Cover: Rivalry in the Information Sphere

Rivalry in the Information Sphere

Russian Conceptions of Information Confrontation

Published Aug 18, 2022

by Michelle Grisé, Alyssa Demus, Yuliya Shokh, Marta Kepe, Jonathan W. Welburn, Khrystyna Holynska

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Research Questions

  1. How is information confrontation defined in the Russian military-scientific literature and in Russian strategic documents?
  2. What are its subtypes, and which Russian organizations contribute to information confrontation efforts?
  3. How has information confrontation as an element of Russian military strategy evolved over time, from Imperial Russia to the Putin era?
  4. How might the concept and its role in Russian military operations evolve in the future?

Information and information technologies infuse all parts of modern society — in peacetime, during periods of strategic competition, and during wartime. Since the early 2000s, advanced information technologies for rapidly sharing, processing, and analyzing data have had a significant effect on the character of Russian military operations. An examination of the Russian military-scientific literature reveals the centrality of the concept of information confrontation in Russian military strategy.

Information confrontation, or informatsionnoe protivoborstvo (IPb), is a distinct element of Russian strategic thinking in the post–Cold War era. Russia sees itself as being in a constant state of information confrontation with the West as it tries to expand its own dominance and prevent its adversaries from gaining influence.

In this report, the authors examine prevailing definitions and types of information confrontation, and they discuss the historical evolution of Russian (and Soviet) influence operations and psychological warfare, from 18th-century Imperial Russia up to the Vladimir Putin era. As a fundamental element of Russian strategy, information confrontation is evolving from something primarily carried out to supplement traditional means of waging war into something that is carried out continuously and in peacetime to shape the operational environment so that it will be malleable in future conflicts.

The authors also analyze the experience of Ukraine, which has been the subject of one of Russia's most comprehensive IPb and hybrid warfare campaigns in recent years. Ukraine offers a window into the present-day role of IPb and Russian activities and intentions in the information domain.

Key Findings

Information confrontation is discussed at length in the Russian military-scientific literature, but there is disagreement among experts about how to define the term

  • Related (but distinct) terms and concepts are information influence and information warfare.
  • The Russian military-scientific literature frequently equates the strategic impact of information weapons with that of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Russian military experts have called for the development of a consistent, unified definition of information confrontation.

Information confrontation can be carried out by state and nonstate actors using a range of tools

  • Informational-psychological confrontation consists of efforts to influence the enemy's population and military forces.
  • Informational-technical confrontation involves the physical manipulation or destruction of information networks.
  • State actors executing information confrontation include the military and security services. Nonstate actors support information confrontation as well.

Information confrontation has deep roots in Russian (and Soviet) military thinking

  • The Napoleonic Wars shaped later Russian military thought on psychological operations.
  • Through the Great War and the Russian Revolution and then the Cold War, the use of propaganda and psychological operations improved in quality and effectiveness.
  • In the post–Cold War era, Russia perceived it was falling behind the West in the information domain. The Gulf War profoundly shaped Russian thinking about IPb, and Russian military experts also drew lessons from the Kosovo conflict and U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 21st century.
  • Information campaigns that once played supporting roles in combat are now evolving to become a centerpiece of modern hybrid warfare.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. intelligence community should study the Russian military-scientific literature to better understand Russian activities and intentions in the information domain and to gain insight into the role of information in Russian military strategy and how Russia perceives U.S. information operations.
  • U.S. military service intelligence should also examine publicly available, open-source, and unclassified Russian-language reports.
  • The U.S. military should more closely monitor Russian rhetoric regarding the distortion of historical facts, especially in Eastern Europe, as an emergent tool of information confrontation.
  • Because Ukraine is considered a proving ground for Russian subversive activities, Ukraine's vibrant and prolific scholarly community should be engaged. The United States would benefit from opening its analytical aperture to incorporate the scholarly literature of Ukraine and other states that serve as litmus tests for Russian efforts.
  • Further research is warranted to study information confrontation in hybrid warfare — that is, how it is used as an instrument of soft power and how international governance mechanisms might regulate information confrontation in the future.

This publication was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative, United States European Command, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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