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Trump, Putin and information warfare

Trump, Putin and information warfare
Published 27 Jul 2016   Follow @matthew_sussex

The recent DNC hack, which led to the leaking of emails purporting to show favouritism towards Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, is another example of the arms race moving into cyberspace. It has also sparked a frenzied hunt for the perpetrator, with Russia the most logical candidate. Undermining Clinton’s bid for the White House — or so the story goes — will assist Donald Trump, who is more likely to be sympathetic to Russian interests.

There are a number of reasons why this story is significant, although the ability of states, groups and individuals to steal and leak sensitive electronic information isn’t one of them. Rather, it’s the implications or effects of those capabilities that matter. Cyber-security was recognised as a major threat long before Wikileaks. But the digital era means that the overall challenges faced by security professionals, industry and individual citizens are now indivisible, even if the types of risks might differ. In other words, what can be personally damaging can also be politically damaging, and damaging to national security as well.

A more immediate question, though, is what Putin stands to gain from a Trump presidency. Here we might identify a variety of answers. Some of them are quite reasonable. Others remain possible, but are more speculative.

The first has to do with Russia’s geopolitical and geo-economic interests. During the Cold War, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher saw in Mikhail Gorbachev someone the West could do business with. Putin has a similar perspective on Trump. The Republican presidential nominee is not Putin's ally by any means, but he is a populist who has risen at a time when Russia needs to break out of its (largely self-imposed) isolation. Moreover, Trump regularly pays Putin personal compliments, and has stated that NATO might not get involved in any potential conflict with Russia over the Baltics.

Trump’s anti-immigration line, his muscular stance on ISIS, and his penchant for ‘simple’ solutions mean Russian audiences find him infinitely easier to relate to than Clinton or Obama. And while much of the Western media focus has been on Trump’s ability to stir up xenophobia, the Trump trade agenda is actually far to the left of the Democrats. A protectionist Trump presidency would seek to reverse the course of global trade liberalisation that has been the centrepiece of US foreign economic policy for decades. And his determination to seek a new deal for US allies, based on the view that if nations want US protection then they should pay for it, would result in hard choices across the global network of American security partners.

In other words, Trump would suit Russian strategic priorities very nicely. He would wind back open markets, which Moscow (and Beijing, for that matter) see as powerful instruments of Western hegemony. He would renegotiate US alliances, weakening them at a time when many analysts argue they need to be strengthened. And he would push a neo-isolationist agenda that would hasten a multipolar global order rather than delay it.

The second theory that links Trump to Putin has to do with his business interests.[fold]

Since he was declared bankrupt, Trump has found it difficult to raise capital, which means that he has been forced to rely heavily on Russian financing. Much of the Trump SoHo development in Manhattan, for instance, was reportedly funded from Russia and Kazakhstan, but Trump’s refusal to release his tax records make establishing a direct link difficult. Carter Page, who is Trump’s main foreign policy advisor, has longstanding career ties to Gazprom. And Trump’s campaign director was previously in charge of communications for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian President ousted in 2014.

All this is intriguing but, as with many allegations about the conduct of Russian elites, there is no ‘smoking gun’ that tiesTrump directly to the Kremlin. A lack of evidence is also why one cannot take the next step, and claim that Trump’s connections to Russia are so extensive that he is actually a Muscovian (not Manchurian) candidate.

But the fact that such a possibility is even being raised proves how effective it can be to encourage a view that nobody is safe from Russian information operations. This brings us neatly back to cybersecurity and information warfare, which is undeniably a force multiplier in the contemporary security environment.

Russia has invested a great deal of money and thought into exploring how to exploit the blurring of the lines between war and peace. The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, penned by Russia’s Chief of General Staff in 2013, set out what Russians have come to see as the precepts for what we have come to call ‘hybrid’ or ‘non-linear’ warfare. One of its key observations is that war cannot be separated neatly into military and non-military domains. As a result, responses to a problem must utilise the full spectrum of a country’s capabilities, through an adaptive approach that relies as much on control of information as raw might.

Igor Panarin, one of Russia’s most influential strategic thinkers, has taken this further to claim that the manipulation and fabrication of information is a vital asset which is cheap, universal, has unlimited range, and can easily cross state borders. This provides the opportunity to engage in social manoevering and lobbying, and even extortion and blackmail. Information, therefore, can be used to do what militaries traditionally did: to perform disruption, deterrence and denial functions. And like the digital equivalent of a drone, it can be used against people in groups, or even singly.

In a sense, information attacks are a darker version of modern smart sanctions, which are a ‘legitimate’ way to target individuals, because they have similar goals: to put pressure on people to change their behaviour. They can also be joined up with other tactics to cause much broader ripple effects, working off the assumption that publics — especially those in the West — are brittle. A state utilising that approach could release compromising information about a person (or even the sniff of it), to cause a scandal that ends a career or splinters a family. It could tacitly aid far-right movements and deepen existing fissures in the EU. It could turn off the power in Ukraine to make people angry — with some of that anger inevitably directed at the government. And it could raise doubt in the integrity of democratic processes in the world’s most powerful liberal state, and even potentially influence the outcome of an election.

The West is understandably reluctant to openly engage in similar behaviour. One of the main constraints of deliberately manipulating information is that it is deceitful and dishonest. It is something that nations never admit to doing, but express outrage about when it is done to them. But perhaps the reverse is also true, in that at least being coy about one’s own capabilities can help prevent a sense of weakness, and limit the fear generated by a public stance that is purely defensive and reactive.

In other words, when it comes to manipulating information, the West can do it too. And an advantage of targeting authoritarian nations is that not much manipulation is really needed. Perhaps it is time to start thinking about making such efforts a little more overt. 

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

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