A US Army study commissioned by the former President’s Secretary of the Army warned that a global information war launched by Putin in 2014 could escalate into a display of Russian power in Eastern Europe

A US Army study commissioned by the Trump administration four years ago not only anticipated escalating Russian aggression in Eastern Europe but described in detail how Putin’s ‘information war’ against the West – including “election interference” and “mass-produced misinformation” – could escalate into a Russian “demonstration of global power” in Eastern Europe.

The study, carried out by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, was commissioned in 2018 by President Donald Trump’s then-Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, who would go on to serve as Trump’s Secretary of Defense.

Published in July 2020, the extraordinary study commissioned by the Trump administration concluded that Russia was engaged in a long-term military strategy against the West focusing on the use of worldwide information warfare as a mechanism to weaken Western institutions and extend Russia’s sphere of influence.

The UK’s approved 2016 Brexit referendum to separate from the EU is seen by many as the first step in unravelling that European order.

US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute

While President Trump had already gone on record in early 2018 downplaying Russian election meddling and claiming that “the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever”, the Trump administration’s own US Army study would go on to describe a whole host of Russian disinformation methods as an integral part of its wider military strategy.

The study vindicates journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s claim, which went viral on Twitter on Monday, that the invasion of Ukraine is an escalation of the “first Great Information War” launched by President Vladimir Putin in 2014.

The study referred to evidence of “interference in political processes” in relation to both the Trump and Brexit elections, suggesting that Britain’s departure from the European Union was “the first step in unravelling that European order” – a longstanding ambition of Putin. It warned that Putin would likely escalate Russian aggression in Eastern Europe as a way to try to ward off inevitable economic and military decline.


The Great Information War

According to the 2020 US Army study, Putin’s strategy has been focused on using information warfare to undermine Western power rather than a direct military confrontation:

“Russia will avoid military operations that involve direct armed conflict with the West. Instead, Russia will focus on informational activities to discredit NATO, the EU, and member organisations and governments. Examples of these information-based operations include election interference, malign cyber activities, propaganda, and exploiting internal differences.”

The study refers to a statement from General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, who equated the expansion of Russian information operations as an integral dimension of a military strategy to weaken the enemy.

“The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy,” he wrote in 2016. “It is necessary to perfect activities in the information space, including the defense of our own objects.”

The biggest danger of Russian information warfare is that it is “incredibly difficult to counter”, partly because it is almost impossible to recognise when and how an information war is actually being fought.

“Messages consist of outright fiction or partial truths, which enable Russian propagandists to create false narratives much faster than targets can counter them,” the study noted, acknowledging that Russia believes with good reason that NATO deploys similar techniques of disinformation against Russia.

Citing the former head of US European Command, the study argued that the escalation point of the Russian military strategy was from 2014 onwards – a year in which Russia launched “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare”. The study concluded:

“Moscow will continue influence operations below the threshold of armed conflict to destabilise NATO relationships and protect Russia’s economic interests”.


‘Election Interference

Despite having been commissioned by a top Trump administration appointee, the study appeared to concede that this information warfare extended into covert Russian activity in both the 2016 elections which brought Donald Trump to power and in relation to European elections.

“Russia uses disinformation extensively, with Russian meddling becoming a focus of debate in the United States after the 2016 presidential elections, as well as subsequent elections in Europe… Frequent targets include both NATO Allies and Russia’s neighbours, chiefly to the west,” the report says.

According to the study, comments by the then European Council president in 2018 warning that “rising nationalism and anti-Europe sentiment would disrupt the whole European order”, should be taken seriously. The study suggested that Brexit played a key role in reinforcing Russia’s strategy to subvert Europe:

“The UK’s approved 2016 Brexit referendum to separate from the EU is seen by many as the first step in unravelling that European order. The loss of such a wealthy and stable member state will significantly reduce the EU’s resource pool and diminish its international political clout. Potentially, the most damaging factor is that the UK will have established a blueprint for other member states to depart the EU when their political sentiments shift toward nationalism.”


Facebook

The study also acknowledged the integral role of “the internet and social media” in amplifying Russian propaganda, describing them as “primary channels for Russia’s influence operations”.

Facebook is “particularly ideal” to disseminate misinformation that can be weaponised to “interfere with political processes”, it added:

“Platforms like Facebook are particularly ideal because of the echo chamber effect, in which users select sources that mirror and amplify their own prejudices. The Kremlin employs internet trolls to mass-produce misinformation around the clock, spread fake news, create faux political scandals, and interfere with political processes.”

Of course, however successful or unsuccessful they actually were, we know that Facebook was the main platform used by Cambridge Analytica, on behalf of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, to build profiles of potential voters and develop ways to influence them.


‘Escalatory Dominance

The report’s lead author is Colonel JP Clark, Headquarters Division Chief in the US Department of the Army, which exercises directive and supervisory over US military policy.

His study for the Trump administration not only acknowledged that Russian information warfare including political interference in American, British and European elections was a stark reality, but that it would likely precede escalating Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

Although claiming that a resurrection of the Soviet Union is not on the cards, the paper warned that Russia would continue “working to maintain political and economic influence on its periphery”. That particular conclusion about Russia’s more limited geopolitical ambitions was not, however, shared by an earlier secret US military intelligence assessment previously unearthed by Byline Times, revealing Putin’s 15-year plan to extend Russia’s sphere of influence back into former Soviet territories.

In any case, the 2020 Trump military paper determined that Russia’s domestic future will “likely be marked by economic decline and dwindling populations”, which “will only make Russia more dangerous”. The study warned that as:

“… the Russian people share the same sense of geographic insecurity and political humiliation as their government… demonstrations of global power and confrontation with the West, especially in Eastern Europe, will only serve to bolster the popularity of any future Russian government.”

Faced with mounting domestic crises, the paper predicted: “Problems for the Russian government at home could thus lead to greater problems for the United States abroad.”

As Russia has seen its oil revenues decline, the risk of aggression has increased in spite of Russia’s desire for “greater economic inclusion with the West”, the study concluded:

“Russia will seek to maintain ‘escalatory dominance’ over NATO. Part of that dominance will include efforts to undermine Alliance consensus on how to respond to Russian provocations.”

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