1. Shape perceptions to advance specific foreign policy aims

 2. Shape perceptions to advance Russia’s broader worldview and interests

3. Sow confusion and mistrust. Specific supporting objectives related to each are described in what follows.

Strategic Objective 1. Shape Perceptions to Advance Specific Foreign Policy Aims

One objective behind Russia’s malign or subversive information efforts is to advance its foreign policy aims in connection with specific near-term developments or outcomes. Whether the foreign policy aim at stake is broadly defined, such as enhancing Russia’s status and power, or narrowly defined, such as stemming the expansion of NATO or advancing a favorable resolution of an armed conflict, Russia’s interests are affected by a range of developments and outcomes within other countries and the international arena

Thus, some of Russia’s information efforts seek to shape perceptions of target audiences so as to influence specific outcomes in the near term, such as decisions and actions pursued by actors outside Russia. This objective may be understood as encompassing several distinct and more specific objectives, described below.

1.a. Influence Behavior or Decisionmaking of Other Countries and/or International Organizations with Regard to Specific Matters That Implicate Russia’s Interests. The decisions made by other states, international organizations, and publics can directly and indirectly affect Russian foreign policy interests. For instance, Russia would favor the election of policymakers who support policies in line with specific Russian interests, such as the lifting of sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia’s role in the Ukrainian conflict or construction of pipelines lobbied for by Russia. Thus, Russia and its agents have deployed subversive information efforts in support of candidates in elections who favor the lifting of sanctions, as was the case with the campaign against Emmanuel Macron in favor of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election.

1.b. In the Context of Conventional Conflict, Shape the Environment to Complement/Facilitate Activities of Russian Forces, or Prevent the Need for Conventional Forces.

While many recently observed Russian information efforts have taken place during peacetime, Russia also uses information efforts as part of its military operations. Russia’s use of information efforts during its annexation of Crimea and invasion into Eastern Ukraine served a dual goal. First, Russia and its agents used intensive information efforts to set their own narrative about the causes and nature of the conflict as well as Russia’s involvement. For instance, Russian officials and media sought to shape the narrative of reporting on their state’s annexation of Crimea by denying the presence of Russian troops on the peninsula, among other things. Once Moscow acknowledged its involvement, its information efforts propagated the narrative that it was necessary to protect Russians and Russian-speakers from Kyiv-aligned Fascists. Second, the information mation efforts also facilitated the military operation itself, by creating a “smokescreen” intended to “deceive, delay, and disrupt.”

1.c. Shape Global Perceptions of Russia in Connection with Discrete Events or Matters Implicating Russia.

Russia and its agents undertake information efforts to deflect criticism or defend the country in instances where the Russian state is accused of wrongdoing or is implicated in events that reflect poorly on Moscow. For instance, Russia and its agents launched information efforts in response to accusations by the United Kingdom (UK) and the West that the 2018 poisoning of former KGB agent Sergei Skripal was directed by the Kremlin in retaliation for the international attribution of responsibility to Russia for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17).7 This objective is usefully seen as distinct from Russian efforts to shape global perceptions of itself more broadly, which is addressed below

Strategic Objective 2. Shape Perceptions to Advance Russia’s Broader Worldview and Interests

Russian information efforts also appear to be aimed at advancing Russia’s broader worldview and interests in the longer term, which are not tied to any particular developments or outcomes in the near term. Although Russia appears to have abandoned Soviet-era efforts to spread an ideology, it is still quite interested in popularizing its worldview and raising its esteem in the eyes of international audiences. Russia’s information efforts are based on Russia’s standoff with the Western world; thus, the worldviews and interests that Russia and its agents seek to advance are defined by opposition to certain aspects of the Western worldview and interests. Keir Giles, an expert on Russian information operations, aptly describes a similar subset of information efforts in terms of a “broad-based, long-term weakening and undermining of adversary societies overall, without necessarily any specific short-term goal other than increasing Russia’s relative strength in a classic zero-sum approach.” This objective encompasses more specific objectives.

2.a. Shape Global Perceptions of the West and United States

Conveying and reinforcing a negative image of the West and the United States is one specific objective that falls within the larger, strategic objective of shaping perceptions. In particular, Russia’s interest appears to be to diminish perceptions of the normative authority of the West, emphasizing the West’s decline, corruption, and moral bankruptcy. For instance, expert Constanze Stelzenmüller notes that content produced by Russian state media targeting Germany’s Russian-German audience has “for years . . . been waging a relentless campaign against a ‘Gayropa’ of extreme liberal values and overrun by swarthy Muslim migrants, and other tropes of a decadent West.”Similarly, Russia seeks to paint the West as an aggressive force that violates sovereignty and imposes its will through the intrusion into states’ domestic affairs. For example, Russia and its agents have consistently spread the message that the United States and the West instigated the Arab Spring to overthrow regimes displeasing to the West.

2.b. Shape Global Perceptions of Russia Broadly

A corollary objective appears to involve the portrayal of Russia as a positive counterforce to the West. Russia positions itself as a defender of conservative values and as a moral force that resists Western decay as a result of its liberal values. Vladimir Putin and Kremlin ideologues publicly announced Russia to be the leader of traditional values in 2013, a message Russia’s agents have perpetuated since. At the same time, Russia portrays itself as a force for stability in the world and a defender of international legal norms that it claims are under attack by the United States and the West, such as sovereignty and noninterference in other states’ domestic political affairs. For instance, Russian sources seek to advance a perception that Russia is the only international player interested in bringing peace to Syria, while the United States is only emboldening or helping ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

2.c. Undermine the Unity of the West and Western Institutions.  

In Russia’s worldview, the expansion of the reach of Western institutions comes at the expense of Russia’s own influence. Thus, Russia and its agents appear to use information efforts to undermine such institutional expansion and to emphasize fissures within the Western world. As Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former head of NATO and prime minister of Denmark, summarized it, Russia’s objective is to “undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.” For example, as some evidence suggests, Russia and its agents conducted malign information efforts in support of the UK referendum to leave the European Union (EU; Brexit). Similarly, Russian information efforts sought to create a perception that the Dutch population would likewise prefer to leave the EU, using manipulated polling. Western institutions also include core democratic institutions, and Russian information efforts have apparently sought to foster a lack of trust in basic democratic institutions. According to some high-level assessments of Russian goals, some of Russia’s information campaigns surrounding elections were motived by the aims of “delegitimizing the democratic process,” rather than, or in addition to, supporting or hindering some candidate or political force.

2.d. Undermine National Cohesion of Other Countries

Similarly, the internal unity and cohesion of individual members of the West make for a more effective and cohesive alliance. Thus, Russia and its agents also appear to use information efforts to magnify economic, social, political, and cultural divisions and sources of internal instability within Western countries. For example, Russia and its agents appear to seize on secessionist movements, as in the case of Catalonia’s push for independence: Russia has little strategic interest in Catalonia as such, but appears to have actively sought to inflame the division over the issue of Catalan independence through social media–focused information efforts. Such efforts extend to both “core” members, or countries that Russia views as more or less firmly integrated into the West, and more recent joiners of Western institutions, whose loyalties and alignment Russia views as more or less susceptible to influence.


Strategic Objective 3 . Sow Confusion and Mistrust

Sowing confusion and mistrust seems to be both an objective animating Russian information efforts and a tactic employed in service of other objectives. Numerous experts and government officials conclude that an attempt to establish confusion, chaos, uncertainty, and mistrust in the possibility of truth is a Russian objective in its own right. In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born journalist and author, “it’s not so much an information war, but a war on information.” Thus, we treat this as a distinct objective while recognizing that it will sometimes be used as a means in service of other objectives.

3.a. Undermine Belief in the Existence of Truth or Facts

A key way in which the strategic objective manifests itself is through an apparent Russian purpose to foster a sense that truth or facts are unascertainable through available means or simply do not exist. In other words, Russian information efforts attempt to establish doubt in the existence of truth, and instead reinforce the idea that only various agenda-driven versions of events exist. As Russia expert Mark Galeotti puts it, “The next best thing to being able to convince people of your argument, after all, is to make them disbelieve all arguments.” This aim is pursued through the undermining of trust toward established media and information sources, and through a creation of an “‘information fog’ that undermines the ability of societies to establish a factual reality,” in the words of Janis Sarts, director of NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. The fact that Russia and its agents often produce and disseminate contradictory narratives for the same event—as it has done with the downing of MH-17, the Skripal poisoning, and the chemical attacks in Douma—is often cited as evidence for this objective.

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