Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A New Kind Of War

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about the different approaches taken by the Americans and the Russians to a simple problem. At the height of the Cold War, during the space race, the Americans were having problems using their pens for checklists in zero-G spaceflights – the ink wasn’t flowing correctly to the nib. A committee at NASA was formed, a design for a new type of pen agreed, a project started, a contractor to produce the pen selected, and millions of dollars spent all along the way.

The Russians decided to use pencils.

This straightforward difference in mentality and approach has now been extended by the Russians to their techniques of warfare. While the United States has spent trillions developing the best tanks, aircraft, smart bombs, missiles, ships and submarines, Russia, with some cunning and relatively cheap tactical tweaks, has all but rendered the West’s advantage in conventional warfare redundant, as its annexation of Crimea and land grab in eastern Ukraine has demonstrated. It must be admitted that the West, and more specifically and worryingly NATO, has been found to be impotent in the face of Russian military aggression.

None of the four components of the new Russian style of war, dubbed Hybrid Warfare, are innovations in themselves. These components - the military, the political, the economic, and the informational - have long been present in the field of conflict. What is new is the way in which the Russians have seamlessly blended them into a tactical doctrine that guides their actions. They have also enhanced the informational component in ways that could not even have been conceived before the advent of the Internet.

The political component is the one we are most familiar with from the Cold War. Stony faces at the Security Council. Political pressure being exerted on allies and foes. Both sides are long practiced in the arts of superpower diplomacy, and neither has any particular advantage in this area. Observers of UN meetings have already noted the return of a chilly Cold War atmosphere at UN headquarters since the Ukrainian crisis erupted. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of the governments of the West, wrongly assuming that the threat from Russia was history, let their Russian desks get dusty, and neglected the science of Kremlinology. As a result, the West has realized with a jolt that it cannot fathom what Vladimir Putin is up to. We don’t understand the Russians anymore. We stopped thinking of them as enemies, but it seems they never did so of us.

The long shadow of the bomb hangs over the military component. No side will risk all-out war for fear of any conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange. The West, as noted, retains its advantage in conventional weapons and technology. But Russia has used subterfuge, and covert operations by special forces, to achieve a spectacular military success in the virtually bloodless takeover of a prized chunk of Ukrainian territory – Crimea. By escalating its confrontation with the West step by step, the Kremlin never puts its foes in a position in which a conventional military response would be feasible or appropriate. The Russians have also demonstrated the ability to use a wide range of tactics, and adapt them to the situation as it evolves. We probably won’t see the Little Green Men of Crimea again – they would probably be shot on sight if they turned up, for example, in eastern Estonia (or at least one hopes so), but Russia no doubt has many other tricks up its sleeve. The use of a massive “aid convoy” to provide a logistical support resource for the Russian military in eastern Ukraine was another such trick. There was impotent outrage when the first convoy barged into Ukraine on August 22, in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but sanctions threats and dire warnings by the United States that it would see the convoy’s unauthorized crossing into Ukraine as an “invasion” proved to be nothing but hot air and bluster. Now Russia is readying a fourth convoy. We’ve got to the point that Russia can send hundreds of trucks into Ukraine, unchecked, unsupervised, carrying only the Russians know what, without a whimper of complaint from the West.

Then there is the economic component. Russia has actually been using economic warfare on Ukraine for a number of years, but now the NATO countries of the European Union are in the Kremlin's sights, and are at a clear disadvantage. The EU imports around 30% of its natural gas from Russia (half of that coming through the Ukrainian gas transit system.) Germany and Italy consume about half of these Russian gas exports. The implications of Russia’s controlling the supply of such an amount of the raw energy supplies of large Western democracies are obvious, and will not be dwelt upon here. The economic sanctions threatened and imposed by the EU and the United States in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine have so far had no effect in influencing Russia’s actions. Indeed, the issue of the annexation of Crimea, which saw Russia wreck the post-war international order in a matter of days, now seems to have slipped off the agenda completely. Now that Russia appears to have succeeded in setting up a frozen conflict in the east of Ukraine, and the fighting appears to be winding down, at least slightly, the EU is even considering reviewing its package of sanctions against Russia! It appears that Russia correctly guessed that the EU was too weak, divided, and self-interested to impose and maintain for the time required the kind of economic sanctions that would make the Kremlin back down. Meanwhile, Russia has imposed sanctions on the EU that have a direct impact on Russia’s own population – restrictions on imports of EU goods and foods. The message is clear: “We can take the pain of your sanctions, and we don’t mind hurting our own population – we’ll just tell them it’s all the West’s fault, that they’re our enemies, and they’ll rally around us.” The West’s sanctions could work, but they’d have to be a lot tougher, long-lasting and also be of the kind that would also inflict damage to Western countries’ own economies. The West has no stomach for such sanctions, and Russia knows it.

Lastly, the informational component: Here Russia has been at its most deviously brilliant. By using its tight control over the Russian media, the Kremlin has been able to shape the narrative underlying the whole Ukraine crisis by creating an interlocking series of myths that not only win the hearts and minds of the Russian public, but also appeal to left- (and right-) leaning elements in the West and elsewhere around the world who have a visceral dislike of the United States and its foreign policy. The main myths are that it was the EU and the West that started the Ukraine crisis (while it was actually a popular revolution sparked by Russia’s own meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs); that Kyiv was taken over by a fascist junta; that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine were under some sort of threat and required protection; and that the fighting in Ukraine is a purely internal conflict (although it was actually fomented by Russia). Russian officials and journalists are prepared to utter, without a blush, the most blatant lies in order to support these myths, in a way that simply flummoxes the Western media (who are also baffled over how to report the obvious but infuriatingly difficult to prove involvement of Russian troops, tanks and artillery in the fighting in the east of Ukraine.)
The information component also includes the innovative use of hacking (Estonia has suffered Russian attacks on its modern e-government, and there is circumstantial evidence that Russia may have tried to interfere in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election by infiltrating the central election commission’s servers.) Moreover, as Western newspapers like the UK Guardian have found, Russia is able to call on an army of Internet trolls to disrupt, confuse, and mold public discourse in the West in matters pertaining to Ukraine, spreading misinformation in support of Russia’s myth narrative. We can be quite sure that Russia has even more capabilities to attack the West via the Internet, such as clogging up the banking system, attacking utilities operating systems, and stealing valuable data. It is not known yet whether the West has any way of countering such attacks, or responding in kind. But the Russians are clearly taking no chances: President Putin recently held a meeting on ways to cut the Russian part of the Internet off from the rest of the Web.

All of these components have been used together, in an integrated fashion, to support one another. As special ops forces moved in to seize buildings in eastern Ukraine, Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies to the country (which it did in May), its diplomats in the UN lied shamelessly about Russia’s involvement in the conflict, and Russian media and Internet trolls howled and snorted if it was suggested that Russia might be behind the so-called rebellion in the Donbas, all the while spreading misinformation about Ukraine and the Ukrainian government to the Russian and Western public alike.

This is a new kind of war. It is aggressive and offensive (in both the main meanings of the word). New methods will have to be devised to defend against it, or the Russian advance into territories it once ruled in an empire will not stop in eastern Ukraine.

Monday, 8 September 2014

How Russia Defeated Western Journalism

Do you think that the government in Ukraine was overthrown in a violent, Western-backed putsch, and the new government in Kyiv is dominated by far-right radicals? Do you suspect that the downing of MH17 was orchestrated by a Kyiv "junta" to garner support for military intervention in Ukraine by the West? Do You think that there has been no armed intervention by the Kremlin in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with tanks and mercenaries and regular units of the Russian army, and that the war is a purely domestic Ukrainian affair? Do you think that the volunteer battalions fighting on the behalf of the Kyiv government are, to a man, neo-Nazi fascists, hell-bent on subjugating the people of eastern Ukraine, and forcing them to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian?

Then you've been hoodwinked by Kremlin propaganda.

Don't feel too ashamed though: you've been misled by the most sophisticated propaganda machine that the world has ever seen - one that attacks, undermines and emasculates a key source of information that you may rely on: the Western media. As a small part of that media, I'm partly to blame for your being misled, so I owe it to you to explain as best I can how this happened.

The Kremlin propagandists have achieved this propaganda coup in three ways:

1. Undermining the credibility of Western journalism, or the journalism practiced in democracies. In Russia, and other autocratic regimes, the media serve the purposes of the state. There is no conception of the media as a "Fourth Estate" that is in effect as separate and equal part of government, performing an overseeing role that protects democracy. Why should the media perform such a role when there is no democracy to protect? Instead, in authoritarian states, the media are an arm of government, a propganda appendage, who pass only the government-approved message. By extension, it is assumed, wrongly, by the people who live under autocratic regimes, that the Western media serve exactly the same role. The reporting of Western journalists is thus undermined, with journalists being equated to agents of their governments, and thought of as nothing better than propagandists or spies. This wooly thinking even infects the well-meaning but naive liberal left in the West, who (rightly) distrust their own governments, but (wrongly) won't believe their own media. Meanwhile, the "journalists" of an authoritarian state like Russia can be found in places like Ukraine advancing the goals of their state through their "reporting."

2.  Understanding and expoliting the "Golden Rules" of journalism. The Kremlin propagandists know very well that Western journalists value their integrity, and that none of them wants to compromise it. None of them wants to make an error that will dent their reputation, and thus their career. The Kremlin propagandists know that Western journalists are risk-averse when it comes to reporting - they know that while each one of them is desperate to get the story FIRST, it must also be CORRECT. Mistakes will haunt you long after the story has broken and the brief glory of the breaking story has faded. This risk-aversion can be expolited by simply tearing off the shoulder patch of a Russian soldier. Western journalists can no longer report "Russian soldiers are in the process of annexing Crimea." They can't identify the soldiers for sure - they can't risk being wrong, even though it's completely obvious, even to themselves, who these soldiers are. Ditto unmarked Russian T-72 tanks in Ukraine. They can't report what they know personally to be the truth.

3. Setting up "alternative media" that pretend to be paragons of Western media values. The Russian Kremlin propaganda channel RT (formerly Russia Today) has been set up to promote the Russian government's propaganda in a way soothingly familiar to a Western audience. It employs young, pretty, cash-hungry journalists from Western countries, who are almost entirely lacking in a sense of journalistic ethics, to mouth the word of the Kremlin in a way that sounds acceptable to a Western audience. When presented with a channel like RT, a Westerner might assume that this is a bona fide news organization, that follows the rules of Western journalism, when in fact it is a propaganda machine that will not hesitate to promulgate the most absurd and outrageous lies in the interests of its masters, and will only retract them, in an insincere face-saving exercise, if it steps so far beyond the bounds of the credible that it cannot even convince its own fact-challenged staff that it was reporting accurately.

Absurd though it seems, these are the reasons I cannot tell you on the radio tonight some things that I know personally to be true: There never was a rebellion in Ukraine: it was fomented by Russian intelligence operatives - most people in eastern Ukraine never supported the separatists. The reason the Ukrainian army has suffered reverses in the last two weeks is because Russia sent in massive quantities of men and materiel to stop the "rebels" from losing. MH17 was almost certainly shot down by a BUK anti-aircraft missile, operated by Russians. And the "ceasefire" is almost certainly a ruse to wrong foot the West and the Ukrainian government into lowering its guard ahead of further Russian intervention in Ukraine, and then further afield.

I can't tell you all that because the Kremlin propagandists will assault my every claim with obfuscation, confusion and denial, and their account will be broadcast in the Western media, who "seek the other side of the story," and give it equal airtime, as if this other side of the story is not the outright lies and propaganda that it actually is.

That is why Russian propaganda has defeated Western journalism. Now: what are we going to do about it?