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Russia’s information wars in Syria and Ukraine

Image credit: European Geostrategy

Image credit: European Geostrategy

Russia’s ongoing Syrian campaign contains many valuable operational, strategic, lessons for the West that should broaden our understanding of Russian strategy and concepts. Among them is the nature of Russia’s information war (IW) in Syria, which greatly differs from what occurred in Ukraine. In Ukraine Moscow possessed a ramified and multi-dimensional local IW capability that, since at least 2006, traced directly back to the Russian government. Moreover, since then Western governments have had to confront the reality of vast numbers of Russian TV networks, ‘trolls,’ and pro-Russian interest groups organised, and often times subsidised by Moscow to advance Russia’s policies and narratives. However, in Syria, the burden of IW and information operations (IO) has largely fallen on state leaders and actors – not trolls, local media in Syria, or international support networks. Nevertheless, those differences do not denote the absence of a Russian IW in Syria. Rather they show that Russia tailors IO to the requirements of the theatre and Russian strategy, which in Syria differ considerably from Ukraine. Therefore, these differences should not obscure the relevance of Russian IW and IO in Syria for Europe.

Russian views of IW and its use in Syria

Russia’s IW operations aim not only to disorient and influence foreign audiences, but also to behave in ways that benefit or at least do not hinder Russian interests. This influencing mechanism defines the term ‘reflexive control’. In turn, Moscow then often replays that behaviour at home as validating Russia’s domestic discourse concerning Russia’s and Putin’s greatness. Moscow regularly announces that Europe is weak, divided and corrupt, while simultaneously asserting it to be a standing threat to Russia as long as it is under the thumb of the United States (US). Thus, the Syrian IW campaign exemplifies reflexive control. In reflexive control operations Maskirovka or deception operations play an especially prominent role.

Deception operations are classic forms of information management and an IO to disorient and distract adversaries while engendering splits among adversarial coalitions exclusively or principally by informational means to achieve strategic goals. The Atlantic Council of the US recently reported that Moscow’s Syrian operation began with – and continues to feature – a pervasive deception strategy. Planning for the Syrian operation began in January 2015. Moscow soon signed the Minsk II agreement freezing Ukraine’s combat lines. Observers noted that by spring 2015 large-scale exercises were occurring in Southern Russia that evidently were a rehearsal for Syrian expeditionary operations. Officials described these drills as intending to test the military’s readiness to ‘manage coalition groups of troops in containing an international armed conflict.’ Troops will simulate ‘blocking and destroying illegal armed formations during joint special operations.’ This is exactly what they subsequently have done in Syria to Western surprise.

Russian leaders concurrently changed their media tone to say that terrorism, and particularly ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) was the greatest or most immediate and urgent threat to Russia, a clear shift away from rhetoric implicating NATO and the US in that dubious honour. Yet the 2015 National Security Strategy clearly reiterated NATO’s primacy as a threat, suggesting the deception operation underway. The grandest example of this semantic reorientation is Putin’s United Nations (UN) speech in September 2015 advocating a Russian-led global anti-terrorist coalition based on the example of the 1945 Yalta summit. Since then the message has intensified that Europe cannot solve its terrorism (and implicitly its migration) problem without joining a coalition with Russia. According to this message, there are no real problems between Moscow and the EU; only the misplaced obsession with Ukraine holds back this coalition, which is necessary because terrorism threatens everyone and sanctions injure Europe as much if not more than Russia. The objective, of course, is the removal of sanctions and the formation of a coalition led by Russia but where Russia is bound to nobody or must consider interests other than its own in planning military operations.

This rhetorical shift not only presaged Russia’s Syrian operation but also prepared the crucial centre of gravity of Russian domestic opinion. Meanwhile military preparations with Syria and Iran went forward with Russian officials then and now proclaiming that their enemy is terrorism, principally ISIS. It should be noted that these actors tend to group all opposition to Assad as terrorism. And Russian media has insistently advocated cooperation with the West (albeit on Russia’s terms) against terrorists, i.e. its enemies in Syria, not ISIS. Yet despite all this public messaging, Moscow’s deception operation achieved complete strategic surprise in Syria that was crucial in accomplishing strategic objectives as well as strengthening Assad’s domestic position.

Since 2015 Putin, his subordinates, diplomats, and agents in Europe have spread the false word that sanctions hurt Europe as much as Russia. As a result, leaders like Victor Orban and Alexis Tsipras in Hungary and Greece criticised them while the French Parliament and Senate have followed suit. Foreign business lobbies also complain about sanctions and the refusal to cooperate with Russia in Syria while Russia retransmits their opposition on Western media outlets like CNBC, complaining that anti-democratic forces in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere are muzzling them. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister, also reports much European wavering over sanctions. Opposition leaders like Nigel Farage in Britain and important foreign policy analysts in the US have also joined this choir. Apparently Italy is leading this chorus of disaffection and is steadily targeted by Russian actors along these lines. Yet the Italian opposition to sanctions ignores that Russia’s trade is down with everyone, including non-sanctioned states, due to its structural defects and the price of oil. Therefore the clamour to repeal sanctions, allegedly on economic grounds, actually ignores economic realities. Rather it is a political gambit to get Europe to forget about Ukraine and embrace Russian ‘cooperation in Syria.’ As such it incarnates the essence of an IO and reflexive control. This is a classic example of the genre, while it relies on businessmen, officials, and diplomats, more than trolls, it wholly exemplifies the IO genre.

Meanwhile France would probably cooperate with Russia against terrorism if it could forge a common programme to oust Assad in Syria. Steinmeier publicly wants Russia back in the G-8 and has announced that global problems cannot be solved without Moscow. Simultaneously we all hear statements that we cannot solve any major international problem without Russia or that it is a partner for combatting terrorism and that therefore our resistance to its aggression in Ukraine should be moderated throughout many chancelleries in Europe. Clearly some of these same European voices clearly link their gravitation to the idea of an anti-terrorist coalition with Moscow to enhanced pressure on Kyiv to accede to Russian demands regarding the Minsk II accords. Indeed key Russian analysts admit that one goal of Syria is to release US and Western pressure on Ukraine.

The point is not that Moscow conducts deception operations. Rather every Russian operation comes with an intrinsic deception or disinformation component. This is more than IW although that certainly (as Moscow defines it) occurs and in some respects overlaps with the deception or Maskirovka campaign whose purpose is to distract, deceive, mislead, and confuse any and all opponents. Absent any countervailing Western information campaign or even willingness to seriously consider Russian operations and objectives; this operation, whose first audience is the Russian people and then foreign audiences, seizes key strategic ground. Consequently IO alone can fulfill strategic goals and strategic missions among them achieving strategic surprise that corrodes targeted countries’ ability and will to resist Russian offensives and encroachments.

In Syria the target is mainly Western elites. Russian IW has four fundamental goals relating to both the domestic Russian population and to European governments: consolidating domestic support, achieving strategic surprise that in turn helped reorient foreign and domestic attention from Ukraine to Syria, and persuading the US and European governments to forge a great anti-terrorism coalition where Russia and the US jointly lead in return for tacitly or officially accepting Russian conquests in Ukraine. These goals clearly derive from the objectives to block what Russian elites obsessively believe to be an anti-Russian Western IW and weaken Western cohesion regarding the desirability of such a coalition.

External reinforcement of the message that a great Russia led by a great leader is under siege but is prevailing due to his and its will and their decrepitude is essential both because public support is the Clausewitzian centre of gravity for all of Putin’s foreign policy and because domestic security, which is admittedly precarious, depends upon it. Therefore Russia’s Syrian campaign aims to cement Putin’s domestic support and checkmate US unilateralism in the Middle East and globally at the same time, and is part of the ongoing campaign to insulate Russia against European influence while displaying Russia as an international leader.

As Putin acknowledged when he falsely ‘withdrew’ troops in March 2016, Russia is achieving its objectives and forcing Washington to cooperate with it on Russian terms. Today Russia retains the strategic upper-hand that it achieved through strategic surprise. Assad has recovered considerable ground and now cannot be excluded from any political solution in Syria, Russia has acquired permanent air, land, and naval bases in Syria as well as potentially lucrative contracts for rebuilding postwar Syria, and moreover, the US alliance network has corroded, while Russia has improved ties with many Arab states and Israel. Russia has also forged a durable if somewhat makeshift coalition with Iran and Iraq in Syria and the broader Middle East. Russian military forces now surround Turkey and threaten European forces in the Mediterranean. Without coherent American or European goals or awareness, we cannot deter and are invariably poised to be caught off guard. This has undoubtedly contributed to the unfavourable developments that have occurred in Syria as of late. Failing to acknowledge this reality inevitably comes at our real peril.

Vol. 8, No. 15 (2016)


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