How our adversaries use our flaws against us

‘For a young officer unaccustomed to the crack of rounds hissing around me, the ill-trained jihadis in black masks seemed straight out of central casting. It took years for me to realise how insignificant such events really were’

I was in my twenties when someone first tried to kill me. For a young officer unaccustomed to the crack of rounds hissing around me, the ill-trained jihadis in black masks seemed straight out of central casting: they were the villains, and I was taking part in events that bore true historical significance. It took years for me to realise how insignificant such events really were.

Explaining the difference between tactical combat and the events that actually have an impact on world affairs is very difficult. People who have never experienced such things experience cognitive bias. Convinced earth-shattering events will be accompanied by theme music, they miss truly important happenings amid the day’s other headlines .

Take for example a headline that caused much consternation before disappearing under the Covid-19 deluge. It was revealed that, in addition to the predictable goal of aiming to assist Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, the Russian Federation was also attempting to shore up the electoral hopes of the left-wing contender for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. Pundits, including Sanders himself, all weighed in. Why would the Russians support two candidates, and why him?

The truth is that the vehement appraisals of each pundit in their own right were the reward for the Kremlin. As Peter Pomerantsev, one of the most astute observers of modern Russian disinformation, put it in a 2015 piece for the Guardian: “I began to wonder whether the very idea of information-psychological war . . . was simply one more bluff . . . then, I wondered, was this essay, the one you are reading, part of the plan?”

This is the genius of the Russian military doctrine known as reflexive control. Simply defined, it is the process of influencing an adversary’s decision-making cycle by exposing its flaws. These flaws are revealed by meticulously patterning the adversary: that is, defining how they see the world and the conflict at hand. Once flawed perspectives are identified, information is then fed to the adversary to reinforce those flawed perspectives, influencing the adversary to make strategic decisions they believe are in their interest, when in reality they are not.

The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 provides a striking example. Russia had manipulated the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. If Russian conventional forces had simply invaded, diplomatic condemnation would have followed. Instead, in the summer of 2008 the Kremlin conditioned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s perspective with airspace intrusions and brief incursions by ground forces, while pushing South Ossetian separatists to step up attacks against the Georgians. This prompted Saakashvili to send his army, believing there was a large-scale Russian military operation underway. But Russian conventional forces at that stage remained on their side of the border, and the pitched battles on the streets of the breakaway capital, Tskhinvali, gave the Kremlin the casus belli it needed.

That Russian intelligence and special operations forces were almost certainly embedded with South Ossetian separatists is irrelevant. By using reflexive control and luring Georgian forces into Tskhinvali first, Russia escaped broad condemnation. Georgia suffered a disastrous military defeat and was widely blamed for starting the war. Saakashvili’s pro-Western government foundered, and South Ossetia was occupied by Russian troops.

In analysing the US presidential election of 2016 pundits focus on direct Russian collusion with the Trump administration, or on the obsessive conspiracy-peddling of those bent on removing Trump at all costs. What they fail to see is that this division, of itself, is the point. As Annie Kowalewski succinctly put it in the Georgetown Security Review: “Russia’s goal is not just to elect a certain candidate in the United States, but to fundamentally undermine the democratic decision-making process to win its information war against the West.”

Those chasing lurid allegations on either side are doing precisely what the Kremlin wants. The troll farms and disinformation outlets are part of a reflexive control operation, whose aim is to reinforce and deepen divisions in American and European, society. Russia wants CNN to report on Russian political interference as much as it wants Fox News to rebut it.

A cynic might reply with the whataboutist line that the West also does these things, from manipulating foreign elections to indirectly initiating military conflict. But having seen such operations from the inside for two decades, I can assure you that with a liberal democracy’s combination of legal oversight and political transparency, it would be a waste of time for Western military theorists to even ponder a doctrine like reflexive control.

Whether on a military level in Georgia, or in the newsrooms of New York and Los Angeles, reflexive control proves successful because it exposes our vanities. We want enemies who wear black masks, who goose-step through occupied cities, who unleash repressive police with rubber truncheons. But after the ascendancy of the West in the 20th century, the enemies of liberal democracy have decided not to provide such soft targets any more.

The films and songs of our youth mean we are all conditioned by Hollywood to some degree. When I look back on my first moments in combat—wearing a black mask in the Euphrates river valley—I also remember how years of military movies set to roaring Hans Zimmer overtures had conditioned me. Even amid the reality of combat the music did not change.

As Russian reflexive control operations turn Western societies against themselves, we need to change the playlist. If we continue to wait for the dramatic—the conspicuous villains in black masks—then our adversaries will continue their subtle and relentless erosion of the foundations of our system, while we listen sleepily to the wrong tunes.

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