Russia’s (Limited) Information War on the West

Russia’s information policies have recently drawn public attention generating critical reactions from Western politicians and experts alike. Following attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Western Anti-Doping Agency, as well as Wikileaks’ release of confidential materials on Hillary Clinton, many observers concluded that the Kremlin had launched an information war on the United States that aimed to undermine its election system and, possibly, even falsify the results of the U.S. presidential election in order to bring to power Putin’s favored candidate, Donald Trump.

Russia’s definition of information warfare is broader than that of the West and incorporates both cyberattacks and media manipulation. Since at least 2008, the Kremlin also has been actively challenging the Western narrative of democracy promotion in the media space. Russia has reorganized its news agencies and created specialized programs to navigate the global cyber space and deflect Western criticisms. Among those programs has been the establishment of the television network Russia Today (RT) in 2006 to provide an alternative to Western media coverage of global events. According to RT’s website, the network now operates in 38 countries, makes the list of the top five most watched international TV news channels, and is the most popular news channel on YouTube, with over 4 billion views.   

To many observers, this rise of Russia’s presence in the global cyber and media space may seem surprising given Russia’s limited information capabilities and soft power appeal in the West. For instance, experts indicate that RT’s popularity on social media—when judged by followers of its official Twitter account—is only slightly more than one-tenth of BBC World News, let alone CNN. RT’s performance on Facebook is better, yet five to eight times lower than those of the aforementioned Western stations. RT also cannot compete with Western companies in terms of its annual budget, which is three to four times smaller than that of the United States’ Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Russia’s soft power is also largely regionally confined and has a limited appeal in the West. Russia’s values are geographically local and based on Eastern Christian ideas predominantly popular in Eurasian and East European regions. Despite recognition of Russia’s importance, it tends to be perceived in Western countries as threatening and disrespectful of existing international rules. The elites and political experts mistrust the Kremlin’s intentions and frequently present Russia’s domestic and international policies as corrupt, hostile, and anti-Western. Global mass perceptions of Russia are also not encouraging. According to Pew Research Global Attitude Project conducted in 27 countries, between 2007-2012 the number of people viewing Russia favorably decreased in 17 countries and increased in only three. In the United States, popularity of Russia declined considerably. For example, in March 2014, 68 percent viewed Russia as either an unfriendly or enemy country, while favorable views of Putin were less than 10 percent.

These deficiencies notwithstanding, Russia’s information war on the West can be considered successful for at least three reasons.

First, Russia’s goals are more modest than making their values more attractive to Western nations. The Kremlin’s idea is to be recognized as a power, not to defeat the West or to be loved by it. In today’s transitional and increasingly post-Western world, competition and confrontation are at least as important as cooperation—not least in the area of values, media, and ideology. Non-Western nations such as Russia, China, and Iran feel threatened by the United States’ strategy of regime changes in the Middle East, to which they respond by defending their own values. While the United States seeks to preserve its global power by all available means, the rising powers aim at improving their international position, including by obstructing the power of hegemon. They remain skeptical of the liberal cooperation recommendations in the inherently hierarchical world, especially given Joseph Nye’s own argument that soft power “is not just a matter of ephemeral popularity; it is a means of obtaining outcomes the United States wants.”

Instead of trying to impose its values, Russia’s goal is to strengthen a bargaining position for relations with the American president, and to deter the United States from possible future interferences with Russia’s own domestic politics (such as future presidential elections). Rather than trying to outperform the West, Russia is fighting a defensive information war. Russia and the West are not fighting a new Cold War in which “my victory is your loss,” or vice-versa. In the new, increasingly complex world, nations don’t seek to destroy their respective political systems. Instead, they are in the business of influencing and leveraging more than replacing and destroying. As the world transitions towards forming new international rules, states are experiencing new processes of identity reformulations and are probing new political boundaries.

Second, despite lacking comparable financial resources, Russia possesses a strong pool of potential cyber warriors with engineering backgrounds and strong math skills. Rather than getting involved in a full-scale information war with the West, Russia seeks to expose limitations of the West’s global media and cyber dominance. The Kremlin does not have the capacity to win the information war, but it does have the capacity to confuse and disorient the West and compel it to negotiate with Russia. Not having the luxury of dominating the global information space, Russia responds in asymmetrical ways by seeking to confuse and discredit their Western opponents. In the information arena, being asymmetrical means attacking secretly and confusing the opponent, rather than promoting Russia’s own values. He who attacks has the tactical advantage. If the Kremlin is indeed proven to be behind the discussed cyber attacks, then demonstrating an additional power resource may be all that is intended at this point. Even if Putin had the capacity to destroy the U.S. election system, he would be careful not to overexploit it. The costs of such actions will be excessively high, and all the bargaining power will be exhausted.

Third, Russia’s limited and generally defensive information war on the West is successful because of the latter’s declining confidence in its own values. Following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the disastrous war in Iraq, and the global financial crisis of 2008, U.S. and European nations have been searching for ways to adapt to a new, increasingly unstable and regionalized world. Both internally and externally, the United States increasingly lacks confidence to serve as the world’s leader. Internally, it is looking for ways to recover from the consequences of the terrorist attacks, the Iraq War, and the global financial crisis. According to sociologists, 2004 was the last year when public confidence in most institutions averaged better than 40 percent. In November 2016, following the presidential elections, 77 percent of Americans perceived their country as “greatly divided on the most important values.”

Externally, following the war in Iraq, U.S. leadership could no longer inspire the same respect, and a growing number of countries viewed it as a threat to world peace. In response, the United States has moved away from its initial preoccupation with soft power. The idea of confident influence across the world has been amended with special “digital” and financial tools for engaging foreign activists and monitoring foreign governments. Activities of the U.S. government exposed by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden indicate that the power of example is increasingly being replaced with assertiveness, surveillance, and bribery in defeating America’s opponents.

The lack of confidence is also reflected in the exaggerated fear that Russia is capable of destroying the West’s values. Already in the mid-2000s, the U.S. media developed a perception of Russia as that of an anti-democratic system with hostile intentions. In response to Putin’s attempts to consolidate his power domestically and pursue an independent foreign policy, American journalists presented Russia as a neo-Soviet autocracy and a revisionist power. The Kremlin’s international assertiveness in the wake of the “colored revolutions” in the former Soviet region, the intervention in Georgia in August 2008, the practices of limiting space for political opposition, and the annexation of Crimea then provided a fresh context for viewing Russia as the leading threat to the West. Responding to the perceived threat of Russia’s information power, BBG member Leon Aron proposed to increase funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to become more competitive relative to Moscow’s RT, which is “generously funded, slick, and unconstrained by moral scruples.”

Putin’s return as president also prompted a growing fear of Russian propaganda, pressuring U.S. officials to react. In March 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was concerned the United States was falling behind when it comes to putting out information. He asked for additional funding to be provided for the BBG by stressing that RT’s influence is growing worldwide and that the United States does not have “an equivalent that can be heard in Russian.” In April 2015, California Congressman and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations Ed Royce and New York Congressman Elliot Engel introduced the United States International Communications Reform Act. When presenting the bill, Royce argued that the United States was on the defensive as China, Russia, and Iran were more successful in leveraging information to their advantage. The main target, however, was Russia. The day before the hearing, Royce published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “Countering Putin’s Information Weapons of War,” in which he wrote that Russia’s information power “may be more dangerous than any military, because no artillery can stop their lies from spreading and undermining U.S. security interests in Europe.” In October 2015, in her testimony on Ukraine before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland too called for actions to counter Russia’s propaganda and informed the audience that “[t]o fight disinformation not only in Ukraine and Russia, but across Russian-speaking communities in Europe, we are joining forces with our partners in the EU to support alternatives to state-sponsored, Russian programming. We are also training foreign journalists and civil society actors in the art of fighting lies with the truth.”

The thinking that Russia is outperforming the West on the information front, or that the Kremlin is out to destroy the political system of Western nations, mirrors Russian officials’ paranoia about the West’s capabilities and intentions. It remains to be seen whether this mutual paranoia will change under the presidency of Donald Trump. During the presidential campaign, Trump favored improving relations with Russia. In the meantime, not sure of each other’s intentions, Russia and the West are engaged in fighting non-existent threats.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is a professor at the departments of Political Science and International Relations at San Francisco State University. He has taught Russian/post-Soviet comparative and international politics since August 2000. A Russian native, Tsygankov is a graduate of Moscow State University (Candidate of Sciences, 1991) and the University of Southern California (Ph.D., 2000). Tsygankov is a contributor to both Western and Russian academia. In the West, he co-edited collective projects, and he published Russia’s Foreign Policy (2006; the second edition, 2010; the third edition, 2013; the fourth edition, 2016), Anti-Russian Lobby and American Foreign Policy (2009, also published in Russia), Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin (2012, also published in China), as well as other books and articles.