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Russia's Information Warfare, with Molly McKew

December 12, 2018

Vladimir Putin. CREDIT: Kremlin.ru

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Molly McKew. She is CEO of Fianna Strategies. She's also an information warfare expert, and this is part of our Information Warfare series.

Molly, great to see you today.

MOLLY McKEW: Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: Your bailiwick is information warfare as it regards to Russia.

MOLLY McKEW: Absolutely, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Give us a little background. First of all, how did you get into this? I understand you've consulted for several governments, for example. What's a little bit of your background? How did you get into information warfare?

MOLLY McKEW: Sure. I think like everyone in DC or who starts in DC you sort of wander a bit before you end up someplace useful. I started at a think tank. My background was in Russian language, history, and culture. Then the war started. I spent five years doing the Middle East.

DEVIN STEWART: Which war?

MOLLY McKEW: The Iraq War and Afghanistan. So I started just after 9/11, essentially, in a think tank in DC. I kind of got sucked into other pursuits and did that for a while. I did some consulting work in West Africa for a little while and then got recruited into a bigger firm back in DC and ended up back in the post-Soviet world.

I started working with the government of Georgia. This was when President Saakashvili was still in charge, after that in Moldova, and I've done some work in Ukraine and in the Baltic States as well.

DEVIN STEWART: Working with the government of Georgia and the government of Moldova, was information warfare a component of that work?

MOLLY McKEW: When I started with Georgia, we were hired just after the war in 2008, so just after Russia invaded Georgia, a short five-day war, and I think afterward—there was a ceasefire negotiated and whatever—I think Russia went home and sat down, and while obviously they didn't lose the war because they had 100,000 troops on the border of a very small country, I think they kind of went back and said, "Hey, this thing where we have this giant unreformed conscript army isn't really working anymore." They got ahead of their supply lines. The military work that they were doing didn't quite go as smoothly as it should have, and I think there was a big after-action thought in Moscow of: Well, what do we do? What's the new thing?

There were two branches that came out of that. One was the direction toward the new Russian military that we see now. So, instead of, "Somehow we're going to reform this million-person conscript army," it was this move toward the Special Forces-based model that you see now: "Screw the whole army. We're going to have just a few units up to about 40,000, 50,000 rapid-deployment troops that have better capabilities."

And you've seen them moving toward that lane. That's what you've seen in Ukraine, what you see in Syria of the way that they're training new troops. Then, heavy investments into Russian weapons systems, building a new generation of tools of warfare. So that was the one side, sort of, "How do we build a better, quicker force that can do some of the things that we need?"

The other was very much, "But how do we not need to use it?" and really reexamining the tools of political warfare that the Kremlin had available to it. That was in that period between early 2009 and 2012, when you see the heavy investments into RT, rebuilding up the state media enterprise. You saw the Russians start to pay attention to social media, in particular after Obama's election, because the way that he was elected was new to them. They always watch our elections very closely. So you see them toying around in this whole space of the sphere of information, the use of information as a tool of political warfare, developing new tools.

DEVIN STEWART: Was there a model that they were looking at?

MOLLY McKEW: Obviously, the Soviet/Russian continuity in this space, there's tons of history and experience to leverage. They did that very successfully, looking back on what worked well from the recent Soviet past, "What can we do with these new tools, how do we leverage experience in psychological warfare" and the psychology that had come out of the military and intelligence services with these tools and with the new use of information.

It was a really interesting period of testing in those four years, looking at new messaging, a slicker façade. You saw a pivot away from the heavy ideological narratives that you might have seen during the Soviet period toward an understanding that the best way to access an audience was emulating what they say and then slowly turning a narrative in a different direction. But it was a really interesting period of experimentation, I think, for the information warfare dudes who were working for the Kremlin at the time.

In addition to heavy investment in compatriot groups and expanded use of intelligence operations, there were a lot of other things happening in the political warfare space during that period. That was when these new tools of information were really developed.

I think sitting in Georgia we watched them. We had to learn what they were doing. I don't think we fully understood what they were doing or how consequential it would be until the election in 2012, when a Gazprom oligarch won the election in Georgia.

Basically, the entire campaign was run on social media and with dirty information tactics. In the months after, looking back on how the heck did we miss all of this was really when we saw the way that they were investing in social media, the use of the silo-ed black PR, all the things that were happening on Facebook that we never even saw, no one in our party saw. It was totally directed toward the vulnerable part of the country to the message that they were using, and then looking at the narrative that they used that really leveraged the doubt and the parts of the reforms that hadn't been completed under the post-Rose Revolution government, fears about the Russians, and this existential threat that they had lived under since 2008, but mushing the narrative together into a really effective basket of tools to leverage a significant political shift in the country.

DEVIN STEWART: You've written about a Russian doctrine behind this way of doing what you might call "statecraft" or "information warfare" or "disinformation campaigns." Tell us about this doctrine and whether it is relevant or not.

MOLLY McKEW: It is this controversial topic now. But I think the term "Gerasimov Doctrine" was an informally born term that came out of discussion of a speech and then an essay written by General Valery Gerasimov, who is the head of the Russian General Staff, the equivalent to the chief of the—

DEVIN STEWART: Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MOLLY McKEW: —in the United States, theorizing that in this new era where there are all these new things, and the understanding that warfare is changing from war is declared, you fight a war, and a war ends to this perpetual state of counterinsurgency-like conflicts where information is becoming more important. He lays out this new concept of asymmetric warfare, really focusing on the importance of asymmetric tactics, of guerrilla tactics, and how those can be used against more powerful opponents.

A lot of this came out of reflecting on the Iraq War fallout and how the United States had been bogged down in Iraq, what the war in Afghanistan had turned into, looking at the Arab Spring and the way that some of those uprisings had been born off of social media and the ways these new tools were being used to organize movements. It came out of thinking about, What are all these things, and what do they mean for us?

But I think it was a particularly powerful set of contemplations coming from the Russians, because there's this acknowledgement that in the current landscape with a small economy relatively speaking, with not a lot of resources, with not a lot of people, that they're competing against opponents in their mind that they are equivalent to but that are much wealthier, much stronger, and have much greater resources available to them. In that sense, the doctrinal embodiment of the idea of permanent guerrilla warfare makes a lot of sense because guerrilla warfare is essentially the use of the tools of the weak against the strong, like how do you weaken a much stronger opponent?

I think if you look through the essay version of the Gerasimov Doctrine, what he wrote out with his little chart, the escalation map of what modern conflict is, there are themes in it that look an awful lot like what the Kremlin does now. Across all stages of war, one of the most important tools is the use of information and how you leverage that against an opponent and how that can give you an advantage to, as he puts it, "weaken the spiritual resources of your opponent and gain your own."

He really focuses on this in a later essay as well that was written in 2017. I think it was called "The World on the Verge of War" or something, sort of a second part of the Gerasimov Doctrine, where he focuses on this idea that what Russia needs to focus on is the spiritual resources of its forces, a new ideology of mobilizing the country and getting people to commit to fight.

So there's this use of information that he lays out, the new stages of conflict, and I think it's this exploration of the idea that again comes out of Georgia that triggering what looks like a war, an invasion, whatever, from the Russian state came with a lot of costs. Yes, they had some gains in terms of territory and other things, but it cost them. It cost them politically. The fallout from it was quite significant. They didn't achieve what they wanted initially, which was the collapse of the Saakashvili government. All of that took more time.

So there was this exploration for Gerasimov and others of what is conflict below the line of conflict. How do you keep conflict below the line that triggers a reaction from the international community?

DEVIN STEWART: To what end, though?

MOLLY McKEW: I think the thinking in that space was, How do you use modified versions of the tools of war to achieve political goals without having to bear any of the costs?

DEVIN STEWART: I see.

MOLLY McKEW: I think that space is where—particularly since Crimea—but starting earlier, 2007, 2008, 2012 in Georgia, and in other elections across the region—you see this thinking of: It doesn't matter if it's crap what we're saying, if everybody knows these are Russian soldiers in Crimea but we're saying they're not. It doesn't matter if everybody knows we shot down the passenger jet over Ukraine, MH17. It doesn't matter. As long as we have deniability, this is a great tool for us. As long as we don't pay the costs, we're still winning.

I think this is the space where in all of the modern discussions that we're still having, the current, contemporary discussions we're having about what do you do about Russia, whether it be trade issues or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) or sanctions or Ukraine or other things, there's still this question of what is the cost and what is the consequence that alters the behavior in the pattern that they've set, and nobody seems to have yet a decent answer to that. The Russians know it, and they push forward.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm curious. I've asked this before to other Russia experts. If there's a factor at play, which is that modern warfare, especially with nuclear-armed belligerents is just catastrophic, and there might be other ways to skirt around catastrophic war, is that part of the thinking at all?

MOLLY McKEW: There are two interesting things that come out of that that I think are really important with the caveat that nuclear war is still a really bad thing and nobody should be aspiring for it.

There has been a lot of bluster lately about nuclear weapons, partially in the context of this bizarre new narrative of "We need more arms control talks with Russia." Okay, fine, great. I still think zero people are in the place where launching intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles is something anybody's really aspiring toward.

But I think there are two new areas that have not been paid enough attention to that I think are really important. I think the one piece focuses on what we've been talking about, which is the Russians aren't focused on nuclear war as a way to achieve their political goals. It's all of these other things: the use of intelligence operations, the use of information operations, the use of illicit financial flows. That is the thing we need to be much more focused on because that's what we're losing to.

The other side is the proliferating discussion in Russian strategy, somewhat doctrinal, circles, but the sphere of ideologues around the Kremlin who toy with ideas in the public before they use them, but the discussions of nuclear weapons, the new tactical nuclear weapons, like lower-yield nukes, how can they be used in conflict, but really moving very clearly the Russian doctrinal thinking on nuclear weapons, particularly of that size, to a conventional weapon. This is no longer a last-use tactic; it's no longer the "apocalypse now" scenario. "Where are the ways," they all theorize, "that we can use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear strikes in a small way that can be deniable," that can come without the cost of every missile the United States has being launched toward Moscow? What are those things?

Some of those are—they remain within this realm of covert action and deniability that I think is really troubling. One is the discussion of using tactical nukes to stop an invasion of Russia should it occur. Now, zero people are talking about invading Russia, of course. But in the Russian mindset this is very important. But there has been discussion of the fact that if Russian territory is being invaded, "We would nuke it if we need to stop that invasion."

So the idea that you have the Russian military discussing, "Well, we'd kill our own people with a nuclear weapon if it would stop an invasion," is really extraordinary. And yet it is discussed. And they discuss: "Well, we could probably evade the consequences of having done that if we need to using the right information campaign."

Then there are all the ways you could use a nuke and not have it be blamed on you, again sort of nuking your own assets or using it to spark conflict between other parties. I think that space with this idea that there is a way to use nuclear weapons that may be lower-yield or the underwater nuclear missile or whatever, but that there's a way to use nuclear weapons, again in a deniable way or in a way that stays below that trigger line of conflict, should really, really concern us because they're talking about it a lot. That's not some crazy theorization, it's being paralleled by investments in new technology and developing new ways to deliver these weapons, new-scaled warheads. While I do think a lot of this is heavily overblown in the sense that they're focused on the other tools of war more than nuclear weapons, we really do need to pay attention to what they're doing because it's very serious.

DEVIN STEWART: The big elephant in the room is, of course, the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. You've likened it to Pearl Harbor. I'm a Japan guy, so I remember that.

This is again another controversial topic. We talked about the doctrine earlier. Some Russia experts say they were fooling around with our election, but they didn't really know what was going to happen, they didn't really have a preference either way, maybe it was very marginal, and people who believed the bots and the sock puppets and fake stories had their minds made up anyway, so they weren't really influenced.

But I get the sense you might have a different view on that. What's your view?

MOLLY McKEW: I do in several ways. One, I think the idea that there was no preference has been relatively solidly disproven. The Russian campaigns very clearly focused on beating Hillary Clinton and eventually on selecting Trump.

DEVIN STEWART: Was it pro-Trump or—

MOLLY McKEW: Some of the best evidence for that hasn't really even been discussed, which is there were Russian campaigns directed against Republican candidates as well, certainly against Rubio. I think a little bit against Bush has been documented. So there was "meddling"—I hate that word—within the primary structure as well, which I think is very interesting.

I do think it is also true simultaneously that in the same way that when they began supporting Ivanishvili, the candidate who would eventually win in Georgia, the Gazprom oligarch, they didn't know that he was going to win. It was just, how do you weaken Saakashvili? I don't think they could have known that Trump would win as a candidate, but I do think they believed that would have been a good thing for them.

DEVIN STEWART: Trump specifically.

MOLLY McKEW: Yes, because of the many years during which he had pursued Russian investment and the idea of investing in Russia, the many years that his company had pursued Russian investment into his properties, the way that he talked, the personality that he was, someone like Donald Trump—the money, the lifestyle, the women, whatever else—but who has lived their life very publicly. If you are a government that relies heavily on intelligence profiles and psychological profiles, then that's somebody you're going to like because there's an awful lot you can know about Donald Trump from his public life.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think he's compromised somehow?

MOLLY McKEW: The definition of that is an interesting thing. I don't think that there's necessarily—I mean, who knows?—hooker tapes or stuff from Russia or whatever. If there is relevant compromise on this president, I believe it relates to his financial interests, and I think that he probably knows that as well.

Did he ever know X, Y, Z? Who knows? But it's pretty well documented that his properties were heavily invested in by many sketchy Russian sources and were openly laundering Russian money.

DEVIN STEWART: So you're talking about there's an incentive, but what's your argument for making the case that the Russian involvement had an effect?

MOLLY McKEW: This is always the space where there's a lot of debate, right? Did it mean anything?

I think there are different ways to evaluate that. I think the problem—and we're seeing that now especially in the evolution of the Mueller indictments and the details coming out of them, the increased focus on Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi and this whole space and back to WikiLeaks and Assange and the connections between all of these things.

So I think that in this new space and unraveling what happened in 2016, this is the problem. There wasn't a distinct Russian information campaign where only the Russians were talking about X on their bots and social media accounts or whatever. It was heavily interwoven with the Republican narrative, with the Trump campaign narrative, with Infowars and Breitbart, with the fake account campaigns running across social media. It was all put together with the National Rifle Association's (NRA) ads. It was all leveraged together into one big pool, and separating those pieces out and saying, "Ah, this is the piece that Russia did" as opposed to something else in that mix of dirt and despair is very hard to do.

But I think when you're looking at the huge shifts in the mindset of the Republican Party and the mindset of the Republican caucus and the mindset of Republican voters, in a very short time period beginning after when we know the Russian information campaign started, so mid-2015 for sure, and within that year timespan, well, up until the point of the election, but in the course of 18 months, if you look at critical areas, the shift in Republican voter opinion—a 40-point shift in opinions on free trade, 40-point shift in opinions on Vladimir Putin, 30-point shift in opinions on whether authoritarianism is good or bad—you can map these things out in terms of voter opinion that in that time period something was happening.

It wasn't just that Trump was the "FU" vote, which I think was real for many people, but there was this narrative that was being leveraged against conservative voters in ways that flipped everything they previously believed on their heads.

DEVIN STEWART: Hard to pinpoint causation, though, right?

MOLLY McKEW: Exactly. But when you're looking at an election won by 70,000-80,000 votes, it's really hard to say all of that had no impact on the huge shift back and forth in different states.

Again, there's never going to be the: "Ah, that's the one thing. This is the proof of this." But I think if you do get to a point where you see Russian actors in whatever way coordinating with and contributing to U.S. messaging during the elections, working with Trump campaign actors, when their money is being used to fuel and facilitate those advertising campaigns, I think it's very hard at that point to say it had no impact.

DEVIN STEWART: Molly, it's been great speaking with you.

MOLLY McKEW: Thanks for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we go, let's talk a little bit about the Mueller report, which is probably going to come out soon, and maybe what you expect the direction of Russian interference in American democracy might be. We recently had a technologist named Saiph Savage on this series, and she was actually quite optimistic looking at the case of Mexico where Mexican voters actually became educated about fake news and bots, and after a while the effect of disinformation campaigns fizzled out.

MOLLY McKEW: But they still elected a populist president.

DEVIN STEWART: True. Good point. Touché. But I suppose non-populists can use fake news as well.

MOLLY McKEW: Absolutely. I think this is part of the biggest challenge in the United States now. I also work in the Baltic States and Ukraine, where there are huge amounts of disinformation or deliberately coercive information or manipulative information, but the population is a little more aware of the fact that this exists, that it is real, that it is targeted, and the idea that over time, particularly the Russians in that region, have narrative goals that they try to achieve.

So if you understand—in the Estonian context there's this constant Russian rewrite of history: "Estonians were fascist collaborators in World War II," all these bits of things that are meant to undermine the idea of Western values and inflate the importance of Russia in history and in the world and absolve them of all their sins, Soviet or otherwise, then they see everything in that context, and it's a little easier for them to parse out whatever.

But I think in the United States there's still this—maybe if Clinton had won and there was an immediate come-to-Jesus on the fact that there were heavy disinformation campaigns used in this election, foreign or domestic, and what that means and how that affects us, and there was a government response to this, maybe it would be different. But instead we've had two years of one entire political caucus saying this probably doesn't exist and isn't a thing and doesn't affect you, and I don't know how anybody can say that with a straight face when the country just feels unmoored. The shifts in political views, the radicalization in both directions in terms of polarization, that anybody can say the information landscape doesn't contribute to this dynamic in some way, technology-based or otherwise, I think is very difficult.

But we're behind. Americans are behind on this. And I think in particular there's a whole bunch of things we just need to deal with. Coming out of the Iraq War there was this erosion of belief in the rightness of what we do and the rightness of our beliefs, and we've never really talked about that.

That's been heavily leveraged by the Russians and by others to say we're all just morally equivalent here: "Our crap system is same as your crap system, and we're all corrupt thugs in the end." This idea of moral equivalency is so dangerous, and I think you see that.

There's been so much polling done about Millennial views, and they don't really care about democracy or capitalism or any of these big ideological concepts. That's all fixable and whatever, but I do think we should be worried about it in the sense that the Chinese in particular have really focused on the new system that they have where it's a totally controlled communist state where it seems like an open economic environment. So much wealth and new wealth and new billionaires are coming out of the Chinese model, and there's this perception of freedom if you know where to stay, like which box you're in, freedom in a certain place.

But this idea that wealth might be worth it. If you have to give up just some freedoms, maybe the wealth is worth it is a really dangerous idea that I think is guiding too many people in a fairly oligarchic era. It's not just Russia that has oligarchs, but this idea of super-wealth, Bezos-like, Silicon Valley-like megawealth, that is indefinable in many ways, these are the thing that are reshaping the world.

When you have those new tools and the new wealth being generated by and driven by data more than anything else, when you don't need labor, when you don't need people, when we're moving toward the post-work economy, whatever that's going to be, driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and robots and all sorts of wonderful things, I think we really need to sit down and look at the idea of representative government—What is it delivering to people? What's the new value proposition of democracy to its people?—before we get to a place where the extremely dystopian Chinese Social Credit model seems normal to everyone and privacy doesn't exist and everything we do is mapped and quantified as a 1 or 0 that is forever used to define our value as people.

This is why this disinformation debate coming out of Mueller and the U.S. elections and everything else has become a much bigger issue. It's this idea that data and information is a defining thing for this next era and will impact human freedom and how we view ourselves moving forward. And I think there's a huge ball of issues in there that we really need to tackle, and right now the United States is just playing denialism because the idea that Trump didn't fairly win the election because of disinformation is something that people don't want to talk about.

But same with the United Kingdom and Brexit. We've got a lot to tackle.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a great way to conclude, Molly. Thank you so much. I just want to encourage the listeners to check out Molly McKew on Twitter, @MollyMcKew, and join her I think 88,000 or so followers.

MOLLY McKEW: Almost, I think, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: So I encourage you to do that. Molly, thanks again.

MOLLY McKEW: Thanks for having me.

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