Mykola Molodyko, 14 October 2017 – Day of the Defender of Ukraine, Pokrov
In honor of the Day of the Defender of Ukraine and National Cybersecurity Month in the U.S., I am putting pen to paper some thoughts that may help citizens of both countries defend themselves, ourselves. Here are some top level considerations for self-defense in a now borderless news and information world. The first part called “Russia Trolls” is about knowing the risk. The second part, “Self-awareness is the best defense,” addresses how we might do that. I say never offer criticism without also offering a potential solution. There is such a dearth of unpublished work around this area for public policy that I could easily pursue a doctoral thesis on this or write one or more books, so I am going to keep to broad considerations and important details. The title is a bit on the dramatic side, but you’ll see I am not too far off from it. It would also look really smart on a Katharine Hamnett t-shirt. She is the social activist responsible for the impactful “Choose Life” t-shirts in the 80s.
PART ONE – “Russia Trolls”
If you haven’t noticed that Russia is in the news a tremendous amount and that there’s also a lot of printed space devoted to communism, particularly in the New York Times and the Washington Post, stop reading now. I can’t help you. Cognizance has to start with a baseline of awareness. This should be ours. I predict that Russian information operations have exploited traditional means of communication to promote Russia’s own interest in the United States. In fact, the forefront of the hybrid war Russia has waged on the West in Ukraine has moved westward and reached us. That is why you are seeing so much totally unnecessary news featuring Russia’s alleged antics in the West.
In reality, it has been brewing for 25 years. The Cold War never ended for Russia and communism is alive and well in the hearts and minds of its people. Whereas we in the West are rational, Russians are emotional. They cling to what they perceive to be the glory of last days. Russian foreign policy flows from the wants, needs, norms and values of the Russian people. These values are in stark contradiction to our own and are essentially Soviet values. The Soviets despise Ukraine President Poroshenko because he knows quite well what’s up. His presidency has been guided by a distinct principle of decommunization. Not just knocking down Lenin, but the whole kit and caboodle, from decentralization of government, to building modern infrastructure, to the repairing of the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. For Ukrainians, all of us carry in our hearts and minds our main “chosen trauma,” Holodomor, a shared mental representation of an almost unspeakable genocide that our ancestors suffered at the hand of enemy Russia.
As part of Russia’s information operations in the U.S. and the rest of the West, I also predict that it is no coincidence that Holodomor is in the news again. Stalin’s genocide which murdered millions of Ukrainians is once again, part and parcel of information operations meant to prevent Russia for being brought to justice for its unimaginable crime and shameless marketing and PR for the glory days of the USSR which Putin and his spin doctors are trying to emulate today. It’s self-promotion, one thing Russians are quite good at. Unlike a lot of Ukrainians, President Poroshenko himself is quite skilled at self-promotion and has pushed the country to “rebrand.” Ukraine has taken nation branding to the next level; truly, a remarkable undertaking in the face of Russia’s relentless aggression. But the rebranding starts inside us, the shiny bright packaging is for the international crowd. Inside us, we must kill the communism that might have remained as a leftover from the previous period, Post Communism. With the “annexation” of Crimea, post communism ended, but some Soviets still live on.
“Decommunization is not just demolishing monuments. Communism should first and foremost be wiped out of minds!” ~ Ukraine President Poroshenko
Poroshenko and his advisors are also masters of Russian foreign policy. They know that what Western so-called “Russia experts” give us is malarkey and in many cases promotion of Putin’s policies themselves. Real Russian foreign policy is nasty stuff built on pillars of exploitation, deception, provocation, hatred of the West and gross contempt of international law, and a total disregard for human life. While our foreign policy in America is “America First,” the policy of the Russian Federation is “Russia Trolls.” It trolls in the West with the unholy trinity of corruption, transnational crime and terrorism. Corruption lies at the heart of the Soviet world view.
Think about how poorly the end of the USSR was handled and the millions affected. Without the proper control required like a highly extensive decommunization protocol, when Reagan tore down the wall, he essentially unleashed evil. There was no reconciliation on any level. Thirteen months later, Gorbachev resigned and the USSR “dissolved” only in the minds of West. President Bush lead America’s delusion. No care or thought was taken to integrate Russia into the civilized world. Thus, it is likely that nothing changed in the minds of those in Russia. There was no reconciliation of Stalin’s unimaginable crimes, no decommunization. No public self-reflection took place to transition from 73 years of official communism in Russia. This was an epic change management disaster on steroids. With denazification, the West all but forced Germans to acknowledge the unspeakable crimes the Nazi regime committed in the 20th century. There should have been a massive desovietization, just as there had been a denazification. Truly, the Cold War could not end in the minds of Russians. Democracy is about self-reflection. Sometimes we don’t like what we see in the mirror. Communism prevented self-reflection. A U.S. foreign policy of forced self-reflection for Russia would have been the right thing to employ when reengaging with Russia. Why would Reagan and Bush overlook such a tremendous aspect of foreign policy? Now, we are essentially negotiating with terrorists, which they are, instead of players on the same playing field. Russia should have been forced to decommunize and pay reparations for Stalin’s unimaginable crimes.
Slowly but surely, the word is getting out about hybrid warfare. It is estimated that only one quarter of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is military (STRATCOMCOE). The remaining three-quarters of Russia’s aggression is non-military: psychological warfare, information warfare, active measures, influence operations and other covert tactics; hybrid warfare. This same model is a now a threat to the safety and security of Americans, particularly on the Internet.
Russian information aggression or “Propaganda 2.0” was quite successful due to the systemic problems of the Ukrainian media environment. Not only Ukraine, but Europe and the whole world turned out to be unprepared for Russia’s actions in the information environment. This allowed Russia and is partially still allowing it to impose its agenda on the world (Horbulin). The European Union and the North-Atlantic Alliance have been countering Russian destructive propaganda mainly in two areas – uncovering fake news and developing a system of strategic communications (both national and international). A third and vital component has been introduced, an EU-NATO hybrid threat center launched in Finland. The EU and NATO have teamed up in Europe’s far north to fight hybrid threats from “tweets to tanks”. A new center of excellence focuses on resilience to menaces from little green men to huge humanitarian catastrophes. Distinguished Ukrainian scholar Volodymyr Horbulin describes hybrid warfare at length and in great detail. In the spirited Ukrainian fashion of intellectual pursuits, you can download his 157-page book for free.
Hybrid warfare and terrorism in the Russian context exemplifies the clash of norms and values between America, Ukraine and the rest of the West with the Russian Federation (Molodyko, 2017). A country’s foreign policy flows from the needs and values of its people. Russia’s foreign policy is comprised of its citizen’s anti-Western sentiment and total disregard for modern international systems. The U.S. as the world’s most powerful country and the UN as its most important global body are not acknowledging in formal terms that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism. Russia’s foreign policies flow from Russia’s domestic society, from the needs and values of the Russian people. Most of what Russia says and does is because of internal pressures, not external ones. Kremlin is marketing a value proposition to the Russian public and its compatriots abroad. But it’s really an anti-human values proposition. Leninism, Stalinism, Putinism, all the same. Whether you call the Russian Federation an authoritarian or totalitarian state or society, a mafia state, or kleptocracy, the point is that it is the same country it ever was.
At a minimum, the U.S. must update its information and communications security policy to address the private sector and educate and inform the public of the threat of terrorism, especially online and within the news media. This may lead to the U.S. government regulation of social media platforms. For Ukraine, a similar strategy is required along with expanding current services like what our NGO offers, cyber education, conflict resolution, and most importantly “decommunization of hearts and minds.” We will revisit all of this in greater detail in Part Two.
Americans are far too comfortable and safe to be concerned with the specifics of hybrid war. It’s more about informing public safety and security standards; moving those public needs to the policy level, especially for social media providers in the private sector. The crux of the matter is that Russia has exploited the capitalist nature of what motivates our U.S. social media giants, Twitter and Facebook, and probably our news media as well. There is evidence of the former. I predict the latter – similar to what was done in Ukraine as Horbulin rightly noted, the U.S. news media market has been hacked by malicious actors. I am personally motivated to draw awareness to Russian terrorism on social media. For a couple of years, I was the victim of different aspects of Russian terrorism on the internet; Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype and WhatsApp. Of course, I did not know at the time but in hindsight I have collected insights that I think are valuable for the public. Once again, I was not self-aware at the time. In my defense, I had zero reason in my mind to believe I was at risk. This is an important point for us Americans on a national level – self-reflection can save lives. I blindly trusted others given their credentials and associations. Now, it all makes sense. I was clearly very vulnerable and clearly heavily exploited. Evidence continues to stack up that I was in the eye of the storm and that there exists on social media a network of terrorists, operatives working in the interests of Russia. I am a Ukrainian-American with an extensive background in international development, foreign relations and communications, a classical musician by training, and I can communicate in several languages, so I have a unique set of very relevant skills to boot. My Achilles Heel, as is the case for most people, is that my awareness in the situation was completely farsighted and I suffered from not being able to see frauds up close. In the end, I was able to self-correct, thankfully. This saved me from being the ill-fated protagonist a story with an awful ending.
The following comes from the best in the business of information operations. The folks at the Stratcom Centre of Excellence say that the success or failure of Russia’s efforts to manipulate information in Europe and on a global scaled depends on 1) the ability to withstand efforts to redefine democratic values; 2) the ability of the international community to communicate the concepts and tools we need to use to defend and preserve democracy; and 3) our ability to be honest with ourselves. The last being the most important and also the most elusive, using a healthy dose of self-criticism to examine our attitudes and beliefs and remain calm in the face of adversity, and the ability to cast a clear and critical eye on attempts by non-democratic regimes to redefine our democratic values (NATO Stratcom Centre of Excellence, 2016).
The last point made is the sweet spot. The U.S. is currently not self-aware and thus vulnerable; potentially unable to withstand the effects of a hostile environment. But America’s potential to withstand Russian terrorists is outweighed by our greatness as a nation. While sometimes it seems like America has lost logic to hysteria these days, we’ll be OK. Self-awareness is required to combat Propaganda 2.0, particularly on the policy level. In order to combat Russian hybrid war, we Americans need to be honest about ourselves. In learning environments reflection is an important part of the loop to go through in order to maximize the utility of having experiences. Rather than moving on to the next ‘task’ we can review the process and outcome of the task and – with the benefit of a little distance (lapsed time) we can reconsider what the value of experience might be for us and for the context of which it was a part. Socrates advocated for all humans to “know thyself,” and Sun Tzu would say, “If your adversary has a better understanding of your environment than you do, you lose.” My personal experience with online terrorism was a shock to my system and brought me an unbelievable amount of awareness that I, you, we in America and Ukraine must know our risk as a nation. It is the risk of the assimilation of Russian [anti]values; meaning, in rough terms that the United States and Ukraine would “turn into” Russia (Maidan Monitoring Information Center, 2016).
We’ve got lots of issues to contend with. First, there’s ambiguity across the spectrum. There is no commonly accepted definition of “terrorism.” In the same respect, while hybrid warfare is broadly defined, the possibilities of hybrid warfare are infinite. The possibilities are endless. In the cyber world, we are vulnerable online to sabotage, hacking, exploitation, imitation, thievery, weaponization, and hijacking, to name a few. Psychological abuse runs throughout.
The Gray Zone
A specific aim of Russian hybrid warfare, information operations and terrorism is to create a gray zone. Moscow would love to have a gray zone like Donbas, but in America. Not land, but the minds of Americans. Moscow relies on the oppression of the individual or groupthink. The Gray Zone was first described by Kissinger more than six decades ago as he detailed the complexities of the emerging Cold War. Kissinger highlighted those areas where neither clear military superiority could deter aggression, nor could diplomacy resolve all differences. In essence, and as has become widely observed today, the “gray areas” occur in the space between peace and war. They cross national boundaries and ultimately defy simple categorization as a single issue or problem to be solved. The past 25 years have seen the resurgence of the Gray Zone. Gone were the days of great power politics, replaced by waves of non-state terrorist threats, popular revolutions, and the rise of social media to redefine identities and interests the world over, or so we were led to believe (James B. Linder, 2017). Malicious actors have an almost unfettered access to the use of information to influence populations. As such, they have greater incentives to weaponize information, especially to counter democratic societies that already face challenges managing the electorate’s often mutually exclusive demands.
The vast majority of people — up to 95 percent, in fact — believe they have a decent amount of self-awareness. And maybe you’re one of the lucky 10 to 15 percent who really does have an accurate view of themselves (Eurich, 2017). Chances are you are not one of the lucky ones. On a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves. Making things extra tricky is the fact that self-awareness has two components: Internal self-awareness is the ability to introspect and recognize your authentic self, whereas external self-awareness is the ability to recognize how you fit in with the rest of the world. The two are independent, entirely different variables, meaning you can have one without the other.
We have a “bias blind spot,” our tendency to recognize cognitive biases in others without noticing them in ourselves. In other words, your brain isn’t built to easily spot your own lack of self-awareness (Kahneman, 2017). It may seem like a futile pursuit, but Kahneman offers an answer that’s a little bit hopeful, even if it’s also a little bit frustrating. “What can be done about our biases?” he writes. “The short answer is that little can be achieved without considerable investment of effort.” Moving past these blocks first requires acknowledging where you’re starting from. Indeed, the most powerful thing you can do is to stop assuming you’re already self-aware. Considering about your own personal self-awareness is one thing, making self-reflection a US foreign policy is another matter.
In hybrid warfare, enemies are both visible and invisible. Remember, three-quarters of the warfare is non-military and is covert. It is not about what we can see; it is about what we can’t see. That’s a hell of a lot of invisible. We need to be protected from enemies both visible and invisible. Specifically, we are vulnerable to those actions of an aggressor state that invoke emotions in us. Agitation is a good word for it. I spent four years monitoring information on social media and got a pretty good idea of how it is done. They start with the big issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, underlying prejudice and overt hate. All hot buttons in today’s America. We cannot blame Russia for our problems but we simply cannot rule out that it may have stoked the fires in events like Fergusson and Charlottesville. Exploiting social conflict is a lot easier than it many sound.
For a list of Russian characteristics that translate to foreign policy, we should add a standard of simple-mindedness. In groupthink or the collective it is the practice to explain something in the least possible thoughtful way. This also provides a basis for information operations. For example, Russia instituted the idea that it is not part of “the West.” However, in reality, part of Russia does fall within Europe. Indeed, “the West” is a convoluted idea on its own accord. If you slice up the world by hemispheres, “the West” doesn’t work at all. However, it is generally acknowledged today that the West means Europe and the Americas. Thus, Ukraine is most certainly Europe and unquestionably the West. With all of that in mind, Russia presents a strong narrative that places Ukraine outside the West. See what they did? This kind of simple-mindedness carries over to other parts of Russian hybrid warfare as well.
For us in Ukraine, the U.S. and the rest of the West, the important part is to remember who we are in the face of adversity and remain calm. We must maintain a sense of decorum, consider our vulnerabilities carefully, put our values first, provide for safety and security, mark our boundaries, and give credence to the fact that simple-minded malicious actors who may be jealous of us have nothing better to do than try to ruin our successes. As famous Ukrainian intellectual Oksana Zabuzhko says, “Our challenge is to call things by their proper names.” Thus, first and foremost we need a vocabulary that is protected from aggressor states, malicious actors and opportunistic predators.
What are the areas of cognizance and day-to-day existence that are most vulnerable, those institutions and behaviors that relate to the fabric of a democratic society? Specifically, what vehicles exist that can be used to block self-awareness and replace it with groupthink? Institutions such as schools, churches, and mass media are prime target. Academia, religion, popular culture and the news serve as hot spots for foreign interference. Maybe think of it first in personal terms. I use my own terrorist experience to do this. Reflect on triggers. What causes us to become emotional? What produces anger in ourselves and why? What communications are vulnerable to imitation, sabotage, hacking, thievery, weaponization, and hijacking? This is the basis of Russian terrorism. Exploitation runs throughout. In Part Two, we’ll look at how malicious actors can exploited a loophole in our Foreign Agents Registration Act to funnel their information operations through public relations. U.S. regulates lobbying, but not public relations.
Let’s go back and reinforce the idea that the Russian Federation , in fact, still Soviet Russia. The Soviet Union developed two significant tools: airplane hijackings and the state-sponsorship of terror. In the 1960s and 70s, the USSR sponsored waves of political violence against the West. The German Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades in Italy both terrorized Europe through bank robberies, kidnapping, and acts of sabotage. The Soviets wanted to use these left-wing terror groups to destabilize Italy and Germany to break up NATO. Sound familiar? State-sponsored terrorism was a deeply Soviet phenomenon, but its practice did not stop when the Soviet Union ended (Lookwood, 2011). While state sponsorship continues, terrorism has mutated into something even harder for us to understand and respond to. Terrorism and hybrid warfare are now interchangeable. While Russia did not invent hybrid warfare, Russia is the birthplace of modern terrorism. In the 19th century Russian nihilists of combined political powerlessness with a propensity for gruesome violence, but their attacks were aimed at the Tsarist state and ruling classes. Later, the USSR and its allies actively supported terrorism as a means to politically inconvenience and undermine its opponents. Now, social media is a perfect vehicle to extend this legacy. Before the advent of social media one of the roles of traditional media has always been to act as a gatekeeper, advancing certain topics and shaping discussion. This function is no longer exclusive to them; any post can reach the same number of people as a news article from a traditional news outlet. In this way, malicious actors who would never get the chance to voice their opinions through news media outlet can reach wide audiences through social media (Social Media as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare, 2016).
Let’s add sabotage to our list and the Soviets again. Sabotage runs throughout. The rise of Russian hackers has its roots in the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, a growing group of entrepreneurial Russians ran computer-focused cooperatives, the private enterprises introduced under perestroika. They resold used Western computers, distributed Microsoft software and installed technology systems. They even wrote and marketed their own programs. Maxim Khomyakov, for instance, helped create an operating system called Chaos, a less-than-subtle poke at dysfunctional Soviet office life. It monitored the completion of paperwork and routine tasks and cost 50,000 rubles, or approximately $80,000 (roughly $160,000 in today’s money). “Computer hackers in the Western sense don’t exist in the Soviet Union. Yet there exists a sizeable but indeterminate community of free spirits,” concluded Forbes’ Esther Dyson, daughter of noted English physicist Freeman Dyson and editor of Release 1.0, an influential newsletter on the emerging computer industry. “While the Soviets may lack the ability to use computer technology effectively, they are rich in fundamental . . . intelligence.” Three decades later, it appears the hackers, not the entrepreneurs, reign supreme (Brown, 2017).
Imitating runs throughout. The most fascinating aspect of my terrorist experience has been witnessing operative social media accounts copy me. They don’t generally flat out imitate me, but twist it so it suits the Russian perspective while still trying to appear as Ukrainian. When one operative was stalking me for a year and I wasn’t aware “she” was an operative, she directly copied me. At the time, I thought it was just innocent mirroring. This is a fascinating aspect of Russian information operations. Russians spend an inordinate amount of time observing and studying. It is as if they are incapable of possessing an authentic identity and must imitate, copy and steal real behavior from non-Russians. Before my online horror experience I hadn’t really noticed it. Now I see it clearly in real life too. Personally, I think it is a characteristically Russian behavior. There is research to back this up too. Russia undertook an elaborate campaign to create fake Ukrainians on social media. While many of these accounts still exist, none has garnered any level of domestic or international respect. We are seeing with U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Investigation in to the 2016 Presidential elections that Russians tried to imitate blacks and Muslims too. Not just Ukrainians. In brief, Americans need to be aware that our personas are vulnerable to imitation, copying, exploitation, thievery, weaponization, and hijacking.
Provocation runs throughout hybrid warfare and has proved a double-edged sword for Russia. While it has enabled Moscow to manage various threats and challenges from the West like never before, Russia’s successes with its hybrid warfare strategy have come at a substantial cost. The sanctions regimes put in place by the European Union and United States helped plunge Russia’s economy into a recession from which it is barely starting to emerge. Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election lead to more sanctions, but it also alerted other countries to the risk that Moscow could intrude on their votes, prompting governments to shore up their cybersecurity and counterpropaganda abilities. In Ukraine, particularly with Russia’s staged provocations, there is a public awareness not only of foul play, but of also Russia’s ineffectiveness of concealing it, as it is carried out covertly in hybrid warfare. From 2014 until present, a lot provocation has happened in Ukraine. Each time, the Security Service of Ukraine has traced the provocation back to Russia; empirical evidence. Considering the heavy costs of its campaigns against the West so far, and its waning conventional power, Moscow faces an increasingly difficult road ahead to meet its strategic objectives. Though the hybrid warfare strategy will continue to be a key component in Moscow’s standoff with the West, it probably won’t be enough to fortify Russia’s strategic position in the years to come (Stratfor, 2017). The thing about provocation is that nations learn from it and it also creates public awareness. The West is now “woke.” The West is becoming aware. In the U.S., in particular, there has been more government response to Russia’s internet shenanigans in two recent quarters of the current administration than eight years of the previous. Under the Trump administration the military has been reawoken, particularly in the area of cyber warfare. Over the course of only a few months, a new Cyber Command has emerged separate from the shoddy National Security Agency. This marks a new chapter in America’s response to Russian aggression. As for defense, in general, the next step for the U.S. is a public policy of self-awareness.
Let’s end Part One how we started it, with a baseline awareness of understanding. What do you really know about Russia? Sure, the Russian Federation is in our news everyday but we really know very little about what is going on in Russia itself. A freaky mirror is used on us. We get a funhouse mirror image of ourselves, in the alleged eyes of Russia, and that same mirror is a two-way mirror. Think about it. They can see us, but we can’t see them. What do we really know about our adversary’s current day environment? Pretty much nothing as far as our news media is concerned. The same media that puts Russia in the news everyday tells us very little about what is really going on in Russia. The news media is not giving us the full picture and the picture they give us is an illusion. “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill did not proclaim this for shits and giggles. To throw in another quote, here’s Peter Pomeranzev speaking of his native Russia: “To believe in something and stand by it in this world is derided, the ability to be a shape-shifter celebrated.”
to be continued