Russia will retaliate with psychological warfare — the US should do the same

The eyes of the world are focused on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and escalating threats from the White House to punish the incursion. But Russia’s reach extends beyond Ukraine, and Moscow undoubtedly will retaliate against the U.S. for working to stymie Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans. How? By using information and psychological warfare, and a focused plan to undermine Americans’ faith in our democratic system. 

The Russian playbook is well established in this regard. Moscow will use information operations to sow chaos domestically and attempt to intensify sociopolitical divisions among Americans to distract Washington. U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia already is using these tactics to undermine public confidence in the November midterm elections. To get ahead of that interference, President Biden must uphold his campaign promise to guarantee elections free from Russian influence and prevent the Kremlin from waging its psychological war. 

Moscow’s illicit information operations against the U.S. are based on an old Soviet military concept called “reflexive control.” This operational doctrine relies on surreptitiously feeding information to the adversary, which, in turn, guides that adversary toward “the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.” The emphasis that the Kremlin places on information operations makes it a psychological warfare superpower.  

Today, in the words of Russia’s own Ministry of Defense, information wars include “massive psychological manipulation of the population [to] destabilize the state and society.” The Kremlin’s heavy use of internet-based media is an invaluable tool. Through collaboration with the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — a St. Petersburg-based and Kremlin-linked group — Moscow exploits existing political fault lines in the U.S. involving issues such as racial tensions, immigration or gun control. The IRA has been linked to divisive online campaigns, in which Russian operatives posed as white nationalist groups supportive of former President Trump, or other fringe actors, to stoke division around topics such as policing in America and Black Lives Matter.

For Russia, the information battle extends into diplomatic rhetoric. Last week, Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., ironically accused the West of fighting an information war against Russia. With this level of hypocrisy, it is past time that the U.S. confronts Moscow’s psychological aggression. If Washington hopes to defuse the Kremlin’s information operations, it must start by giving Moscow a taste of its own medicine. The U.S. should engage in a “reflexive control” similar to that which Russia unleashes. In doing so, the U.S. could exploit Russia’s internal weak points and guide the Kremlin toward decisions that are aligned with America’s goals. 

Exploiting the Kremlin’s weaknesses does not require peddling disinformation. Instead, the U.S. should disseminate American values focused on instantiating democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The Kremlin views these values as an existential threat to the regime’s survival. Evidence of this fear can be found in Russia’s latest National Security Strategy, which declares that the country’s “cultural sovereignty” and “traditional spiritual-moral values” are under “active attack from the U.S. and its allies.” Moscow’s talk of cultural sovereignty is a veneer for its efforts to hide state-sponsored corruption and authoritarianism.  

One way that Washington can counter Russia’s growing aggression is through social media. The U.S. should provide exiled or repressed Russian dissidents, such as comedian Idrak Mirzalizade, and musicians Anastasia Kreslina or Nikolai Kostylyev with a platform to speak to the Russian people from abroad. Russia’s youths are inextricably tied to global social media and such engagement will show them how life can be in a more liberal society. Promoting these repressed voices has the added benefit of forcing the Kremlin to go on the defensive in the global information war.

There are challenges to this strategy, including First Amendment restrictions and the profit motives of social media companies. A key part of the battle would be convincing skeptical social media companies to shut down Russian state-linked groups that undermine American security. But it’s time that the U.S. re-evaluates social media platforms from a national security perspective. President Biden should find a way to openly discuss declassified intelligence that lays out Russian tactics to polarize American society. As Moscow’s information operations thrive in silence, calling out Russia’s inflammatory rhetoric ultimately could help to defuse it. 

The time for threatening a strong American response is over. America needs to build its own information operations aimed at forcing the Kremlin to spend time and resources in ways that benefit the U.S. Absent a credible deterrence to the Kremlin’s interference in our national elections later this year, who can blame them? With a track record of successful interference, and a history of weak U.S. responses, why wouldn’t the Russian regime meddle again?

David R. Shedd is former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a member of the National Security Council from 2001-2005. Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other U.S. government agency.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Psychological warfare Russia Ukraine invasion Vladimir Putin

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