Written by: Adam Drew.
In 2013 an article was published in the Russian language journal the Military – Industrial Courier written by the then Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. In it he outlined a concept in which war has changed dramatically. He argued that victory in war was no longer predominantly decided upon the strength of conventional arms, but on the hybridised application of the methods of war in both the traditional domains, land, air and sea, but also “the information space” (Gerasimov, 2013).
The logic for this doctrine’s rapid accession to dominance within the Russian military and its amplified application by its political masters is all too apparent in the battleground that has been made of the internal elections, referendums and social politics of Europe and its allies. Russia has not only found a way to achieve Sun Tsu’s Supreme Victory, but it has simultaneously solved a conundrum that has undermined military commanders for centuries, how can one army fight and win on multiple fronts? In two years, 2016 to 2017, the evidence of Russian engagements in Information Space can be seen in the US presidential elections, the UK’s Brexit referendum, Catalonian independence in Spain, French Presidential Elections, German elections, Austrian elections, and Ukrainian national infrastructure. The standard tactics too can be extracted from these various digital battlefields; fake news spread through online sources such as Russia Today and Sputnik International, social media campaigns to further propagate this material and sew social unrest, and targeted hacking of political candidates or parties followed by the mass release of stolen documents or correspondence.
This pattern repeats itself, either in whole or in part across the democratic landscape of 2016 and 2017. The genius of the methodology is proven as much by its effectiveness as by how it evaded detection and has since resisted attempts to thwart it by both national agencies and international efforts set up to directly counter its effects. In Carl von Clausewitz’s On War there is a much-quoted phrase: “War is the continuation of politics by other means” (1976). With this statement Clausewitz designates that war exists outside the standard realm of political action; that by employing warfare as the method of achieving a political goal an actor has chosen to step outside the normal bounds of expected state behaviour and into a position where there are options available which would usually be unacceptable. Russia has, in adopting the concept of Hybrid Warfare and particularly with the application of Information Warfare made that step outside the bounds of normal action and into the realm of warfare without its opponents realising it.
The reason for the success of this subterfuge is not a result of the technology being employed, or at least not primarily so; while emails and the tools for hacking and networked power infrastructure might be products of a digitised age military history is scattered with examples of how the theft of critical information or the disabling of critical infrastructure can provide the difference between success and failure on the military setting. What is unique however are the various schisms contained within the norms of cyberspace; the bounds of acceptability for state action or interaction within the Information Space, as the Russian’s would refer to it, exist in a state of flux. Norms are still undergoing construction; potential norm entrepreneurs vie for attention as they seek to win over the relevant audiences to the norm which they themselves represent. The Gerasimov doctrine, with its assertions on the importance of misinformation campaigns within the Information Space has once again channelled Sun Tsu in the manner and form of its apparent application; with the norms of state interaction in cyber space still under heavy contestation by various actors they are weak, malleable. Furthermore, Russia has embarked upon a method of norm entrepreneurship that provides significant advantage to the norm which it champions.
While the majority of policy norms are solidified through explicit actions of their norm entrepreneurs in an open manner, and through the application of the back and forth of dialectic discussion, Russia has circumvented this process. The norms of cyber space which they seek to promulgate are implicit in their actions within this domain and it is with those actions that they also aim to solidify these same norms. Every act to employ fake news, social media campaigns, misinformation, or targeted hacking to achieve a political goal reinforces the norm that such actions fit within the realm of acceptability.
This active method of norm construction and entrepreneurship requires an active method of contestation. Thus, whenever a misinformation campaign is discovered that seeks to undermine the democratic processes or stability of another state; to prevent this act lending further legitimacy to the acceptability of Information Warfare a similarly active move of norm contestation is required. In this instance inaction as a response is as much a part of the process of active norm construction as the initial act of aggression. Without an obvious response that actively and effectively dissuades repetition of the use of Information Warfare as a tactic then the norm is only further reinforced.
Therein lies the problem: with these campaigns of misinformation led by what President Putin described as “Patriotic hackers”, and with the issues of attribution lent to the problem through the nature of networked infrastructure and the ease of anonymity in the Information Space definite and effective responses are all but impossible to make. “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt” (Sun Tsu, 2010) wrote Sun Tsu. Russia’s adoption and application of Hybrid Warfare has not taken place overnight, the shift in military thought can be extracted from high profile hacks such as Climategate in 2008, the brief and decisive campaign in Georgia in the same year, the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and its continuing civil war, various cyber attacks and incidents of espionage in Estonia and other Balkan states. 2016 and 2017 however have lifted the lid on this methodology, its pervasive application towards the democratic processes of European aligned states. Information Warfare may have been exposed to the world, but the manner of its application, and its spread to other state actors means that the norms underpinning it have been crafted and solidified under the noses of those states who have previously discounted the cyberspace or the information space as an arena dominated by high complexity attacks carried out against high value, traditional military targets.