominent figure and journalist was blocked and his contents deleted. Igor Mosiychuk, a Ukrainian politician was also blocked due to the weight of support for the Puppeteer who made the original complaint.
  • Apart from attacking accounts which are considered a threat to the Kremlin’s agenda, Andriy Bondar was blocked simply because he mentioned the post of someone who was on the Puppeteers block list.

We also find numerous innocent images which are considered anti-Russian being officially deleted. For instance, over 14 Ukrainians were blocked for displaying the picture of a young girl receiving a posthumous bravery medal for her father, Andriy Matvienko, who was killed fighting a pro-Russian militia.   

According to the Ukraine Crisis Centre, in March 2014, 1000 to 1500 Ukrainians are being blocked daily or having various contents of their pages deleted.

As early as 2013, a Freedom House Report stated that Russia has been using these methods to manipulate on-line discussions, smearing opposition leaders, attacking US politics and culture.

The reason why Russian continues to use enormous resources to manipulate information on the internet becomes apparent after examining the number of people using social media:

  •  Twitter 302 million monthly
  • 500 million Tweets per day
  • 80% of account users use their mobile phones
  • Supports 33 languages.

(www.twitter.com/reportcard)

 Facebook

  • 1.23 billion Accounts and rising

Instagram

  • 100 million users

 LinkedIn

  • 300 million accounts

Livejournal

  • (in 2013) 27.7 million and rising.

According to a report published in 2013 by Emailer, around 1.73 billion people use social media and this figure does not include those using comment pages on newspapers and other websites.

Although there are many amateur puppets and puppeteers operating from various countries, Saint Petersburg is the main hub for the professionals who receive their instructions from the Kremlin.

55 Savushkina Street Saint Petersburg is a modern four story building with a sign outside which reads ‘Business Centre’, this is the headquarters of the Internet Research Centre, with an estimated 500 puppets and puppeteers who work 24/7 to flood the internet, social media networks and western publications with pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin comments. They also promote the belief in western injustices against Russia, and criticise the United States, the EU, NATO, the Ukrainian Government, and anyone they consider enemies of Russia.  

 Working through proxy servers to mask their location, LiveJournal is one of many false blogs used to jam municipal chat rooms throughout Russia and to post pro-Kremlin media. Using a mixture of political posts and general interest articles – cooking, diets, fashion etc, they work in teams of 20 and each team is controlled by an editor with the correct political credentials. Due to its importance as a major hub for propaganda, disinformation and manipulation, it is widely claimed the Internet Research Centre is now controlled by Russia’s internal security agency known as the FSB, it is also believed one of the main managers is an ex-police colonel named Mikhail Bystrov.

A previous employee of the Internet Research Centre told Shaun Walker, a journalist working for the Guardian newspaper (Guardian 2 April 2015)  “The scariest thing is when you talk to friends and they repeat things you saw in the technical tasks {daily propaganda and disinformation tasks} and you realise all this is having an effect”

The most prestigious and senior positions are for those with fluent English. After passing an English efficiency test they are given the opportunity to work for the international section and being tasked with targeting social media networks, on-line newspapers and websites catering for users outside the Russian Federation.

 Although these ‘technical tasks’ reflect current news stories, after examining various social media networks and newspaper readers pages, we often find identical messages and  ‘personal’ views on a number of these sites.  Recent examples include:

 “The majority of experts agree that the United States is deliberately trying to weaken Russia…”

 “During the Maiden revolution in Kiev, all the protesters were fed tea laced with drugs which is why they caused the revolution…”

 A well-known and leading Puppeteer, Natalya Drordova, also known as Tatyana Kazakbayeva, who works at the Internet Research Centre, wrote the following on her Twitter, Live Journal, Facebook ,VK, My media and Google+ Profile accounts:

“The assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemstove was either orchestrated by Ukraine to frame Russia and damage relations with the west or was carried out by Nemstove’s supporters as a provocation ahead of the opposition protests”

After replies started to be posted the puppets took over and started to support her comments and steer readers to ‘impartial’ websites.

This puppeteer, using one of her aliases, Tatyana Kazakbayeva, then wrote various posts on cooking and fashion as her puppets controlled the ongoing debate.

The FSB’s Internet Research Centre, its Puppets and Puppeteers along with freelance bloggers and self-proclaimed Putin admirers throughout the world, are powerful tools for Russia’s information war. Not only have they proved effective at influencing citizens living in the Russian Federation, they are becoming increasingly effective in the manipulation of western audiences.