The Legend of Russia’s Active Measures
In Russia and the Ukraine there is a term ‘aktivnye meropriyatiya’, which roughly translates as ‘active measures’ or ‘events’. These active measures and the concept of hybrid war have deep roots in the Soviet system as well as Russian imperial practice.
At its core, the Soviet use of active measures was broader and more institutionalised, but usually in the service of the official ideology. Consequently, today’s Russian practitioners arguably have more in common with the cynicism of their Tsarist predecessors; they do not seek to advance a specific ideology but instead aim to weaken and divide the states which Russia perceives to be its enemies by any means they can.
In order to understand modern events one must first recognise the sophisticated, if deeply cynical, post-modern nature of the Kremlin which is able to manipulate both its own society and those of Western nations. The Kremlin uses every weakness and failing of modern Western democracy to argue that the Western model has failed. This sophisticated strategy makes countering the ‘active measures’ policy a particularly complex task.
Active measures has deep historical roots within Russian domestic and foreign policy. In fact, ‘active measures’ is a Soviet term for the actions of political warfare which was conducted by the Soviet and Russian security services (Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, FSB) to influence the course of world events. These active measures range “from media manipulations to special actions involving various degrees of violence”. Such active measures were implemented domestically and internationally through the use of disinformation, propaganda, counterfeiting official documents, assassinations, and political repression such as penetration into churches and the persecution of political dissidents.
An interesting example of active measures involves Vasily Mitrokhin, a former KGB officer who escaped from Russia in 1992 with six trunks of documents copied from KGB archives. Mitrokhin was instrumental in exposing foreigners who were working as spies for the Soviet Union. Among the spies apprehended include an American Army code clerk at the National Security Agency and an 87-year-old British woman who provided the Soviets with information that helped them build their first atomic bomb.
Christopher Andrew, who collaborated with Mitrokhin on a book titled The Sword and the Shield, was interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1999. Andrew revealed Soviet plans which intended to cripple the United States by planting explosives that were designed to blow up oil pipelines, dams and electric power facilities in the event of war. Andrew claimed that, if executed, these plans could have cut off electric power to all of New York state, creating untold chaos to US society.
During this time the KGB also attacked the U.S. with disinformation with the intention of causing significant damage the reputation of the country, its important public officials and the American people as a whole. One of the main charges spread was that the U.S. military had created the AIDS virus and introduced it into Africa, where it was wreaking havoc. Christopher Andrew said that, in the first six months of 1987, this story was reported on the front pages of newspapers in over 40 third-world countries.
However, it was not only third-world countries that reported this KGB disinformation. 60 Minutes in the US displayed a prominent headline from the London Sunday Express of October 24th, 1986, which reported upon this KGB-created story. However, 60 Minutes failed to mention that Dan Rather put the story on the CBS Evening News on March 30th, 1987. Andrew’s source was a Soviet military publication that attributed the story to “unnamed scientists in the United States, Britain and East Germany.” Andrew did not report any U.S. reaction to this charge, nor did he mention that five months earlier reporters at the State Department had been told all about this Soviet disinformation campaign.
Accuracy in Media (AIM) tried to get Rather to admit on the air that he had spread Soviet disinformation without success. This issue was raised once again at the CBS annual shareholders meeting, calling for an explanation as to why there was no doubt that this story was Soviet disinformation. Laurence Tisch, who was the chairman of CBS at the time, replied; “That’s your opinion that it’s disinformation.” It wasn’t just AIM’s opinion, and after twelve years and five months, a CBS News program has finally recognised it was disinformation.
In addition to media manipulation and the circulation of disinformation, active measures also included the establishment and support of international front organisations (e.g. the World Peace Council) as well as foreign communist, socialist and opposition parties, wars in the Third World and all manner of underground, revolutionary, insurgency, criminal, and terrorist groups. Eastern Bloc intelligence agencies also contributed to these programs by providing operatives and intelligence for assassinations as well as additional covert operations.
Retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin described these active measures as;
“The heart and soul of Soviet intelligence…Not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs”.
If anybody questions the longevity of this policy then we only have to look at the goals of Soviet Communist disinformation and Active Measures listed below. Published in “Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy” by Richard Shultz and Roy Godson in 1984, it is interesting to note how certain elements of these goals remain prevalent today, just delete ‘Soviet’ and replace it with ‘Russian’;
1. To influence America, European and world public opinion to believe that US military and political policies are the major cause of international conflict and crisis.
2. To demonstrate that the United States is an aggressive, militaristic, and imperialistic power.
3. To isolate the United States from its friends and allies, and to discredit those states which cooperate with the United States.
4. To discredit US military and intelligence establishments.
5. To demonstrate that the policies and objectives of the United States are incompatible with those of the under-developed nations.
6. To confuse world public opinion concerning Soviet global ambitions, creating a favourable environment for Soviet foreign policy.
Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained why Russia would want to use these “active measures” before a recent hearing of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference. Rumer and the five other testifying witnesses all agreed that Russia was behind a campaign of misinformation whose goal was to disrupt the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016.
Rumer highlighted how every country’s foreign policy is shaped by its history and geography as well as politics. Consequently, the dissolution of the Soviet Union created mass vulnerabilities within Russia’s national security establishments. They were forced to accept the Soviet empire’s demise in 1991 and had to retreat from the world stage during the 1990s. The 90s, in fact, turned out to be a difficult decade which was blamed largely on the influence of the U.S. and other foreign meddlers in Russian politics and economy.
However, Russia’s policy in this millennium has been one of reclaiming boundaries; warring with Georgia, annexing Crimea, fighting an “undeclared war” in Ukraine, bolstering relationships with Turkey in dealing with Syria as well as destabilising NATO and the EU. From a Russian standpoint, their actions seek to restore the balance of power by pushing back against the expansion of NATO at its borders and correcting the injustices of what happened in 1991.
So what about the Russian information warfare efforts during the 2016 U.S. Election? There is a general consensus among American intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the hacking of DNC emails which were later released via Wikileaks to politically damage Hillary Clinton. An additional goal was to help elect Donald Trump, a candidate preferred by Moscow. The attacks did not just start during the Trump vs. Clinton general election, but were in full swing during the primaries as well, possibly aimed at other Republican candidates whose positions were not considered Russia-friendly, including Senator Marco Rubio.
This long-standing operation is believed by many to have been a “major” and “unqualified” success for the Kremlin; causing unprecedented chaos within the U.S. and worsening its global position. It has also been claimed that the same techniques were in play during the Brexit referendum, the last UK General election and most recently in the populist success of the Italian General Elections. When you combine these alleged interferences in the political processes of other nations with the fact that President Putin’s next 6 years in office have been assured with about 80% of the vote in March 2018, you can guarantee that we haven’t seen the end of Active Measures any time soon.