Klaus Vedfelt

The US Must Turn the Tables on Russia’s Psyops

A post-Cold War fixation on hard power has sapped us of the 21st century’s most potent force.

Andrei Ilnitsky, an advisor to the Russian defense minister, maintains that the U.S. is waging a “psychological war” against Russia. If only. 

Since the Cold War, America’s use of psychological operations, or psyops, has deteriorated amid a fixation on hard power. Russia, meanwhile, has achieved its greatest successes through psychological warfare. It is long past time for the U.S. military to catch up, update its psyops against Russia for the 21st century, and revive its once-robust tradition of winning hearts and minds.

Moscow’s fixation on psyops stems in large part from its perceptions of the role that America’s soft power played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They’re right: Psychological warfare, often executed through the spread of American culture across Communist borders, incited dissent in Eastern Europe. During that era, the CIA understood that the best way to combat Soviet influence was through the proliferation of information and culture that worked to counter communist objectives. Most of us who lived in Eastern Europe understand the tremendous clout that American jazz and rock’n’roll, Hollywood films, and modern art had on our worldviews and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Vladimir Putin remembers. Soon after he came to power, his government introduced its first information security doctrine. Soon after that, he launched an information offensive aimed at gaining “reflexive control” of American society. “Reflexive control” is an old Soviet concept, foreign to most Americans: interfering in another country’s decision-making until the government is compelled to take actions in Russia’s interest. This proceeds through “massive psychological manipulation of the population to destabilize the state and society,” in the words of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, for whom the rise of social media has been a tool of inestimable potency. 

The revanchist Kremlin has worked hard to exploit America’s polarization along political and racial lines, aiming to paralyze U.S. politics and decision-making processes. In so doing, Russia hopes that America’s decision-makers will spend time, energy, and resources in ways that benefit the Kremlin.

By creating “information operations forces” in 2017 and devoting more resources to the Internet Research Agency (also known as the Kremlin’s troll factory), Russia has created a robust information warfare machine. Russian state media, trolls, and online proxies exploit disagreements over social issues like abortion, gun control, ethnic groups and police discrimination to incite social chaos in the United States. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, “propaganda should be smart, competent and effective” in its attempts to sow discord and division.

It is high time that Washington fights back. For better or worse, the best way to neutralize Russia’s efforts is to beat it at its own psyops game, impose “reflexive control” on Russia, and compel the Kremlin to act in line with American interests. Of course, adopting Russian manipulative tactics may not sit well with most Americans. But unlike Russia’s campaigns of disinformation and division, our information psyops need only promote the universal values of liberalism, rule of law, and democracy. 

Conveniently enough, the Kremlin’s weak spot is the Russian people’s desire for a more open society. A recent poll suggests that nearly half of young Russians disapprove of Vladimir Putin. Russia has the most internet users in Europe, and many of its younger users are ignoring state-sponsored broadcasting, instead relying on social media platforms for their information. As young Russians seek greater freedoms and liberties, Putin grows increasingly terrified of a color revolution that would strip him of his power.

He also acknowledges, if indirectly, his vulnerability to U.S. psyops. A close reading of the 2016 version of Russia’s information security doctrine reveals a sense of vulnerability to “information and psychological actions” against its own population. “There is a growing information pressure on the population of Russia, primarily on the Russian youth, with the aim to erode Russian traditional spiritual and moral values,” it says. This year’s update to Russia’s National Security Strategy declares that the country’s “cultural sovereignty” and “traditional spiritual-moral values”  are under “active attack from the U.S. and its allies.”

The United States must update its own psyops capabilities for this new campaign. Cold War-style leaflets and Radio Free Europe will no longer cut it. National security agencies should replace dated TV and radio tactics with social media and internet-savvy alternatives. U.S. psyops units must collaborate closely with information operations and cyber units. 

As Putin continues to defend traditional values in Russia, the U.S. might invest in a group of Russian-speaking social media influencers (much as the CIA created the image of a modern artist Jackson Pollock during the Cold War) to promote liberal values and freedoms to young Russians. The U.S. should also provide online platforms to young Russian artists who have been silenced by the Kremlin.

Rather than continuing to allow Russia exploit an asymmetric psychological warfare competition, the United States needs to make Putin understand that if his regime continues to peddle instability and division, two can play at that game.