February 22nd 2022 spelled the end of the “invisible” war between Ukraine and Russia that has been going on for 8 years. I call it “invisible”, because most of the political and economic players around the world preferred to act as if it didn’t happen. It is not the first “invisible” conflict in the world and not the last. It is natural for people to ignore as long as they can something they don’t like or don’t know how to react to. Now there is no way for policymakers around the world to ignore the war anymore, and they will have to act.
On the other hand, assuming that the Kremlin did learn how to count their money and understands how sanctions will be ruining their economy – they are already thinking how to minimize the impact of severe economic sanctions that are being introduced by the USA and its allies.
The war Kremlin chose to begin costs a lot of money. Territories occupied by Russia do not provide any economic profit and incur considerable costs to subsidize them. There is no oil, and profits from the Black Sea shelf gas that the Kremlin has been stealing from Ukraine all those years is insignificant compared to their overall oil and gas resources. So they do understand they are about to run out of money and they need a way to make sure they can still make it.
And that is where information warfare plays a critical role in Putin’s plans. Make no mistake – Russia regards it’s “journalists” as an extension of their army, using them as a weapon of war. Russian journalists who provided pro-Kremlin information coverage of the occupation of Crimea were awarded combat medals, on a par with the Russian military.
It is not a new instrument for Russia, and it is not Putin’s invention. They just follow the old Soviet textbooks they studied in military academies or KGB schools. Information warfare was a critical instrument for both Russian revolutions (yes, there was more than one), “agitators” (later we would call them “propaganda officers” and nowadays GenZ would call them “influencers”) were a key element of spreading Bolshevik power to all the regions of the fallen Russian Empire, and Lenin used it constantly to keep his power in the face of internal rivals.
Russian information warfare has 2 fronts – domestic and foreign. The domestic front is focused on its own population and on the pro-Russian audiences in the neighboring countries that consume Russian information products (books, magazines and newspapers, TV shows and movies, etc.). It doesn’t use any elaborate techniques, simply relying on the sheer volume of information. It doesn’t matter how primitive or absurd the messages are. The objective is to flood the information space with them as much as possible. It is like putting a powerwash in the target’s brain and hitting a button.
Foreign front targets the population in other countries. This one is much more nuanced and complex. It may target certain electoral groups, certain business areas or political parties or even individual politicians or voters. And its main goal is to blur the boundary between “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “evil”. It is one thing trying to make some money off rogue countries which are clearly evil, and quite another when the country is in a sort of “gray area”.
Today Russia has clearly shown itself as a bad actor, they are an aggressor. Germany was forced to put on hold its favorite Nord Stream 2. Many companies will halt their trading activity with Russia, etc. Nobody wants to openly deal with an aggressor and a bully to avoid reputational damage. But businesses also don’t want to lose money.
And that’s where Russian Informational warriors will come to the fore. Some of them will rush to churn out “balanced” reports and analyses today, trying to “explain” the situation from Russia’s point of view, subtly pushing messages of the Kremlin propaganda. They will try to lay a foundation to build a future “gray area”, and we already start seeing these efforts today. Some will come in later trying to paint Ukraine a bad actor, pushing the messages like “truth is somewhere in the middle”, “it is not that black and white”, etc. Then there will be articles aiming to distance Russia from this war. There will be a lot of words like “rebels” (aaaah, what a wonderful word – it brings images of Luke Skywalker fighting evil Empire and Rebel without a Cause. Look at any country and you will find a positive “rebels”. There will be a lot of “Russian-speaking population”, “pro-Russian territories”, etc. – anything but “Russian military” or “Russian forces”. (just look the mainstream western media reporting about Ukraine during recent 8 years). And then later, we will see articles in the business media about economic losses incurred by the western countries because of the trade restrictions, which will finally give politicians on Putin’s payroll the ammunition to start dropping the economic deterrence measures.
Suddenly we will see in the news, how evil stops being evil, wrong stops being wrong, and occupation turning into a “peacekeeping mission”. And it will be OK again to trade with a bloody dictator, harbor stolen money of Russian oligarchs and sell them villas and apartments with the sea view on the coasts of Florida, Spain or Italy. And all that will start with simple “let’s see it from their point of view” and “it is not that black and white”.
We have witnessed it during the hot phases of the war in 2014-2016, when every Russian military action was accompanied by an information campaign. We have seen it when the Russian military shot down flight MH17, we have seen it during every phase of MH17 investigation, and we will see it again in the coming weeks and months.
Our brain consumes information – because this is its job. There are a lot of influence techniques that rely on the way the brain receives information and processes it – and those people know them. It is hard to fight it – but you can. Just remember – there is good and evil, there is right and wrong and there are bullies and their victims. Who you choose to support – defines who you are. Don’t pretend to stand in the middle; don’t pretend to be above the fore. Otherwise any pen pusher with a decent writing talent and a heap of dirty money behind will control your decisions, and eventually your life.