Paper – Evolution of Russian Information Warfare

Russian Information Warfare

By CW4 Charles Davis.

Information technology has significantly enhanced human interaction around the globe and elevated the importance of information as an instrument of power wielded by individuals and societies in politics, economics, and warfare. Advances in information technology have significantly changed the generation of, transmission of, reception of, and reaction to information. – Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment July 2018

The Russian concept of Information Warfare (IW) began to develop in the post WWII Soviet Union. However military theory on the concept gained traction with the USSR’s Military Research Institute (MRI), through the writings of Dr. Vladimir Lefebvre. [1]  Lefebvre is credited with developing Reflexive Control (RC) Theory in the 1960s, while working for the MRI. His book, “The Algebra of Consciousness”, was the foundation for classifying the theory and establishing a Soviet research institute to assess its applications. [2] 

Reflexive Control Theory requires a foundational understanding of the psychology of the target. Developing a targeted operation requires deep cultural understanding and occurs through modeling

Diagram: Lefebvres Reflexive Control Technique.

Lefebvre’s philosophy was reaffirmed in a 1976 paper by V Druzhinin and D Kontorov, titled “Problems with Military systems Engineering”. The work firmly asserts; control of the target’s decision process derives from a profound knowledge of the state of his forces, military doctrine, objectives, and personal qualities of his executive personnel. Additionally, an adversary’s politics, ideology, emotional state, and mutual relations can also be leveraged to influence decision-making. (Chotikul, 1986) [4] Putin’s approach to conducting Information Warfare through RC is firmly intrenched in these concepts, with global implications.

Russia does not distinguish Information Operations (IO) as a peacetime or conflict tool and there are no restrictions between leveraging RC against military or civilian targets. Therefore, adversaries such as the United States can expect IW to be a constant in competition, crisis, and conflict. As such, IW is conducted globally and indiscriminately. Putin affirmed this position in his 2006 address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.  “We must take into account the plans and directions of development of the armed forces of other countries…. Our responses must be based on intellectual superiority, they will be asymmetric, and less expensive.” [5]

An early example of Soviet forces applying Lefebver’s Reflexive Control is evident in interviews with Vladimir Ryzhkov (Russian State Duma Deputy 1993-2007). Ryzhkov recalls conversations with KGB propaganda officers regarding their efforts in Afghanistan in the 1980s and several points can be taken. The Afghan population had to be convinced the government was acting in their interests and the enemy provoked the crisis. Operations also focused on fabricating incidents of persecution of Russian speaking populations, using just enough truth to draw social attention and outrage. Using these incidents, IOs focused on demonizing the adversary and masking Soviet aggression as humanitarian aid to those persecuted. Controlling the narrative was most important and crackdowns on all accessible media outlets secured their ability to direct the message. [6]

Later examples provided by Ryzhkov present RC in a new light. For example, in 1999 Russia used reports of Chechen attacks into Dagestan as a mechanism for driving public opinion in support of a second military incursion into Chechnya. None of the jihadist groups ever took responsibility for the August and September apartment bombings and there is broad speculation that Moscow conducted false flag reporting to justify a military presence.

Additionally, Russian press suggested as many as 100 foreign instructors participated in training Chechen terrorists. Other Russian press reporting indicated Usama Bin Laden was sending mercenaries from Afghanistan and Yemen. [7] Narrative control here provided popular support for elevated military operations in the region. Media influence during the second Chechen war was highlighted in a Newsline piece by Paul Goble: “Indeed, the Russian government’s own newspaper ‘Izvestiya’ noted rather critically that “the introduction of centralized military censorship regarding the war in the North Caucasus is the only new idea in the much-vaunted national security doctrine.” [8] These examples along with press observations suggesting a shift in tactic, reinforce the presence of RC as a recognized component of Russian political and military strategy.

Also in the 1990s, the Russian government started to see the value in state-sponsored think tanks. While Russia leveraged academia for research and analysis, it did not apply the concept of state sponsored institutes, like RAND in the United States. The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) is one such organization, which was established by presidential decree in February of 1992. Atlantic Council Research indicates; by 2007 there were roughly seventy researchers, working on international security, the near abroad, military-strategic questions, international economic security, and market economic issues. [9]

RISI provides a unique view of how Lefebvre’s concepts for RC are studied and applied. A 2019 product by Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center provides an in-depth study of several think tanks in today’s Russia. According to Barbashin and Graef, in April of 2009 RISI was identified as a Federal Scientific Institution. Categorizing it in this manner solidified funding through the Presidential Administration. The increased funding allowed RISI to broaden its scope and add new departments. Putin also installed Lieutenant General (ret) Leonid Reshetnikov, formerly the Director of Foreign Intelligence Services, as administrator. [10]

Twitter Image Reshetnikov

Between 2011 and 2014 Reshetnikov was able to expand RISI research and analysis capabilities. In 2011, RISI established a Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Studies. Then in March 2014 Reshetnikov hired representatives from Helsinki, Belgrade, and Warsaw to support his newly established Information Center in Tiraspol Transnistria. At the opening ceremony, he spoke of the importance of the Crimean vote for reunification with Russia. [11]  RISI remained supportive of the creation of Novorossiya (New Russia) and endorsed escalation of military operations in eastern Ukraine. [12]

RISI remained vocally supportive of Russian operations in Ukraine throughout 2014 and drafted a report in October framing the events as a western plot. In the October 2014 report, titled “The Ukrainian Crisis: Instrument of Geopolitics of the West”, RISI analysts asserted the United States was waging an information, economic, and political operation against Russia. Russia was portrayed as foiling US plots to establish a new world order of US “business and political elites”. [13] The October report also alluded to US intentions for American military bases on the Black Sea. The report and narratives to insight fear of the US and incompetence in Ukrainian governance all align with the primary concepts of RC.

Also in 2011, Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov began to voice his reservations that Russia’s military had not successfully adopted to the requirements of modern warfare. Specifically, he did not believe the military would be successful in non-contact warfare such as Information Operations. Makarov’s concerns fueled General Valery Gerasimov’s efforts to address the question of how to describe/define modern war and frame operational concepts for Russian success in 2013. One key distinction in Gerasimov’s framing of Information Warfare (IW), and that of western generals is that Russia does not distinguish cyber warfare from other types of IO: it’s simply another tool in the box. [14]

Graphic Gerasimov 2013

Graphic from Gerasimov article in Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, 26 February 2013 [15]

By 2014 there were two primary templates for IO. The first, “Red Web”, written by former KGB officers Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan centered on media control. But an article in the Journal of the Academy of Military Science, written by several Belarusian nationals approached the concept in much broader terms. The concept focused on 13 goals and more closely aligns with Reflexive Control Theory. They are described in an article by MITRE as:

  • Changing the citizen’s moral values
  • Creating a lack of spirituality
  • Destroying traditions and cultivating a negative attitude toward cultural legacy
  • Manipulating the social consciousness
  • Disorganizing systems and creating obstacles
  • Destabilizing political relations
  • Exacerbating political struggles and provoking repression
  • Reducing information support
  • Misinforming, undermining, and discrediting administrative organs
  • Provoking social, political, national, and religious conflicts
  • Mobilizing protests and strikes
  • Undermining authority
  • Damaging interests of a state [16]

Where Soldatov and Borogan focused on a single platform, the Belarusian theorists addressed measurable objectives. Their approach has garnered more attention, and practical application of their concepts has appeared more recently in Russian IW efforts.

In 2014, Vladislav Surkov left his position of Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation for an appointment as Presidential Aide to Putin. Surkov assumed responsibilities for the Presidential Directorate for Social and Economic Cooperation with the CIS Member Countries. In this capacity, Surkov assumed the responsibility for developing policy towards Ukraine and began to receive daily updates focused on social, economic, and political issues in specific regions of the country. The data allowed Russia to frame a narrative and develop supporting disinformation that would manipulate Ukrainian public sentiment and political decision-making.

Graphic Image from Surkov Email

Graphic image from hacked Surkov emails, Euromaiden Press, March 26, 2020.

Hacked emails, associated with Surkov’s position during the annexation of Crimea, also provide supporting evidence Surkov relied on several Russian think tanks to assist with developing RC concepts to use in IW against Ukraine and NATO countries. This data provides a connection back to Reshetnikov and the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, supporting direct involvement in privately funded efforts to recruit and finance the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. [17]   

 In 2019, The Royal United Service Institute was able to establish a chronology of Surkov- led activities during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.  The final paper was a direct result of hacked emails from Vladislav Surkov during this period. [18]  Authors, Alya Shandra and Robert Seely, assert Russia accomplished the seizure of Crimea through overt and covert activities, along with local ideologs and paid collaborators.

At the covert level, Russia interfered in Ukrainian elections, organized and funded a pan-Ukrainian campaign for a ‘soft federalization’ of the country, attempted to change Ukraine’s constitution and establish an alternative center of power, and created an illusion of widespread support for these activities…. The Kremlin conducted painstaking research into the intricacies of Ukrainian daily life to understand the Ukrainian world view and identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited. Then, using media, front groups, provocateurs, and paid rallies, it created a virtual reality designed to compel Ukraine into making decisions serving Russian objectives. [19]

Stark similarities can be drawn between Russian actions in the second Chechen war and that of the annexation of Ukraine. Pro-Russian proxies in the Donbas were inundated with fake news targeting Ukrainian government and military atrocities; while the Russian population was provided similar media coverage focused on stimulating their emotional support of the ethnic Russian people trapped in Ukraine. In the international community, Russia continued to distract, and deceive, creating information overload paralysis and indecision among the NATO partners.

The May 2nd, 2014, street fighting and fire in Odesa is an excellent example of Russian IO. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed “Ukrainian nationalists drove defenseless people into the Trade Union building and burned them alive.” Reporting goes on to reassert the pro-Nazi position of the western backed Ukrainian government. [20] The Russian Federation continues to use the incident for propaganda purposes, through heavily financed exhibitions and select witness testimony in European countries.

Learning from IW activities in numerous other countries, Putin enhanced and refined Russia’s IO capabilities and turned his sights on the United States. Russia’s primary platforms to manipulate social consciousness, destabilize political relations; exacerbate political struggles; provoke repression; reduce information support and; misinform, undermined and discredit administrative organs were Facebook and Twitter.  The weapons he intended to use were Russian Troll Farms.

In Late 2014, Russia experienced a great deal of internal social unrest. Citizen protests regarding corruption and abuse of power seemed to appear without warning, fueled by social media. To manage domestic social unrest, he turned to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), financed and developed by Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2013. [21]  Christian Science Monitor correspondent Fred Weir states:

The IRA is a well-funded “internet marketing” operation that may perform commercial functions but has become notorious for its political activities. These include loading Russian social media with pro-Kremlin commentary, blogs, postings, and graphic content. Experts believe there are several such operations around Russia, some aimed at regional audiences. [22]

Russian expatriate and investigative reporter, Lyudmila Savchuk, describes IRA troll operations as mental bullying, explaining how lies are mixed with the truth to discredit and repress dissenting political opinions in Russia. In her Oslo Freedom Forum interview, Savchuk discusses her infiltration of IRA and the operational effectiveness of the Troll Farms, fake accounts, and fictitious activist groups. [23] Other interviews indicate she had daily quotas of 5 political posts, 10 non-political and 150-200 troll comments. [24]

Applying this very successful media exploitation weapon against the 2016 US presidential elections, Russia’s IRA was able to establish 3,184 Twitter accounts responsible for posting 175,993 election related tweets. [25] Additionally, Facebook assesses 126 million Americans received posts from roughly 470 IRA accounts and 3,000 IRA adds. [26] Investigations, by both the Justice and Treasury Departments, determined:

“The Internet Research Agency LLC (IRA) tampered with, altered, or caused a misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes and institutions. Specifically, the IRA tampered with or altered information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.  The IRA created and managed a vast number of fake online personas that posed as legitimate U.S. persons to include grassroots organizations, interest groups, and a state political party on social media.  Through this activity, the IRA posted thousands of ads that reached millions of people online.  The IRA also organized and coordinated political rallies during the run-up to the 2016 election, all while hiding its Russian identity.  Further, the IRA unlawfully utilized personally identifiable information from U.S. persons to open financial accounts to help fund IRA operations.” [27]  

Image Man killed with Firearm

Image: Department of Justice, Affidavit Press Release, September 28, 2018, page 23.

Additional details from federal investigations into the IRA operation known as “Project Lakhta” indicate a multimillion-dollar budget, financed by Prigozhin, and supervised by GRU officers assigned to Russia’s Unit 26165 and 74455. [28] In total four entities, seven individuals, three aircraft and a yacht were determined to be directly involved; resulting in asset seizures and sanctions. The Internet Research Agency was designated for directly or indirectly engaging in, sponsoring, concealing, or otherwise being complicit in foreign interference in a U.S. election. [29]

However, Russia’s attempts to apply RC measures against the American population continued, leading up to the 2020 elections. According to researchers from MIT Technology Review “Facebook’s most popular pages for Christian and Black American content were being run by Eastern European troll farms.” [30] Furthermore, content from troll farms was viewable to 140 million US accounts each month and these farms boasted the largest Christian American page, largest African American page, second largest Native American page and the fifth largest women’s’ page. Lastly, as of October 2019 roughly 15,000 Facebook Pages were being operated from Kosovo and Macedonia. [31]  

In March 2021, the Director of National Intelligence released assessments of malign Russian activities targeting the 2020 US elections. In this report, the Intelligence Community assessed Putin authorized influence operations to denigrate the Biden candidacy and the Democratic Party, through proxies. The intent was to disseminate influence narratives and misleading allegations to media and government officials as well as influential private citizens. Some activities intended to undermine public confidence, sow division, and exacerbate social tension were directly linked to Iran.  

More recently, a June 2022 Chatham House report indicates Russia’s IO efforts are targeting South Africa, India, Brazil, and Mexico; attempting to garner support and sympathy for Russia’s position on Ukraine. [32]  Chatham House concerns, along with July 2022 reporting from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, paint a stark picture for US relations with the Latin American Countries.  Russian IW in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, will require significant counter-efforts from the US Department of State and with malign leadership in a number of these countries, it is likely to be a hard-fought war on perception. [33]   

As stated in the Department of State report, Pillars of Russia’s disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem: “The perpetual conflict that Russia sees in the information environment also means that officials and state media may take one side of an issue, while outlets with a measure of independence will adopt their own variations on similar overarching false narratives. The ecosystem approach is fitting for this dynamic because it does not require harmonization among the different pillars. By simultaneously furthering multiple versions of a given story, these actors muddy the waters of the information environment in order to confuse those trying to discern the truth.” [34]


[2] ibid

[3] ibid







[10] ibid





















[31] ibid





Author’s Note: Thoughts and assessments in this work are those of the author and are not meant to reflect organizational opinions of the Warrant Officer Career College or the Army.

About Charles Davis 6 Articles
CW4 Charles Davis serves on the faculty of the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career College. He currently instructs International Strategic Studies at all levels of Warrant Officer Education. CW4 Davis is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Broadening Program and holds a Master’s Degree with Honors in Intelligence Studies from American Military University.  CW4 Davis is also a recipient of the Military Intelligence Corps Knowlton Award. The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.