Editor’s note: This article is the fifth in a series, “Full-Spectrum: Capabilities and Authorities in Cyber and the Information Environment.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competition with peer and near-peer competitors in the cyber and information spaces. Read all articles in the series here.

Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD of the Army Cyber Institute and MWI fellow Dr. Barnett S. Koven.

The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.

General Valery Gerasimov

After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and amid the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine many Western policymakers, military leaders, and scholars argued that the world was witnessing the re-emergence of an aggressive Russia and the application of its new strategy. Without a deep knowledge of Russian military doctrine, they started calling the Russian approach hybrid warfare. The operations in Ukraine and Syria showed that the Russian concept is highly adaptable and includes military and nonmilitary instruments tailored to a given theater’s strategic necessities. However, as one of the authors has written, Western concepts lack a proper framework to characterize the Russian approach to conflict. We argue that although the conventional military threat posed by Russia remains quite real, its strategy toward the West seeks to achieve its political aims through the use of influence operations and the exploitation of cyberspace while remaining below the threshold of armed confrontation. The challenge presented by Russia’s strategic ambitions and its willingness to aggressively challenge the current world order using its New Generation Warfare concept (alongside a similar Chinese approach, so called Unrestricted Warfare) has returned the world to an era of great power competition.

While the 2018 US National Security Strategy and the NATO 2030 strategic concept clearly recognize that the West is, and will be, in a perpetual competition with near-peer competitors for decades to come, some critics argue that neither the US government nor its allies and partners are paying sufficient attention to the focal points of their competitors’ strategies: information operations and malicious exploitation of the cyber domain. Despite recent steps taken by the US Department of Defense and various NATO bodies, the overwhelming focus of Western strategy remains building a more lethal, kinetic force. This article leverages analysis of US and Russian competition in the Baltic states in order to assess the relative efficacy of these distinct approaches.

Kinetic Approaches in the Baltics

Since regaining their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 the three Baltic states—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—have been under constant Russian pressure. One way this pressure has manifested itself is through the conventional military threat, punctuated by ceaseless airspace violations by Russian military aircraft, unannounced, large-scale military exercises along their borders, and the general disposition of Russia’s military forces in its westernmost military district. To assess the seriousness of the conventional military threat and to explore the likely outcome of a Russian invasion of the three Baltic states, a series of wargames were conducted in 2014 and 2015. The results of these exercises showed that, given the military capabilities of the Baltic states and NATO’s force posture at the time, Russian forces could overrun the Baltic States in thirty-six to sixty hours. Moreover, effectively deterring a Russian conventional attack would require permanent deployment to the Baltics of at least seven NATO brigades, including three heavy brigades, as well as appropriate air support and other enablers. Although the design of these wargames had many limitations, including faulty assumptions, ignorance of the terrain, and exclusion of newly developed capabilities, their results seem to justify the current Western strategic approach and its continued focus on conventional kinetic capabilities.

Accordingly, NATO has deployed a multinational battalion battle group to each Baltic state and Poland as part of its NATO Enhanced Forward Presence concept and boosted the capabilities and readiness levels of the NATO Response Force, and the United States has unilaterally forward deployed heavy forces into the region on a rotational basis. For their part, the Baltic states have significantly increased defense spending and adopted new, total defense strategies that emphasize, whole-of-society resistance against any Russian military incursion. These decisions have fundamentally shifted the strategic landscape in the region, such that the probability of the Baltic states becoming targets of Russian conventional military action has become very small. Beyond the suboptimal strategic landscape for pursuing traditional military action, additional factors suggest that Russia has switched its attention toward more novel approaches when it comes to the Baltic states.

Russia’s New Approach to Conflict

Following the end of the Cold War, Russia faced significant resource constraints, limiting its ability to maintain its military research and development competition with the United States and the West. Despite limited resources, Russia’s global ambitions did not diminish.

While Russia’s political elites seemingly gave up on the idea of re-creating the Soviet Union by force, they never abandoned the goal of reinvigorating Russia’s status as a global power. To achieve this goal Russia has been challenging American unilateralism, trying to establish spheres of influence, creating strategic depth, and changing current global security and defense frameworks through the application of political, economic, cultural, psychological, and other nonkinetic tools. The newfound emphasis on asymmetric approaches to competition is the result of a long process.

During the 1990s, Russian experts spent more time and effort on developing alternative concepts, including their theory of information operations, than their Western peers. However, Western doctrine, especially American military doctrine, continued to shape the general direction of Russian military thinking. As a result, three distinct waves of Russian military literature emerged, detailing its approach to conflict. American literature on low-intensity conflicts and Russian observations of the same phenomena influenced the way that the Russian military literature analyzed conflict through the mid-1990s. These factors shaped the Russian view of how to conduct operations below the threshold of conventional armed conflict. From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, the principles and lessons of Operation Desert Storm and NATO’s air campaign in Yugoslavia inspired Russian military strategists, notably Major General Vladimir Slipchenko’s theory of Sixth Generation Warfare or “Contactless War.” Ultimately, the observation of Western conventional forces’ technological overmatch and their ability to destroy enemy targets from great distances with highly precise weapons in these conflicts made Russian strategists realize that it would be extremely difficult to overcome such advantages through conventional means, Consequently, attention was redirected toward unconventional thinking and concepts. In the 2000s, American network-centric warfare doctrine inspired similar developments in Russian military thinking. Starting in 2008, Russian military experts, most notably Sergey Chekinov and Sergey Bogdanov, amalgamated these concepts into a single approach: New Generation Warfare (NGW). As a concept, NGW approaches conflict as a continuum with varying intensity and changing centers of gravity. The shaping of the operational environment, the creation of favorable conditions, and preparations for conventional war are viewed as forever ongoing efforts. Continuous activities are executed to weaken, isolate, and destabilize target societies followed by more conventional military actions if necessary. Russian operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine relied heavily on the basic principles of NGW. Starting in 2016, Russian military strategists adopted the term “hybrid warfare” to refer to the instigation of color revolutions and employment of political warfare by the West, especially the United States. In other words, Russia does not engage in hybrid warfare, but the West does.

Influence, psychological, and information operations have been part of Russian doctrine since the early days of the Soviet Union, but historically they have been relegated to supporting roles. Recent Russian military thinking has observed that nonkinetic instruments will become dominant in future warfare. This realization is now clearly reflected in most current Russian policy and doctrinal documents. In the United States, Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations presents a single, overarching information operations doctrine. No Russian parallel exists. Yet, Russia’s 2000 information security doctrine, 2011 cyber warfare strategy, and 2014 military doctrine all discuss aspects of the goals, importance, nature, and characteristics of information operations and how they might fit into overarching Russian strategic thinking. The objectives of Russian information operations have been summarized as being to disorganize (disrupt) key military, industrial, and administrative capabilities in target states, as well as to bring informational-psychological pressure to bear on the adversary through the use of state-of-the-art information technologies and assets including sophisticated computer programs, nuclear technology, and social media bots. As Stephen Blank observed, while Russian and Western tools for information operations are similar, their employment varies considerably. In particular, Russia, to a much greater extent, sees information operations playing a leading role in its confrontation with the West. Concomitantly, it routinely employs a strategically planned onslaught of disinformation and propaganda designed to manipulate public opinion in target states.

Russian Information Operations in the Baltics

The strategic goal of Russian information operations in the Baltic states is to create distance between the Baltics and the West. The Russian concept is rooted in the idea that democratic societies are vulnerable to political manipulation, and exploiting this perceived weakness is far less costly than pursuing annexation or occupation. Consequently, Russian information operations in the Baltics focus on nine objectives:

  1. Encourage and support armed actions by separatist groups with the objective of promoting chaos and territorial disintegration;
  2. Increase polarization between elites and society to foment a crisis of values followed by a process of orientation toward Russian values;
  3. Demoralize the military and otherwise attrit resolve;
  4. Undermine socioeconomic stability;
  5. Engender sociopolitical crisis;
  6. Intensify simultaneous forms and models of psychological warfare to demoralize the Baltic states’ armed forces and population and break their resolve;
  7. Incite mass panic and degrade confidence in key government institutions;
  8. Defame political leaders not aligned with Russian interests; and
  9. Undermine international alliances and partnerships.

This approach seeks to achieve Russia’s desired strategic ends in the Baltics through influence operations rather than conventional kinetic means. This approach leverages Soviet-era thinking on reflexive control. Specifically, Russia must obtain a detailed understanding of extant fissures in Baltic societies and use this knowledge to convey “to an opponent specifically prepared information to incline him/her to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by” Russia. Recognizing resistance to deeper ties with Russia in the Baltic states, Russia has opted to diversify its messaging beyond simply pro-Russia and pro-Eurasia content. Instead, content attempts to convince members of the population that their countries’ current alignment with the West, embrace of democracy, and membership in NATO and the EU are in some way deleterious. These information campaigns often seek to highlight how the innate moral values of Baltic populations are inherently different from Western values (and not coincidentally more similar to the traditional values championed by Russia). Russian and local-language traditional media, as well as social media and the internet, are heavily leveraged by Russia toward this end. The main narratives broadcast through these channels include arguments that:

  • Russian-speaking minorities are marginalized and treated unfairly by the government;
  • The Baltic states are weak states where corruption is widespread;
  • EU membership resulted in economic and social underdevelopment of Baltic states, which should therefore follow their own path without foreign interference;
  • EU membership is equivalent to being in the Soviet Union;
  • NATO membership decreases the overall level of security because of possible Russian countermeasures;
  • Western values are corrupted, and tolerance toward homosexuals and other minorities reveals the West’s moral repudiation of traditional family values; and
  • There is no real democracy in the West, where politicians are puppets controlled by the financial system to work against the real interests of the population.

Alongside these arguments, fascism is also glorified in the Baltics states. Some concrete examples of these arguments being put to use include, but are not limited to:

Rather than pursue occupation or annexation, Russian information operations seek to manipulate Baltic populations into electing local populist leaders that either distance the Baltics from the West or pursue closer relations with Russia. This approach is broadly applicable beyond the Baltic states.

Great power competition is here to stay. Although this competition is between major powers, its primary manifestations will continue to occur in small countries of strategically important regions. Moreover, there exist major conceptual differences between the United States and its competitors when it comes to competition tactics. While the United States remains focused on building a more lethal conventional force, its competitors, and especially Russia, have emphasized weaponizing information to achieve their desired end states without firing a shot.

We do not argue against maintaining the West’s kinetic capabilities and heightened readiness, but the focus on conventional military power must be complemented with investments that enable the West to also effectively compete with Russia far left of any kinetic conflict. Even though the West has devoted efforts toward integrating operations across all domains (to include information and cyber) during kinetic engagements, it has not made nearly the same progress with respect to developing approaches for employing information operations during nonkinetic phases of competition. Continued failure to do so will enable Russia to achieve strategic objectives in the Baltics (and elsewhere) before the West has an opportunity to engage militarily. In short, a rebalancing between building a more lethal kinetic force for armed conflict and developing a comprehensive strategy and effective toolbox for information operations and other nonkinetic forms of competition is critically needed.

Dr. Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with more than twenty years of military experience. Dr. Fabian is a research associate at the University of Central Florida and a curriculum developer and team leader at LEIDOS. Dr. Fabian’s research has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, Defence Studies, Defense & Security Analysis, Special Operations Journal, Combating Terrorism Exchange, Florida Political Chronicle, and the Hungarian Seregszemle journal.

Dr. Janis Berzins is the director of the Center for Security and Strategic Research at the National Defense Academy of Latvia, a non-resident research fellow and senior advisor at the Swedish Defence University, and a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of New Generation Warfare. Dr. Berzins research focuses on the juxtaposition between the theoretical developments of Russian military thought and the operational reality on the ground.

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.

Image credit: kremlin.ru