The Bear’s Side of the Story: Russian Political and Information Warfare

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The goals of the Kremlin, and more specifically Vladimir Putin, are multi-leveled, and interwoven with Russia’s broader history as a nation seeking regional and international power.[1] The competition, and enormous loss of land by the former Soviet Union, of the Cold War is not easily forgotten, especially by the former KGB agent turned President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU as threatening to their regional hegemony, as evidenced in 2014 by the annexation of Crimea. Russia wants to be a strong global player but views their position in the world from a zero-sum standpoint, and their actions indicate they are trying to balance against the U.S. and the West to regain a position of relative geopolitical power.[2]

Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Hassan Rouhani (The Iranian)

Revisionist powers continue to stress the post-Cold War global construct. According to Walter Russell Meade, “In very different ways, with very different objectives, China, Iran, and Russia are all pushing back against the political settlement of the Cold War.”[3] Further, Russians “sees themselves as victims of a sustained unconventional, information warfare campaign by the United States,” and, as Brandon Valeriano, Benjamin Jensen, and Ryan Maness note, this “mirror imaging heightens this preference for manipulation.”[4] Soviet active measures (aktivnyye meropriyatiya), reflexive control, and deception (maskirovka) are antecedent to the post-Cold War Russian disinformation (dezinformatsya) actions employed today.[5] The Kremlin is blending old methods with novel techniques and skillful leverage of existing technology ever so slightly to avoid direct correlation to the Soviet model.

The Russian theory of victory is based on maintaining not only their sphere of influence, but also a buffer to NATO and the West by undermining democratic ideals and driving a wedge between the U.S. and her allies and partners.[6] The Center for Strategic and International Studies report The Kremlin Playbook says, “Russia seeks to gain influence over (if not control of) critical state institutions, bodies and the economy and to use this power to shape national policies and decisions.”[7] The goal is to destabilize the liberal world order and create chaos to gain regional advantage and distract from more aggressive moves within their sphere of influence. They seek to achieve this objective through a combination of political warfare with new media and cyber means.[8]


New media is more than the proliferation of social media outlets. It includes the widespread increasingly miniaturized and inexpensive mobile technology to include smartphones and tablets. The social media landscape has been growing exponentially since the early 1990s. Sites like Facebook have evolved from servicing a specific university to a global mega-corporation with over 1.6 billion users as of 2016.[9] Alongside their massive growth, the purpose of these platforms has changed as well. Now, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, “62% of U.S. adults are getting their news from social media…in 2012, this number was 49%.”[10] The result is a much broader surface for groups to influence users, or to conduct attacks. Combined with mobile communications technology, “[Social media] has been exploited to such an extent that it seems justifiable to call social media an information confrontation battlefield.”[11] The other two factors to consider are the speed and breadth of dissemination of information, or more importantly, disinformation.

Most social media users are members of more than one platform, and have an average of several hundred friends or followers. Beyond the breadth, the speed of information flow is unprecedented. Mobile devices allow users to record and edit photos, video, and text in real-time. As soon as information is disseminated it has the potential to reach several thousand users, at a minimum. The traditional news cycle has been rendered obsolete as critical information spreads globally in real time. Journalistic media have more of a presence in newer social media, but even large cable networks are not as likely to break a story first anymore. There are additional layers and facets of complexity in cyberspace originating from broader and larger networks of networks, high levels of anonymity and ambiguity, and massive amounts of personal information for the gathering. These factors create ripe opportunities for those seeking to spread chaos and disinformation, especially if they can transform that chaos into a geopolitical advantage.

Benjamin Jensen et al. suggest, “[T]here are distinct strategic logics in cyberspace: disruption, espionage, and degradation.”[12] In the national strategic sense disruption equates to altering the flow of information of a country such that the victim’s decision making cycle is negatively influenced. Espionage is the subtle theft of information, like the U.S. Democratic National Committee e-mail hack during the 2016 Presidential election. Degradation can include denial of services (DOS) or distributed denial of services (DDOS), akin to slowing or stopping the flow of information along pipelines, like the attacks in Ukraine in 2014. These logics are used primarily indirectly to achieve strategic ends to further shape the environment. Valeriano et al. identify cyber operations as a “new domain to weave a web of lies and half-truths designed to shape public opinion and signal resolve…through low-cost, deniable cyber actions to amplifying broader propaganda efforts…”[13] Russia has taken advantage of “new media” proliferation and the lack of widely recognized and enforceable regulations on these technologies to leverage influence over domestic, regional, and global target audiences and achieve strategic advantages by creating an atmosphere of doubt and distrust in current socio-political systems.


Political Warfare is not a new concept, and the British rightfully identify this fact in their manual developed during World War II, The Meaning, Techniques and Methods of Political Warfare. In their manual, the British describe political warfare as encompassing the elements of psychological warfare, ideological warfare, morale warfare, and propaganda.[14] The British viewed political warfare as part of a national strategy to be used against any enemy during armed conflict, which is very similar to the definition used for the purpose of this article, which is “the forceful political expression of what a nation is about in a particular conflict.”[15] 

Today, new media is the modus operandi for reaching a global audience with a message, and a broad range of actors have taken full advantage to include it in their tool kit. They can gain power through control of information and influencing a perceived threat through disinformation, among other methods of political warfare. In the information age, Russia seeks to utilize older methods of political warfare in new and interesting ways in the cyber domain by leveraging new media and other means.


Current Russian political and informational methods echo the Soviets’ active measures and reflexive control during the Cold War. Christopher Chivvis’ article “Hybrid war: Russian contemporary political warfare,” clarifies this sentiment, and provides context for the difference between hybrid war and political warfare. The Russian model uses political warfare as a pretext to military action, as well as means to accomplish foreign policy objectives.[16] It is more than a hybridization of methods and means; instead, the Russians have developed and are improving a new generation warfare.

Russian General Velery Gerasimov (Sputnik/Evgeny Biyatov)

Russian Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, General of the Army Velery Gerasimov developed a doctrine for taking advantage of all elements of national power, focusing heavily on information. The so-called Gerasimov Doctrine is focused on civil populations and “economizes the use of kinetic force.”[17] The Russian general’s model of new generation warfare is comparable to many other Western military leader’s views on the current global security situation.[18] He notes, similar to U.S. military leadership, that, “New information technologies have enabled significant reductions in the spatial, temporal, and informational gaps between forces and control organs.”[19]

Gerasimov establishes a ratio of 4:1 for the employment of non-military measures over military means.[20] He notes, “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” [21] The key distinction is that Russia considers non-military means (diplomatic, information, economic) as measures of war, compared to the West’s view of non-military means as ways to avoid full scale conventional war.[22] So, the information/political warfare means are combined to exploit or create opportunities, and military forces only take action when they can fully exploit and consolidate advantageous gains.


It is illuminating that Gerasimov concludes by saying, “We must not copy foreign experience and chase after leading countries, but we must outstrip them and occupy leading positions ourselves.”[23] Gerasimov’s overtures are in line with his president, and both espouse a strategy with an end in mind to undermine liberal democratic ideals and re-assert Russia as a superpower. This is evident as “Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare….”[24]

Russia has moved beyond the ideology of the Cold War, and taken full advantage of new technologies and social media to push their agenda of increasing power in the region to include the annexation of Crimea in 2014 where a blend of political warfare and new media created a ruse to employ conventional military forces.[25] Russia has also been exerting influence in the former Soviet states recently by “encouraging the growth of political parties with strong pro-Moscow sympathies, such as the Hungarian nationalist party, and the Harmony party in Latvia.”[26] These actions, which all involve new media spread of information and disinformation to exert political influence are malicious forms of soft power. Most recently, and closest to home, there is evidence of Russian influence during the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Russia used “new media” platforms to conduct political warfare as a way to avoid the direct hard-balancing that could be seen in the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

The international stage is complex and fluid, continuously changing, but human nature and the selfish intentions to achieve power have not changed in millennia. The Kremlin has added another facet to their political warfare through the savvy exploitation of new media. They are taking advantage of the West’s belief systems by conducting an end-around and using a form of malicious soft power to gain a position of advantage. The liberal world order could begin to crumble if the bear is allowed to continue to tell his story in such a corrosive, manipulative way. The global community should take a long-term view to find opportunities to degrade Russian deception while upholding the ideals of liberal democracy.

Tyler Quinn is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and plankholder of Ender’s Galley. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the United States Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Jeffrey Mankoff, “Russia’s Latest Land Grab,” Foreign Affairs (May 2014): 6; Fyodor Lukyanov, "Putin’s Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs 95, no. 3 (May, 2016): 30-31.

[2] Jack Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” Foreign Policy (Nov/Dec 2004): 53; Stephen Kotkin, “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics: Putin Returns to the Historical Pattern,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 3 (May/Jun 2016): 2-9; Robert A. Pape, “Soft Balancing Against the United States,” International Security 30, no. 1 (2005): 7-45; T. V. Paul, “Soft Balancing in the Age of U.S. Primacy,” International Security 30, no. 1 (2005): 46-71.

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 3 (May/June 2014): 71.

[4] Brandon Valeriano, Benjamin Jensen, and Ryan C. Maness, Cyber Strategy: The Changing Character of Cyber Power and Coercion (New York: Oxford, 2018), 204. Dr. Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at Marine Corps University and the Cyber Security Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is also an Area Editor for International Relations and Strategy for the Journal of Cybersecurity. Dr. Ben Jensen is an Associate Professor at the Marine Corps University and Scholar-in-Residence at American University, School of International Service. Dr. Ryan C. Maness is the Assistant Professor of Cyber Conflict and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.

[5] For more on active measures see Richard H. Shultz and Roy Godson, Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy (McLean, VA: Pergamon Press, 1984). For more on reflexive control see Timothy Thomas, “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, no. 2 (April, 2004): 237-56.

[6] Jeffrey Mankoff, “Russia’s Latest Land Grab,” Foreign Affairs (May 2014): 4-5; Peter Pomeranstsev and Michael Weiss, “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money,” The Interpreter, Institute of Modern Russia (New York: Institute of Modern Russia, 2014): 9-12; For detailed analysis see Heather Conley, James Mina, Ruslan Stefanov, and Martin Vladimirov, The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe, (New York: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016).

[7] Conley, Mina, Stefanov, Vladimirov, The Kremlin Playbook, 1.

[8] “New media” is defined in this article as the combination of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter with the proliferation of mobile communication technology like cellphones and tablets.

[9] Beata Bialy, “Social Media – From Social Exchange to Battlefield,” The Cyber Defense Review 2, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 71.

[10] Bialy, “Social Media – From Social Exchange to Battlefield,” 74.

[11] Ibid, 75; for more on information confrontation see A. N. Kiryushin, “Information confrontation: the problem of terminology insufficiency,” Center for the Analysis of Terrorist Threats,

[12] Jensen, et al, “Fancy Bears and Digital Trolls,” 6.

[13] Valeriano, Cyber Strategy, 199.

[14] British Political Warfare Executive, The Meaning, Techniques, and Methods of Political Warfare, (Great Britain: British Government, 1942), 2.

[15] Angelo M. Codevilla, “Political Warfare,” in Political Warfare and Psychological Operations: Rethinking the US Approach, ed. Carnes Lord, and Frank R. Barnett (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press Publications, 1989), 79.

[16] Christopher S. Chivvis, "Hybrid War: Russian Contemporary Political Warfare," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 5 (2017): 317, Ebscohost (124996707).

[17] Ibid, 317.

[18] Charles K. Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Military Review 96, no. 1 (2016): 30. Although there are multiple definitions “hybrid” warfare generally is seen to be the blending of “conventional and unconventional military forces with aspects of national power.”

[19] Gerasimov, “The Value of Science,” 24.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 24.

[22] Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” 34.

[23] Ibid, 29.

[24] Janis Berzins, Russia's New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defense Policy, Policy Paper no. 2, Center for Security and Strategic Research National Defence Academy of Latvia (Riga, Latvia: Center for Security and Strategic Research, 2014): 5.

[25] Keir Giles, “Russia’s ‘New Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power,” Chatam House, (March 21, 2016): 15-6, 

[26] Chivvis, “Hybrid War,” 318


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