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ent of Politi
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Russia is increasingly applying methods of reflexive control (RC) to influence political decision-
making through election manipulation as well as undermining the trust of citizens in political
institutions and political systems of targeted countries. Russia is employing RC not only
domestically and in neighboring countries such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland
but also more and more in NATO countries such as the US, Germany, France, Great Britain, and
Canada. For the CAF to be able to develop effective countermeasures, it is essential to achieve a
deeper understanding of RC as it was used traditionally during the Cold War and particularly
how it has been further developed to be used in current Russian operations. This report discusses
the concept of Russian reflexive control, how it has evolved into its current iteration, the
mechanics of how it works, and how to identify possible countermeasures to RC.
This RMCC research report addresses the following research questions:
1. What is Russian reflexive control?
2. In what instances has RC been successfully applied?
3. What were the underpinning mechanisms by which it worked?
4. What are possible countermeasures to RC?
5. What are possible applications of RC mechanisms by the CAF?
The paper concludes that reflexive control in its current form implies a compound program of
targeted decision-making through multiple vectors, accounting for not only the adversary's
logical processing of information, but also emotional, psychological and cultural frameworks
within which decisions are made, over a long time-frame. The complexity of the concept offers
avenues to counter reflexive control operations. It appears to be a fragile operation that is fairly
easy to counter, once identified, if target audiences are made aware of the concept and how it
works. In addition to moral and legal concerns, the high complexity and fragility of RC
operations, along with fairly effective countermeasures to RC, suggest the CAF should not apply
RC mechanisms in operations.
Table of Contents
Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 4
Context ........................................................................................................................................ 8
Operational Components ........................................................................................................ 11
Case Studies ............................................................................................................................. 13
Georgia 2008 .......................................................................................................................... 13
Ukraine 2014-17 .................................................................................................................... 18
Syria, the West and Turkey 2015-16 ...................................................................................... 20
False Positives .......................................................................................................................... 24
Lessons from cases of RC ........................................................................................................ 26
How Russia exploits social media for Reflexive Control...................................................... 28
Spreading Narratives .............................................................................................................. 31
Smear campaigns/character assassination .............................................................................. 31
Testing of narratives ............................................................................................................... 32
Constructing credibility of influencers ................................................................................... 32
Undermining credibility of adversaries .................................................................................. 33
Information sabotage (counterfeit evidence) .......................................................................... 35
Policy Paralysis ...................................................................................................................... 36
Societal Norm Manipulation .................................................................................................. 37
Information pressure .............................................................................................................. 37
Provoke hasty, unplanned or imprudent response .................................................................. 38
Creation of desired movements .............................................................................................. 38
Entice physical, offline dissent/demonstrations ..................................................................... 39
Distraction .............................................................................................................................. 39
Propaganda ............................................................................................................................. 40
Reflexive control countermeasures ........................................................................................ 43
Potential applications of RC mechanisms by the CAF ........................................................ 48
The Strategic level .................................................................................................................. 49
Effectiveness .......................................................................................................................... 51
Potential use forms of similar mechanisms for influence ...................................................... 51
Tactical level .......................................................................................................................... 52
Operational level .................................................................................................................... 52
Conclusion ................................................................................................................................ 53
Reflexive control (RC) is the term used to describe the practice of predetermining an adversary’s
decision in your favor, by altering key factors in the adversary’s perception of the world. The
term is primarily encountered in discussion of Russian techniques of information warfare.1 In
this context, the practice represents a key asymmetric enabler to gain critical advantages,
neutralizing the adversary’s strengths by causing him or her to choose courses of action that are
damaging to the adversary and further Russian objectives.
The first section of this report (pp. 5-27) examines a number of case studies that may be
considered the successful application of principles of reflexive control by Russia. In order to do
so, it first introduces theories of reflexive control as described in Russian and other foreign
sources. It then breaks down these theories into key operational components, each of which can
be observed in the case studies of successful implementation. This section also notes a number of
false positives in the form of Russian actions that have been described elsewhere as reflexive
control but which should not be considered as such because they do not display its key criteria
Social media has vastly increased the ways RC can be applied, has reduced implementation
costs, and offers better deniability of operations. The second section (pp. 28-42) discusses how
social media is exploited for RC operations by Russia.
The third section (pp. 43-48) looks at possible countermeasures to RC operations and
summarizes a number of key themes and principles to help targets defend against potential future
The report concludes with a section (pp. 48-52) on thoughts on the application of RC-like
mechanisms by the CAF.
1 An accessible summary of the Russian-language literature on principles of reflexive control is available in
Kasapoglu, Can (2015): Russia's Renewed Military Thinking: Non-Linear Warfare and Reflexive Control, NATO
Defense College Research Paper 121; 25 November 2015. http://www.ndc.nato.int/news/news.php?icode=877.
Significantly, the phrase ‘reflexive control’ is today far more frequently encountered in Western
writing about Russian information warfare principles than in Russian primary sources. In
Russian public discussion, the term appears to have been superseded, and at least partially
replaced, by ‘perception management’ with a meaning similar to the Western understanding of
this approach. The Russian phrase ‘ɪɟɮɥɟɤɫɢɜɧɨɟ ɭɩɪɚɜɥɟɧɢɟ’ (additionally, ‘ɪɟɮɥɟɤɫɢɜɧɵɣ
ɤɨɧɬɪɨɥɶ’) now primarily refers to ‘reflexive practice’ in an educational or personnel
management context.2 As a result, it can be noted that few of the Russian-sourced definitions for
reflexive control included below are more recent than the 1990s. Nevertheless, given its
widespread application in Western analysis, and in the absence of a suitable replacement,
‘reflexive control’ continues to offer a suitable descriptor for the combination of information
activity covered by the following definitions.
Two brief definitions from Russian military publications can be used to summarize the concept
of reflexive control. According to the Navy Journal in 1999, reflexive control is “the process of
intentionally conveying to an opposing side of a certain aggregate information (attributes) which
will cause that side to make a decision appropriate to that information”3. As defined in the Army
Journal four years earlier, “Reflexive control consists of transmitting motives and grounds from
the controlling entity to the controlled system that stimulate the desired decision. The goal of RC
is to prompt the enemy to make a decision unfavorable to him. Naturally, one must have an idea
about how he thinks.”4
This second definition notes a key characteristic of reflexive control: the need to tailor false
information to the specific target, and adapt it, reflecting the target's responses and reactions.
This indicates that reflexive control entails a far broader and more complex approach than pure
deception, or providing an adversary commander with false operational information on which to
base his or her decision. Instead of consisting simply of disinformation, reflexive control implies
a compound program of targeting decision-making through multiple vectors, taking into account
not only the adversary's logical processing of information, but also the emotional, psychological,
cultural and other frameworks within which decisions are made. The Russian General Staff
Military Academy’s glossary of information security terms defines ‘agitation’ (ɚɝɢɬɚɰɢɹ) as “one
of the forms of information-psychological influence on the emotional plane of the target or group
of targets with the aim of achieving a specific psychological state which will lead to active and
2 For example, Korokh, AA (2009): Refleksivnoe Upravlenie: Kontseptsii, Podkhodiy i Oblast’ Priemeneniya
[Reflexive Control: Concepts, Approaches and Field of Application]. Novosibirsk State University of Economic
Management, 2009. https://nsuem.ru/science/publications/science_notes/issue.php?ELEMENT_ID=1021.
3 Chausov, F. (1999): Osnovy Refleksivnogo Upravleniya Protivnikom, Morskoi Sbornik, No. 9, 1999, p. 12.
4 Leonenko, S. (1995): Refleksivnoye Upravlenie Protivnikom, Armeyskiy Sbornik, No.8, 1995, pp. 27-32.
specific actions being taken”.5 More general and less specific propaganda and counter-
propaganda efforts also play a role in establishing the information background for decision-
Sergey Komov, a leading Russian thinker on information warfare, lists the variety of ways by
which an adversary could be induced to make unfavorable decisions, as follows:
• “Distraction, by creating a real or imaginary threat to one of the enemy’s most vital
locations (flanks, rear, etc.) during the preparatory stages of combat operations, thereby
forcing him to reconsider the wisdom of his decisions to operate along this or that axis;
• Overload, by frequently sending the enemy a large amount of conflicting information;
• Paralysis, by creating the perception of a specific threat to a vital interest or weak spot;
• Exhaustion, by compelling the enemy to carry out useless operations, thereby entering
combat with reduced resources;
• Deception, by forcing the enemy to reallocate forces to a threatened region during the
preparatory stages of combat operations;
• Division, by convincing the enemy that he must operate in opposition to coalition
• Pacification, by leading the enemy to believe that pre-planned operational training is
occurring rather than offensive preparations, thus reducing his vigilance;
• Deterrence, by creating the perception of insurmountable superiority;
• Provocation, by forcing the commander to take action advantageous to your side;
• Suggestion, by offering information that affects the enemy legally, morally, ideologically,
or in other areas;
• Pressure, by offering information that discredits the government in the eyes of its
These categories of influence are not mutually exclusive, and instead can be mutually
supporting. In addition, an information campaign within any given category need not be limited
to influencing a single decision. Similar to a skillful barrister cross-examining a witness,
reflexive control can lead the adversary to make a series of decisions that successively discard
options that would improve their position, until they are finally faced with a choice between bad
and worse, either of which options would favor Russia. Consequently, application of reflexive
control should be thought of as a persistent campaign waged along multiple cognitive axes.
5 Voyennaya Akademiya General’nogo Shtaba [Military Academy of General Shtaba] (2008): ɋɥɨɜɚɪɶ Ɍɟɪɦɢɧɨɜ
ɂ Ɉɩɪɟɞɟɥɟɧɢɣ ȼ Ɉɛɥɚɫɬɢ ɂɧɮɨɪɦɚɰɢɨɧɧɨɣ Ȼɟɡɨɩɚɫɧɨɫɬɢ [Dictionary of Terms and Definitions in the Field of
Information Security] 2nd Edition, Voyeninform, Moscow; 2008. p. 6.
6 Komov, Sergey A. (1997): About Methods and Forms of Conducting Information Warfare, Military Thought
(English Edition), No. 4, July–August 1997. pp. 18–22.
The starting point for planning the campaign is the action or decision that Russia wishes the
adversary to make. Scholar of Russian strategic thinking Dmitry Adamsky notes that reflexive
control “forces the adversary to act according to a false picture of reality in a predictable way,
favorable to the initiator of the informational strike, and seemingly independent and benign to
the target. The end result is a desired strategic behavior.”7 Timothy Thomas, a leading U.S.
expert in the Russian approach to information warfare, also defines reflexive control as "a means
of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to
voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.”8
Once this predetermined decision is defined, the sequence of steps to induce the adversary to
arrive at it can be determined. Senior British analyst Charles Blandy has described the process as
“Traditionally the Russian military mind, as embodied in the General Staff, looks further
ahead than its Western counterpart, on the basis that ‘foresight implies control’. Having
made the ‘decision’, the military mind works backwards from the selected objective to its
present position. Subsidiary goals are identified for achieving the objective. The Soviet
and Russian General Staffs over a long period of time have studied the application of
reflexive control theory both for deception and disinformation purposes in order to
influence and control an enemy’s decision-making processes.
Control of an opponent’s decision is achieved by means of providing him with the
grounds by which he is able logically to derive his own decision, but one that is
predetermined by the other side. This can be achieved:
• By applying pressure of force.
• By assisting the opponent’s formulation of an appreciation of the initial situation.
• By shaping the opponent’s objectives.
• By shaping the opponent’s decision-making algorithm.
• By the choice of the decision-making moment.”9
The target for reflexive control activity need not be limited to key decision-makers, but can
include broader sections of the population as well, in order to deliver effects en masse as well as
individual cognitive domains. The approach is different in each case; as described in 2014 in
Russia's Bulletin of the Academy of Military Sciences:
7 Adamsky, Dmitry (2015): Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy, IFRI; November 2015. p.
8 Thomas, Timothy (2004): Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military. Journal of Slavic Military Studies,
Volume 17; 2004. p. 237.
9 Blandy, Charles W. (2008): Provocation, Deception, Entrapment: The Russo-Georgian Five Day War, Defence
Academy of the United Kingdom; March 2009. http://conflictstudies.org.uk/files/04.pdf. This case study argues that
reflexive control was in play against Georgia in the lead-up to the armed conflict with Russia in August 2008.
“The targets for influence are both mass and individual consciousness. Those ‘honored’
with individual influence are those persons whose decisions determine issues of interest
to the adversary party (i.e., the President, the Prime Minister, head of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, diplomatic representatives, commanders of military formations and so
on). Information influence involves distorting facts, or envisages imposing on the target
person emotional impressions which are favorable to the influencer.”10
Influence on mass consciousness can have two distinct aims. Russia seeks to influence foreign
decision-making by supplying ‘polluted’ information to the public, exploiting the fact that
Western elected representatives receive and are sensitive to the same information flows as their
voters. When disinformation delivered in this manner is part of the framework for decisions, this
constitutes success for Moscow, because a key element of reflexive control is in place. In
addition, if information operations are being carried out as part of preparation for open conflict,
reflexive control can have a key role in undermining popular will to resist. As put by Dmitry
Adamsky, “Moral-psychological suppression and manipulation of social consciousness aims to
make the population cease resisting (otkaz ot soprotivleniia), even supporting the attacker.”11
It follows that a key enabler of reflexive control is target audience analysis: to predict adversarial
responses to specific tainted or false cognitive inputs. According to Sergey Komov, in order to
achieve information superiority, it is essential to "permanently examine [the] enemy's response to
informational and physical impacts and actively influence it." And Komov adds that
"information superiority" in turn is essential to implement reflexive control: "At the lowest level
it can be a delay in decision-making by the enemy, which can be achieved by disorganizing the
command and control system of its armies (forces). At the top-level it could involve the creation
of favorable common operational environment with subsequent reflexive control of enemy's
military command and control bodies, armies and troops.”12
Based on its Tsarist and Soviet inheritance, Russia today brings to the table a well internalized
set of disciplines and instincts about the relationship between war, international politics and
conflicts within states. In Russian/Soviet military science, war and peace are seen neither as
absolutes nor as completely antithetical. Cooperation, partnership, even alliances unfold within a
10 Kuleshov, Yu. et al. (2014): ɂɧɮɨɪɦɚɰɢɨɧɧɨ-ɩɫɢɯɨɥɨɝɢɱɟɫɤɨɟ ɩɪɨɬɢɜɨɛɨɪɫɬɜɨ ɜ ɫɨɜɪɟɦɟɧɧɵɯ ɭɫɥɨɜɢɹɯ:
ɬɟɨɪɢɹ ɢ ɩɪɚɤɬɢɤɚ [Information-Psychological Warfare In Modern Conditions: Theory And Practice], Vestnik
Akademii Voyennykh Nauk, Volume 46, No. 1; 2014. p. 105.
11 Adamsky, Dmitry (2015): Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy, IFRI; November 2015.
12 Komov, Col. Sergey A/ Korotkov, Maj-Gen S. V./ Dylevskiy, Col. I. N. (2008): About the Evolution of the
Modern American ‘Information Operations’ Doctrine, Military Thought [English Translation], Volume 3; 2008. pp.
framework of ‘struggle’. By the same token, accommodation and ‘conditional alliances’ are
considered possible even with resolute enemies (Nazi Germany, Daesh). These premises are
staple to an operational military and state security culture that has been remarkably resistant to
political and economic change. After years of incongruity and tension under Gorbachev and
Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin has brought this military and special service perspective into close
alignment with the political objectives of the state.13
Within this already fluid framework, the ambiguous and ‘non-linear’ character of what the West
calls ‘hybrid war’ has eroded further distinctions that students of earlier conflicts often took for
granted. The techniques of ‘military cunning’ are no longer confined to the battlefield. The same
can be said of ‘information war’, which The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
"…a conflict between two or more states in the information space with the aim of
damaging the information system, processes and resources, critically important and other
structures, undermining the political, economic and social system, mass psychological
indoctrination of the population in order to destabilize society and the state, and also
compel the state to take decisions in the interests of the opposing side."14
If we substitute the word ‘induce’ for 'compel', the final point captures the essence of reflexive
control. In application, this essence is invariably corrupted and confused by other techniques of
manipulation operating in the same time and space. In the words of Russia’s leading military
authority on ‘military cunning’, General VN Lobov, “all war is based on deception.”15 Deception
is achieved for a variety of purposes and by a variety of means, concurrently, of which reflexive
control is only one.
Since the end of the Second World War, if not before, strategic surprise and with it the ‘initial
period of war’ have been major preoccupations for Russian military thought. Thus, it should not
be surprising that whilst reflexive control is seen as a formal discipline in itself, the Russians
have also devised other disciplines that are complementary. When assessing attempts at influence
or preparation for conflict by Russia, it is not always easy to detach the reflexive element from
13 For a thorough introduction to the cultural and theoretical underpinnings of Russian reflexive control, see Diane
Chotikul, Diane (1986): The Soviet Theory of Reflexive Control in Historical and Psychocultural Perspective: A
Preliminary Study, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School; July 1986. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a170613.pdf.
14 Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (2011): Conceptual Views Regarding the Activities of the Armed
Forces of the Russian Federation in the Information Space [Kontseptual’nye vzglyady na deyatel’nost’
Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii v informatsionnom prostranstve], Russian Federation; 2011. p 5.
15 Lobov, VN (1987): Military Cunning: Foreword [Voennaya Khitrost’: Predislovie], Moscow; 1987.
this mix.16 Then again, it is not always helpful to do so if we want to arrive at a full
understanding of what Russia is doing and why.
When considering the complementary and overlapping techniques that may be employed by
Russia to achieve asymmetric military effect, the concepts of primary importance are:
• ‘Military cunning’ (‘voyennaya khitrost’), which is ‘designed to throw the enemy into
confusion regarding the condition, location and character of military activity’. An object
of study in Russia since the time of Suvorov, it is reflexive in aspiration, but unlike
reflexive control, it is not necessarily designed to induce the opponent to perform one
action or another.17 The same is true of the narrower and more familiar concept,
maskirovka (an object of academic study since 1904): the complex of measures devised
to confuse the enemy regarding the ‘presence and disposition of forces, their condition,
readiness, actions and plans’. Maskirovka is explicitly designed to achieve surprise,
which is not always a purpose of reflexive control.18
• Diversion (diversiya) serves a different, albeit complementary purpose: to ‘divert the
attention of the enemy and divide his forces’. In the Soviet period, it referred primarily to
actions carried out in the enemy rear, but now it can refer to any military activity ‘far
from the theatre of war’ designed to distract the enemy from one’s own main effort.19 The
reflexive element in diversiya is strong. But it is designed to produce a general response
whereas reflexive control, in its purest form, is designed to produce a specific one.
• Intelligence/reconnaissance by combat (razvedka boyem), the ‘acquisition of information
about the enemy by offensive action’, sometimes has a reflexive component and
sometimes none at all. When the action is designed to provoke a specific response
revealing information of intelligence value, then reflexive control serves the purposes of
Despite the close relationship and affinity between reflexive control and military techniques of
cognitive manipulation, reflexive control is not exclusively a military discipline. In the realm of
cyber-attacks, electoral interference and ‘fake news’, reflexive control takes its place alongside
other tools of ‘active measures’, such as disinformation (dezinformatsiya), penetration
(proniknoveniye) and provocation (provokatsiya). The multiplicity of variables within complex
undertakings, both civil and military, allows for a creative, dynamic and constantly evolving
kombinatsiya of tools and aims.
16 Ionov, M. (1971): O ɫɩɨɫɨɛɚɯ ɜɨɡɞɟɣɫɬɜɢɹ ɧɚ ɩɪɨɬɢɜɧɢɤɚ ɩɪɢ ɩɪɢɧɹɬɢɢ ɢɦ ɪɟɲɟɧɢɹ (On Methods of
Influencing an Opponent’s Decision), Voyennaya Mysl, Number 12d; 1971 p.24.
17 Defined with near perfect consistency since the first published reference in the Military Encyclopedia, 1911-1915.
18 Its core aims are to ‘achieve surprise, preserve combat readiness and the increase the sustainability of forces’.
Ministry of Defence of the USSR (1983): Military Encyclopaedic Dictionary [Voennyy Entsiklopedicheskiy
Slovar], Moscow; 1983. p 430. (hereafter abbreviated VES).
19 VES p. 233.
In reflexive control, direction of the adversary's decision-making process must be undetected.
This is achieved not only by driving in the required direction, but through continuous interaction
and providing the adversary with all the evidence necessary to arrive at the required conclusion
logically and apparently of the adversary’s own volition.
In order to do this, Russia can draw on a well-established arsenal of information warfare tools,
assets and techniques, some of which are recognizable from Soviet and Tsarist practice in past
centuries, and others of which are entirely new and exploit the hyper-connectivity provided by
the internet and social media. Dmitry Adamsky summarizes the nature of these tools as follows:
"Three main characteristics predominate. First, Russia’s approach to informational
struggle is holistic (kompleksnyy podhod), that is, it merges digital-technological and
cognitive-psychological attacks. While digital sabotage aims to disorganize, disrupt, and
destroy a state’s managerial capacity, psychological subversion aims to deceive the
victim, discredit the leadership, and disorient and demoralize the population and the
armed forces. Second, it is unified (edinstvo usilii), in that it synchronizes informational
struggle warfare with kinetic and non-kinetic military means and with effects from other
sources of power; and it is unified in terms of co-opting and coordinating a spectrum of
government and non-government actors – military, paramilitary, and non-military.
Finally, the informational campaign is an uninterrupted (‘bezpriryvnost’) strategic effort.
It is waged during ‘peacetime’ and wartime, simultaneously in domestic, the adversary’s,
and international media domains and in all spheres of new media."20
Each of these aspects requires use of a combination of effects, implemented by a variety of
actors. Can Kasapoglu notes that "the conduct of ‘reflexive control’ incorporates and advanced
toolkit that utilizes means of hard power, disinformation and manipulation, tools of influencing
the adversary’s decision-making algorithms, and altering the adversary’s response time
Direct and kinetic effects, and physical presence and movement, can be demonstrated by Russia's
state or proxy forces, whether paramilitary, intelligence, or operating in cyberspace.
Unconventional, information, psychological and cyber operations can be carried out with either
plausible or implausible deniability – or merely suggested in order to sow doubt.
20 Adamsky, Dmitry (2015): Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy, IFRI, p. 27; November
21 Kasapoglu, Can (2015): Russia's Renewed Military Thinking: Non-Linear Warfare and Reflexive Control, NATO
Defense College Research Paper 121; 25 November 2015, http://www.ndc.nato.int/news/news.php?icode=877.
Other human assets consist of a wide range of individuals operating on behalf of Russia in the
target country – whether knowingly or unknowingly. These include marginalized members of
political parties on the right and left, but also corrupt and compromised business and political
elites, ‘useful idiots’, and nominally independent academic communities that provide advice to
policymakers for dealing with Russia that in fact furthers Russian objectives. In each case, the
use of human assets working within the adversary’s public opinion or decision-making
ecosystem allows full exploitation of local influences and psychological frameworks that are
based on history, preconceptions, national characteristics and even innate linguistic bias.22
Crucially, it also facilitates what Can Kasapoglu describes as the "set of interrelated and specific
procedures which aim to imitate the adversary’s reasoning and possible behavior [emphasis
added] in order to drag him into an unfavorable decision for himself".23
One factor common to all of these is the ability to disseminate pervasive disinformation.24
Russian disinformation efforts were relatively neglected in the post-Cold War period until
becoming once more the subject of close study with the post-2014 rise of concern over social
media effects and ‘fake news’. Yet their enduring power is sustained by the number of Soviet-era
fabrications that are still widely believed today.25 In addition to straightforward fiction, Russia
continues to rely heavily on simulacra (representations of reality), analogies, and other forms of
influence introduced into the reflexive process to control perceptions.26 A prime example is the
use of fascist and Nazi analogies by Russia when referring to Ukraine or the Baltic states. Not
only does this galvanize opinion in Russia itself with explicit references to the Second World
War, it also helps to erode international support for Russia's adversaries by casting doubt on their
motivations and moral leanings. Furthermore, Russia seeks to influence the volume and timing
of information flow, whether to leave the adversary confused at a dearth of hard evidence or, as
noted by Sergey Komov above, entirely overwhelmed by a deluge of evidence that is possibly
22 Shemayev, Volodymyr N. (2007): Cognitive Approach to Modeling Reflexive Control in
Socio-economic Systems. Information and Security, Volume 22; 2007. p. 35, quoted in Selhorst, A.J.C. (2016):
Russia’s Perception Warfare: The Development of Gerasimov’s Doctrine in Estonia and Georgia and its Application
in Ukraine, Militaire Spectator, Volume 185, No. 4; 2016. pp. 151-2.
23 Kasapoglu, Can (2015): Russia's Renewed Military Thinking: Non-Linear Warfare and Reflexive Control, NATO
Defense College Research Paper 121; 25 November 2015, http://www.ndc.nato.int/news/news.php?icode=877.
24 Holland, Max (2006): The Propagation and Power of Communist Security Services Dezinformatsiya 2.
International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Volume 19, Issue 1; 2006. p. 2.
25 Peter Pomerantsev and Andrew Weiss cite the case of KGB disinformation on the murder of President John F.
Kennedy becoming institutionalised in the United States, up to and including being incorporated without
qualification in the Oliver Stone movie JFK. They note: "The lines of fact, fiction and dezinformatsiya have become
utterly blurred, and few of the millions who have watched the movie are aware of the KGB’s influence on the
plot.” See Pomerantsev, Peter/ Weiss, Andrew Weiss (2014): The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin
Weaponizes Information, Money, and Culture, Institute of Modern Russia; 2014. p. 9.
26 Makhnin, V.L. (2013): Refleksivnye Protsessy V Voennom Iskusstve: Istoriko-Gnoseologicheskiy Aspekt
[Reflexive Processes in Military Art: The Historico-Gnoseological Aspect], Voennaya mysl (Military Thought),
Number 2, p. 40; 2013. p. 40.
Overall, some of the ‘categories of reflexive interactions’ defined during the 1980s to describe
Soviet practice are entirely appropriate three decades later when applied to current Russian
practice and ambition. These categories are expressed as ‘transferring an image’, that is,
imposing on the adversary a false image of what is happening around him or her in order to
guide his/her decision-making. They are as follows:
• "Transfer of an image of the situation: providing an opponent with an erroneous or
incomplete image of the situation.
• Creation of a goal for the opponent: putting an opponent in a position in which he must
select a goal in our favor (e.g., for provoking an enemy with a threat to which he must
• Form a goal by transferring an image of the situation: feigning weakness or creating a
• Transfer of an image of one’s own perception of the situation: providing an opponent
with false information or portions of the truth based on one’s own perception of the
• Transfer of an image of one’s own goal.
• Transfer of an image of one’s own doctrine: giving a false view of one’s procedures and
algorithms for decision-making.
• Transfer of one’s own image of a situation to make the opponent deduce his own goal:
presenting a false image of one’s own perception of the situation, with the accepted
additional level of risk."27
The following case studies examine in detail those instances of reflexive control directly linked
to armed conflict between Russia and other states in the last decade: namely Russian actions in
Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. It then goes on to introduce instances of reflexive control from
previous decades that illustrate other characteristics or applications of the principle.
The factors that led to the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and where the
blame lies for its occurrence, are both mixed and complex. By the summer of 2008, the Kremlin
was increasingly ready to intervene forcibly to resolve tensions that it was actively exacerbating.
For both political and military reasons, reflexive control was an important element in a policy
faithful to Bismarck’s axiom: ‘if there is to be a war, we would rather make it than suffer it’. The
27 Reid, Clifford (1987): Reflexive Control in Soviet Military Planning. in Dailey, Brian/ Parker, Patrick (eds.),
Soviet Strategic Deception. The Hoover Institution Press, Stanford CA; 1987. pp. 293–312.
calculations of Russia’s political and military leadership stem from an outlook very different to
that of their Western counterparts. Whereas the Western mind is trained to make distinctions and
assess individual developments ‘on their merits’, the custodians of Russia’s military and special
services have been trained to make connections, to assess how developments in one region will
affect the dynamics of another and, in turn, to ask what actions in distant parts might say about
an adversary’s intentions closer to the Russian homeland.
Almost ten years before these events, NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo (which fatefully
coincided with the first wave of NATO’s eastern enlargement) had resolved a decade-long
argument in Russia about whether NATO had changed or was changeable. Whatever can be said
about NATO’s bombing campaign, it was not the behavior of a ‘strictly defensive’ alliance. The
Russian reaction, based on emotion more than on a serious appraisal of NATO's intentions
(‘today they are bombing Yugoslavia, but thinking of Russia’) naturally raised concerns about
how the techniques of NATO’s intervention could be transposed to the Caucasus. These
concerns were heightened by two developments that followed one another in swift succession in
early 2008: Kosovo’s declaration of independence on 17 February, followed by its recognition
by the majority of EU member states, and on 3 April, the NATO Bucharest Summit Declaration,
announcing that Ukraine and Georgia ‘will become members of NATO’.
Regional developments added a further dimension of concern for a country that long had
subscribed to the view that ‘he who wishes to control the North Caucasus must also control the
South’: developing ties between Azerbaijan, the United States and Turkey, cooling of relations
between Russia and Armenia, the spread of radical Islam following the second Chechen war,
mounting threats to state authority in Dagestan and the horrific outrage in Beslan in 2004 (from
which Putin concluded that ‘we demonstrated weakness, and the weak are beaten’ – and from
which he went on to blame those who ‘think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of
the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated’).28 In itself, the 2003 Rose
Revolution that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power was widely believed to have been
orchestrated by US intelligence services: a view even more tenaciously held about Ukraine’s
subsequent Orange Revolution.
Yet by 2008, Russia’s mood was decidedly different from what it had been in 2004, let alone
1999. The state, the ‘vertical of power’, and collective self-respect had been restored on the basis
of high energy prices driving year-on-year economic growth of 7 per cent. No less important was
the perception that the United States, burdened by its War on Terror and its bungling of the war
in Iraq, was rapidly losing its ability to influence the course of events in Russia’s presumptive
‘sphere of privileged interests’.
Thus, months before the August events, the Kremlin had reached the conclusion that conflict in
the South Caucasus was not only becoming likely but necessary, and warnings to this effect were
28 Putin, Vladimir (2004): Televised Speech to the Russian People (translated as Putin Tells the Russians: ‘We Shall
Be Stronger’), The New York Times; 5 September 2004. As translated by The New York Times.
given on more than one occasion by Presidents Putin and Medvedev, Foreign Minister Lavrov
and CGS Baluyevskiy.29 To accomplish its objectives, it was not enough for Russia to warn. It
needed to establish culpability for the conflict. In military-operational terms, this, in Charles
Blandy’s words, meant exerting ‘pressure on Georgian decision-making’.30 The preparation of
the physical and cognitive battlefields advanced along four vectors.
• Discrediting President Saakashvili. If war was to take place, it was essential that Mikheil
Saakashvili’s recklessness be the cause of it. Restoration of Georgia’s constitutional
authority in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, pledged at the start of his presidential term,
might have rung alarm bells in several capitals, but it also provided an information
opportunity for Moscow, as did the president’s undeniable egotism and spasms of
impulsiveness. In May 2006, Mikhail Saakashvili: A Psychological Profile of the
Character was published by a collegium of leading Western institutes that did not exist.31
Although the forgery was crude, the message was credible and, by 2008, well amplified.
• Military Pressure. Some three months before the start of exercise Kavkaz-2008, the
Russian contingents of the Collective CIS Peacekeeping Forces in the North Caucasus
[KSPM] were substantially augmented and became more active.32 This intensification of
activity, notably on the part of logistics and engineering personnel – and, more tellingly,
a detachment of 400 railway troops deployed to Abkhazia in May – was more consistent
with war preparation than posturing, and the point was not lost on Tbilisi.33
29 Two themes were articulated: the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo had created an ‘extremely
dangerous precedent’, and Russia would take ‘all possible measures’ to prevent Ukraine and Georgia
from joining NATO. See for example Lavrov’s interview to Ekho Moskviy on 8 April and Baluyevskiy’s
interview with Vesti on 11 April, warning that Russia would ‘take measures with the aim of securing its
interests in the close vicinity of its state borders’.
30 Blandy, Charles W. (2009): Provocation, Deception, Entrapment: The Russo-Georgian Five Day War,
Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, March 2009. p.1. http://conflictstudies.org.uk/files/04.pdf.
31 Available only in manuscript but widely circulated. For Edward Lucas’s summary: https://www.
edwardlucas.com/2006/06/29/the-mysterious-assassination-of-mr-saakashvili/. On 13 August 2008, a
psychological profile in identical terms was published by Krasnaya Zvezda: http://www.redstar.ru/
32 These forces officially formed part of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces of the CIS [KSPM SNG]
established under the May 1994 Moscow Agreement, alongside UNOMIG, which had deployed 121
observers from 1994. Until April 2008, the deployed strength of KSPM fluctuated between 1,500 to
2,000, but between April and May swiftly rose to its maximum permissible level of 3,000.
33 Not only Georgia, but the US administration, the NATO Secretary General and the EU Parliament
stated that these steps were inconsistent with neutral peacekeeping. Note the observation of Charles
Blandy: ‘Before any movement of ground forces in [North Caucasus Military District] […] a requirement
would exist for route clearance involving sapper reconnaissance and regular culvert patrols [...].
Furthermore, roads are not up to Western European standards. Prior deployment of troops in encampments
with detachments for collection and repair of vehicles…would certainly ease problems.’ Blandy, Op.Cit., p 4. steps
and other incidents.
• Masking and Baiting. The Georgian state leadership, like many others, understood that
military exercises have historically afforded Russia a means of camouflaging and
preparing for military intervention. Commencing 15 July, Kavkaz-2008 – officially 8,000
troops but possibly twice that many from different arms of service of the Ground Forces,
naval, amphibious and airborne forces as well as Federal Border Service and MVD
Internal Troops – took place across eleven areas of the Southern Federal District, the
Black Sea littoral and almost all the mountain passes of the Great Caucasus Range. The
exercise provided the backdrop for a deterioration of the general security situation on the
South Ossetian-Georgian line of contact.34 That this performance unsettled nerves in
Tbilisi goes without saying.
On 4 August, the exercise officially ended. Nevertheless, exchanges of fire between South
Ossetian militias and Georgian armed forces increased in intensity and scale, alarmingly so on 6
August. At least some of this appears to have taken the Georgians by surprise. The evacuation of
South Ossetian civilians to the Russian Federation towards the conclusion of Kavkaz-2008
suggests not only anticipation of a Georgian counterblow, but an element of premeditation in
Tskhinvali and Moscow.35 By 7 August, the fog of war had descended on Tbilisi. There was no
clear picture of how many Russian units had returned to their permanent peacetime locations,
how many were in transit and how many units that had departed were returning to the conflict
zone. Among its many failings, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the
Conflict in Georgia established after the conflict by the Council of the European Union (hereafter
IIFFMCG) overlooked evidence that Russian soldiers had entered Georgian territory through the
Roki tunnel already before the Georgian air and ground offensive started on 7 August 2008 at
11.35 p.m.36 However, Georgia appears to have been fully aware that Russian troops unrelated to
the peacekeeping units were crossing the border.
• Lawfare. The body of law pertaining to ‘self-defence’, ‘justified use of force’ and
‘proportionality’ sets a high bar in conditions where the techniques of employing
unattributed force are well developed and the activity of militias and irregular forces
defines the conflict environment. Real, as opposed to formal, lines of subordination and
actual, rather than circumstantial, complicity of states in the actions of non-state entities
operating under their protection is uncommonly difficult to prove according to legal
34 The intensity of fighting on 1-2 August between Georgian forces and South Osetian militias, including exchanges
of mortar fire, was assessed by the OSCE Mission in Georgia as the worst since 2004.
35 Channel One Russia (2008): Transported Under Fire: Displaced from South Ossetia Arrive in Russia [Viyvezli iz-
pod ognya. V Rossiyu pribiyvayut bezhentsiy iz Yuzhnoy Osetii], Channel One, 3 August 2008.
As Blandy notes, the South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoyty, left Tskhinvali on the morning of the 7th and
established a military command headquarters in Dzhava. Op Cit., p 7.
36Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (2009): Report, Volume 2; IIFFMCG/
mpil.de; September 2009. p. 254. www.mpil.de/files/pdf4/IIFFMCG_Volume_II1.pdf.
definitions.37 These have not kept pace with changes in the modalities of warfare. With
respect to Russian responsibility for South Ossetia’s actions, the conclusion of the
IIFFMCG should be noted:
"The de facto Ministries of Defence, Internal Affairs and Civil Defence and Emergency
Situations [of South Ossetia], the State Security Committee, the State Border
Protection Services and the Presidential Administration were largely staffed by Russian
representatives or South Ossetians with Russian nationality who had previously
worked in equivalent positions in Central Russia or in North Ossetia. Nevertheless, all
those security officials were formally subordinated to the de facto President of South
Ossetia" (author’s emphasis).38
With respect to proportionality, South Ossetian militias were both resistant and indifferent to
Georgia’s responses between 1 and 7 August, which would have presented an impossible choice
for any Georgian authority at the receiving end of unremitting and escalating provocations across
its frontier. Georgia’s foolhardy armed offensive in South Ossetia is not contested, though it is
undeniable that it was both provoked and forewarned.
Russia has also used the war to prepare the peace. By rhetoric, as much as by bombardment and
the movement of forces, Russia used every device to demonstrate that if Saakashvili did not go,
he would be ousted. The military realities and atmospherics not only persuaded the Georgian
government to evacuate the capital on 9 August, it persuaded the EU of the urgency of securing a
peace accord. Yet in the absence of credible evidence that the storming of Tbilisi was ever
seriously contemplated, one can conclude that Russia was driving its EU interlocutors to the
negotiating table on its terms. The urgency with which French President Nicolas Sarkozy took
over previously even-handed peace negotiations and drove through acceptance of a peace plan
drafted in Moscow resulted from a false perception that Georgia could be lost altogether.
In the six-point ceasefire agreement of 12 August, Sarkozy forced a fateful concession on Tbilisi:
that “awaiting an international mechanism, Russian peacekeepers shall implement additional
security measures”. In doing so, he gave Russia unintended licence not only to retain its troops in
the disputed territories, but also to establish an 8-km ‘security zone’ beyond the administrative
borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A subsequent three-point agreement of 8 September
mandated the ‘complete withdrawal’ of Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ from the security zone by
10 October, as well as the deployment of ‘at least 200’ EU observers in ‘the zones adjoining
South Ossetia and Abkhazia’. But EU protests that Russia was violating the ceasefire agreement
37 According to the International Court of Justice (as summarized by the IIFFMCG), ‘effective control
[over the actions of irregulars and militias] must be verified for each individual and each concrete action’
(author’s emphasis). IIFFMCG, Vol 2, p 260.
38 Ibid., p 261.
by occupying the two disputed regions were easily countered by reference to the explicit
permission Russia had been given to do so in the ceasefire agreement.39
The Five-Day War provides two important examples of reflexive control: at the onset of the
conflict and at its conclusion. It also shows how complex the undertaking can be even when the
psychology of the opponent is well understood. It further demonstrates that the employment of
reflexive control cannot be understood in isolation from the wider complex of measures designed
to influence the perceptions and actions of an opponent.
If Russia sought to avoid all public blame for the beginning of the war, its efforts failed, and that
judgment is manifestly underscored by the IIFFMCG. In its second objective, the assigning of
blame to Georgia, Russia manifestly succeeded. The realization of Georgian culpability at the
onset of war distracted attention from Russia’s breath-taking licence in its prosecution. The
difficulty of ‘naming an aggressor’ and the resulting opportunity to apply moral equivalence
eventually persuaded many NATO Allies (including the incoming Obama administration) that
the war was an isolated local occurrence rather than the prelude to a more militarized and
ambitious policy. These conclusions virtually ensured that the war’s lessons would not be
learned and that Russia’s next and more ambitious exercise in ‘hybrid warfare’, like the war with
Georgia itself, would come as a complete surprise.
At the time of writing, Russia has entered a fifth year of conflict with Ukraine. The evolution of
the conflict through repeated crises and nominal peace initiatives has provided Russia with a
laboratory to evaluate different techniques of influence on Ukraine's friends and partners in the
West .40 The results have been impressive: they include not only persistent confusion and
occasional panic as to Russian strategic intentions, but also – as in the case of Georgia above –
the imposition of a ceasefire plan drafted in Moscow which constrains the victim, Ukraine, and
allows the aggressor, Russia, continued freedom of action while in this case denying it is even a
party to the conflict. This in turn leads to a perception that it is primarily Ukraine at fault for not
implementing the (unfeasible) terms of the Minsk accords, which erodes international support for
Russia's adversary still further.
Crimea, February-March 2014
The appearance of the so-called ‘little green men’ in Crimea a few days after Viktor Yanukovych
was removed from office (22 February) is, with hindsight, widely taken to mark the start of
Russia’s covert operation to annex (‘return’) Crimea. In fact, Russia officially dates the start of
the operation as 20 February, and intervention by Russia in non-military forms (e.g., preparatory
39 As predicted immediately after the signing of the ceasefire agreement in Advanced Research Group (2008): The
Nature of the Georgian Ceasefire, Advanced Research and Assessment Group, Defence Academy of the United
Kingdom, 13th August 2008.
40Snegovaya, M. (2015): Putin’s Information Warfare in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare,
Institute for the Study of War, Russia Report I; September 2015. p.9.
activities by the Night Wolves bikers) was discernible prior to the annexation. The aim of the
covert and deniable preparations was twofold: to surprise and to prevent a coherent Ukrainian or
Western response before ‘irreversible facts’ were created. These objectives had been facilitated
by the progressive penetration of Ukrainian security structures and the dismantling of
communications and agent networks well before these dates.
Donbas, February-April 2014
As with Crimea, the exercise of reflexive control also explains the ambiguous character and
sequencing of the initial Russian interventions in Donetsk and Luhansk: First, by means of
special service personnel disguised as ‘tourists’ and second, by means of larger detachments who
formed and commanded local ‘militias’ (‘opolchenie’). Although the first Russian-appointed
‘Defense Minister’ of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ stated that ‘everything would have
collapsed’ without the arrival of these detachments – although only one of the initial ‘leaders’ of
the Donetsk and Luhansk republics was a Ukrainian citizen – the pattern of intervention and
Russian denials sustained, and still sustains, perceptions that the conflict is a civil war, rather
than an irregular war financed and commanded from outside.41
Diversion also played a role. The deployment of Russian mobile battle groups on Ukraine’s
borders served to focus Western minds on the hypothetical possibility of all-out invasion, and to
divert attention from the real war taking place inside the country. At the operational level, the
Russian military buildup along the border areas during and after the seizure of Crimea not only
held Ukrainian military formations in place to counter them, but also kept the Kyiv leadership
and the West in a state of confusion about the true scope and limits of Russian intentions in
Ukraine. Subsequently, throughout most of 2014, the force deployed close to the Ukrainian
border served as a distraction from the actual Russian operations within Ukraine. The Russian
ground forces’ movements to and from the border kept Western governments and intelligence
agencies in a perpetual state of speculation on the likelihood of a full-scale invasion, and served
as a reliable implement to dial up or down the pressure on Western and Ukrainian decision-
making by augmenting or depleting the forces in apparent readiness to invade. In this case, the
actual capability of those troops was irrelevant.42
Minsk I and II, September 2014 / February 2015
Russia’s combined arms offensives of August 2014 and January 2015 introduced a dramatically
new dynamic into the conflict. They represented escalations of information war as much as war-
fighting. The January offensive formed the backdrop to threats delivered by Putin personally to
German Chancellor Angela Merkel to escalate the conflict to unspecified levels if his demands
were not met. Despite her singular resistance up to this point, a key part of Merkel’s cognitive
41 BBC Russian Service (2014): Strelkov Said that It Was He Who Began the War in Ukraine (Strelkov Soobshchil,
Chto Eto On Nachal Voynu Na Ukraine), BBC Russian Service, 20 November 2014.
42 Keir Giles, “Russia’s Toolkit”, in The Russian Challenge, London: Chatham House, 2015, p. 46.
‘filter’ was abhorrence of conventional war, let alone nuclear war in Europe, and Putin exploited
this sensitivity to the full.43 In other words, he used a combination of inputs and knowledge of the
psychological trigger points of his adversary to exercise reflexive control over her actions (and
those of French President François Hollande). The first consequence was the flawed and hastily
arranged Package of Measures for Implementation of the Minsk Accords (Minsk II). The second
was the decision to link sanctions, (hitherto tied to the return of Donbas to Ukraine), to the
implementation of Minsk, which does not stipulate its return but only points to its ‘special status’
and hence meets Russian objectives entirely. The third was the ‘Normandy process’, which
continues to this day despite Russia’s failure to honor any of the Minsk II provisions.44
Maryinka, June 2015
The fact that this brigade level offensive by Russian-commanded forces was repulsed was
incidental to its purpose. The more straightforward purpose was reflexive control: provoking
Ukraine into redeploying heavy weaponry from the demarcation line set by the Minsk accord to
the combat zone. The more significant but less straightforward aspect, as Ukraine’s military
commanders understood, was razvedka boem: establishing the speed with which this deployment
could be affected. Maryinka constitutes a model (but not singular) example of the synergy
between reflexive control and razvedka boem at the higher tactical level.
Crimea war scare, August 2016
A sharp engagement between a Ukrainian border contingent and armed smugglers from Crimea
triggered a mobilization of Russian forces and a two-week war scare. This incident could have
developed the exercise of reflexive control against two very different audiences: First, Ukraine’s
armed forces, who instead chose wisely not to respond with reciprocal measures and therefore
avoided escalation of the conflict; and second, Western leaders on the eve of the G20 summit in
Hangzhou, who might have been intimidated into further concessions to Russia had the
escalation taken place.
Syria, the West and Turkey 2015-16
Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 was as much the product of urgency (the
potential fall of Assad) as opportunity. It was an ambitious step, that relied on a fortuitous
combination of timing and circumstance. Had Crimea still been under Ukrainian jurisdiction,
Russia might not have had the confidence to undertake the operation at all.
43 Already, Putin had issued similar threats to EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso. The Kremlin’s
furious reaction when he publicized the comments suggests that their purpose was intimidation rather than
propaganda. See: CBS News (2014): Leaked Putin Comment on Ukraine Spurs Diplomatic Showdown, CBS News,
2 September 2014. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/leaked-putin-remarks-on-ukraine-enrage-russia.
44 Sherr, James (2017): Geopolitics and Security. In Lough, John et al., The Struggle for Ukraine, The Royal
Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House; 18 October 2017. pp. 11-13. https://reader.chathamhouse.org/
Despite the multiplicity and tenacity of Assad’s internal opponents, the most problematic factor
for Russia has been the external players: The West (loosely speaking) and Turkey, which by any
standards is a determinant regional actor with high stakes in the conflict’s course and outcome.
For Russia, the parrying of these challenges and management of others (notably the war in
Ukraine) have made inescapable various forms of kombinatsiya, in which diversion, reflexive
control and razvedka boem play a necessary part.
More than once in this conflict, the aim of diversion, ‘to divert the attention of the enemy and
divide his forces’ has been met by third parties – not necessarily acting in connivance with
Russia. The November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris presented just such an opportunity with
respect to François Hollande, just as fourteen years earlier Putin had used the attack on the Twin
Towers to make common cause with George Bush and reduce the significance of Chechnya and
the Caucasus in US thinking. Hollande’s calls for the revival of a ‘grand coalition’ with Russia
not only diverted his attention from Syria, but from the war in Donbas less than a month after he
and Merkel had toughened the West’s stance. Within days of Hollande’s speech, fighting in
Donbas sharply escalated – there was no French response.
At the time Russia’s expeditionary deployment got under way in Syria, Erdogan’s Turkey was
resolved to aid the portion of Assad’s opponents it could influence. This automatically placed it
in an adversarial relationship with Russia. Repeated overflights of Turkish territory in defiance
of multiple warnings led on 24 November to the downing of a Russian Su-24M by a Turkish
fighter jet. In view of the persistence of these overflights and the fact that Russia had been
targeting the very Turkmen tribes that Turkey had been supporting, it is difficult to imagine that
Russia was not testing reactions (razvedka boem), and provoking a response (reflexive control)
in addition to pursuing immediate operational objectives.
It is equally difficult to imagine that Russia did not draw conclusions from NATO’s
conspicuously pro forma declaration of support for Turkey, the elaborately even-handed
responses of Obama and Hollande, and especially from Washington’s failure to postpone the
scheduled withdrawal of a US air defense component from Turkey in the wake of the incident.45
After much noisy talk of war with Turkey, two major terrorist attacks in Istanbul changed the
conversation. In June 2016, Erdogan formally apologized to Putin, and relations embarked upon
a different trajectory, one which was greatly more favorable to Russia.
45 Stoltenberg, Jens (2015): Statement by the NATO Secretary General After the Extraordinary NAC Meeting,
NATO.int; 24 November 2015. http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_125052.htm. And see: CNN (2015):
Obama: ‘Turkey Has the Right to Defend Itself and its Airspace’, CNN.com; 24 November 2015. http://www.cnn.
com/2015/11/24/politics/obama-francois-hollande-white-house-meeting/; and also: BBC (2015): US Urges Turkey
and Russia to End Row Over Downed Plane, BBC.com, 1 December 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-
34974409; and also: RT (2015): Obama, Hollande Call on Turkey and Russia to Prevent Escalation After Jet
Downing; RT.com; 24 November 2015. https://www.rt.com/usa/323324-hollande-obama-isis-terrorism/.
The factors that led President Erdogan to change course regarding Russia are diverse and cannot
be attributed to Russian policy alone, though they provide further illustration of Russia’s means
of acting upon events. They also illustrate its long-standing determination to make use of
unexpected opportunity as well as the vulnerabilities of its opponents.
Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons
Russia has repeatedly implied that tactical nuclear weapons might be used against NATO states
in the event of conflict. Moscow capitalizes on the prospect that this is highly alarming for
Western leaders. Within this overall atmosphere of apprehension, Russia cultivates its image as
an irresponsible actor in order to increase the credibility of the nuclear threat. It also actively
disseminates the highly dangerous argument that the best way to respond to Russian nuclear
posturing is to withdraw the last remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons from Western
Europe.46 In this way, counter-intuitively, Russia creates a mindset where abolishing a significant
deterrent at the West's disposal is presented as a rational response to Russian behavior.
Air and Sea Incidents
Russia consistently contrives situations where it can present itself as a solution to a problem
rather than the cause of it. One such is the pattern of unsafe behavior by Russian aircraft
interacting with the air and maritime assets of NATO and other nations. Russia offers as the
solution consultations and negotiations on new binding agreements on air and sea encounters.
This finds a receptive audience among politicians alarmed at the potential for conflict, who
overlook the fact that agreements and international regulations have been in place for decades
and that Russia is non-compliant. This campaign leads to a range of outcomes beneficial to
Russia. The perception is created that normal air and sea operations by NATO nations in the
vicinity of Russia are dangerous and provocative and could lead to a serious incident, which will
generate pressure by uninformed or Russia-friendly politicians and decision-makers to halt these
operations, thereby compromising friendly training and intelligence gathering. In addition,
NATO nations are faced with no good choices when responding to Russian calls for talks on
reducing the number of incidents. If they agree, they legitimize Russian behavior, at best are
entangled in unproductive negotiations with Russia, and at worst arrive at a new bilateral or
international agreement shifting the regulatory framework in Russia's favor. If they refuse, this
contributes to the broader Russian campaign to present Western countries as uncooperative and
obstructive, for failing to entertain Russian offers of friendship and constructive cooperation.
46 As repeated in Wilton Park (2015): Rethinking Deterrence and Assurance, Wilton Park Conference Report,
Wilton Park.org; 10–13 June 2015. https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/event/wp1401/. See also continued debate on the
renewal of nuclear sharing in NATO and dual-capable aircraft in Europe, especially Germany.
According to Timothy Thomas, during the temporary occupation of the Russian White House by
members of Parliament in October 1993 the Russian military employed reflexive control to
remove the parliamentarians and their supporters from the building. Key figures within the White
House had refused to leave the building, even to address their supporters who had surrounded it,
probably because the Russian security police (MVD) or regular police were also in the crowd
and might try to overpower them. Therefore, the security services developed a reflexive control
plan. On the day of an immense demonstration in support of the White House’s occupiers, the
police permitted one of their communication posts to be overrun by the protestors. At the same
time, the military authorities broadcast messages that would be intercepted in this
communications post, simulating a conversation between two high ranking Ministry of Internal
Affairs (MVD) officers discussing the imminent storming of the White House. The two officers
discussed details of the ‘operation’, which they implied was an attack designed to clear the
occupants out of the building. One of the officers said repeatedly, “No matter what, get the
Chechen. Kill him if you have to.” ‘The Chechen’ was a clear reference was to Ruslan
Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Parliament and one of two key figures in the occupation (the
other being former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi). Within a few minutes of receiving this
information, both Khasbulatov and Rutskoi emerged on the White House’s balcony and asked
the crowd to go instead to the Ostankino TV station and capture it. President Boris Yeltsin now
had a raison d’être to act against both Khasbulatov and Rutskoi based on the latter’s incitement
of mass disorder.47
Charles Blandy describes preparations for Russian military intervention in Chechnya as an
instance of reflexive control. It should be noted that the entire pretext for the intervention – an
attack on neighboring Dagestan by Chechen jihadist groups – has been alleged to have been
staged by the authorities in Moscow. The lead-up to the move into Chechnya by the Russian
Combined Group of Federal Forces (OGV) was accompanied by intense speculation in
Chechnya and throughout Russia as to the federal authorities' intentions. This resulted from use
of reflexive control to create false perceptions, misconceptions and doubts about the location,
direction and aims of federal forces throughout the period of the military build-up. The outcome
was to complicate Chechen preparations for resistance, to pre-empt domestic protest (the
bruising first Chechen war five years before was still fresh in Russian minds), and to divert and
confuse overseas objections to the impending invasion.48
47 Thomas, Timothy L. (2004): Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military, Journal of Slavic
Military Studies, Volume 17; 2004. pp. 252-3.
48 Blandy, Charles W. (2001): Chechnya: Federal Retribution. Encirclement, Forceful Intervention and Isolation,
Conflict Studies Research Centre, March 2001.
The Dutch referendum held on the Ukrainian EU Association Agreement in April 2016 was
marked by public confusion and dismay over relations with eastern Europe and Russia in the
aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 which killed 193 Dutch nationals.
Voters were skillfully orchestrated from the Kremlin to deceptively link a range of unrelated
issues to the vote. The outcome was to guide Dutch voters to incorrectly connect rising security
threats, immigration, and unemployment in the European Union with the prospect of a
commercial treaty with Ukraine.
Exercise of reflexive control involves a combination or sequence of different influences, actions
and dynamics. As such, any one of these elements in isolation cannot properly be labelled as
reflexive control. Use of disinformation or straightforward deception by Russia is a case in point.
The following cases have been repeatedly cited to the authors in academic discussions, at
conferences, in research group meetings as well as in private correspondence as instances of
reflexive control. In each case, they are single actions and do not satisfy the key criterion of
involving a complex kombinatsiya of inputs to induce the adversary to adopt a specific course of
Russian information operations directed at public opinion during the armed conflict with
Georgia in 2008
According to Timothy Thomas,
"The Russian information warfare campaign was a clear example of reflexive control to
shape perceptions of public opinion prior to their military operations in South Ossetia and
Russia used proven media techniques: (1) one-sidedness of information; (2) information
blockade; (3) disinformation; (4) silence over events inconvenient for Russia; (5) ‘cherry
picking’ of eyewitnesses and Georgians that criticized their government; (6) denial of
collateral damage and (7) Russian versions of town names in the regions to suggest the
All this is true, and all of this serves as a precursor for similar operations six years later around
the conflict with Ukraine. And yet, unlike the specific strategic and military measures against
Georgia described above, they represent simple principles of ‘winning the information war’ in
49 Thomas, Timothy L. (2011): Recasting the Red Star: Russia Forges Tradition and Technology Through
Toughness, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, 2011. p. 157.
Georgia and the rest of the world, rather than elements in a complex campaign intended to cause
the Georgian leadership to act in a specific way.
The “Lisa Case” in Germany in 2016
On January 16, 2016, Russian media and officials created public hysteria and a diplomatic fracas
in Germany over the alleged rape of a 13-year-old Russian immigrant ‘Lisa’ by a Middle Eastern
migrant. The 13-year-old was real, but the incident was fictitious. The public outcry generated by
the Russian intervention inflamed German opinion, already deeply ambivalent over the mass
arrival of migrants into the country. As a result, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s waning public
support plunged further. Despite the fact that the Russian information campaign took the form of
varying inputs from news reporting to hostile comment by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, this
was a case of Russia furthering its objective of dividing European societies rather than to bring
about a specific German government decision.50
In other incidents, Russia successfully (even if only temporarily) avoids repercussions for hostile
actions by employing deception to shift the blame elsewhere. Instances of this technique include
the cyber-attack on French TV network TV5 Monde (blamed on jihadists), the release of e-mails
from the Democratic National Congress during the 2016 US election (blamed on a Romanian
hacker), and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 (blamed on more or less
anybody, but primarily Ukrainians). In each case, Russia does succeed in influencing responses
by other actors, and as such, the campaigns resemble reflexive control. However, these do not
count as targeted campaigns aimed at specific decision makers with a distinct outcome in mind
other than creating confusion in order to escape accusation and countermeasures.51
On August 5, 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia was going to organize
“an international humanitarian mission for the southeast of Ukraine.” Almost the entire Russia-
watching foreign media, and a substantial proportion of the Western diplomatic corps in
Moscow, watched the progress of the resulting convoy toward Ukraine and focused on the
potential for conflict once it reached the border. This allowed Russia to prepare and launch its
mid-August cross-border offensive into Ukraine practically unnoticed. This was a highly
50 We point out though that some researchers do see the Lisa case as part of a larger Russian effort to get rid of EU
sanctions against Russia by targeting their strongest proponent, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and building
political pressure up against the Chancellor. In this case, Russian representatives – including the Russian Foreign
Minister Lavrov – claimed a cover-up by the German government and law enforcement agencies of the incident and
of the actual number of refugees in the country. The Lisa case can therefore also be seen as contributing to the larger
Russian effort to delegitimize the current German government to achieve sanctions relief.
51 For a detailed discussion of these and other campaigns, seeEronen, Pasi (2016): Russian Hybrid Warfare: How to
Confront a New Challenge to the West, Centre on Sanctions and Illicit Finance; June 2016. p. 13.
successful disinformation operation with no positive decisions induced in the Ukrainian side, and
constituted sleight of hand rather than reflexive control.52
Lessons from cases of RC
In Georgia in 2008, and in Ukraine in 2014, Russia succeeded briefly in preventing Western
powers from assessing correctly what was happening and for a much longer period succeeded in
preventing a unified, coherent and effective response to the crises. Another principle that is
common to both these conflicts, and to Russia's intervention in Syria, is the critical importance
for Russia of swift and effective movement to create physical presence and leave the rest of the
world dealing with a fait accompli. In this context, another essential element in Russia's success
is distorting the perception by other powers both of the sequence of events and of the time
available for preparing and implementing an effective response.
Reflexive control can play a key role in ensuring the success of future Russian hostile action,
whether in the military domain or by some other means of achieving Russian strategic or
geopolitical aims. In some cases, it may be sufficient not to lead the adversary to a specific
decision favorable to Russia, but simply to induce paralysis. Mixed messages, widespread
disinformation and perception management can persuade adversary governments that the best
course of action is to do nothing, as there is no basis for certainty that any given course of action
could be the right one. In the circumstances of the armed conflicts listed above, this hands Russia
As noted above, disinformation in itself does not constitute reflexive control, but it is a common
element to it. Nations seeking to resist pernicious Russian influence face the challenge of
pervasive and highly effective disinformation campaigns, facilitated by a conducive media and
social media ecosystem and (often) liberal democracies that wish to preserve core values such as
freedom of expression. They are also constrained by an international political and legal construct
that has failed to keep pace with developments in the nature of warfare in the 21st century. Both
proxies (non-state and quasi-state entities for grey zone operations) and actions in the cognitive
domain (which are undeniably hostile but not technically illegal) demonstrate the difficulty of
countering Russian campaigns designed to exploit the gaps between Western concepts of
operations and siloed areas of activity. While the United States has identified a substantial
Russian offensive against the 2016 presidential election using social media, the investigation has,
as of the date of this publication, not reached its conclusion. Though indictments against Russian
52 Pynnöniemi, Katri (2016): Metanarratives of Russian Strategic Deception, in Pynnöniemi, Katri/ Rácz, András
(eds.) Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine, Finnish Institute of Foreign
Affairs, Issue 45; May 2016. p. 79. http://www.css.ethz.ch/
en/services/digital-library/publications/publication.html/3b39efa7-cafe-4794-8d62-0279242c421e. On this and other
Russian disinformation efforts in Ukraine, seeLucas, Edward/ Pomerantsev, Peter (2016): Winning the Information
War, CEPA Information Warfare Initiative; August 2016. p. 16. http://infowar.cepa.org/Winning-the-Information-
nationals were issued in 2018, the alleged perpetrators may never be arrested as there is no
means to extradite them. The campaign of subversion waged through Facebook was not only
entirely legal, but did not even contravene Facebook's own acceptable use policies at the time.
While policy, regulation, countermeasures and doctrine evolve to meet the new challenges
emerging from Russia, the most important tools available to Western democracies to counter
them are threat perception and situational awareness. Reflexive control, like other Russian
activities intended to subvert and weaken adversaries, relies on a lack of awareness. It has been
repeatedly noted that the substantial progress made by frontline states Finland, Sweden and
Estonia in containing Russian influence was facilitated by early public recognition of the
problem by senior leaders and empowering government, society and media to take
countermeasures. The same recognition and public acknowledgement of the threat should be the
first step for any other nation or community under cognitive threat from Russia.
How Russia exploits social media for Reflexive Control
The history of the concept of reflexive control – as it is referred to in this chapter on Russian
social media exploitation for RC – stems from work performed by Vladimir Lefebvre from 1963
to 1967 in the Soviet Union. Following the publication of two seminal works Conflicting
Structures 53 and The Algebra of Conflict,54 Lefebvre’s work became the object of a classified
report by the KGB in 1968, alleges Diane Chotikul from55 Lefebvre’s (1984) own work entitled
Reflexive Control: The Soviet Concept of Influencing an Adversary’s Decision-Making
Process.56 Lefebvre ‘arrived’ in the United States in 1974.57 This information seems important in
light of Chotikul’s assertions58 that successful reflexive control processes are based on Soviet
(and now Russian) ethical legacies which are vastly different from that of the ‘Christian’ West,
and that Russians have a particular understanding of what constitutes ‘truth’. According to
Chotikul, the concept of vranyo (ɜpaɧɢo) concerns the “dissemination of untruths which have
some grounding in reality.”59
What is Social Media?
Despite social media use being omnipresent today, there is no agreed upon definition of what it
actually is and what online services belong to it. Traditionally, social networking services like
Facebook, Myspace and LinkedIn were primarily seen as social media services. When discussing
social media exploitation for RC, it is essential to agree on what social media actually is and
which social media services and providers are potentially exploited for RC campaigns. The
current Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) psychological operations (PSYOPS) doctrine does not
define social media, nor does it even mention social media.60 Published in 2004, the only
mention of ‘internet’ is as a ‘reach back capability’. The Department of National Defence (DND)
53 Lefebvre, Vladimir A./ trans. Lebebvre, Victorina D. (2015): Conflicting Structures, English Edition from
Original Russian 1st Edition of 1967 and 2nd Edition of 1973, Leaf & Oaks, Los Angeles.
54 Lefebvre, Vladimir A. (1968): Algebra Konflikta [The Algebra of Conflict], Amazon.com.
55 Chotikul, Diane (1986): The Soviet Theory of Reflexive Control in Historical and Psychocultural Perspective: A
Preliminary Study, C3CM Joint Test Force, pp. 89-91; July 1986. https://www.document
56 Lefebvre, Vladimir A./ trans. Lefebvre, Victorina D. (1984): Reflexive Control: The Soviet Concept of
Influencing an Adversary’s Decision Making Process, Science Applications, 1984.
57 Library of Educational and Science Literature (undated): Biography of Vladimir Alexandrovich Lefebvre,
sbiblio.com; undated. http://sbiblio.com/biblio/persons.aspx?id=987.
58 Chotikul, Diane (1986): The Soviet Theory of Reflexive Control in Historical and Psychocultural Perspective: A
Preliminary Study, C3CM Joint Test Force, pp. 23-25; July 1986.
59 Chotikul, Diane (1986): The Soviet Theory of Reflexive Control in Historical and Psychocultural Perspective: A
Preliminary Study, C3CM Joint Test Force, pp. 66-67; July 1986.
60 Department of National Defence (2014): B-GJ-005-313/FP-001 Canadian Forces Joint Psychological Operations.
Joint Doctrine Manual. 15 January 2004. https://www.psywar.org/psywar/reproductions/CF_Psychological_
and CAF Policy on Joint Information Operations – from April 2018 – does refer to social media
as indicated below:
“ […] capabilities and activities can be offensive or defensive in nature and the extent of
use is only limited by imagination and availability within policy and legal guidelines…this
includes activities on social media and SMS platforms. Particular attention is to be to paid
to these types of emerging electronic platforms which can be used in the conduct of Info
Ops of differing purposes. For example, social media may be used concurrently by Cyber
Operations for technical exploitation, PSYOPS for influencing and PA for informing, all of
which need coordination.”61
NATO, in its guidelines on social media use within Allied Command Operation’s (ACO)
organization, describes social media as “designed for dissemination through social interaction
using internet- and web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one-to-
many) into social media dialogues (many-to-many).”62
The European Union (EU) – the target of constant Russian RC campaigns – provides further
detail when defining social media as “online technologies and practices to share content,
opinions and information prompting discussion and building relationships. Social media services
and tools involve a combination of technology, telecommunications and social interaction. They
can use a variety of formats, including text, pictures, audio and video.”63
The definition Christian Bell developed specifically with a focus on social media from an
influence capability perspective appears most helpful: “Social media refers to internet-based
platforms and software used to collect, store, aggregate, share, process, discuss, or deliver user-
generated and general media content, that can influence awareness, perception, acceptance, and
can promote behavior indirectly as a means of interaction”.64 This chapter modifies Christian
Bell’s definition of social media to include the marketing aspect of social media (for which
platforms like Facebook were primarily created) to the following working definition of social
Social media are internet-based platforms created for influencing, marketing, collecting, storing,
aggregating, sharing, processing, discussing and delivering user-generated content, which can
influence awareness, perception, acceptance and actions, and promote behavior.
61 Department of National Defence (2018): Policy on Joint Information Operations (INFO OPS), 3 April 2018.
62 NATO (2009): ACO Directive 95-3: Social Media. December 2009. http://www.aco.nato.int/page
63 European Commission (2013): Communicating with the Outside World – Guidelines for All Staff on the Use of
Social Media. http://ec.europa.eu/ipg/docs/guidelines_social_media_en.pdf.
64 Bell, Christian (2016): Use of Social Media as an Effector, Multinational Capability Development Campaign,
Zentrum fur Operative Kommunikation der Bundeswehr, Mayen.
There are at least 200 different social media platforms that vary based on what services they
offer. Examples for platform types and providers are:65
Platform type Providers
Social networks Facebook, VKontakte, WeChat, LinkedIn, Xing, QQ, Google+ myspace
Video content YouTube, Vimeo, Youku, Periscope, Facebook Live
Picture content Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, Snapfish, Snapchat, Pinterest
Book content Goodreads, WeRead, Audible
Training content Strava, Polar Flow, Garmin Connect,66 KeepFitness
Instant messaging Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Signal, Viber
Blogs WordPress, Blogspot, SquareSpace, LiveJournal
Micro-blogging Twitter, Friendfeed, Twitpic, Weibo, Qzone
Analytics tools Klout, Socialmention, Geofeedia, Audiense, TweetReach
Crowd-sourcing InnoCentive, iStockPhoto, GoFundMe, Kickstarter, IndieGo, Patreon
Location services Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Tinder, Grindr
The above table only contains a fraction of the existing sites. Social media sites generally have
short life cycles. The exception is Facebook that has existed – although in a vastly altered form –
since 2004. New forms emerge frequently making it difficult to identify all possible social media
sites that could be relevant for identifying adversary RC campaigns particularly as some sites are
only used in very limited regions. Generally, it has to be assumed that adversaries such as
Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are exploiting all social media platforms that are of
relevance to their target audience. The concept of social media in this chapter specifically refers
to internet platforms most used by Russia for RC campaigns such as LiveJournal, Facebook,
VKontakte, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, as well as blogs where interaction among content
publishers and audiences happen online.67 As part of larger social media campaigns, the use of e-
mail and other online content are drivers of what Miah Hammond-Errey calls “amplification and
automation”.68 In a wider sense, they must also be factored in as they are often used to
complement Russian social media campaigns. The vast majority of influence operations,
however, is directed through social media. While Russian RC campaigns never contain only
social media operations, it appears as if social media is lately the main channel through which
RC campaigns are implemented. However, further online activities like hacking of websites also
65 This table is inspired by (but adds additional platform types and providers): Bell, Christian (2016): Use of Social
Media as an Effector, Multinational Capability Development Campaign, Zentrum fur Operative Kommunikation der
66 Both Polar Flow and Garmin Connect have different primary functions (analysis of training data) but offer social
media services to connect with other athletes, share pictures and competition or training results or simply to
communicate with others through the platform.
67 Darczewska, Jolanta (2014): The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation, a Case
Study. Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW): Point of View #42, Warsaw, p. 26; May 2014.
68 Hammond-Errey, Miah (2017): A Perpetual Conflict of Ideas, The Strategy Bridge; 28 September 2017.
play crucial roles. Due to the role of social media as the recently most relevant channel for
Russian RC operations to influence the perceptions of entire populations of countries, this
chapter focuses on examples of social media exploitation for RC campaigns.
While the concept of RC has existed at least since the 1960s, social media has made RC
operations much more effective, cheaper and feasible while enabling full deniability. There can
be no doubt that social media is the technology that has revolutionized the Russian
implementation of RC operations most in the past decade. Finally, while social media
significantly eases the implementation of RC operations, it also makes RC operations more
vulnerable. Each of the examples of social media exploitation for RC discussed below is also a
potential avenue to identify RC campaigns and introduce effective and simple countermeasures.
Darczewska alleges that Kremlin ideologue Aleksandr Dugin used the netwar portal rossia3.ru
to instruct readers and sympathizers in how to behave with ‘internal enemies’ (pro-West, anti-
Putin activists) on 10 March 2014, coinciding with the annexation of Crimea.69 In his post, he
argues that there are two camps within Russian society: the patriotic camp (Putin, the people and
himself), and the liberal-Western camp. He forcefully suggests a counter-narrative for Russians
to develop resilience to Western ideas that Russian actions in Crimea are illegal. Thus, he
instructs calls for Russians to being “nationalists, communists or Soviet” to be answered by “US
agents of influence, and the fifth column.”70 This is one of many cases where social media is
used as a cheap, fast and simple method to reach and influence target audiences by spreading
narratives where they already regularly and voluntarily spend time, to obtain information, meet
with friends and find entertainment. Social media is a natural environment that target audiences
configure themselves, to their own preferences, thereby communicating directly –
unintentionally – how they most like to be influenced and with which content, through their own
shares, likes or retweets.71
Smear campaigns/character assassination
An example of character assassination is the infamous case of actor Morgan Freeman, who
publicly called for an investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in US elections, and
69 Darczewska, Jolanta (2014): The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation, a Case
Study. Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW): Point of View #42, Warsaw, p. 26; May 2014.
70 Darczewska, Jolanta (2014): The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation, a Case
Study. Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW): Point of View #42, Warsaw, p. 27; May 2014.
71 Vaidhyanathan, Siva (2018): Antisocial Media. Oxford University Press, New York.
collusion with Donald Trump.72 Within a day of the Kremlin spokesman’s retaliatory tirade
against the actor’s 19 September video going live, an army of troll agents began producing anti-
Freeman tweets and social media material. Synovitz suggests this is designed to create not only
an unpleasant atmosphere for the target, but also to raise doubt within the target audience about
the trustworthiness of the target and his statements. The US Committee to Investigate Russia73
became the target of pro-Kremlin and pro-Russia social media messaging immediately after the
Freeman video went public, with memes on YouTube and Facebook that attacked the credibility
of the actor following closely behind. Social media here again offers not only an effective, fast
and cheap influence capability, it also enables complete deniability for the Kremlin.
Testing of narratives
Social media is also a testing chamber for the Kremlin to vet how potential narratives, that could
be used for RC campaigns, resonate with target audiences. For this testing, the Kremlin sets up
groups containing members of different target audiences with specific political leanings that it
can then use to test how well narratives are received and if they resonate sufficiently to have an
effect. Once a narrative is introduced to social media, it is easy to identify how often a narrative
was shared, and how many people commented on it or otherwise engaged in the content. For
example, the simplest way of comparing how well narratives resonate is to use ‘likes’ as a form
of ‘upvotes’ or an approximate measure for narrative resonance.74 Due to the easy manipulation
of feedback on social media, there are limits to the reliability of any testing of narratives.
Constructing credibility of influencers
Credibility and, therefore, the legitimacy of commentators supporting the Kremlin agenda – such
as Alexander Dugin – is often partially fabricated by claiming false academic credentials of
individuals on networks of websites. These posts are then used to cross-reference each other to
create the impression of a credible source due to the various other references to the author that
have been set up online for this purpose. Social media is thereby used to design echo chambers75
to enhance the credibility of actors with target audiences that are targeted in RC campaigns. The
more credible actors appear to a target audience, the more influence they will be able assert on
72 Synovitz, Ron (2017): NATO Adviser Says Morgan Freeman May Be Russian Troll Target After Calling Out
Putin, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty; 21 September 2017. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-morgan-freeman-troll-
73 Not to be confused with the Special Counsel Investigation aka the Meuller Investigation. It is a group of private
citizens, journalists and former government officials. See: Johnson, Ted (2017): Rob Reiner Helps Launch
Committee to Investigate Russia, Variety, 19 September 2017.https://variety.com/2017/politics/news/rob-reiner-
74 Wang, Tony/Chen, Ping/Li Boyang (2017): Predicting the Quality of Short Narratives from Social Media,
Proceedings of the Twent-Sixth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence.
75 Echo chambers here means a system of websites or social media posts that reference each other creating the
impression of legitimate popularity of content or content distributors.
their world view. These previously created references are then cross-referenced through tweets
and reposting on all social media sites that are of relevance to the target audience and then
complemented with references in traditional media. Dugin creates discussion groups specifically
for this purpose. The networks are used to provide dedicated actors with ‘street credibility’ in the
form of trust in target audiences which enables them to become key actors in the spreading of
narratives for propaganda.76
Undermining credibility of adversaries
Just as social media is exploited by Russia to build the credibility of selected actors, it can be
used to undermine the authenticity of voices that are unfavorable to an RC campaign or even
directly diminish the credibility of an opponent. Well before the August 2008 war between
Russia and Georgia, Russian online media claimed that not only Georgia’s leadership, but also
that of the other South Caucasus countries, were preparing an ‘Orange Revolution’ by seeking to
retake disputed territories in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. In
2005, Mikheil Saakashvili, the newly-installed leader of Georgia, was the target of an article in
Voenno Promishlennyi Kurier (VPK) where his operational and strategic intentions were clearly
outlined, and strongly resembled how the Russia-Georgia war started three years later.77 This
was part of a larger influence campaign that helped prepare the target audience for eventual
follow-on narratives.78 It was also part of a larger provocation operation initiated by Russia.
Interestingly, all countries of the GUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Armenia-Moldova) association were
targeted by the article, and Russia has been able to justify, one way or another, intervention in
each of them within ten years of the Matveev article.
Another example of social media exploitation for undermining the credibility of adversaries is
the Argumenti I Fakty (AIF) production of an online post instructing readers to make fun of
Saakashvili eating his tie.79 This episode became a ten-year running joke for Russia Today (now
RT), which posted on its YouTube channel the adventures of the beleaguered ex-president up to
his rooftop chase in Kyiv in 2017.80 As a result of such coverage, Saakashvili’s hopes to one day
become President of Ukraine are systematically undermined.
76 Darczewska, Jolanta (2014): The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare: The Crimean Operation, a Case
Study. Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW): Point of View #42, Warsaw, pp. 28-29; May 2014.
77 Matveev, Aleksei (2005): ‘Orangeviy Revansh’ Dlya Nepokornikh Avtonomii, Voenno Promishlennyi Kurier
Volume 26, No. 93, 20-26 July 2005. pp. 1,3. www.vpk-news.ru.
78 Amashukeli, Tamar (2011): The Russian Media and Russia’s Military Intervention in Georgia in 2008. Master’s
Thesis, Manuela Nilsson, Phd, Sup. Växjo, Sweden: Linnaeus University, 2011.
79 AIF (2008): Laugh at Saakashvili! Laughter Destroys Dictators!; AIF.ru; 8 August 2008. http://www.
80 RT (2017): Saakashvili's Ups & Downs: From Eating Tie to Kiev Rooftop, RT YouTube Channel; 5 December
There can be no doubt that social media is uniquely capable to facilitate in a key component of
Russian RC, the targeting of entire populations, as it reaches targets in their natural environment.
Social media can directly introduce very large numbers of people – even entire populations – to
narratives that might lead to the reconsideration of their support for their government. The US
successfully weakened support for ISIS by spreading images of ISIS atrocities on social media.81
The effect of social media for influencing public support of the adversary is twofold. First, the
target audience becomes aware of adversary activities from an angle it may not otherwise be
subject to, which can lead to doubts about the legitimacy of an actor or government,82 potentially
weakening public support for the opponent.83 Secondly, social media campaigns signal to target
audiences that the information space is not owned by the adversary alone. A social media
campaign can give dissenting voices encouragement for their own activities against the adversary
government, thereby strengthening RC campaigns.
Another example of the use of social media to undermine adversary credibility – likely in the
form of RC campaigns – is Russia’s worldwide campaign to undermine support of governments
the Kremlin would like to see replaced.84 As part of this campaign, Russia disseminates
propaganda to Russian speakers – among many other countries - in the Baltics, Ukraine, and
other nearby states through a variety of means, including social media. It uses this messaging to
sow dissent against host and neighboring governments, as well as against NATO and the EU.85
Russia has also used social media to promote a narrative throughout the global Russian diaspora
indicating that the insurgency it supports in Eastern Ukraine is a response to an all-out war
against the Russian population of Eastern Ukraine.86 Russian bot networks have also used social
media to undermine public support in the West for interventions against the Assad government in
81 Helmus, Todd C./ Bodine-Baron, Elizabeth/ Magnuson, Madeline/ Mendelsohn, Joshua/ Marcellino, William/
Bega, Andriy/ Winkelman, Zev (2016): Examining ISIS Support and Opposition Networks on Twitter, RAND
Corporation, Santa Monica; 2018. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2200/RR2237/
82 Zeitzoff, Thomas (2018): Does Social Media Influence Conflict? Evidence from the 2012 Gaza Conflict, Journal
of Conflict Resolution, Volume 62, Issue 1. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022002716650925.
83 Bodine-Baron, Elizabeth (2016): U.S. Social Media Strategy Can Weaken ISIS Influence on Twitter, RAND
Corporation, 16 August 2016. https://www.rand.org/news/press/2016/08/16.html.
84 The Economist (2018): Russian disinformation distorts American and European democracy, The Economist, 22
February 2018. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/02/22/russian-disinformation-distorts-american-and-
85 Helmus, Todd C./ Bodine-Baron, Elizabeth/ Magnuson, Madeline/ Mendelsohn, Joshua/ Marcellino, William/
Bega, Andriy/ Winkelman, Zev (2016): Examining ISIS Support and Opposition Networks on Twitter, RAND
Corporation, Santa Monica; 2018. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2200/
86 Makhortykh, Mykola/ Sydorova, Maryna (2017): Social media and Visual Framing of the Conflict in Eastern
Ukraine, Media, War & Conflict, Volume 10, Issue 3; 9 April 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.
Syria.87 While it is not proven that these Russian efforts were part of an RC campaign, they
certainly fulfill all requirements to appear so.
Information sabotage (counterfeit evidence)
Anatoly Tsyganok produced ‘evidence’ from a website indicating that the Georgian Armed
Forces had pre-planned the attack on South Ossetia.88 This website is listed in his 2011 book The
8.8.8 War: Georgia’s Attack on Peace (in Russian). The evidence in question consisted of three
documents, accessible from the website. Each document seemed to be the exact Georgian orders
for battle for each infantry and tank unit, engaged in hostilities. The documents gave the
impression to be signed by Georgian commanding officers but were actually fabricated. The aim
of this effort was to exonerate Russia post facto, and to make these documents known and
available for use in future social media campaigns.
Another example of information sabotage is the damage-control exercise, in form of the online
activity following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014. It
can be seen as a textbook case of information sabotage seeking to deflect blame and confuse the
target audience. It also fits into the larger RC campaign that attempts to influence the perception
of domestic and international audiences of Western intentions. On 17 July 2014, flight MH-17
was shot down over Lugansk suburbs and the incident was immediately posted on YouTube, as
well as on VKontakte by separatist militiaman Igor Strelkov.89 It was initially believed by the
separatists that they had succeeded in shooting down a Ukrainian An-26. As news that the
aircraft was a commercial jet surfaced, some VKontakte and Facebook posts were immediately
taken down and replaced by a tweet emanating from official Russian sources, stating that two
Ukrainian jet fighters were in the vicinity of the Boeing 777.90
The to-and-fro on social media between the Russian, Ukrainian and Western governments is
instructive as, slowly but surely, Russia was faced with demands to allow an impartial
investigation which indirectly puts the blame on the Kremlin for having supplied the material
that brought down MH17, short of Russian officialdom accepting responsibility for the
incident.91 Information sabotage in this case served to deflect blame, confuse public opinion
87 Middle East Eye Staff Report (2018): Russia Driving Huge Online 'Disinformation' Campaign on Syria Gas
Attack, Says UK PM Theresa May, Middle East Eye; 20 April 2018. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/
88 Tsyganok, Anatoly D. (2011): Voina 08.08.08: Prinuzhdenie Gruzii k Miru, Moscow: Vetche, 2011.
89 Fisher, Max (2014): Did Ukrainian Rebels Really Take Credit for Downing MH17?, Vox; 17 July 2014.
90 3MV (2014): RF Defense Ministry is Waiting for Kiev's Response About the Aircraft Allegedly Accompanying
MH17, 3mv.ru; 19 July 2014. https://3mv.ru/publ/minoborony_rf_zhdet_otvet_kieva_o_samoletakh_jakoby_
91 Toler, Aric (2018): The Kremlin’s Shifting, Self-Contradicting Narrative on MH17, Bellingcat; 5 January 2018.
about responsibility, and cast doubt on official Western statements. While these activities were a
short-term response to the incident, they do feed into that larger Russian effort to discredit
Western governments and create the impression of the West acting aggressively.
The Kremlin uses social media to achieve policy paralysis by creating chaos in the information
space. To achieve this effect, it introduces vast amounts of information specifically designed to
occupy both a population and its leadership with trying to process conflicting information. This
happens by eroding trust in governments and its institutions through spreading false narratives
that implicate the government of a target audience in wrongdoing.92 Russia employs a
synchronized mix of media that varies from attributed television and news website content to far-
right blogs with unclear attribution, to bots and trolls, that in combination with its social media
campaigns spread coordinated – but in for this purpose – conflicting, inconsistent and often
disputed information. A goal is to create the impression that one cannot really find out what
actually happened and what the situation is, as the available information is conflicting and ‘both
sides’ could be right. Due to the seemingly large amount of time necessary to identify truth from
falsehoods, many members of the target audience will turn away from the issue. Recent reports
show that since 2014, Facebook has been the platform of choice to capitalize on discord within
the US, not only over foreign policy, but to exploit internal divisions on issues such as religion,
race and immigration by spreading often various conflicting narratives.93 As a response to the
uncovering of these activities, Facebook has recently deleted mass numbers of ‘fake’ accounts
created by Russian troll farms94 as well as the content they uploaded.95 This has drastically
reduced Russian influence through these channels – at least for the time being. Other social
media services like Tumblr have taken similar measures, further reducing Russia’s impact on
public support through social media in Western countries.96
92 Helmus, Todd C./Bodine-Baron, Elizabeth/Radin, Andrew/Magnuson, Madeline/Mendelsohn, Joshua/Marcellino,
William/Bega, Andriy/Winkelman, Zev (2018): Russian Social Media Influence, RAND Corporation, Santa
93 Frenkel, Sheera/ Benner, Katie (2018): To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook, The
New York Times; 17 February 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/technology/indictment-russian-tech-
94 Meixler, Eli (2018): Facebook Has Removed Hundreds of Accounts Linked to a Russian Troll Farm, Time, 4
April 2018. http://time.com/5227225/facebook-russia-troll-accounts/.
95 Menn, Joseph, Ingram, David (2018): Facebook Deletes Posts Linked to Russian ‘Troll Factory’: CEO
Zuckerberg, Reuters, 3 April 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-ceo-fakenews/facebook-deletes-
96 BBC (2018): Tumblr Deletes ‘Russian Troll’ Accounts, BBC News, 26 March 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/
Societal Norm Manipulation
A February 2018 Russian election advertising campaign designed to be humorous conflates
refusing to vote with homosexuality.97 This is a clear example of an attempt to create societal
norms: namely institutionalizing homophobia (and racism) for political gain. The video that was
spread on social media attempted to create the impression that those that do not vote are not the
norm in the society. Instead if you do not vote you will be an outsider in society. The video both
engaged in ‘othering’ by singling out a minority group (homosexuals) and labeling them with an
undesired activity. An existing norm – homosexuality, which is not well respected among
conservative voters in Russia – is supported and extended, while a message is tagged on to
stigmatize an undesired activity (not voting). The ad was initially released in the Togliatti region
and viewed 11,500 times in VKontakte discussion groups, and a further 1500 times a week on
Facebook.98 The video was posted by multiple third parties on YouTube, some gaining only a
few thousand views, while others had hundreds of thousands of views. Online news media Metro
claims that the video has been viewed 3 million times.99 Attribution and origin of the video
cannot be conclusively ascertained; thus, its true audience reach cannot be verified.100
The GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy/Hamilton 68 dashboard describes the recent near
7000% increase in the Christopher Steele hashtag on Twitter. This can be understood as an
attempt at information pressure (and distraction/diversion) by Russia, since the Steele dossier
involves claims and counter-claims made by senior political officials in the UK and the United
States. The 35-page dossier alleging collusion between Russian authorities and then-presidential
candidate Donald Trump was published on BuzzFeed, a digital media service designed to create
97 The Moscow Times Staff Report (2018): Russians Threatened with Conscription and Gay Homestays
in Presidential Campaign Ad, The Moscow Times; 19 February 2018. https://themoscowtimes.com/news/
98 The Moscow Times Staff Report (2018): Russian Election Ad Maligns Gay People to Get Out the Vote,
The Moscow Times; 8 August 2018. https://themoscowtimes.com/news/russian-election-ad-conflates-not-
voting-with-being-gay-62468. The video, which only has a few thousand views, can be seen here:
99 Neshevets, Mikhail (2018): More than 3 Million Views for Viral Video Calling on Russians to Come to
the Polls; Metronews.ru; 18 February 2018. https://www.metronews.ru/novosti/russia/reviews/bolee-3-
100 Meduza Project (2018): Viral Videos Promoting the Presidential Election Are Popping Up Online in
Russia and Nobody is Sure Who's Making Them. The Breadcrumbs Lead Back to the Kremlin,
Meduza.io; 23 February 2018. https://meduza.io/en/feature/2018/02/23/viral-videos-promoting-the-
and promote viral content. The massive increase of content related to the dossier, and about the
dossier’s financing connection to Fusion GPS and the Clinton campaign, are narratives that have
been seized upon by RT and others – on social media and beyond – to instill confusion and
doubts about the credibility of the dossier. Part of the attempt is to spread so much (seemingly)
related information that it appears impossible for target audiences to determine the veracity and
authenticity of the report.
Provoke hasty, unplanned or imprudent response
On 2 July 2008, Komsomolskaya Pravda reproduced online a portion of an interview given by
then member of the State Duma committee for defense Zavarzin to well-known propaganda
digital media IA Regnum to the effect that the Georgian government was behind a car-bomb
explosion that took place in Abkhazia between two checkpoints. In hindsight, this piece of
information would be seen as a provocation aimed at Mikheil Saakashvili to initiate hostilities
over separatist regions (which ended up succeeding less than a week later in South Ossetia).
Provocations of the sort led Georgia to indeed initiate hostilities ten years ago, leading to
Saakashvili’s near-complete discredit, and practically nullifying Georgia’s NATO hopes.101
Creation of desired movements
The online presence of militia and political support movements is very evident in the case of the
Ukraine civil war. Social media is being used to lure fighters to the separatists’ side to enable
Russia to benefit from plausible deniability.102 In this sense, the use of social media works hand-
in-glove with kinetic methods, as social media is used as a recruitment tool, spawning other
websites like dobrovolec.org to entice volunteers to join separatist forces. More importantly
under this rubric, an aura of legitimacy is being produced by the appearance on social media of
pages or discussion groups dedicated to ‘Novorossiya’ such as the Eurasia Youth Union, and the
National Liberation Anti-Maidan.
As evidence that such social media activity can have a life of its own and spin out of the control
of agents, Daria Litvinova wrote a piece for The Telegraph on the unilateral declaration of
independence of “Malorossiya” (Little Russia).103 Judging by her article, the intent could be to
lead Kyiv to institute the federalization of Ukraine, but the cessation of the Novorossiya project
around 2016 suggests that Moscow or the separatists themselves may have begun to fear the
101 Komsomolskaya Pravda (2008): Zavarzin believes that behind the explosions in Abkhazia is Georgia, Kp.ru; 2
July 2008. https://www.kp.ru/online/news/108550/?geo=14.
102 Snowiss, M / Galperovich, (2014): Russian Social Media Fortify Rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, Voice of America;
30 June 2014. https://www.voanews.com/a/russian-social-media-fortify-rebellion-in-eastern-ukraine/1947973.html
103 Litvinova, Daria (2017): Separatists in Ukraine Declare the Creation of New State “Malorossiya”, The Telegraph
(UK); 18 July 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/18/separatists-ukraine-declare-creation-new-state-
specter of further uncontrolled fragmentation. This would affect the prospects of the Lugansk
and Donetsk People’s Republics respectively, but it would also send alarm bells ringing in
Entice physical, offline dissent/demonstrations
Romm and Wagner describe Facebook’s investigations into the purchasing of advertising space
by Kremlin-backed profiles prior to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.104 The ads aimed to
foster discord within the US electorate, particularly in swing states. Interestingly, both the GOP
and the Democratic Party supporters were targeted. Ad content pertained to polarizing social
issues in the United States, such as race relations or gun control. When ads were pulled by the
social media companies, Kremlin trolls directly pushed the ads through Instagram or Facebook’s
It can be argued that some violence that occurred during demonstrations in the United States,
such as the Charlottesville White Nationalist demonstration and the Black Lives Matter counter-
protesters incident105, and similar incidents during Black Lives Matter demonstrations106,
correlate with Russian social media subversion operations. Causation, however, is very difficult
to establish. Nonetheless, geotargeting of residents of Ferguson and Baltimore suggests a direct
attempt by Russian influence campaigns to capitalize on racial tensions and past violence.
The Skripal poisoning case provides an excellent example of Russian social media exploitation
for distraction and diversion. This technique requires anchoring on the news item to begin the
operation. Alex Christoforou uses The Duran, a pro-Russia website he’s founded with political
commentator for RT (formerly Russia Today), Peter Lavelle, to develop news items which are
then propagated through his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. In addition, his personal
and professional legitimacy are increased by frequent interviews on RT– which he and RT spread
further through social media. The Duran has 25,000 subscribers on YouTube, and although most
of its some 230 videos only gather a few hundred views, some manage to reach 54,000 viewers
(e.g., a negative video on President Obama). His video that has garnered the most (536,000
104Romm, Tony/ Wagner, Kurt (2017): Silicon Valley’s Russian Ads Problems, Explained, Recode; 23 Oct. 2017.
105CNN / User Generated Content (2017): Protester’s Video of the Charlottesville Crash, CNN.com; 12 August
2017. https://edition.cnn.com/videos/us/2017/08/12/charlottesville-crash-protesters-video-orig-vstop-dlewis.cnn. See
also: Heim, Joe (2017): Recounting a Day of Rage, Hate, Violence and Death, The Washington Post, 14 August
106 Walsh, Paul (2015): Car plows through Protesters during Ferguson rally in South Minneapolis, Star Tribune; 6
January 2015. http://www.startribune.com/nov-25-car-plows-through-protesters-during-ferguson-rally/283891941/ .
views on the Duran YouTube channel) features his commentary on and clips from an RT
interview with Vladimir Putin who discredits philanthropist George Soros.107
The quality and integrity of the news items displayed on The Duran is at the very least dubious,
and stories integrate disparate content into a single narrative, while each item is then hyperlinked
and spread individually in later tweets and other social media posts. An example of this mixing
of multiple stories to one narrative is this headline, which appeared 10 March 2018: “The
Poisoning of Skripal leads right to Hillary Clinton and the DNC. What did Skripal know about
the Steele Dossier?”108 The article hyperlinks to every argument leading the reader away from
the original story (the questions of former FSB agent Sergei Skripal’s poisoning) towards other
contentious and controversial topics: Hillary Clinton’s hacked e-mails, the DNC sponsoring an
anti-Trump smear campaign, Christopher Steele, all the way to the FISA investigation. This
news story garnered some 29,000 views. Meanwhile it was rebroadcasted on Christoforou’s
personal Facebook account, where he has over 4,000 followers and 3,500 friends, his Twitter
account, and The Duran’s Facebook account, which has 59,000 followers.109 In support of a
wider RC campaign, actors attempt to legitimize further various narratives by creating
connections among stories that compound into a bigger picture, thus adding legitimacy to each
Another recent example is Russian distraction operations in the case of the recently uncovered
Russian agent Maria Butina who operated in the US. The Duran re-published an RT analysis
which focused on alleged procedural errors in the arrest and indictment. While Butina is accused
of not registering as a foreign agent and infiltrating the National Rifle Association (NRA), The
Duran and RT aim at distracting attention from her activities by fabricating news content around
the actual story, thereby focusing the target audience’s attention to other issues.
The information thereby leads the target audience from one undesired position that doesn’t fit
into the larger RC campaign narrative to a new destination far removed from that original story.
The cross-referencing enabled by digital news sites and social media works to legitimize a
message using vranyo methods.110 An example for this is the cross-pollination of a message spun
107 Christoforou, Alex/The Duran (2018): Vladimir Putin CRUSHES George Soros for All Western "Leaders" to
See, The Duran YouTube Channel; 6 June 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjf6hJYO6io.
108 Christoforou, Alex (2018): The Poisoning of Sergei Skripal Reads Right to Hillary Clinton and the DNC, The
Duran; 10 March 2018. http://theduran.com/the-poisoning-of-sergei-skripal-reads-right-to-hillary-clinton-and-the-
109 Links to Alex Christoforou’s social media accounts: https://www.facebook.com/alex.christoforou,
https://twitter.com/alextheduran) and The Duran Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thedurancom/
110 Chotikul, Diane (1986): The Soviet Theory of Reflexive Control in Historical and Psychocultural Perspective: A
Preliminary Study, C3CM Joint Test Force, p. 96; July 1986. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3901091-
by RT to other news sources through social media. Here, the effect of the propaganda is
amplified by bots or trolls in addition to regular users. For example, another The Duran video
argues that the NATO declaration following the 2018 Brussels Summit moves Alliance troops
into “direct confrontation with Russia” by moving troops closer to the Russian border.111 Of
course the troops posted are far from in any direct confrontation with Russia and are not posted
at the border. But the Russia effort was to try to contribute to the overall impression of NATO
aggressiveness towards Russia which contributes to the larger RC campaign trying to undermine
NATO support in Western countries.
The examples discussed above show that Russian social media exploitation is a key component
in implementing or at least complementing RC campaigns on many levels. Not only is social
media exploitation integral to the Russian state’s influence arsenal (and the whole gamut of its
coercive power), but social media platforms are used to reinforce each other to magnify, amplify,
diversify, and legitimize a message in the mind of the audience.
From the above-mentioned examples of Russian social media exploitation for RC campaigns, the
following trends can be discerned: While there is a difference to military maskirovka, civilian
RC operations sometimes act in preparation and support of military operations and vice versa.
For instance, RC campaign components aiming at provocation largely succeeded in the Russia-
Georgia war, and information that surfaced in the wake of the conflict appears to have been
tampered with or fabricated to sustain the idea that Georgia was the initiator of hostilities – a fact
that was later established by European officials. This is a clear case of ‘operational’ RC in
support of kinetic activities.
One of the most frequent social media uses is for discrediting and smearing in support of larger
RC efforts. The examples of character assassinations are too numerous to count, but the Freeman
and Chrystia Freeland cases stand as prime examples. Inversely, ‘useful idiots’ (like actor Steven
Seagal) or the US politician Ron Paul are actively leveraged and defended by Russian social
media without regard to them being discredited at home. Since opinion about Russia is polarized
in the West, the association of a celebrity’s opinion about an issue can lead to a complete
discredit if they are tainted by apparent complicity with active targeting by Russia.
In terms of opinion shaping, coordinated campaigns through all relevant media sources –
television, online media, social media in the form of Twitter, Facebook, VKontakte and
YouTube – achieve the largest reach. It is likely that social media will continue to play a central
Diane-Chotikul-The-Soviet-Theory-of-Reflexive.html. See also: Lefebvre, Vladimir A./ trans. Lefebvre, Victorina
D. (1984): Reflexive Control: The Soviet Concept of Influencing an Adversary’s Decision Making Process, Science
111 Christoforou, Alex/ The Duran (2018): NATO's "Summit Declaration" Moves Troops into Direct Confrontation
With Russia, The Duran YouTube Channel; 3 August 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISXPO8pH-2M.
role in supporting Russian RC campaigns, particularly because the fabrication of authority and
followership is so easy to construct; on social media, an alternate reality can be automated by
bots and trolls, for example, posting in comment sections. This alternate reality helps shape
attitudes, create sentiments, and propel users into a parallel universe which can be created to the
exact liking of the Kremlin – a form of influencing that cannot be created to the same extent in
the offline world. These shaped attitudes can then be further influenced through campaigns
affecting existing groups or leading to the formation of new groups that push narratives in
support of the alternate reality. These groups – and they can be online communities – can then
propel emotions of its members to extreme levels, mobilizing targets to commit violence. An
example for this is the violence seen in Charlottesville in 2017. In this case, RC methods were
used to discredit Western actors in the eyes of the target audience by exploiting societal fault
lines and supporting political extremes.
Another trend is the use of RC methods through social media for damage control, as apparent in
the Maria Butina, Skripal and MH-17 cases. The confusion created by the conflicting accounts is
aimed at deflecting blame and re-orienting attention while the media storm passes. These
instances, however, can also be seen as purely reactive, and may not all actually be part of an
overall RC campaign (but they do feed well into existing RC campaigns). As mentioned above, it
is not always easy or even possible to detect if an individual Russian operation is part of a long-
term RC campaign or not.
Finally, an important trend that merits attention is the power of social media-propelled RC to
create movements and groups, such as the separatist groups present online to support an
independent Donbass, or the Free Maria Butina hashtag, more recently. This process is especially
relevant as it attracts target audience members from various sides of an argument, while also
developing a life of its own – a development that is always possible with RC campaigns as the
campaigns can backfire if detected in time and made public by the adversary. Also, actual
innocent while unknowing members of such groups set up or created by Russia can start acting
on their own initiative, which may not be in the interest of the Kremlin, thereby negatively
affecting the overall campaign.
Reflexive control countermeasures
It can be seen from the above that reflexive control is a complex, dynamic and constantly
evolving discipline, with inputs and effects that are highly specific to each individual
circumstance and target. As a result, it is difficult if not impossible to prescribe countermeasures
for attacks, as the appropriate response will vary as widely as the attack itself. There are a
number of principles that, while relevant to conflict in general, are especially important for
defence against reflexive control. This chapter first introduces these concepts and then discusses
examples of countermeasures that can be introduced to mitigate the impact of RC campaigns.
1. Knowledge of the adversary is as important as self-knowledge. It is not enough to
understand our own objectives and our intended means of achieving them. Equal attention
must be given to the enemy’s understanding of the conflict, along with his or her culture of
planning and warfighting, information warfare principles, assets, targets and objectives.
Reflexive control cannot be addressed in isolation from other means the adversary will
utilize to achieve mastery before or during the initial period of war – including the period
before it is obvious to the victim that war has begun – nor can it be addressed in isolation
from the wider suite of techniques he or she will employ to get inside the friendly decision-
2. Deterring and defeating ‘hybrid war’ demands local knowledge. Templated,
generalized responses will not be adequate against an opponent trained for ‘non-
standardized’ operations. When that opponent is determined to extract military advantage
from the distinctive military-political and socio-political features (and vulnerabilities) of
the specific theatre of operations and those operating in it, tailored approaches based on
local knowledge are necessary. An understanding of the socio-political environment,
sensitivities and fault lines is not just the job of the politicians or cultural advisers. It is also
the job of the military commander. Nothing will be accomplished if knowledge is confined
to academic circles. Knowledge must be acquired and disseminated within the zone of
operations, transmitted to higher command echelons and, just as importantly, handed on to
incoming commanders and their subordinates. Institutional memory (that outlasts tours of
duty and the rotation of national contingents) needs to be developed at theatre and, as far as
possible, unit level. In this area, as in every other, assessments and responses must be
three-dimensional and joint (i.e., expanded to all branches of the armed services, and even
beyond the military realm).
3. The relationship between the military commander and political decision-maker is of
the utmost importance. Sustained and systematic effort must be expended to disseminate
knowledge, establish trust and find a common language among all authorities that have
influence on the security situation – not just in national capitals but in those localities
where ‘indirect aggression’ is more likely.
4. There are no ‘rear areas’. Defence against reflexive control must be as responsive to
‘deep operations’ and ‘diversion’ in the operational rear as to ambiguous threats in regions
contiguous to the enemy’s peacetime deployment. These threats may emerge in an
unfamiliar sequence or simultaneously, and potentially in areas that are entirely unrelated
to the notional target. Thus, for example, defence of Latvia must focus not only on the
potential for subversive operations in Latgale, but also consider the vulnerabilities of
Latvian representations to the EU and NATO in Brussels. By extension, the Canadian
contingent in Latvia can be exposed to cognitive attacks not just locally, but through
friends, families, communities and political figures in Canada itself. The same principles
apply to all nations that Russia considers to be adversaries, whether those countries
reciprocate the sentiment or not.
Keeping these principles in mind, we can identify the following concrete countermeasures that
affect individual operations that are part of larger RC campaigns. While Russian reflexive
control operations are difficult to detect, they contain many different elements that all need to
work together to achieve the overall desired effect on a target audience. These many elements –
like individual links of a chain – are all possible entry points to engage the reflexive control
operation and employ countermeasures to mitigate its effect.
Overview of countermeasures
x Understand the Adversary
x Analyze Previous Operations
x Analyze Previous Responses
x Understand the Adversary
x Identify Adversary’s Goals
x Plan for Adversarial Influence Operations
x Be Pro-Active
x Be Creative
x Invest in Training
x Invest in Legal Expertise
x Consult Allies
x Create Relationships and Build Alliances
x Consolidate Communications
x Unify Responses
x Fight Fire with Fire
x Apply Tactical Responses
x Apply Operational Responses
x Escalate Economic Responses
x Play the Long Game
Understanding the Adversary
It appears as if Canada (particularly the CAF) and most NATO militaries and governments lack
sufficient understanding of how adversaries, Russia in particular, have changed the way they
engage in warfare. It is essential to understand that traditional, conventional force on force
warfare is more and more only a last resort effort. Modern warfare consists primarily of Info
Ops, Cyber, and SOF instead of conventional operations. 112 This lack of focus on the
exploitation of the information space for RC campaigns and similar operations has enabled
Russia to significantly affect NATO, the EU, the TPP, NAFTA, and US/Canada relations, among
other Russian targets. Furthermore, Russia succeeds in claiming a lack of necessity for serious
development and engagement in Information Operations because there is no declaration of war
and deniability exists to a large extent. It appears more and more as if Russia and other
adversaries use kinetic operations to support information operations, while the West focuses on
information being used to support kinetic operations. This created the false impression that, as
long as there is no kinetic activity, operations in the information space are not such a serious
threat. This particularly leads to a lack of focus on pre-emptive measures such as a serious focus
on investing in defending against attacks in the information space. 113 Slowly, however, a deeper
understanding of Russian intent behind its information operations is emerging.114 A deeper
understanding of Russian activities in the information space and how they operate can enable
better detection operations and limit their effects.115 It is particularly essential to understand
Russian intent and operations in regions it declares as the Russian ‘sphere of influence’ in the
former Soviet Republics as well as where Russia is highly active in Central Asia116 and the
Middle East.117 Most recently, for example, Russia is fueling animosity among Bosnian Serb
nationalists in advance of Bosnian elections. Demonstrators carrying photos of Vladimir Putin
112 Seely, Robert (2017): Defining Contemporary Russian Warfare: Beyond the Hybrid Headline, The RUSI Journal,
Volume 162, Issue 1, pp. 50-59; 2017. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03071847.2017.1301634?src=
113 Glasser, Susan B. (2018): The War America Isn’t Fighting: Interview with Former US Secretary of Defense Ash
Carter on Russia Plan, The Global Politico Blog / Podcast; 19 February 2018. https://www.politico.eu/article/war-
114 Stupples, David (2015): The Next War Will Be an Information War and We’re Not Ready for it, The
Conversation; 26 November 2015. http://theconversation.com/the-next-war-will-be-an-information-war-and-were-
115 Schoen, Douglas E./ Roth Smith, Evan (2016): Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO and
Restore Russian Power and Global Influence, Encounter Books, New York.
116 Cooley, Alexander/ Heathershaw, John 2016): Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia,
Yale University Press, New Haven. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300208443dictators-without-borders.
117 Cook, Steven A. (2018): Russia is in the Middle East to Stay, Foreign Policy; 18 March 2018. https://
were photographed in Banja Luka in May 2018.118 At the same time, Serbia’s President has
accepted Putin’s aid with respect to Kosovo.119 Above all, the Russian government has been
encouraging Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs in their efforts to undermine the Kosovar government.120
Russia’s ambassador to Belgrade made that clear in June 2018 when he made the comparison,
“Crimea is Russia, Kosovo is Serbia”.121 Paying sufficient attention to similar regional
developments can help identify influence campaigns in their infancy before they gain significant
traction and achieve larger effects.122 Having a good understanding of the information space, the
players and their intentions is essential for any applications of countermeasures.
Analyzing Previous RC Operations
Analyzing previous Russian operations of reflexive control – and paying particular attention to
the study of accompanying decision-making – can help evaluate the strengths and shortcomings
of previous operations and how lessons learned can be implemented.123 We have mentioned
several cases above that can be well used to study the past application of RC earlier identify and
counter future RC operations.
Analyzing Previous Responses
Adopting critical thinking and red-teaming; focusing on identifying corroborating information
from reliable, trusted sources; and seeking confirmation from Allies and trusted partners to
substantiate or refute claims by the adversary can make RC campaign components less
effective.124 A strong focus on, and sufficient staffing for, a deeper analysis of long-term
adversarial intentions is essential for supporting decision-making for countermeasures.125
Weighing the effectiveness of prior responses to evaluate their impact (e.g., whether they were
delivered in a timely manner) can make countermeasures more effective. For example, the actual
118 Miranova, Vera/ Zawadewicz, Bogdan (2018): Putin is Building a Bosnian Paramilitary Force, Foreign Policy; 8
August 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/08/putin-is-building-a-bosnian-paramilitary-force/.
119 McLaughlin, Daniel (2018): Serbia’s President Hails Russian Support and Seeks Help on Kosovo, The Irish
Times; 9 May 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/08/putin-is-building-a-bosnian-paramilitary-force/.
120 European Western Balkans Contributor (2017): Russian Interference in Kosovo: Kosovo Serbs Primary Tool of
Influence, EWB; 14 November 2017. https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2017/11/14/russian-interference-kosovo-
121 B92 News Agency Report (2018): “Crimea is Russia, Kosovo is Serbia”: Russian Ambassador, B92.net; 12 June
122 Clark, Wesley K. (2018): Don’t Wait for the Western Balkans to Blow Up Again: The US and the EU Must Act,
The Washington Post; 11 April 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/04/11/dont-
123 Musco, Stefano (2017): The Art of Meddling: A Theoretical, Strategic and Historical Analysis of Non-Official
Covers for Clandestine Humint, Defense & Security Analysis, Volume 33, issue 4, pp. 380-394.
124 Kilovaty, Ido (2018): Doxfare: Politically Motivated Leaks and the Future of the Norm on Non-Intervention in
the Era of Weaponized Information, Harvard National Security Journal, Volume 9, Issue 1; 2018. p. 16.
125 Kasprzyk, Rafal (2018): The Essence of Reflexive Control and Diffusion of Information in the Context of
Information Environment Security in Burduk A./ Chlebus E./ Nowakowski T./ Tubis A. (eds) Intelligent
Systems in Production Engineering and Maintenance. ISPEM 2018. Advances in Intelligent Systems and
Computing, Volume 835. Springer, Champlain NY.
effect of economic sanctions may require a longer observation period to play out.126 However, as
the cumulative effect of those measures takes hold or when new measures are applied, there may
be a significant shift in the adversary’s ability to launch new campaigns, or they may be more
isolated127 than previously known, as traditional Allies retreat for fear of being sanctioned
themselves.128 In countering long-term RC campaigns, a wide net must be cast that keeps a
bigger picture in mind when evaluating individual Russian operations and their connections.
Other factors, such as Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power following the 2018 Presidential
election, could also leave little incentive for a shift in policy by the regime. Sanctions may still
have had a detrimental effect, but that effect may just have been balanced out by the stabilizing
outcome of the election.129
Playing the long game
Russia created decoy campaigns to mask the real activities during the annexation of Crimea. As
it took advantage of the disarray within the Ukrainian AF chain of command, it arranged for
sympathetic stakeholders including Cossacks, Russian nationalists and Soviet era war veterans to
create a distraction into which the Russian military could seamlessly blend.130 The groundwork
was laid out in advance, as Crimea’s Cossacks were already radicalized years before and could
be counted on to be loyal to Russian intervention. They were also highly committed to engaging
local youth in the movement through a network of military-style boot camps which served as
initiation into the Cossack pro-Russian legacy. They also engaged youth in combat.131 Perpetual
long-term observation of an adversary’s activities, particularly in the cyber domain, is key to
identifying and launching pre-emptive moves to prevent damaging campaigns from unfolding.
The use of foresight is also key to anticipating and responding in a timely way to influence
campaigns. Due to the lack of understanding that information leads,132 and that Russia is actively
126 Hunter Christie, Edward (2015): Sanctions After Crimea: Have They Worked?, NATO Review; 2015.
127 Hille, Kathrin (2015): Russia: Danger of Isolation, Financial Times; 8 January 2015. https://www.ft.
128 Keatinge, Tom (2018): This Time, Sanctions on Russia are Having Desired Effect: The Country’s Integration in
Global Finance Has Made it Vulnerable, Financial Times; 13 April 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/cad69cf4-
129 Janjevic, Darko (2018): Western Sanctions on Russia: Lots of Noise and Little Impact, Deutsche Welle; 05 April
2018. https://www.dw.com/en/western-sanctions-on-russia-lots-of-noise-and-little-impact/a-43271200. See also:
MacFarquhar, Neil (2018): The Fight with the West is Isolating Russia, But That’s Not Stopping Putin, The New
York Times; 17 April 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/17/world/europe/russia-putin-sanctions-
130 Shuster, Simon (2014): Armed Cossacks Flock to Crimea to Help Russian Annexation Bid, Time; 12 March
131 Shuster, Simon (2011): The Return of the Cossacks: Russia’s Warrior Clan Wants its Old Country Back, Time;
17 August 2011. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2088949,00.html.
132 Information ‘leads’ in the sense that any action taken is based on information that has triggered it. If an actor can
sufficiently manipulate the information an adversary consumes, it can ‘lead’ the actions of the adversary. The more
the actor control the information, the more it can determine actions.
controlling ‘the chess board’ (so to speak), there is no ability to utilize foresight to anticipate or
even pre-empt activities that Russia props up and reinforces constantly. Unfortunately, these
activities are not seen as having a ‘leading’ effect on crucial actions. Identifying ‘long game’ end
states, is often met with dismissal as being conspiracy theories due to so many different factors
having to be included that the complexity soon reaches a point where many become
unconvinced. There almost seems to be a defensive arrogance (to protect egos) when it comes to
such a topic, as leaders don't want to admit weakness or lack of knowledge/understanding. In my
opinion, Russia also knows of this weakness in NATO leadership, which gives them even more
ability to ‘control the chess board.’
Potential applications of RC mechanisms by the CAF
Western countries that might seek to adopt Russia’s techniques of reflexive control and turn
them against Moscow in response would face a number of severe ethical and practical
1. Loss of the moral high ground. The legal, political and cultural constraints under which
Western militaries and governments operate rule out many of the key components of
reflexive control. In particular, the element of pervasive disinformation – far above and
beyond simple military deception – runs counter to basic principles to which Western
information operations subscribe, and the values framework within which they operate.
In February 2018, an unknown but significant number of employees of a Russian private
military company (PMC) were killed by Russian airstrikes near Deir ez-Zor in Syria. The
incident may have resulted from probing by Russia to determine the limits of behavior that
that United States would accept. In any case, it is likely to have been highly educational for
Moscow. It would have been possible for the United States to have employed principles of
reflexive control in order to cause the incident in a form of entrapment to demonstrate
boundaries to Russia and limit Russian provocative behavior in Syria. It would have been
impossible to do this without publicity, harsh public criticism from legal opinion and the
media, and consequent questioning of the legitimacy of the US mission in Syria. In short,
Western actions are constrained by values, ethics, the rule of law and oversight while
Russia is not bound by such constraints.
2. Difficulty of pre-emption. A similar range of constraints affects any ambition by Western
nations to take pre-emptive actions to mitigate threats. The principles under which pre-
emptive action are considered legitimate are well known and generally accepted in the
West. It can be assumed, therefore, that Russian actions are calibrated to avoid situations
where Western legal opinion would endorse pre-emptive action.
The key to understanding and mitigating this problem is a full grasp among military and
civilian decision-makers of the ‘initial period of war’ as it is seen from Russia, and in
particular the distinctive understanding of the transition from peace to war that pertains to
Russian thinking and planning.
A further enhancement to Western freedom of action could come in the form of a shift in
emphasis in lawfare from the defensive to the offensive. DoD, MOD, DND and others
need legal teams who, rather than simply setting parameters, have the expertise to advise
how to make a necessary military or political objective legally possible. In particular there
should be a synergy, not a divide, between the military-technical and military-legal
3. Inability to deploy coordinated information effects. The fact that Western nations are by
default liberal democracies and open societies with free media and independent legislatures
makes them fundamentally unsuited to a key element of reflexive control: namely
coordinating and controlling the information, influence and inputs that are being directed to
Russia benefits from unity of information space, and can harness the official and notionally
unofficial information media of an entire country to project a unified cognitive assault –
even before consideration of infiltration directly into the adversary’s information space
through social media, ‘useful idiots’, and disinformation repeated by home nation media.
Western nations, by contrast, are highly limited in the tools of influence at their disposal.
Planting or projecting information in advance from sources other than the government or
military immediately encounters the ethical constraints referred to above.
In short, Russia as a state and a society is ideally suited to employing reflexive control against its
adversaries, while those adversaries in the West are constitutionally, morally and legally
prevented from effectively responding in kind. This simple fact further underlines the critical
importance of defending Western societies and values systems against pernicious Russian
For the Canadian context specifically, potential applications need to be separated into the
strategic, the operational and the tactical level as any strategic level application of reflexive
control is not in accordance with Canadian and international law.
The Strategic level
“The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the
dangers arising from military operations.” “To give effect to this protection […] in all
circumstances […] the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the
object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror
among the civilian population are prohibited.”133
Article 13 — Protection of the Civilian Population, Geneva Convention
The laws of war, as agreed upon in the Geneva Conventions, and signed by Canada on August
12, 1949 prevent the targeting of any civilians as part of military operations. Breaches of the law
incur up to 14 years of prison if no civilians die of the attack or if there are fatalities, a life
sentence may be given. Accordingly, any CAF member participating in attacking the civilians
can face at least up to 14 years of prison.
Any kind of application of Russian reflexive control is therefore not only unlawful for CAF
members but would lead to severe penalties in the event civilians are targeted. As the influencing
of the mindset of citizens is the crucial mechanism that triggers desired actions of a target
audience during RC – and the civilian population will always be the largest part of such a target
audience – on a strategic level, any kind of CAF adaptation of RC is impossible without
breaching the Geneva Conventions.
Part of the success of Russian activities in this space is that the Kremlin does not respect
international law. Russia does not only disrespect the rules of international law and the laws of
war but increasingly appears unfettered by rules whatsoever in implementing its ‘weaponization
This is, of course, no desirable development that a government of any democratic state can
support. Democracy builds on the expression of the will of the people. It is no longer possible to
identify the will of the people if the people are deceived and through reflexive control led to
express preferences of a specific actor rather than their own will.
As such any kind of applications of reflexive control that target civilians is – and rightly so – no
option for the CAF.
The argument has been made that fire must be fought with fire. In this context interested parties
claim that we are ‘losing the battle’ if we do not engage in using the same weapons. Above, we
have shown that there are many effective ways of countering reflexive control. Even more so if
multiple approaches are combined. If we do the same as the adversary, we do not defeat the
adversary, we just replace him. Also, how new is RC really? RC is a form of deception. Military
deception has always existed. New technologies like social media make RC mechanisms more
easily implemented, more effective and also at least initially unattributed, but with these
technologies come opportunities to exploit them as well. As in the case of ISIS, actors that excel
133 Geneva Conventions Act (1985): Geneva Conventions Act R.S.C., 1985, c.G-3, Justice Laws Website.
in the use of social media can be effectively combatted and their operations can be crucially
influenced without having to resort to the same tactics.
Questions remain also about the effectiveness of RC mechanisms. There is no doubt that there
can be considerable short-term benefits if an actor succeeds in exploiting reflexive control
mechanisms and a target audience unknowingly acts in the intended way it otherwise would not
have without interference. We have shown multiple examples above. Questions remain about the
long-term success of these measures. What happens if the target audience learns after the fact
that it was misled to an undesired action? How does it then perceive the actor who exploited RC
against the TA? Are they equally likely to fall for another RC campaign after having gone
through the experience? Likely not. What if the TA is warned against and trained to identify RC
campaigns? There is ample evidence to suggest that RC campaigns needs to be undetected and
unexpected to achieve the intended effect. RC activities – after achieving success manipulating
the 2016 US elections and the Brexit vote – were no longer able to garner a similar success in
subsequent elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
We also hear a lot about how today’s battles are really battles for the hearts and minds. If that is
any indicator, the countries most well-known for exploiting reflexive control mechanism appear
not to be prime destinations attracting talent from around the world. Instead Russia is facing a
severe brain drain. The reputation of countries like Russia and China compare very unfavorably
to Western countries that do not engage in manipulating the perceptions of civilian populations –
domestic or foreign.
Potential use forms of similar mechanisms for influence
In very limited and targeted operations, similar mechanisms are already being used as part of
military deceptions operations; however, they do not include targeting of civilians. Similar
mechanisms can be applied within international law requirements. A famous Canadian example
that is taught in Canadian PSYOPS courses is the use of music on the battlefield. During the
onset of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian forces playing really loud music in breaks between
heavy artillery attacks on the Afghan soldiers. When the music came, the soldiers started to get
used to the attacks stopping. Until at one point this assumption by the adversary was used to
move in and take over territory instead of a new artillery attack. This is a similar mechanism –
although on a much smaller level, much more targeted and limited. Such use – if one wants to
call them reflexive control mechanisms – are acceptable for use by the CAF as long as they can
be implemented without targeting civilians. The concept of ‘nudging’ from the field of
behavioral economics is another area where similar mechanisms are exploited that can be used in
Different from the strategic level on which the Russians famously use RC, there are application
possibilities on the tactical level. At the tactical level, there are various means with which to
attempt to predetermine and influence adversarial behaviors. These include rumor campaigns or
loudspeaker operations to support a mission, or to confuse the enemy’s OODA loop (Observe,
Orient, Decide, Act) regarding future activities that will occur. An example for this is the use of
loudspeaker audio to pre-empt kinetic strikes. When repeated applied, they can create a behavior
of the adversary which can be exploited. This exploitation can disrupt the adversary’s battle
rhythm or pattern of life.
On the operational level there are also examples of allied reflexive control which can indicate
use forms. OP MINCEMEAT, and the US assault into IRAQ using leaflets to deceive the Iraqi
Army into believing there would be an amphibious assault in the form of a land assault via
Kuwait is an example of potential operational level exploitation of RC mechanisms. Any use
case beyond the tactical and operations level would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement
without targeting civilians and breaching the Geneva Conventions.
However, the above describe operations on the tactical and operational level are only informed
by small parts of what Russian RC campaigns contain. As such it would be incorrect to describe
them in any form as RC mechanisms as the core element of RC is a large coordinated approach
of many activities over time to affect the world view of a larger target audience.
This paper has discussed the theoretical concept of Russian reflexive control, how it was further
developed into what is today in Russia referred to as ‘managed reality’ and how its
implementation has worked in the most pertinent cases of its implementation in the past 10 years.
The discussion of its application in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria has demonstrated that the
Russian application of reflexive control entails a far broader and more complex approach than
pure deception, or providing an adversary commander with false operational information on
which to base his or her decision. Instead of consisting simply of disinformation, reflexive
control implies a compound program of targeted decision-making through multiple vectors,
accounting for not only the adversary's logical processing of information, but also the emotional,
psychological, cultural and other frameworks within which decisions are made. Reflexive control
is therefore a very complex concept and its implementation depends on many coordinated efforts
over a very long time-frame.
We have also shown that many activities appear to be in the mode of reflexive control but are
actually not. Our discussion of such cases shows that coordinated activities can easily been seen
as part of a larger coordinated effort without this actually being the case. Parts of the concept are
difficult to separate from ‘regular’ deception or distraction operations. It appears as if it is rather
easy to overestimate the success of reflexive control campaigns, thereby giving Russian
operations more credibility then they actually deserve.
The complexity of the concept – and particularly the various elements of it that have to be
coordinated effectively for the long-term effect to be achieved – offers many avenues to counter
reflexive control operations. As demonstrated, while reflexive control is a long-term game, it
appears to be a rather fragile operation that is fairly easy to counter, once identified, if target
audiences are made aware of the concept, how it works and who may be exploiting it against
The authors have also shown that, besides the high complexity and fragility of RC operations,
the fairly effective countermeasures speak against most forms of its potential application in the
CAF. Particularly, in any application of RC on the strategic level, civilians would be targeted –
leading to a breach of the Geneva Conventions. Many questions remain about what (if any)
implementation in the CAF could look like.
Finally, the question remains, why the CAF would even want to alter the general world view of a
target audience long term? Any population – if able to decide freely, would truly opt for what is
best for it, which is the rule by the people. As such there is no need as a democracy to influence
the general worldview of an adversary to make the Canadian concept of governance look more
attractive than it already is. Autocratic systems such as Russia need to resort to such
manipulation in an attempt to make their political system appear less unattractive compared to
that of their adversary. This is something – at least on a strategic level – Canada is not in need of
implementing. On every possible level, living conditions are far more favorable to the general
population in Canada and all Western countries compared to authoritarian states like Russia and
China. Therefore, there is also simply no need to influence the worldview of target audiences
without their knowing in our favor. This can be done totally openly as our political system is far
more attractive than those of our adversaries.
Any covert activities to influence worldviews of target audiences could also backfire severely in
democracies. This matters far less in authoritarian political systems. Any covert strategic level
attempt to influence the worldview of a target audience would hardly pass The New York Times
test. Democracies tend to want to spread democracy openly and not influence other populations
unknowingly – as they would not want to be influenced unknowingly themselves either.
Applications may be possible on a much smaller and specific scale in the battlefield as long as
civilians are not targeted, though this would then be very close to classic PSYOPS and not be the
same reflexive control mechanism as applied by Russia. Such operations could include
motivating adversary soldiers to defect, or efforts to influence adversary moral and
determination. However, if done on a larger scale, the vast countermeasures make the application
of such operations rather fragile.
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Royal Military College of Canada
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3. TITLE (The document title and sub-title as indicated on the title page.)
Russian Reflexive Control
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Keir, G.; Sherr, J.; Seaboyer, A.
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12. KEYWORDS, DESCRIPTORS or IDENTIFIERS (Use semi-colon as a delimiter.)
Reflexive Control; Information warfare; Social media
13. ABSTRACT/RÉSUMÉ (When available in the document, the French version of the abstract must be included here.)
Russia is increasingly applying methods of reflexive control (RC) to influence political
decision-making through election manipulation as well as undermining the trust of citizens in
political institutions and political systems of targeted countries. Russia is employing RC not only
domestically and in neighboring countries such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland
but also more and more in NATO countries such as the US, Germany, France, Great Britain, and
Canada. For the CAF to be able to develop effective countermeasures, it is essential to achieve a
deeper understanding of RC as it was used traditionally during the Cold War and particularly how
it has been further developed to be used in current Russian operations. This report discusses the
concept of Russian reflexive control, how it has evolved into its current iteration, the mechanics of
how it works, and how to identify possible countermeasures to RC.
This RMCC research report addresses the following research questions:
1. What is Russian reflexive control?
2. In what instances has RC been successfully applied?
3. What were the underpinning mechanisms by which it worked?
4. What are possible countermeasures to RC?
5. What are possible applications of RC mechanisms by the CAF?
The paper concludes that reflexive control in its current form implies a compound program of
targeted decision-making through multiple vectors, accounting for not only the adversary's logical
processing of information, but also emotional, psychological and cultural frameworks within which
decisions are made, over a long time-frame. The complexity of the concept offers avenues to
counter reflexive control operations. It appears to be a fragile operation that is fairly easy to
counter, once identified, if target audiences are made aware of the concept and how it works. In
addition to moral and legal concerns, the high complexity and fragility of RC operations, along
with fairly effective countermeasures to RC, suggest the CAF should not apply RC mechanisms