Understanding Russia’s Global Online Influence

February 10, 2020 • Monica Todros

Our guest is Oscar Jonsson. He’s the director of the Stockholm Free World Forum, a Swedish foreign and security policy think tank, and an associated researcher at the Swedish Defense University. Previously, Oscar was a subject-matter expert at the Policy and Plans Department at the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters.

Our conversation focuses on Oscar’s recent book, “The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace.” In it, he tracks the history of Russian tactics and strategies, and explores how Russia sees itself in the online global community.

This podcast was produced in partnership with the CyberWire.

For those of you who’d prefer to read, here’s the transcript:

This is Recorded Future, inside threat intelligence for cybersecurity.

Dave Bittner:

Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 145 of the Recorded Future podcast. I’m Dave Bittner from the CyberWire.

Our guest is Oscar Jonsson. He’s the director of the Stockholm Free World Forum, a Swedish foreign and security policy think tank, and an associated researcher at the Swedish Defense University. Previously, Oscar was a subject-matter expert at the Policy and Plans Department at the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters.

Our conversation focuses on Oscar’s recent book, “The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace.” In it, he tracks the history of Russian tactics and strategies, and explores how Russia sees itself in the online global community. Stay with us.

Oscar Jonsson:

In my book, I go through the starting point at the Soviet Union, where the Russian understanding, or the Soviet understanding, of war was very much similar to the one in the West. It was defined by the use of armed violence to political purpose. The worldview was of course very, very different. It relied on a Soviet Marxist Leninist methodology with a very holistic view to which all military theory had to agree. The idea that war has been defined by armed violence has been the orthodoxy both in Russia and the West, and it’s been that way up until, I would argue, around 2012 when a lot of things started happening. You see statements such as, “The boundaries between war and peace are blurring, and non-military means are becoming so much more important than military.” That’s fundamentally changed what Western war is.

Dave Bittner:

Take me through some of the specifics here. I’m thinking specifically about the collapse of the Soviet Union. How did that affect things, and Russia being on their own after that? How did that affect their place in the world?

Oscar Jonsson:

One of the arguments I’m making is really that the Russian understanding of war has very much come as a reverse engineered process from what it has been fearing and what has been the most significant threats. That might seem obvious, but we think of Russia today as a great power exerting influence all across the world and influencing U.S. elections and intervening in Syria, but if you look at modern Russian history, it’s rather been one of fragility and in state weakness. You had a collapse of the Soviet Union, as I mentioned. You had a coup attempt in ’91. In ’93 you had Yeltsin bombings on parliament, and you have Russia’s neighbors. Some of its most important neighbors have had regime change, where people have come on the street, protested against fraudulent elections and autocrats, and then overthrown them. This has become constructed very much as a way of a Western warfare.

In essence, the Russian leadership sees us in the West as so effective at exerting influence through informational means, influence to intelligence services, to be able to brainwash the population to make them revolt against the leaders. This is not only a post-Soviet phenomenon. We talk about the Rose Revolution in Georgia 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine 2004, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. These have also had effects in Russia. Some of the most prominent Russian opposition leaders were present in the year of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine 2004 and tried to start a similar revolution in Russia in 2005. Similarly, the Arab Spring Protest also, which, with the convention of wisdom, is a revolution started on social media. Also, it spread to Russia for the Russian presidential and parliamentary elections in 2011/2012, so this has been seen to be done by a mix of political subversion and information warfare, and that’s really the two main drivers that I identify in my book as being what is changing the Russian understanding of war.

Dave Bittner:

What are the changes that we’re seeing from them? How has it played out?

Oscar Jonsson:

You can see since 2012 to 2014, you really see a shift among all the main figures of Russian military theory and political elites by really giving a strong emphasis to notions such as non-military means are becoming more important than military. You can see the Russian military doctrine, for instance, including things such as informational influence on patriotic traditions being included in the threat perception. I think this wider understanding of war obviously gives most change in where we are now. In a sense, us in the West might see that, “Oh, if something occurs, let’s try to solve it so we can leave it behind”, whereas from the Russian perspective, there’s a genuine conviction that us in the West are after them, and that we aren’t in the blurred lines between war and peace. We’re not living in full peace. This view, this genuine conviction among the Russian leadership, is also the backdrop to why they’re willing to take such risks that they are, such as the interference in the U.S. elections or using chemical weapons on native territory, such as the case of the U.K.

Dave Bittner:

In your estimation, does Russia have an out-sized influence on the rest of the world? Given the size of their economy, do they have perhaps more influence than is justified?

Oscar Jonsson:

Absolutely. I think one of the things which is most difficult is really assessing how much influence Russia has and why. I think there’s, especially in the U.S. under Obama, there was a very, very strong tendency in looking at economy, looking at demography, and really concluding that Russia cannot be a long-term threat. “Let’s not put our focus here. China is the big threat. Let’s forget about Russia.” There are several problems with this. One of them is, first of all this, these estimates are most often measured in nominal terms, and not in purchasing power parity. If the ruble drops 50 percent to a dollar, it doesn’t mean that the Russian arms expenditure has gone down by 50 percent.

For those who are saying that, “Well, you know … Russia is spending as much as France on defense,” you can ask anyone, “Well, who would you want to fight a war with? The Russian army or the French army, if you’re going to fight a war in Europe?” If you compare it, then there’s a very good study that came out very recently from the Center for Naval Analyses that said, in purchasing power terms, the Russian military spending is not a 10th of the American, it’s rather almost a fourth, and then if you divide the U.S. military to the rest of the world, then you can see in just economic terms that you have a peer competitor. What I think is important here is to remember that Russia is acting the way it is, because it is, in a sense, uncertain.

It doesn’t have the future view that China has, that knows that our power position will be better in five years. Our power position will be better in 10 years. To the point what you said, I think what’s important to know with Russia is that yes, they have quite a bad hand, but there’s also genuine threat conviction, and they’re using it very, very effectively. Russian power mainly comes from its ability to disrupt, to disrupt a road societal cohesion, to disrupt alliances … It is never the same way the Chinese influence, which for instance can purchase a lot of influence to make actors agree with China. I think they have quite a weak hand, but they’re very determined and they’re playing it very well.

Dave Bittner:

Do the Russians tend to be long-term planners? Are they playing the long game here?

Oscar Jonsson:

I think that’s a very common debate. Is Putin a strategist, or is he just a tactician? I think, for me, it’s a little bit of a non-issue. I think some of the Russian drivers have been the same for a long, long time … Regime security and great power, that are feeling threatened by the way that international order is constructed. Let’s say they want to renegotiate the way international security is being done, that’s a very expensive goal. A lot of the operations will be … It wouldn’t matter how long-term your goal is. What you would do immediately would still be the same. One of them is to be a great power to renegotiate the international security system. It is to weaken Western cohesion, to weaken EU cohesion, and weaken NATO cohesion.

I think the broad outlines of what will increase Russian influence is definitely there, and the immediate actions to take, the tactical steps, are being taken. Then, there are of course long-term goals. I think when you asked about long-term, I think you can most clearly see the incredible long-term approach. If you look at Russian intelligence services, you’re seeing the stories are revealed of recruitment of spies that are cultivated. There’s one Estonian captain that was set a trap for, and he was recruited when he was a captain. Then, eight years later he was a Lieutenant Colonel working with NATO affairs, and then he started providing useful information. There’s definitely a very long-term game, especially among Russian intelligence services.

Dave Bittner:

How do Russian intelligence services and U.S. intelligence services, for example, match up? Are they playing at a similar level?

Oscar Jonsson:

They’re not playing at a similar level, I think they’re playing with very, very different preconditions. I think that the U.S. intelligence service has a technological superiority, but I think Russian security services have always given more focus to the human aspect, the human intelligence, whereas we have become more technologically-focused, because we don’t want to risk human lives in the same extent. I still think the best comparison for this is a KGB defector, Yuri Bezmenov, who stated that what we think of as intelligence work, as eavesdropping, trying to figure out, trying to be clever, and think about what our adversaries are doing, is only 15 percent of what the KGB is doing. 85 percent is active measures, ideological subversions, different ways of trying to effect and impact the target politics. I think that division is very likely persistent in today’s Russian security services where only a little bit, and most of what we are doing is just trying to listen and figure out. They are much more geared towards active measures and ideological subversion.

Dave Bittner:

Do they have any specific weaknesses? If we were to target them, are there any particular areas that it would be best for us to focus on?

Oscar Jonsson:

Sure. Absolutely. I think that’s a really important question to try and to shift the conflict to where you’re strong and the enemy is weak. If you look at the information sphere, for instance, Russia uses our open societies to broadcast a lot of this information and subversion, but we have open information systems, so it’s hard to shield against that. Conversely, to try to broadcast narratives into the Russian information sphere is also incredibly important. The vast majority of Russians get their main source of news from TV stations. If you look at what are the 10 biggest TV stations in Russia, you have state-owned channels, you have channels that are owned by Gazprom-Media, or channels owned by National Media Group, which is owned by Yury Kovalchuk, one of Putin’s close oligarchs.

When you control all the 10 major stations, you can put out a story that is repeated in all of them that gives a very, very strong illusion of this as being the truth. In the information sphere, for instance, we are very limited. I think in the economics sphere, on the contrary, on the one hand you have Russia working very hard to build some kind of sovereignty and economic and financial means, trying to set up a national interbank transfer system so they won’t have to rely on Swift, which they noted very well what happened to Iran when Iran was sanctioned by Swift. They have issued their own MasterCard and Visa, so they can’t be sanctioned by MasterCard and Visa, and continue economic transactions. They bought a lot of gold in the last decade. They decreased their amount of dollar holdings and bought more Chinese Yuan and Euros.

With all that being said, most of the Russian elite holding some money are in the West, and they want to move the money there. I think the most effective deterrent thing that us in the West have done is the April 2018 sanctions, where we sanctioned a number of key oligarchs, including Oleg Deripaska, who owns a big aluminum company, which crashed the aluminum market. That was really, I would argue, an effective sanction, which is going after a certain number of key individuals, and not the Russian population in broadest and, for instance, sectoral sanctions that were done after Crimea, not travel sanctions that were done to nominal figures of the elite in early 2014. That I would argue would be, for instance, one of the areas where Russia have big vulnerabilities

Dave Bittner:

How much of Russia’s stance is currently tied to Putin himself versus something historical and systemic? I guess I’m asking … If Putin is no longer the leader, will things continue along the same path, or would you expect to see some changes?

Oscar Jonsson:

There’s a brilliant book by Sam Greene and Graeme Robertson, where they really start out by saying, “Instead of talking about Putin’s Russia, let’s talk about Russia’s Putin.” Then, they really start from the premise that being popular is just so much more convenient than being disliked. Even if there are real problems with democracy in Russia, trying to be popular is a key priority. A lot of what Putin has been doing is very clever populism, rather than him all of a sudden being some kind of crazy nostalgist that lost his mind in a certain sense. I think a lot of it is a very calculated populism. A lot of what he’s doing and pushing for is a product of what is perceived as popular.

I think what you alluded to before, Dave, was also that this is a very continuous way of looking at the world. I don’t want to over-generalize from Russian history, but the way that Russia perceived its place in the world has always been one of great power and always wanting to be one of the ones being listened to. I don’t think there’s anything that … and I especially don’t think we should calculate our strategy on that, “Oh, Putin will leave everything. We’ll be good again.” I think the most likely outcome is someone being crowned by the same amount of key stakeholders that are now around Putin … Would put someone forward that walks, talks, and acts quite similar to Putin.

Dave Bittner:

For those of us here in the U.S., what do you wish we understood? Are there any perspectives or insights about Russia that you feel as though … If we only understood this about them, it would give us a better perspective and perhaps a better understanding of the interaction that’s taking place here?

Oscar Jonsson:

Yeah. I think the first one is really the one which I mentioned. I criticized the Obama administration, but I still think that is very lingering in the way that Russia is being understood. Don’t look at the Russian economy, which is lackluster, and assume that, “Okay, this threat will go away.” Rather, look at military capabilities and ask yourself, “Is there anyone that has this amount of advanced conventional military capabilities, information warfare capabilities, global intelligence services, and cyber operations? Who can match this threat?”

I think the U.S. has approached world affairs to a large degree by having an overwhelming superiority, which is not necessarily conducive to strategy. Rather than by being 10 times stronger than everybody else, you don’t need to think that much about how we deal with this challenge in a very sophisticated manner. I’m not saying that all of the U.S. has been bad in this, but I think in this situation that has been the last 20 years and especially thinking on Russia, has been very down prioritized. I’ve run projects with U.S. arms staff when I worked for the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters for a while as well, and it was very clear that Russia expertise had definitely gone. I would argue for a rebuilding of that.

Dave Bittner:

Are you optimistic looking towards the future of this relationship? Are you pessimistic, or somewhere in between?

Oscar Jonsson:

I’m personally an optimist, but I think in terms of looking at the developments to come, I’m trying to be a good analyst and put my own sentiments aside. I think there are a number of worrying signs. I don’t think there are many signs that are actually very assuring. I think if you want to draw the broad lines, we’re now seeing a big energy transformation driven by climate change, in which most parts of the developed world are just trying to reduce reliance on fossil fuel. You could make an argument that one of the reasons why things haven’t gotten worse is a very strong economic interdependence between Russia and the West. They need us to buy the fossil fuels. They need to sell their fossil fuels, but otherwise they won’t have an economy. With increasing … or decreasing reliance on Russia for fossil fuels, that detachment can increase. That could also increase the perimeters for conflict.

I also think that there will be a point, which I said with the comparison to China, that China is confident, because they know that things are going to look better for them in 20 years or in 10 years. Then, they can sit down and wait, whereas if you look at Russia now and you see when is this power discrepancy, locally and regionally, the biggest. Now, after belatedly a lot of states in the West are starting to wake up and starting to rearm again, that might be a dire conclusion that the power discrepancy might be the biggest, because Russia has been arming very intensely since 2008. It might be the coming five years. Adding that to the disagreements within the EU and within NATO, they might see an opportunity to do something militarily, but I think primarily I would be most worried about the non-military operations, which are ever ongoing.

Dave Bittner:

We hear a lot about this notion that the boundaries between war and peace are blurring. What’s your assessment of that? Do you think that’s actually happening?

Oscar Jonsson:

That is a statement that has been sensationalized. “Oh the Russians are saying that the boundaries of war and peace are blurring,” but I actually also think it’s hard to get away from the fact that they are. If you look at cyber operations, for instance, you cannot start on the day of the conflict in order to be able to reach an effect. You need to be penetrating adversary systems already in peacetime. The same for information, psychological warfare, or propaganda this information … To get your narratives out there you need to spend years, as we’ve seen with Russian influence in the 2016 and the 2020 elections. They seem to be doing now.

You need to build up accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook that get these followings. The biggest Russian accounts … There were a number of them having more than 100,000 followers. There’s a lot of this in … Let’s call it new domains, where everything you want to do in a conflict needs to be done in peacetime. Therefore, it’s hard to read, “Is this an escalation step, or is this business as usual?” I do think that, in that sense, the boundaries between war and peace are blurring, but I think at the same time also ultimately declaring yourself to be in a war is a political act. It’s always been up to the state itself to put the foot down and say, “This is where the line is,” so it’s also relieving yourself a bit from responsibility of saying that it gets harder and harder, because it’s always been a political decision.

Dave Bittner:

It seems as though, when it comes to cyber, that the leaders don’t want to put those lines down. They want to keep them moveable.

Oscar Jonsson:

Yeah. So far, I think that the overall take has been not to attribute who’s doing what, but then I think the Mueller Report is fantastically interesting, because it shows not only that attribution is doable … In that case, attribution was fantastic. The U.S. sanction all the way down to individual intelligence officers who they knew who pushed which button when, and that also underwrites the problem of attribution is that most often it is not in their political interest to spell it out who it is, but I think that’s more needed. I think we might see more of that in order to deter, just like the Mueller report did.

Dave Bittner:

Our thanks to Oscar Jonsson for joining us. His book is “The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace.”

Don’t forget to sign up for the Recorded Future Cyber Daily email, where every day you’ll receive the top results for trending technical indicators that are crossing the web, cyber news, targeted industries, threat actors, exploited vulnerabilities, malware, suspicious IP addresses, and much more. You can find that at recordedfuture.com/intel.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the show and that you’ll subscribe and help spread the word among your colleagues and online. The Recorded Future podcast production team includes Coordinating Producer Monica Todros, Executive Producer Greg Barrette. The show is produced by the CyberWire, with Editor John Petrik, Executive Producer Peter Kilpe, and I’m Dave Bittner.

Thanks for listening.

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