On August 23, 2021, unknown organizers coordinated the “Baltic Way 2021” celebration to mark thirty years of freedom in the Baltic states, with advertising across social media promoting it. However, according to officials at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence and Latvian cyber warfare military personnel we interviewed, the event was likely established and funded by Moscow. It quickly turned into, according to one Latvian military officer, an “anti-vax, anti-government meeting that celebrated ‘freedom’ and promoted conspiracies.” Fortunately, attendance was quite low, but this is the sort of sociopolitical-information warfare that has been occurring in Eastern Europe for decades.
A blending of social and political issues in the information environment allows an adversary to weaponize civil society in a way that leads to anomie, confusion, and hyperpolarization, ultimately aiming to undermine democracy and the social contract. The growing prominence of smartphones, constant connectivity, and social media has intensified such adversarial influence actions against the democracies of Eastern Europe, just as it has in the United States. And this influence is accomplished cheaply—Russia is “spending approximately $4 billion a year (comparable value) on cyber-influence operations against the West.”
Traditional American security afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean is no more. While Eastern Europe is physically closer to the Kremlin, the tactics used by Russian agents are easily employed against unsuspecting Americans via cyberspace and social media—posing a threat to US national interests around the globe and to American homeland defense. Without proper preparation, the US will suffer in the next crises, as China (and other adversaries) have learned lessons from the 2022 Russo-Ukraine War and are improving their joint operations in tandem with narratives as part of broader cognitive warfare efforts to achieve certain nonkinetic effects and influence objectives in their favor.
Russian Information Warfare in the Digital Age
Russia, and increasingly China (as well as other adversarial countries like Iran and North Korea), see tremendous value in pursuing cheap, low-risk influence operations via the internet and social media. Pushing conspiracies upon unsuspecting citizens, especially in Eastern Europe, creates an alternative reality, which is weaponized to the benefit of Russia and others. In such a milieu, social media warriors working on behalf of Beijing and Moscow generate false and misleading information about various events to sow division along sociopolitical lines, which creates and amplifies grievances by further polarizing societies.
Taking a page from the Russian playbook, China continues punishing Lithuania for withdrawing from the 17+1 diplomatic framework in between Beijing and countries in Central and Eastern Europe, opening representative offices in Taiwan, and allowing a reciprocal “Taiwanese” office in Vilnius to be opened instead of using Beijing’s preferred term of “Taipei.” This has even led China to pressure multinational companies into cutting supply chain links with Lithuania. According to Lithuanian defense officials interviewed in September 2021, the country had previously been subject to an average of about four unique cases of Chinese disinformation attacks per month. However, after the diplomatic scuffle began, Chinese disinformation attacks against Lithuania increased to over one hundred a month. China has roughly one million personnel dedicated to conducting information operations; the United States only has about thirty thousand such personnel. Clearly, China can conduct information and influence campaigns against other countries, particularly in the cyber domain, with a level of intensity, scale, depth, and breadth that the United States and its allies and partners cannot match.
As social media comes to increasingly dominate the daily lives of citizens—TikTok displaced Google as the most visited website in 2021—the data-information sphere occupied by each individual will increasingly construct his or her social and digital reality. Adversarial countries like China and Russia will increasingly leverage such a shift in how the average person interprets reality, both to influence their own populations and to alter and shape foreign audience perceptions. With over 6.6 billion smartphone users globally, this becomes a liability and vulnerability to be exploited for influence in a way that was not possible in the pre-internet age. Such a dependency on connectivity and information, presents a new battlespace arena for adversaries to exploit.
Such developments in the way individuals interact has major ramifications for geopolitical competition. For instance, during the US-led pullout of Afghanistan in August 2021, Moscow touted narratives about how the United States and NATO would abandon Ukraine in the next crisis. According to some Ukrainians interviewed in August 2021, Ukrainian social media was flooded with Russian trolls amplifying these narratives. Shaping the information environment in such a way can slowly alter individual perceptions of reality, and possibly polarize individuals and elected leaders into subscribing to a reality that a foreign power wants them to believe.
Russian Influence Campaigns in Eastern Europe
Since Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, Russia has been attempting to shape the information space in the Baltic region in its favor. For instance, Moscow launched the Baltic Media Alliance in 2005 to serve Russian-speaking populations in the Baltics. Such efforts by Moscow are meant to undermine strategic and defense thinking in each Baltic country—officials interviewed across the Baltics described how much planning has been dedicated to trying to stay ahead of Russian narratives. For instance, one Latvian official admitted in an interview—before the Russian invasion of Ukraine—that Riga could not reintroduce military conscription because Russia held substantial sway (i.e., information control) over Russian-speaking Latvians, who form a quarter of the population.
Once the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Russian dis-, mal-, misinformation campaigns shifted focus from COVID-19 and anti-NATO propaganda against the West to supporting the war efforts in Ukraine. Internally, Moscow advanced narratives in favor of the Russian “special military operation,” and externally, oriented operations against the West and its elected leaders into believing the Ukrainians are corrupt, thuggish Nazis. Interestingly, because resources with which to conduct information operations online are not infinite, the relative emphasis on particular subjects might reflect the priorities of adversarial influence campaigns. In that regard, it is illuminating that researchers noticed a “bot holiday” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when COVID-19 disinformation that had trended on social media since early in the pandemic dropped off. Moreover, Swedish and Finnish officials interviews in September 2022 mentioned anticipation of Russian influence operations against their countries after they announced their intentions of joining NATO, but were surprised by the limited number that took place. That is likely because of a greater Russian interest in the information war surrounding Ukraine—and against any pro-Ukraine sympathizers.
Domestically, Russian leadership seeks to control the information space, ensuring favorable narratives are presented to the population. In part it does this through legal measures—its communications regulator blocking or slowing down Western social media platforms and threatening lawsuits and fines against Western social media companies, for instance. have been implemented in Russia that alter the information landscape. Such tactics have little effect in the international information environment, however, so to advance its influence campaigns globally Moscow leverages those same Western platforms. In addition to the Russian security and intelligence agencies, it is widely known that the Internet Research Agency, often referred to as a troll farm or troll factory, is a private organization with deep Kremlin ties that has supported Russian government information and influence operations. In addition to leveraging social media as an instrument, targeted campaigns take advantage of cultural sensitivities or historical traumas of target populations to create animosity against their own pro-Western governments.
In cases like those of Moldova, Ukraine, or Georgia, the common Soviet past is framed in a positive narrative alongside those that simultaneously seek to intimidate opposition. In former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact members that are now members of the European Union and NATO—Lithuania, Poland, and Romania—the effort is often to portray these countries as US proxies under tight American control. Romania for example, host of a NATO missile defense system at Deveselu military base and the NATO Multinational Division Southeast, is often mentioned when framing NATO as an offensive alliance with military equipment on the “borderlands” of the Russian Federation. This has been an increasingly frequent theme since the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System became operational.
Understanding Russian Logic to Improve Resilience
It is perhaps ironic that Russia employs social media so eagerly for its influence campaigns, given that the Russian security establishment perceives social media as a threatening medium for civil society to organize itself and produce mass protests that could ultimately lead to civil unrest and even regime collapse. Events such as Euromaidan in Ukraine, and particularly the way the protest movement used social media, are viewed as validation of the skewed Russian perspective that social media was conceived in Silicon Valley to collect intelligence against, destabilize, and even remove foreign governments. To some extent, this likely represents a case of mirror-imaging bias among Russian leaders, since meddling in foreign politics and societies—particularly undermining democratic movements or popular uprisings—is a foundational element in Russian irregular warfare. The key point, however, is that Russian skepticism of Western social media platforms notwithstanding, the growth of the internet and the phenomenon of hyperconnectivity have lowered the threshold for Russia (and others) to conduct shaping operations against unsuspecting individuals, both at home and abroad.
Solutions that counter such influence operations in Eastern Europe and in other liberal democracies are not easy. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls on Europe to ban Russian media—“Not a single Russian propaganda-monger should stay on the territory of the EU,” he said, “[and] not a single Russian state TV channel should be allowed to keep working on the territory of the EU”—this is not a reasonable, long-term solution in liberal, democratic societies where free speech is a hallmark. Instead, Western media outlets and political leaders should invest more time in addressing Russian propaganda and influence operations, letting transparency and honesty triumph.
Short- and long-term reforms are needed in the West. This requires substantial political will on the part of elected leaders. First, it requires politicians—on the left and right—to avoid destructive domestic political discourse and conspiracy theories that are created and amplified by social media warriors and bots working on behalf of Beijing and Moscow. Second, civic education and digital literacy should become codified as a pillar of US national security and encouraged among NATO allies. Such templates for digital literacy and resilience could be learned from Sweden’s Total Defence and Finland’s Comprehensive Security concepts. Both countries—soon to be NATO members—uniquely emphasize the value of resilience, psychological defense, preparedness, and strengthening of civil society in support of whole-of-nation civil defense against foreign influence operations meant to weaken the country from within. Third, US leaders should consider the ways that Ukraine’s strategic communications and its Ministry of Digital Transformation have enabled it to sustain internal and external support for repelling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Achieving future success in the next crisis means creating and empowering the right organizations dedicated to digital transformation and strategic communications, ensuring that “integrated deterrence” can actually be achieved via a whole-of-government approach through the information domain. Finally, if using the current model of Ukrainian success against Russia, the United States should similar be identifying opportunities for empowering and encouraging organic counterinfluence operations against China and Russia. The way that “NAFO” has been able to coalesce a global following of netizens in trolling Russia is instructive. It will require a change in the way the US government in particular conceptualizes and responds to risk in the information environment, but the United States and its partners must recognize and take advantage of the value provided by a NAFO-like movement and other global civil society actors. Doing so will be vital to staying left of digital boom to succeed in the next crisis or conflict.
Until the United States and its allies and partners adopt digital countermeasures, China and Russia will keep influencing their own citizens and Western populations in the cyber domain. The “new battlespace“ has arrived—and it means anti-Western regimes will attack civil society via information campaigns meant to divide and polarize target societies, while also weaponizing narratives that generate support for Chinese and Russian actions on the global stage. In digital spaces, the front lines are everywhere and nowhere all at once—and just as much vigilance will be needed in protecting critical infrastructure as is needed in protecting the average citizen. There must be purposeful efforts across the US government and military to generate resilience, proactively shape the information space, and exploit new narratives in adversarial countries.
The United States must excel in the digital age, just as it did in the industrial age. American political and military leaders must integrate sociopolitical-information operations into defensive strategies for the homeland and for achieving success in offensive operations against adversaries beyond North America.
Dr. Olga R. Chiriac is a Black Sea State Department Title VIII research fellow for the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and an associated researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies in Romania. She is an alumna of the Arizona Legislative and Government Internship Program and her research and forthcoming work is on the application of cognitive sciences in security and defense, with a focus on joint special operations and the maritime domain.
Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College and is the fellowship director for the Irregular Warfare Initiative and a DoD Minerva researcher. He is a command pilot that previously served (2018–2022) as an associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the US Air Force Academy. His book, Old and New Battlespaces, describes how adversaries use strategic schismogenesis and employ sociopolitical-information warfare to weaponize everything in society, as every citizen becomes a combatant.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Naval War College.
Image credit: Tracy Le Blanc (adapted by MWI)