Tag Archives: strategic communication

Cutting Through the Fog: Reflexive Control and Russian STRATCOM in Ukraine

Russia Resurgent Topic Week

By Robert C. Rasmussen

But if I wanted to I could take Kiev in two weeks.” – President Vladimir Putin

Introduction

As the Russian Federation continues to fuel a protracted war in Ukraine, it is employing a method of strategic communication that has left policy makers, media outlets, and ordinary people confused and worried. The decades-old Soviet doctrine of Reflexive Control Theory[i] is a method of information warfare at the strategic and operational levels. This use of Reflexive Control Theory is an attempt to influence the decision-making processes of the Ukrainian government, the rebels, the international community, and the Russian people.  It is designed to support Russia’s strategy of maintaining Ukraine as a semiautonomous region with independence as a mere formality.

Donate to CIMSEC!

Reflexive Control Theory as Doctrine

Reflexive Control Theory was developed by Soviet military strategists in the 1960s. The premise is relatively simple: use deception and disinformation to shape an opponent’s perceptions of the situation so it voluntarily selects the courses of action most conducive to one’s own interests. It is exactly this type of application of Reflexive Control that a young Vladimir Putin would have learned in his early development at the 401st KGB School and in his career as a KGB/FSB officer. While in principle applicable at many levels, it particularly lends itself to communications at the strategic level.

Russia’s Use of Reflexive Control in Strategic Communications

Russia’s strategic communications regarding Ukraine are calculated to shape outside perception of Russian actions, and opponents’ reactions. In doing so, Russia hopes to induce actions that work in favor of the Russian government.[ii] A combination of the haze of battle and political obfuscation can help create whatever story Russia wants for whatever audience it wants. The targeted audiences for specific messaging campaigns are pro-Russian separatists, the international community, and lastly the Russian people.

Russia’s strategic communications towards the rebels in eastern Ukraine have focused on keeping them in the fight. Two key messages pushed by Russia to keep rebels fighting are the message about Ukrainians in power being anti-Russian fascists, and how Russian administration of their territory would be better for the people there. There has been additional focus on the damage caused by warfare and the disruption of the lives of ordinary people in order to continually focus the anger of the rebels and keep up their will to fight.

The focus on the international community seems to be deterrence from entering the conflict at all. By keeping the fog of war rolling over the combat zone and increasing chaos, the situation is unpredictable.  This unpredictability combined with a lack of political will effectively eliminates any possibility of direct action by an external actor.  Russian displeasure at international sanctions encourages other actors to take out their displeasure through sanctions instead of directly supporting Ukraine with personnel, equipment, and aid money. In a very real sense, sanctions are a diversion. Russia has a large territory with a large quantity of people. Russia has previously isolated and restructured its economy in a manner that ensured relative strategic successes, and this capability is within the generational memory of current leadership. Accepting sanctions in the short term is strategically analogous to giving up territory to Napoleonic and Nazi armies, knowing that time is on Russia’s side.

Messages to the domestic population create moral justification for supporting rebels and the prospect (now realized in an on-again, off-again fashion) of widespread combat operations in eastern Ukraine. The overwhelming majority of news media is either state-controlled or controlled by owners loyal to President Putin. Meanwhile Putin’s political party, United Russia, has a simple majority in the State Duma. There is an overwhelming support base that is loyal to Putin’s government. These elements, put together, create unquestioned messaging pushing the idea of a fascist government in Kiev that does not represent the views of even a plurality of Ukrainians. This “illegitimate” Ukrainian government, according to the message, is only in control due to the brute force of a small Euromaidan mob.  By sending humanitarian convoys with military escorts into Eastern Ukraine, Russia is trying to demonstrate its humanity. The point of this messaging is to focus popular rage on the Ukrainian government. Such rage can be channeled into support of sustained combat operations and weathering the effects of economic sanctions.

Conclusion

Russian strategic communications regarding Eastern Ukraine have involved messaging crafted with the doctrine of reflexive control in mind. The concept of reflexive control focuses on tricking an opponent or audience into making decisions that works to an actor’s advantage, and has been a core doctrine of Soviet and Russian security forces since the 1960s. This concept shows itself in the messaging that Russia has given to various audiences and its pronounced effects – it keeps separatists fighting, maintains popular support, and prevents foreign intervention.

Robert C. Rasmussen is a Second Lieutenant in the New York State Guard, and currently serves as Aide-de-Camp to a Brigadier General. He has a MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Security Studies from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs. He also has a BA in International Relations & Geography from the SUNY College at Geneseo. He has previously worked as a Legislative Policy Fellow for the New York State Senate, a Research Intern at the U.S. Military Academy, and as a Research Intern the National Defense University. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of the New York State Guard or the New York State Division of Military & Naval Affairs.

Read other contributions to Russia Resurgent Topic Week.

Donate to CIMSEC!

[i] Thomas, Timothy L., “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 17: 2004, 237-256, http://www.rit.edu/~w-cmmc/literature/Thomas_2004.pdf, Accessed: 4 September 2014.

[ii] Ginos, Nathan D., “The Securitization of Russian Strategic Communication,”  U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Defense Technical Information Center, Fort Belvoir: 2010, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536578.pdf, Accessed: 4 September 2014.

Assessing the President’s ISIL Speech as Strategic Communication

This piece was written in response to the Presidential address on ISIL and as part of our Strategic Communications week.

13 years ago America woke up to the Long War. September 10th was a sadly appropriate time for the President to address the continuation of the conflict: ISIL – the message of the speech was that this Long War will continue to be so.

As a piece of strategic communication, the speech laid out something best said by .38 Special:

Just hold on loosely
But don’t let go
If you cling too tightly
You’re gonna lose control
Your baby needs someone to believe in
And a whole lot of space to breathe in

The president’s intent was to explain the threat of ISIL, then walk the fine line of both destroying ISIL and avoiding the entanglement he sees in America’s thirteen years of ground war. In short, America will destroy ISIL, but America will not be the one to destroy ISIL – America will look to Arab partners, the Iraqi military, and the Syrian opposition, with the support of American advisers and airpower.

Let’s go into the details of looking at this speech, not for the policy, but as a piece of strategic communication.

To Everyone:
ISIL Is a Threat & Will Be Destroyed

While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

This was considered by many the President’s moment to explain, particularly to the American people, explicitly the threat posed by ISIL, which he did by drawing the thread between opportunity, capability, and intent: the proven brutality and capability of ISIL, the stated aims, and their ability to get people of bad intent to us. This was likely aimed at European audiences as well.

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are… This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

That message and its purpose probably doesn’t need any explanation.

To Middle Eastern Actors in General :
We’ll Be
Holding On Loosely

This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region…
…This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground.

Whether we can rely on the emergence of an enemy’s enemies coalition or an inclusive Iraqi government is to be seen, but this speech was likely meant as a final signalling to those in and around this cross-border conflict that the US will not be the one to “contain” this situation, and that the ongoing proxy war may threaten to consume all of them.  The thinking may be that regional actors, once realizing the US will not “swoop in” will turn upon this conflict’s most disturbing symptom rather than each other.

No particular partners are mentioned other than the new Iraqi government, Kurdish Forces, and the vague “Syrian opposition” – the particulars of a specific Syrian opposition group, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many of the gulf states who choose to playing a part in extending this crisis are left out. This is likely on purpose, requiring no explanations of whose name was said, left out, or why.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

This is a side note to the more general trend, but the division of Iraqi and Kurdish forces should be recognized in the language. This could be a natural result of the bifurcation of the two forces’ effort in fighting and the desire to recognize the enormous contribution of the Kurds or a more subtle political intent.

To Congress:
But We Won’t Let Go

We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy.

That the US is now firmly aimed at ISIL and alot of resources, thought not troops, will be aimed in their direction. This not surprise to anyone – more importantly, the president communicated two specific points to Congress: he needed not seek their specific approval, but wanted to engage them & desperately wishes for them to expand their engagement in Syria.

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger…
…It was formerly al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.

This is pretty clear – some have speculated the president would seek Congress’s approval. He, fairly safely, presumes to tacitly have it amidst the unclear debate some are having on whether he needs it explicitly. Likely, this is also why he mentioned ISIL’s association with al-Qaida.

Tonight, I again call on Congress, again, to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.

Here the President is extending the discussion from earlier discussions on involvement in Syria – this is a point he does not plan on giving up, though in this speech it was buried in the larger narrative of his over-arching strategy. Having previously discussed the brutality of ISIL, he wishes to show how Assad cannot be a partner in their defeat – having already shown the same brutality. Realists would debate this point – but the president illustrates throughout the speech an intent to engage soft power and counter ideology.  This will be something he will continue to push in the future.

To the American People:
Won’t Cling Too Tightly, and Lose Control

The president is trying to establish certain foundational points here with the American people for their support:

As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq…
…I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.

1.) The US will not go full-bore into this conflict, “returning” or being “dragged” back into what they’ve been used to for a decade. This was the great fear when the Syria debate arose, and one the President would like to avoid. This is likely meant to “cut off at the pass” the likely debate of mission creep, or at least hold off discussion and a potential negative consensus if it does happen.

We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm…
…It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.

2.) Keeping expectations realistic. The strategy laid-out is, indeed, a long one – and the statement that “we can’t erase every trace of evil from the world” is an acceptance that many more like-threats will come in the future. The President likely wishes to avoid any sense of triumphalism or expectation of a quick victory that will later be dashed and undermine support for the mission.

…any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and -women who carry out these missions.

3.) This is to set up the expectation of risk – with personnel in-theater and aircraft overhead, any discussion of this being “low risk” would immediately undermine the mission if/when our people are killed/kidnapped by ISIL or if an aircraft were to go down.  The reality-check on the longevity and risk of this conflict up front may not create the initial surge of support, but will create a more sturdy and realistic appreciation for what we’re doing that may last longer.

To Middle Easterners & Potential Western ISIL “Converts”:
Middle East has America to believe in,
But whole lot of space to breathe in.

As stated throughout the speech—the United States is committed to the region, but the dialogue of “airpower”, standoff “counter-insurgency”, and advisors is to push the narrative that the US will not be occupiers again. This is likely a long-shot attempt to communicate to those on the fence about ISIL or worried about “western imperailism.” Part of that denial of a “imperialist” or “holy war” narrative is also the continued emphasis the United States is placing on ISIS not being “Islamic” and the United States not being at war with Islam. It is unlikely that this message would reach anyone in the conflict zone.

It may, however, be for those in Western Nations or more stable neighbors to the conflict who would follow ISIL’s new social media campaign into the maw of jihad, as Anwar al-Alwaki convinced some westeners to do.

Overall:

Some will argue with the strategy itself, as well as the accuracy/value of allusions to Somalia and Yemen (as I sit here watching talking heads on CNN), but as a piece of stand-alone strategic communication for the plan being put forward, the speech was a straight-forward. It clearly illustrates the reasons the US is engaged with ISIL and the commitment of the US to its own safety, as well as a commitment to allies -willing- to commit to their own safety,

Few communications are more “strategic” than those that come from the Bully Pulpit, and this was a solid piece of that kind of communication. Whether this 80’s classic of “Hold on Loosely, But Don’t Let Go,” is right plan for the US? That is for us to argue and, as time goes on, see.

Matthew Hipple is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and an officer in the United States Navy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the US Government, Department of Defense, or US Navy – but sometimes they do.

Military Strategy for a Twitter War

This article was written for our Strategic Communications Week.

It’s been clear for years now that Twitter, and social media writ large, have become battlespaces, where success is measured one retweet at a time. In 2012, ISAF and the Taliban went after each other in a tit-for-tat that sparked headlines like “NATO, Taliban take war to Twitter.”

Or take the example of the current conflict in Iraq, and ISIS’s (or ISIL’s) sophisticated recruiting campaign that The Guardian dubbed “Jihadi Cool.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the number of fighters ISIS has recruited via social media, the mass reach of its message is undeniable. The gruesome executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff first appeared on social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, and became headline news in a matter of hours.

The U.S. has put its weight behind a social media offensive of its own, and it’s important to note that both sides are taking the social media front seriously. ISIS employs advanced tools, like an app called “Dawn” that autotweets pro-ISIS messages from users that download it, and effective techniques, like hashtagging key phrases, to centralize the group’s message. Both aspects are weapons in the war for influence, and the most influential organizations should be taking notes.

Unfriended: The Challenges of Military Social Media Strategy

Military action and information operations have gone hand in hand since the dawn of warfare. Given the ubiquity of social media, taking IO to the social battlespace seems logical and necessary, but several issues make that leap a tricky act.

First is the “P word” – Propaganda, which gets thrown around every time the military forays into the world of mass messaging. Take the example of DARPA’s study of social networks. Since its start in 2011, the dryly named Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program has been scrutinized by the media as the groundwork for a social media propaganda machine. Even under the most noble pretenses- protecting troops in the field by studying social media cues, the negative connotations of government snooping on social networks, especially in a post-Snowden era, are good enough reasons for some organizations to limit their involvement with social media.

After Facebook’s psychological experiments on users surfaced in July 2014, The Guardian was quick to draw connections between Facebook’s widely disparaged study and DARPA’s SMISC. The smart defense media planner should take these comparisons into context, or otherwise risk losing valuable messaging opportunities.

A second challenge to military social media strategy is one that not all militaries face. If you’re part of the Israeli Defense Force, you have no problems tweeting the following:

Now if you’re tweeting on behalf of the U.S. military, you just can’t do this. Whereas the IDF has defined itself as a do-anything-to-win organization, the U.S. military places a great deal of effort into avoiding the perception as a killing force. Any media strategy must draw from the organization’s values, and for the U.S. military that means centering its tweets around the values of professionalism, leadership, and technical know-how.

Built to Share = Wider Influence

So amidst the perils of doing social media wrong, who’s doing it right? The first lesson comes from none other than the IDF, which crafts media products that are built for sharing. Their graphics and videos are visually engaging, easily understood, and as a result, perfect for passing on to Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and Youtube subscribers.

The idea that social media products should be shareable isn’t exactly a revelation in strategic communications, but too often, organizations fail to execute on the concept. Take PACOM’s Twitter feed (@PACOM), for example, which is so littered with acronyms and military jargon that it takes a professional military education to understand it. More jargon means a disengaged audience, which in turn means fewer shares and limited distribution.

Promoters, Millions of Them

The second lesson comes from ISIS, which relies on a network of outsiders to promote its material. Instead of a single source as the monolithic voice of the organization, multiple authors carry the water for ISIS. This distributed model lends the appearance of authenticity. It also creates a huge problem for the people attempting to control the spread of ISIS’s messages. Blocking offending users as they pop up becomes a challenge, and squashing violent statements on Twitter brings up meaty questions regarding free speech that are yet to be answered.

While militaries are built on authorities, and their communications strategies on official statements and messaging, the truth of the matter is that in social media, the official line is only the beginning of a discussion. Military topics draw crowds of commentators, and more than ever, official posts should be considered no more  than starting references for all of the conversations to follow.

The Serious Business of Social

A February 2014 Reuters study found that 57% of Facebook users and 50% of Twitter users had discovered, shared, or discussed a news story on the sites in the previous week. Internationally, the number of users who get their news (and arguably, their opinions) from social media will continue to increase, as will the opportunities for the most responsive organizations to communicate their messages in that domain.

Gaining the upper hand in social media requires interest and resources, but the alternative is being left out of the discussion. In strategic terms, that’s handing the initiative to your enemy.

WarPlan Crimson: The NextWar Schedule (3 August)

WarPlan Crimson is the long-view schedule for NextWar and its Sea Control Podcast

NextWar Upcoming Topic Weeks:

Maritime Border Security – Aug 19-24
Editor: Yours Truly (Nextwar(at)cimsec.org)
The world has a total 372,000 miles of coastline. Before the crises, there is a day-to-day challenge of monitoring and controlling those coastlines, from shore to shipyard.

Strategic Communications – Sept 9-14
Editor: Nicolas Di Leonardo (nicolas.a.dileonardo(at)gmail.com)
You keep saying words, I do not think they means what you think they mean… to everyone else.

Forgotten Naval Strategists – Sept 30-Oct5
Editor: TBD
BJ Armstrong widened the view of Mahan with his book 21st Century Mahan, but let’s do one better by expanding our register of maritime strategists – the forgotten & abused navalists. Inspired by ‘s article on Fernando de Oliveira.

Sea Control Podcast Schedule:

Aug 4: Sea Control Asia-Pacific – Indonesia Primer
Aug 11:  Maritime Border Control
Aug 18: Sea Control, East Atlantic – Alex Clarke talks about stuff, and probably mentions The War a bunch
Aug 21: General Robert Scales on Ordnance & Firing for Effect

CIMSEC Comic:
Can you Draw? Doctrine Man isn’t the ONLY one who can draw snarky pictures (though, with this ad going up the fourth time, he probably is, actually)! We’re looking for someone or someones who would like to do a weekly comic for CIMSEC on maritime strategy/policy/tech.