Outfits and Trends of Russia’s Cyber StratCom

It would be misleading to posit that Russia’s propaganda works the same way that strategic messaging in democratic countries does or that the Kremlin’s strategic aim is to influence the public abroad directly. It may not always sway the masses, but the Russian narrative gives sustenance to dissident elements in targeted countries, sometimes even successfully permeating mainstream narratives.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l November 9, 2016

St. Petersburg Russia

Let us look at the entities carrying out Russia’s strategic messaging and some of their operations as well as their impact. There definitely exist tactical outfits carrying out political warfare and strategic messaging in cyberspace. One, in particular, has surfaced lately because of internal defectors, disgruntled employees, and attendant media notoriety. Let us keep in mind, however, that what has been so easily revealed may be a part of a Russian deception operation, on the one hand. On the other, the Russian Federation is not as tightly controlled as the Soviet Union, so the margin for error and de-conspiracy is much wider.

At any rate, there is a Russian “troll army” tactical subcenter, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), on 55 Savushkina Street (earlier in Olgino), St. Petersburg. That may be just the tip of an iceberg of huge cyberdimension of strategic communications: analyzing the traffic; trying to control it; and, attempting to influence it. By some accounts the IRA has relocated from Olgino to Savushkina St. Or, maybe Olgino is a decoy passing as a main hub for there appear to be other branches of the Kremlin propaganda apparatus in obscure suburbs of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Still, it does seem that most Internet disinformation traffic originates in Olgino or at least initially stems from there.

The IRA is tasked with fronting for most of the detectable Internet operations. In 2015 an Internet expert, Lawrence Alexander, identified a string of networked websites with Russian propaganda. They were linked by an identical Google Analytics identifier. The domain registration details were identical. They were allegedly controlled by Nikita Podgorny of the IRA. The websites served as hubs for memes tailor made by the Kremlin. They targeted Ukrainian nationalists, Euromaidan activists, Russian dissidents, and Western politicians. Other websites shilled for Vladimir Putin, Mother Russia, and the Russkiy Mir, or Russian immigrant community abroad, in the so-called “near abroad,” i.e., in former Soviet territory. One related website provided an anti-Western narrative allegedly from Syria.

Following up on Alexander’s research, others correlated specific slogans with their geographic origin via Google search functions. They traced increased traffic and spikes in specific content (including “Ukrainian fascists,” “Maidan rebellion,” and “economic sanctions”) between 2013 and 2015 to obscure, peripheral locations in the Russian Federation, including Olgino, the headquarters of the IRA.

Incidentally, the IRA operates not only in cyber deception and denial but was a sponsor of Вещдоки (Documentary exhibit) about how evil the U.S. has been in the international arena.

Farming Out

The IRA and other operations allow us to make a few observations about Russia’s strategic communications at the tactical level. It appears that at home the post-Soviets farm out certain strategic messaging tasks to outside contractors (the overeducated, underemployed, or ideological warriors, such as the Nashi pro-Kremlin youth group). The secret police monitors the process rather than runs it directly. This means that Moscow has copied the old Komintern modus operandi from abroad to Russia. (See Andrei Soldatov and Irinia Borogan, The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.)

Meanwhile, as far as strategic messaging operations abroad are concerned, it looks like Russia’s propaganda employs often its own nationals, both émigré and visitors, e.g., in Germany the alleged Hanoverian rape victim “Viktoria Schmidt” turned out to be Natalya, who headed a free lance Russian camera crew (consisting of herself and cameraman Oleg Cherkasov) which carried out a number of propaganda stunts for the Kremlin task masters (RFE/RL, 4 February).

It also appears that there is a rather small number of operatives at work abroad. For instance, the Columbian Chemicals catastrophe, Ebola scare, and racial murder hoax which targeted the United States seem to be narrated on YouTube by the same individual speaking Australian English with a forced pseudo-American accent (The New York Times Magazine, 6 June 2015).

Detecting Influence Operations

We have been able to identify a number of characteristic Russian influence operations. They are undertaken by intelligence agencies, propaganda outfits, mercenaries, mavericks, useful idiots, and agents of influence. The most prominent propaganda outfit which maintains links to Russian intelligence is Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik – Russian news agency. Agents of influence can be individual or institutional. For instance, the former would be the mysterious American tycoon Boris Jordan, residing mostly in Moscow, who surfaced as an open mouthpiece of the Kremlin during the Russian invasion of Georgia. Founded also during the Georgian crisis in 2008, the Institut de la démocratie et de la coopération (Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, or IDC) is a veritable Russian influence operation. Except when it supports the Kremlin, IDC ostensibly advocates an international system “that respects the sovereignty of states and nations” and “a political order grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethics of both parts of Europe.” IDC courts radical right and traditionalist Catholics. They come because they have virtually nowhere else to go in France, where the left and liberals enjoy a virtual monopoly on public space and institutions and enforce it via political correctness.

There are also mavericks who play into Moscow’s hands by lending it their support. In the U.S., it includes, most prominently, Pat Buchanan or Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (former head of DIA, who has appeared as an analyst for RT and is the primary defense intelligence adviser to Donald Trump). Buchanan supports the Kremlin for ideological reasons as a counterbalance to the West’s counter-cultural revolution and its Marxist-lesbianist excesses. Flynn sees Putin as an ally against the terroristic Caliphatists. Moscow treats both as useful idiots and/or agents of influence. They are, in fact, victims of active measures and of political miscalculation. The question is whether they can limit the damage to themselves and their country without debunking themselves from Russian caravan.

Among the useful idiots, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz must be most prominent as he joined RT. But it is not only an American affliction. Front National politician Giles Arnaud operated France’s ProRussia.tv (2012-2014). However, unlike Schultz, Arnoud may also be a maverick and/or mercenary as he benefitted handsomely from the venture.

Finally, there are the mercenaries. For example, J. Michael Waller wrote about the laid off Pentagon contractors who work for the Kremlin, specifically RT, e.g., Zlatko Kovach who heads RT’s Washington, D.C. office. He moved from the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI).

Efficiency and Success

Our preliminary study of Russia’s strategic communications suggests that Russian foreign propaganda is hardly for the common people. It chiefly targets the elite.

Opinion polls in the Western world consistently show that the public holds a negative view of Russia. In the U.S., it hovers around 65%. The levels of negative perceptions are similar in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain; they are usually around 60%. France polls at 70%; the highest NATO negative mark for Russia registers in Poland – 80%. Thus, there is no success at the popular level.

So, we should not worry? Russian influence perversely implants nefarious thought patterns and reinforces malicious narratives. And, it promotes individuals and groups, like Poland’s ex-Samoobrona and now Zmiana-party Mateusz Piskorski and his comrades who bill themselves as “Poland’s only anti-American party” and who would otherwise lack access to mainstream public opinion but now they have found a handy platform to project themselves via Russian media. Or, perhaps, the Kremlin has found them and continues to deploy them undermining the Western alliance.

Therefore, it would be misleading to posit that Russia’s propaganda works the same way that strategic messaging in democratic countries does or that the Kremlin’s strategic aim is to influence the public abroad directly. It may not always sway the masses, but the Russian narrative gives sustenance to dissident elements in targeted countries, sometimes even successfully permeating mainstream narratives. Moscow has rejoiced over:

a)  the enduring strength of Stalin’s narrative on the Second World War;
b)  political correctness pervading the U.S.;
c)  Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States dominates at highschools and colleges;
d)  a horrible image of America abroad, in the developing world in
particular (AmeriKKKa).

It was the Komintern that surreptitiously planted those awful seeds. It was the domestic left that assiduously cultivated the poisoned fruit. And, it is the enemies of America, both foreign and domestic, who would like to reap the bitter harvest.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.