Victor Madeira - 30/07/2014

Many Western commentators have called Russia's seizure of Crimea a new type of warfare. But is it really? This hazy mix of political, covert, economic and other activity ─ things like espionage, provocation and propaganda ─ is actually only the latest chapter in a 100-year-old playbook the Bolsheviks called "active measures".[i] Though modernised to exploit the speed and reach of 21st-century mass/social media, this playbook retains its basic aim: to influence behaviour, enabling the Soviet-era intelligence and security men ruling Russia today to manipulate opponents. Active measures seem new to us now only because the West allowed its Russia expertise to die away after 1991, forgetting vital Cold War lessons along the way.

Key elements remain much the same; only some of the actors and tools have changed. Whereas the Soviets traded primarily on the ideological commitment of Western communist, socialist and peace activists, for instance ─ what Vladimir I. Lenin once called "useful idiots" ─ the Kremlin today can rely on the self-interest of their modern-day equivalents: lobbyists, corporate lawyers, bankers and even politicians.[ii]

Moscow strategically exploits the volume and speed of modern communications to create alternative but quickly-shifting realities, causing uncertainty. This flood of conflicting information eventually overwhelms opponents' ability to make sense of it. By paralysing their decision-making, Russia gains the initiative. Over time, this saturation also produces a kind of manufactured amnesia. And not just about historical events, either ─ themselves increasingly disputed in 21st-century cultural wars ─ but even about daily events. Ultimately, the goal remains what it has always been: winning the war for human minds.

Active measures have their roots in Bolshevik concepts of propaganda and subversion, developed well before the October 1917 Revolution but perfected from then on. By 1918, the earliest forerunner of the GRU ─ the Russian military intelligence directorate so active in Ukraine today[iii] ─ was already able to carry out special operations, propaganda and subversion as elements of partisan warfare. More generally, this type of warfare involved clandestine operations, sabotage, assassinations, deception and disinformation.[iv]

Though normally associated with the Great Patriotic War,[v] as Russians call the 1941-45 period of the Second World War they fought in, the Bolsheviks used these methods much sooner with varying degrees of success (against Germany in the First World War, the Whites in the Russian Civil War and Poland in the 1920 Russo-Polish War). The key is that such early operations ─ especially partisan warfare ─ looked to create class consciousness; in other words, appeal to the hearts and minds of workers and peasants. Add to this the Bolshevik refinement of Russian radical traditions of conspiracy and revolution. In the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Red Army developed what it called "operational art" to shape the battlefield on a large scale. One of its central elements, "Deep Battle", called for action deep in enemy heartlands with clear operational and strategic aims, not just tactical.[vi]

Modern Russian information warfare can be directly traced to Soviet "special propaganda", first taught on its own in 1942.[vii] Along the way, the Soviets perfected the concept of reflexive control, essentially making opponents act as desired without them ever being aware of Moscow's hidden hand.[viii] Eventually, Soviet military doctrine regarded victory as social revolution in enemy territories.[ix] Current events in Ukraine show this continuity from Bolshevik days, with adaptation along the way, of course, to benefit from technological and other developments over the past century. This is set to continue. Russia's military doctrine to 2020 favours a shift from destruction to influence; from eradication of opponents to their inner decay; from conventional battlegrounds to information, psychological and perception war; and from physical conflict to conflict in the human consciousness.[x]

In the 1980s, Soviet intelligence and its proxies staged a worldwide active measures campaign to persuade global audiences that HIV/AIDS was a US biological weapon. Nowadays, Russian intelligence and its collaborators are at it again, this time claiming that the US think-tank RAND Corporation advised "neo-Nazi" authorities in Kyiv to carry out mass detentions and executions in eastern Ukraine, for instance.[xi] Independent reports, it turns out, point to pro-Russian groups still occupying much of Ukraine's east as the ones actually behind the vast majority of abductions, torture and executions (isolated incidents involving pro-Kyiv forces have also been identified, and rightly so).[xii]

In 2014 we have come back full circle to 1917. Vasily Mitrokhin, the Soviet KGB senior archivist who fled to the UK in 1992 with thousands of pages of secret notes, wrote before his death in 2004: "the new is no more than a reinvention of the old which [sic] has been forgotten." The new, he felt, "flows out of the old and you [must] know the old to understand the new."[xiii] This is an invaluable lesson we have yet to learn as well as Russia has learned it over time.

Sir Ronald Lindsay, Britain's ambassador to Berlin in February 1927, urged London to realise that, short of military action against the Soviet Union, this was 'a new kind of war'. Anti-subversive measures could not be gradual; they had to be part of a package of 'economic boycott, breach of diplomatic relations' as well as 'propaganda and counter-propaganda, pressure on neutrals.' He argued that a diplomatic breach with Moscow would at least turn 'the present peculiar struggle into an armed conflict of the old-fashioned sort'[xiv] that Great Britain and the West could win.

So where Russian subversion is concerned, haven't we been here before?

 Dr Victor Madeira’s latest work, Britannia and the Bear: The Anglo-Russian Intelligence Wars, has just been published.

 


 

 

[i] Active measures are "aimed at exerting useful influence on ... the political life of a target ... its foreign policy ... misleading the adversary, undermining and weakening his positions, [and] the disruption of his hostile plans". Vasiliy Mitrokhin, ed., KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officer's Handbook (London: 2002), page (p.) 13.

[ii] See for instance: Oil & Gas Eurasia, "Gavin Anderson, Ketchum and GPlus win tender to improve Gazprom's image abroad," 21 August 2007 (online); Eamon Javers, "Who's on Putin's American payroll?" CNBC, 5 March 2014 (online); Arun Sudhaman, "Russia renews Ketchum's global PR mandate," The Holmes Report, 14 November 2012 (online); Oliver Wright, "Tories under fire for links to pro-Russia lobbyists," The Independent, 3 July 2014 (online); Ben Judah, "London's laundry business," The New York Times, 7 March 2014 (online); Political Capital Institute, Budapest, The Russian Connection: The Spread of Pro-Russian Policies on the European Far Right, 14 March 2014 (online).

[iii] Mark Galeotti, "Putin's secret weapon," Foreign Policy, 7 July 2014 (online).

[iv] Raymond W. Leonard, Secret Soldiers of the Revolution: Soviet Military Intelligence, 1918-1933 (Westport: 1999), pp. 6, 8.

[v] Valeriy Gerasimov, "Tsennost' Nauki v Predvidenii," Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'er 8:476 (2013), p. 2.

[vi]  Leonard, Secret, pp. 13-15.

[vii] Jolanta Darczewska, The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation, a Case Study, Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw, 42 (May 2014), p. 9.

[viii] Reflexive control is "a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision by the initiator of the action". Janis Berzins, Russia's New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defence Policy, National Defence Academy of Latvia ─ Center for Security and Strategic Research, Policy Paper 02 (April 2014), p. 7, footnote (fn.) 9.

[ix] Leonard, Secret, p. 46.

[x] Berzins, Russia, pp. 4-5.

[xi]  Paul Mason, "Making sense of the fighting in Slaviansk," Channel 4 News, 5 July 2014 (online).

[xii] Amnesty International, Abductions and Torture in Eastern Ukraine, July 2014 (online); Noah Sneider, "Shadowy rebel flexes iron fist in Ukraine fight," The New York Times, 10 July 2014 (online); Steven Pifer, "Kyiv's atrocities? A more nuanced look at the Ukraine crisis," Brookings Up Front, 8 July 2014 (online).

[xiii] Mitrokhin, ed., KGB, p. xxv.

[xiv] Victor Madeira, Britannia and the Bear: The Anglo-Russian Intelligence Wars, 1917-1929 (Woodbridge: 2014), p. 159.