Adm. Mike Rogers recently testified , “President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay” for Russia’s influence operations, and that “what we have done hasn’t been enough.” And the senior U.S. military officer in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, later added , “Russia aggressively uses social media and other means of mass communication to push disinformation, test the resolve of the United States, and erode our credibility with European partners.”
In spite of these warnings, Russia continues to exploit the transparency essential to democracy and wages political warfare. Russia can paralyze the politics in NATO member states to undermine the alliance. For its part, NATO seems fixated on the benchmark of defense spending at 2 percent of GDP to deter a Russian conventional attack. This conventional paradigm ignores the cognitive challenge that Russia pursues to weaken NATO from within. NATO must build on its whole-of-nation approaches, public-private partnerships and fledgling cyber capabilities to overcome its eclipsing bias of seeing the Russian threat as one of aircraft and tanks to one of malware and spies.
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Russian Political Warfare
Russia’s strategy has significantly evolved over the past twenty-five years. As the country recovers its great-power status, Moscow sees today’s competition as best waged through political warfare —an application of all national means short of war to achieve objectives—rather than conventional warfare. Russia understands that it currently lacks the military capacity required to conquer and hold territory through military means alone. Further, it understands NATO red lines and the Article Five process, so it focuses on generating ambiguity and deniability to its aggressions. This approach, referred to at times as the Gerasimov Model , asserts the belief that the effectiveness of nonmilitary tools in achieving goals in conflict has exceeded that from weapons, at an approximate proportion of 80 percent to 20 percent.
Russia’s overarching objective is to strengthen its stature and project itself as a world power. To this end, it seeks to weaken, not destroy, the West. Recouping territorial expansionism and influence from the last century underscores the Russian conventional threat, but the peril to most NATO members is more subtle. Gustav Gressel argues, “Russia’s military efforts are embedded in a multi-pronged drive to overwhelm, subvert, and subdue the opposing society.” And the supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, reached this conclusion again in March of 2018: “Russia seeks to change the international order, fracture NATO, and undermine U.S. leadership in order to protect its regime, re-assert dominance over its neighbors, and achieve greater influence around the globe.”
The U.S. military has highlighted the conventional threat that Russia poses, but broader efforts to deter Russian political warfare is lagging. Moscow’s approach is focused on blurring civilian and military tactics together—something that is largely eschewed in democracies. This is directly correlated to discrediting and weakening perceptions of Western institutions. It is fair to assume that Russia is actively working to discredit NATO and the EU whenever possible, and may consider further surreptitious seizures of territory. Combined with the will to take boldly calculated actions, Russia has proven to be adept at waging influence operations.
Reviewing conflict from the last decade, it is clear that Russia advances its national interests through government, state-sponsored, private and criminal activities, under a veil of ambiguity and deniability. Russia spreads misinformation, exploits nationalist sentiments and identities or ethnic and religious divides, develops relationships and patronage systems to exert political influence, creates dependencies and strings to pull through critical resources such as energy, and takes advantage of a mix of these as a basis for increased military cooperation. This approach is visible in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans, but the discovery is often too late to affect outcomes.
Of course, exploiting perceptions works across the spectrum of Russian power. It can be seen in the creation of a false narrative of Russia’s economic influence, or the manipulation of history to fuel the belief that the West mistreats select groups or regions. Adding to this fire, along with rising Islamic extremism, groups such as the “clerical fascist” sect of nationalist Serbian Orthodoxy and other neo-Nazi-adjacent movements are also growing. Members have gone to fight alongside Russia in Ukraine. Their approach is to pull on emotional strings to inflame nationalism. At the same time, Russia’s clandestine intelligence networks are coming back to life integrating into the fiber of European societies, which are vulnerable to political warfare.
Moscow’s combination of information and psychological warfare, underwritten with ancillary conventional military capabilities, cannot be countered with NATO’s arsenal of conventional forces. Russia’s political warfare is not invisible, but democracies are usually partially blind to it. In the words of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “a democracy is always two years behind the dictator.”