People watch a broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 question-and-answer session on a laptop in a car.

People watch a broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 question-and-answer session on a laptop in a car. SERGEI MALGAVKO\TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Information Warfare Looms Larger in Russia’s New Security Strategy

Kremlin’s first update in six years decries foreign influence, calls for more Russian info ops.

The Russian government sees itself as increasingly vulnerable to foreign and domestic subversion, according to a July 3 update to the Kremlin’s 2015 national security strategy, and is moving to shield Russian citizens from outside voices and improve its influence-warfare capabilities. 

“A notable change from 2015 is the greatly expanded definition of subversion, including a long list of behavior by non-state actors that are said to be undermining Russian values and the stability of the state,” Dartmouth professor William Wohlforth said in an interview. 

These include also humanitarian organizations like Human Rights Watch and Western tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. 

The new document expresses concern over Western governments’ manipulation of Russian affairs. “The declaration of a ‘safe information space’ as a core national interest underscores the importance of information war to the Russian government,”  said Ivana Stradner, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in law, Eastern Europe and hybrid warfare. “This is a continuation of the Russian government’s pathological self-victimhood. These claims, like Russia’s threats to ban Twitter this past spring, are aimed at bolstering Russian claims of ‘digital sovereignty’ through which President Vladimir Putin believes he can stave off the types of ‘color revolutions’ that have toppled other dictators in post-Soviet nations.”

That’s not necessarily new, even if it is new to this document, said Samuel Bendett, a CNA adviser who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“Russia sees itself as a target of persistent and ongoing information operations by the West against Russian Federation targets like the military and security organizations, along with critical infrastructure. This new national security strategy officially elevates these information and cyber threats to the level of an existential challenge to Russia’s long-term survival,” Bendett said.

The strategy isn’t just bad news for non-governmental organizations. It also pushes for Russia to engage other countries to partner with Russia on “cybersecurity” issues according to Russia’s definition of cyber security. 

“This is significant because Russia has already been using UN subcommittees to frustrate U.S. efforts to develop a cybercrime treaty,” Stradner said. “Russia even managed to beat out the U.S. for the UN’s approval to draft a global cybercrime treaty.” She called it “part of Russia’s broader revanchist strategy to use international organizations to regain its Soviet-era prestige and power.”

Russia scholar Mark Galeotti described the strategy as “paranoid,” particularly in the way it describes Russian “traditional values” as under constant threat from the West. 

“Let’s put aside just what ‘traditional Russian values’ may be—would they include serfdom, the knout and the terem (the social exclusion of women)?” Galeotti wrote in the Moscow Times. “Let’s put aside the slight of pen that manages to lump the State Department, al Qaeda, Human Rights Watch, and Facebook in the same array of hostile forces. This in effect reclassifies the modern world and all the social and economic revolutions that are reshaping it as a threat.”

The strategy document suggests a growing role for Russian intelligence services like the FSB and the SVR in addition to the information arms of the GRU, all entities that have carried out advanced information warfare operations against Western targets. In essence the document serves as a mandate to expand their activities (Russia has denied evidence-based allegations about its role in cyber operations.)

“We can expect this [new strategy] to manifest in the foreign development of intelligence missions similar to the Internet Research Agency, which has been linked to multiple meddling operations across the West,” Stradner said. 

The strategy release was delayed, likely due to the U.S. presidential election, since the outcome of the election would directly affect Russian strategy, according to a brief by intel firm Intelligence Online. The Biden administration has been pressing the Kremlin to curb Russian ransomware hackers who have struck Western targets from within Russian borders or nearby friendly states. 

“You could say some of the sections [of the strategy] are setting up a rhetorical trap for Moscow,” Wohlforth said. “After all, if all these actions by multinational corporations, NGOs and the like are seen as subversive threats to Russia, what are we to say about ransomware hackers operating on Russian territory?”