Russia, more than any other actor, has devised a way to integrate cyber operations into a strategy capable of achieving political objectives. Russia’s approach in its power struggle with NATO and the West is based on the acknowledgment that it cannot match the military power of NATO. Strategic advantages must, therefore, be achieved without provoking an armed response from the alliance. A core element of Russian security policy is the foundation that conflicts between developed nations must remain below the threshold of armed conflict, or at least below the threshold where it is proclaimed to be an armed conflict. The Gerasimov doctrine (Russian non-linear war) exemplifies this strategy. It posits, “The political and strategic goals have grown, and, in many cases, have exceed the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” It necessitates an increased dependency on the information domain. In the Russian view, information warfare is conducted in peacetime, in the prelude to war and in wartime in a coherent manner.

Digital Maskirovka
While all militaries seek to misdirect enemies, Russia’s military doctrine of deception, the maskirovka, Russian for “masking” or “camouflage,” is a cornerstone of the Russian military and intelligence mindset. With maskirovka, the fog of war is not merely the natural byproduct of combat but a deliberately manufactured feature of military operations intended to increase ambiguity and indecision in opposing forces. Using decoys, clandestine actions, and disinformation, maskirovka facilitates military resilience, increases the effectiveness of surprise actions, and increases doubt in an adversary while concealing Russian weaknesses[44].

The tools of maskirovka broadly include psychological operations, manipulation of media, disinformation and propaganda, electronic and cyber warfare, irregular forces not in uniform, private military contractors, and proxies and physical deception through the camouflaged military maneuver. The modern maskirovka occurs at the seams of conventional conflict – the gray zone between peace and war [44].

Old-school tactics include decoys such as dummy tanks used by the Serbian military during the NATO air campaign in Kosovo in 1999; confusing demonstrations of capability, such as the Zapad wargame; occasional “buzzing” of U.S. naval vessels or near contested borders to determine response protocols; deployment of “patriotic” or “volunteer” unconventional forces, such as the “little green men” deployed to annex Crimea in 2014; the clandestine delivery of military supplies camouflaged as humanitarian convoys to support proxy and covert forces; or incessant denial of military presence or disingenuous narratives behind military operations, such as acting as peacekeeping forces to protect ethnic and expatriate Russians [44].

Offensive cyber and electronic warfare capabilities enable Russia to distill doubt into their enemy’s faith in digital systems. Fake command and control facilities emit false radio frequency signals to deceive enemy intelligence assets while manipulating or jamming radio frequency or GPS signals that could undermine a military commander’s faith in the accuracy of precision-guided munitions. With modern communications technology, automated bots on social media platforms amplify targeted disinformation to both divide populations and entice susceptible groups to favor Russian-produced narratives. State-sponsored media – such as RT and Sputnik – can guide the conversation and help legitimize Kremlin propaganda. Open source outlets can counter the Kremlin’s disinformation and potentially cause unexpected political backlash. Countering the narrative successfully requires a swift and agile reaction, however [44].

Maskirovka creates uncertainty and plausible deniability regarding Russian responsibility for operations, dulling the West’s response. This has helped the Kremlin sidestep international norms without significant repercussions. Because Russian “patriotic hackers” executed the electronic denial of service attacks against Estonia – a NATO member – in 2007, Russia maintained plausible deniability, complicating Estonia and its allies’ ability to retaliate. The disinformation campaign and troop buildup near South Ossetia ahead of the 2008 invasion of Georgia (repeated before the 2014 annexation of Crimea) allegedly involved Russian special operations forces with no insignia identifying them as Russian military, later dubbed “little green men.” Maskirovka goes beyond fostering doubt and presenting an alternative, engineered narrative. Russia has used it to accomplish geostrategic objectives under the guise of international cooperation. Perhaps the most prominent example is Russia’s positioning itself as a counterterrorism partner in Syria – and Libya to a lesser extent – as it seeks to extend its global influence to the Middle East. Russia acts as a strategic ally to the international community in the war against ISIS, a possible foundation for the alleviation of sanctions initially imposed on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea. Its goal in the country, however, has been to bolster the Assad regime and degrade the Western-backed opposition so that it cannot create a pro-U.S. government in Syria. “In 2015, Russia began a military intervention in Syria claiming it was waging war on ISIS and international terrorism,” Ted Poe (R-TX) said at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing titled “Russia: Counterterrorism Partner or Fanning the Flames?” He continued, “To some, this was welcome news. It seemed that there might be a rare moment that the cooperation between the former Cold War foes – Moscow and Washington—would be able to work together to combat terrorism. This was fantasy.” [44].

The Internet Research Agency
One division of Russian influence is the Internet Research Agency, a collection of government-employed online trolls directed to spread propaganda, incite divisions in foreign communities, and otherwise sow chaos and destabilize democratic platforms. The secretive firm is bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is a dubbed “chef ” to Putin by the Russian press, and he is part of the Kremlin’s inner circles. His company is believed to be the main backer of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in December of 2016 for providing financial support for Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine. Two of his companies, including his catering business, were also sanctioned by the Treasury this year [45].

The Internet Research Agency was based at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg before it officially ceased operations on December 28, 2016. However, Its work continues at a currently undisclosed location, however. It is believed that they change position every year or two. The director general of another company at 55 Savushkina Street is Glavset, the same name as the boss of IRA and a former regional police chief in St. Petersburg [45].

The official description of the business is “creation and use of databases and information resources” as well as the “development of computer software, advertising services, and information placement services.” It is believed that it may acquire short-term staff from, a headhunting site. One post looking for a copywriter stated that the job involved “writing diverse texts for the internet and content for social networks.” The posting offered a monthly salary of 30,000 rubles (then a little over $500) and required no prior experience. It proffered work with a team of “young and enthusiastic colleagues” in “a comfortable and stylish office.” Reports from former “trolls” said that around 1,000 people work from Savushkina Street alone and that the employees are not even permitted to speak to one another. Recruits were instructed to watch Netflix’s “House of Cards” to improve their English and gain a basic understanding of American politics. Online, they were encouraged to incite disputes and target controversial issues. According to an employee training manual, “There was a goal – to influence opinions, to lead to a discussion…. It was necessary to know all the main problems of the United States of America. Tax problems, the problem of gays, sexual minorities, weapons.” The monthly budget for IRA exceeded $1 million in 2013 — split between departments that included operations and social media campaigns in Russian and English languages. The “Department of Provocations” offers this mission: “How do we create news items to achieve our goals?” [45].

According to a former troll, who went by the name “Maxim” in an interview with the independent Russian news outlet Dozhd, the secretive factory had several components, including a “Russian desk,” a “foreign desk,” a “Facebook desk,” and a “Department of Provocations.” Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Russian desk operated bots and trolls that used fake social media accounts to flood the internet with pro-Trump messages and false news. Nearly a third of the company’s staff focused on disrupting the 2016 U.S. political conversation, according to reports by the Russian news outlet RBC and another Russian news outlet, Meduza [45].

The foreign desk was more sophisticated than other divisions; trolls were required to learn the nuances of American politics to best “rock the boat” on divisive issues. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government,” Maxim said, “to provoke unrest and discontent.” The foreign desk had a more sophisticated purpose. According to Maxim, who worked in that department, “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They’ll even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff.” In fact, those who worked for the foreign desk were restricted from spreading pro-Russia propaganda. Rather, their job was more qualitative and geared toward understanding the nuances of American politics to rock the boat on divisive issues like gun control and LGBT rights. “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he added. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.” An entire department, the “Department of Provocations,” was dedicated to that goal. Its primary objective was to disseminate fake news and sow discord in the West. A Columbia University social media analyst published research that found that Russian propaganda may have been shared billions of times on Facebook alone. The troll farm also had its own “Facebook desk,” whose function was to push back relentlessly against the platform’s administrators who deleted fake accounts as they began gaining traction. When Internet Research Agency employees argued against having their accounts deleted, Facebook staffers responded, “You are trolls.” The trolls would then invoke the First Amendment right to free speech. Occasionally, they won the arguments. In addition to spreading fake news, Russian Facebook accounts went one step further by organizing events, rallies, and protests, some of which galvanized dozens of people. The Internet Research Agency digitally hired 100 American activists to launch 40 rallies across different US cities. According to an RBC investigation, those people remained unaware that they were working for a Russian organization [46].

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