12 June 2019

A concerning reality, Russia and China’s strategic influence operations

Sergiu Medar

The strategic influence operations are currently seen as extremely effective offensive actions against democratic states, through legal actions associated, at different levels, to illegal actions as well. States usually using these methods are the authoritarian ones: Russia, China, Iran or the States in the Gulf. The identification of such operations, of the aggressors, of one state’s own vulnerabilities, as well as the use of effective countermeasures are a major concern nowadays for the democratic states. The perfect time to use such actions/ counteractions is the electoral campaigns period.

Image source: Mediafax

Russia’s proved interference in the US electoral campaign has drawn the attention of intelligence services throughout the world on the strategic influence operations that some states are developing over their targets. The vulnerabilities of democratic states, emerged, however, from the actual implementation of liberal democracy’s principles, are seen by the aggressors as entries into the sensitive structure of state’s construction.

Strategic influence operations are aiming, as the name itself shows it, at influencing the strategic policymakers so that they make, voluntarily or without realizing that there are under the influence of some manipulative factors, the decisions the aggressor wants. If that is not possible, the attacker aims at creating chaos, so that it can reduce target’s combat capacity. Getting out the chaos is, afterwards, possible by following aggressor’s induced solutions. The process of influencing the strategic policymakers is associated to mass manipulation. These can end a positive reaction movement, of support for the policymakers, which happens quite rare, or a negative movement, wherein the manipulated crowds are acting against the decisions made by governmental leaders, the street asking for their replacement.

The perfect moment for the success of strategic influence operations is the electoral campaigns period. Mases are radicalizing through their political opinions, are getting the information that they agree with and are ad initium rejecting the ones that do not match their perspectives. Starting from this affirmation, the aggressor must definitely know very well who are people that would positively react to a message that, eventually, will make it act accordingly with its objectives. The identification of this group is being made through profiling, which means scanning the social media pages they are part of and automatically getting data about his behavior, political beliefs, interest fields, social groups and friends, etc. Starting from this data, they are creating the messages that are then sent to these groups, which become manipulated as the aggressor wants it to be. Studies show that, paradoxically, high-educated people are easier to manipulate than those to have less studies.

There are some situations wherein getting information from the ones needed for profiling, but also those related to electoral campaign’s strategy, are being done illegally through penetration cyber-attacks of the IT services and computers systems, both governmental and private.

One of the most famous strategic influence operation made by Russia was the one developed during the US 2016 electoral campaign. It was a usual operation of such type, with all the legal and illegal ingredients, which have increased operation’s effectiveness. After identifying multiple vulnerabilities of a deeply democratic system, they have made a gradual and segmented planning for operation’s offensive component. They have developed cyber penetration actions to get information, classic espionage, sells, sources and influence agents recruiting, individual and mass manipulation, but also people’s denigration operations. The Mueller investigation committee has proved all these actions, which have, eventually, led to sending some individuals to court, both Russians and Americans, but, at the same time, have underlined, according to the report presented to the US Congress, the direct non-interference of candidate Donald Trump, the effective US president, in this operation.

This type of actions, like these developed by Russia, are specific to autocratic states, as Russia, China, Iran or the monarchies around the Gulf area. The US counter information services, as well as of some European states, are carefully monitoring possible strategic influence actions developed by these states.

These are reasoned by three basic characteristics of the global political systems conditions. The first one is that US’s foreign policy, including the economic one, wants to introduce a new international order, whose foundation to be competition and competitiveness, hence, it is a target for the main competitors, Russia and China. The second one starts from the idea that, now, the world is facing more and more intense nationalist and populist actions. It is not incidental that these actions are mostly presented in the democratic states, their objectives being to undermine the basic principles of liberal democracy, favoring the alternatives presented by the autocratic systems. The third current condition refers to the digital revolution, which has modified the nature and principles of intercommunication by sending some messages and opinions globally, this way increasing the strategic influence operations efficiency.

The arguments above are supported also by the fact that this type of operations targeted the states to have the oldest democracies in the world: the US, Great Britain, France, Netherlands or Germany. It is indeed true that these states had the technologies and the acknowledgements to identify the cyber offensive or manipulation actions developed against them, as well as the transparency which allowed the disclosures made towards the public to warn them. Smaller states, yet to have important geostrategic positions, may have been also the victims of such influence actions, but because of having less developed Early Warning systems, they did not realize the existence and effects of these operations.

The states which have been involved in strategic influence actions the most are Russia and China, targeting mostly the US, but for different reasons. China is in a direct competition with the US in terms of its global economic position, the economic performances of both countries being extremely close. Hence, China is interested in developing actions which could influence Washington’s policymakers in making decisions to favor its interests. Russia, distant from US’s economic performances, wants to undermine their interests in any field on earth.

China, through the influence operations that it is developing, wants to permanently be lawfully covered in the process of creating a support system across governments, institutions, businesses interests groups and people, so that is can call on the elements of this system when needed.

China wants to corrupt politicians and influent people to promote the Chine Communist Party’s policy. In this category we can include also the strategic influence operations made by US senator Steve Daines, Montana Republican, who hosted a delegation of Chinese Communist Party officials after this American state had signed a $200 million contract with China on meat export from the US to China. The Chinese Communist Party had the same type of contacts with Australian Senator Sam Dastyari, who supported Beijing’s perspectives, on South China Sea matter, through his statements, claiming some stances that his own government was fighting against.

On the other hand, China has spent many resources to undermine the information sources existent in Chinese language for decades, but also to build new ones, pro-governmental, which has actually led to the quasi-elimination of some independent Chinese institutions in the US. Also in education, China has dislocated diplomats, but also Master students in the American universities where were taking place circumstantial or permanent events the Chinese Communist Party was not pleased with.

China has tried, alike Russia in Europe, to use the economic dependencies of some states to consolidate its political and diplomatic stances. In this category can be included actions like the procurement and construction of critical infrastructure, as well as the large loans and financial help packages given to countries led by corrupt or autocratic regimes, which allows leaders to remain in command for a longer period.

The cyber-espionage actions or the intellectual property theft are also some of the methods China used in its strategic influence actions throughout the world.

In order to reduce the influence of the critical position the Chinese communities have against different states of the world on the Chinese Communist Party, China uses brutal actions, like kidnapping or people’s disappearance, threats against families or relatives that remain in China and that could actually suffer the consequences. Through the influence they have in different international institutions, like Interpol, different states could be determined to extradite Chinese citizens that could have positions opposed to China’s internal and external policy.

Russia, also, aims at attacking US’s interests by all methods, including strategic influence operations. Among its strategic objectives stays also the enlargement of its influence area over the entire Europe.

The West European states’ increased dependency on the energy provided by Russia and Moscow’s energy exploitation to influence the foreign policy decisions of the Western states is one of the most effective methods nowadays. The main obstacles in accomplishing this objective are the East European states, firstly Poland and Romania, which obviously have an opposed attitude against Russia, but also to some West European states, when they have, on certain fields, common objectives with Kremlin.

The persistent disinformation campaign, through the exploitation of online media platforms, proved to be extremely effective in 2016, US. Since then, Russia has improved its strategic influence capabilities a lot, in fields like: collecting information through large scale espionage actions, hackers and trolls, all funded by Russian oligarchs, loyal to the government. Kremlin’s propaganda, as well as the conspiracy theories, which are extremely successful when it comes to manipulable population have a social media conveyance device, belonging to RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik.

Another one of Russia’s strategic influence conveyance device is the enlarged system of corrupt oligarchs, which exists not only in Russia, but in Eastern European states and even Great Britain, Italy or Germany.

Aiming at weakening the European Union cohesion, as well as blocking the continuous enlargement process of the European democratic space, Russia is funding the extreme-right and extreme-right movements, as it is not interest in ideologies, but in creating instability in the democratic states. Funding and coordinating movements like ANTIFA is the best example to that end. The radicalized voices from the Western states are carrying Kremlin’s political messages.

In order to increase the strategic influence actions, Russia must eliminate those who are developing the work mechanisms of such actions peddlers, meaning the representatives of the internal opposition. Illegal attacks and assassinates are the methods used by the Russian intelligence services. The attempt to kill the double agent Sergey Skripal, the Russian opposition’s leaders or some journalists who are making those in command feel uncomfortable are eloquent example to support these statements.

Population’s manipulation is based on influencing it, it is based on individual or group vulnerabilities. Manipulation’s response is persuasion, cajolement. In order to face the manipulation operations, the states which are victims of strategic influence operations must respond with persuasion (cajolement), even if in their case the necessary time make it work is longer than when using manipulation. Unfortunately, these states, not only that are not identifying the offensive operations, but they neither have persuasion reaction plans. Any operation of such kind must be planned and prepared starting from the identification of one’s own vulnerabilities.  

   Translated by Andreea Soare