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Russian Interference is a Threat within the Brain

The Russia Report failed to grasp the philosophical underpinning of Vladimir Putin’s plans for the West, argues Zarina Zabrisky

Vladislav Surkov. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS

Russian Interference is a Threat within the Brain

The Russia Report failed to grasp the philosophical underpinning of Vladimir Putin’s plans for the West, argues Zarina Zabrisky

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“Russia under Putin now represents potentially the most significant threat to the UK’s institutions and way of life. No terrorist group has to date successfully deployed a weapon of mass destruction, either nuclear or chemical, in the UK. Russia has deployed both. If not effectively deterred going forward, clearly Putin’s regime will stop at little to achieve its objectives.”

These were the words of former MI6 officer Christopher Steele in his witness statement for Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report into Russian influence in British public and political life. The report confirmed his assessment and stated that “the UK now faces a threat from Russia within its own borders”.

While this analysis is correct, it is incomplete.

The UK now faces a threat from Russia within the brains of its citizens.

“Analysts say that Russia meddles into elections and referendum around the world,” wrote President Vladimir Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov in 2019. “In reality, things are much more serious: Russia meddles with their brains, and they don’t know what to do with this altered state of mind.”

The Kremlin is waging information warfare on the West. Corroding the idea of democracy and planting new pro-Kremlin thinking is cheaper than eradicating armies and the population of Western adversaries. The battlefield is the brain. The goal is sowing discord and confusion in order to demoralise the West. Words are a military arsenal. Language is a weapon of mass destruction of ideas.

The Kremlin fulfils its goals by weaponising language. Propagandists use emotive words to create shock and cause stress that in turn leads to physiological changes in the brain and creates a vulnerable condition. The audience is then converted to the mentality that serves the propagandists’ purposes. It is one of the main psychological tactics of propaganda. Others include taking words and sentences out of context to distort linguistic reality; creating smear campaigns by labelling the compromised person with visceral words and more.

Putin and his close circle of allies invest in information warfare in order to secure their wealth and security.

Over 30 years in power, they have appropriated national natural resources and major industries, laundering the profits outside Russia. The funds are stored in Western and offshore banks, using loopholes in legislation and visa policies.

To ensure it stays in power, a mafia state uses certain mechanisms. One of its unwritten rules is the collective fund or “obschak”. Russia’s oligarchs are using parts of their wealth to fulfill collective purposes.

The system is reminiscent of the feudal system in medieval Europe, in which vassals had a mutual obligation to a monarch, such as military support in exchange for certain privileges. In the Kremlin system, the oligarchs’ money is used to buy influence, create a network of enablers and recruit witting and unwitting bad actors, as mentioned in the Russia Report. It is therefore unsurprising that the UK Government has failed to respond adequately and the financial ties of those in Britain, the US and the EU to the Kremlin needs greater focus.

Russian oligarchs invest in information warfare by buying mass media publications; social media fake accounts; bot and troll farms; educational and cultural institutions.

Using the public information space and applying the KGB’s time-proven ‘active measures’, the Russian ruling class aims to gradually change the Western collective mentality and alter the political landscape to benefit the Kremlin.

The Russia Report lists such active measures as distortions in the coverage provided by Russian state-owned international broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik; bots and trolls’ significant activity on social media; ‘hack and leak’ attempts; ‘real life’ political interference: ‘soft loans’; and coups.

RT and Sputnik, only mentioned in passing in the report, are a part of a powerful, multi-billion Kremlin cyber war army. It is dangerous to underestimate their machines based on the number of viewers. Edward Lucas informed the ISC that the direct “impact of RT is tiny – at any one time there is an average of 1,300 people in this country watching RT – the real point of RT is it is a way of gaining legitimacy in elite circles and not least saying to MPs and peers ‘here is [say] £2,000 in cash if you appear on our programme.’” This is an inaccurate view.

Divisive ‘wedge’ issues might first appear on RT‘s television channel but they are then shared on its social media accounts. They are then amplified by bots and trolls located at “factories” in Russia, Montenegro, Indonesia and in remote parts of the world.

RT‘s YouTube channel proudly claims that it has more than 10 billion views and 3.9 million subscribers. It has three million followers on Twitter and 6.3 million followers on Facebook. Both fake accounts and real ‘useful idiots’ and fellow travellers then spread the divisive issues covered by RT across the entire information space and are amplified further by an army of podcasters, channels, minor publications and other individual social media influencers – eventually losing the crediting of RT as the original source and becoming instead ‘widespread knowledge’.

Astroturfing, as mentioned in the Russia Report, is a propaganda technique whereby a viewpoint is falsely presented as belonging to a certain group. Such pyramids are funded by Kremlin money. The inability to see the “broader” picture the report is requesting leads to a failure to respond adequately.

The main threat of Russian aggression is bigger than its individual aspects specified in the report: cyber; disinformation and influence; and Russian expatriates.

Although the report describes “asymmetric warfare” as a mix of “hacking, fake news, infrastructure attacks and the corruption of national politics through dirty money”, it stops short of going deeper into the nature of information warfare and giving it a clear definition.

The ISC painstakingly lists the Kremlin’s goal; Putin’s decision-making techniques versus the UK’s Government decision-making process; the inadequacy of the UK and EU response to Russian aggression; and questions the possibility to quantify invisible aggression.

It stated: “There have been widespread public allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The impact of any such attempts would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so. However, it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not.”

Whether interference is quantifiable does not matter – it is the devastating quality of this new type of warfare that needs to be defined and brought to public attention. In other words, the report misses the point on the conceptual, philosophical level.

At this point, using an epistemological approach is the one measure that can save Western democracy. In order to develop an effective defensive and offensive campaign against Kremlin aggression, the agencies in charge need to “understand how they think and why they think” and, as Steele writes, “understand the mentality and psychology of the economic elite by gaining an enhanced understanding of the Russian security services themselves.”

Whether the UK Government’s agencies and officials will apply new defensive and offensive measures to protect democracy is a different matter entirely.

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