Democracy promotion abroad may contain the seeds of democracy destruction, and perceived democracy destruction may in effect be democracy promotion. This article examines two foundational analyses, one Russian and the other American, that assert digital technologies have been used by rival states to promote democracy and to undermine governance to achieve regime destabilization. The Russian analysis is the so-called Gerasimov doctrine and the American analysis is the January 2017 report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which asserts that the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was targeted by various Russian actions. This article highlights their common logics: both identify democracy promotion as a tactic used by rival states in international competition as a means for regime destabilization. Digital technologies have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of such an approach. However, democracy cannot be separated from the possibility of ungovernability, and therefore democracy promotion always contains the risk of instability. Any foreign support for democracy may be tainted by the possibility of regime destabilization.
In recent years, both Russia and the United States have accused each other of using digital technology to undermine governance. Russia accuses the US of engaging in “information warfare” to destabilize countries in its near-abroad and in the Middle East,1 and the US likewise accuses Russia of engaging in “information operations” to interfere in U.S. elections and possibly European elections.2 Both countries point to such information warfare/operations (IWO) as a major reason for the deterioration of bilateral relations, even as each denies the other’s accusations.
Objective scholarly verification of such claims is difficult. Given the dearth of verified facts, the well-known difficulties of attribution of cyber operations, and the unwillingness of the parties to disclose their sources and methods, no comprehensive empirical investigation seems possible. However, even without access to data, one can analyze the parties’ claims about each other to understand IWO. This article focuses on the logic of IWO, as revealed by the two states’ assertions about each other.
The Russian and the American accounts contain a similar logic: both claim that digital technologies can be used in a manner that largely comports with liberal democratic norms, but when applied across borders, can be used to destabilize societies and enable one state to subvert another. According to both accounts, there is a three-part logic to IWO. First, as a broad body of scholarship has documented, the Internet can be used to enhance legitimate democratic practices, including cross-border human rights activism and dissent. It can facilitate grassroots organizing, allow information to route around media controls and censorship, render institutions more transparent, empower socially disadvantaged groups to develop a voice, and allow critics to make themselves heard. Second, such legitimate democratic practices can destabilize societies. Practices applauded by democracy activists, such as dissent, demonstrations, and disclosures, may cause public trust in leaders and institutions to decline and social conflict to increase. A society’s capacity to govern itself may decline. Third, foreign states can exploit the legitimacy and feasibility of this destabilization to pursue a subversive agenda. Under the cover of democracy promotion, states may enter other societies’ information spaces, promoting divisive issues that generate conflict, disseminating information that influences citizens’ voting choices, and promoting grassroot demonstrations that devolve into violence. At minimum, foreign states may provide news and information that undermines public trust in institutions.
This logic of IWO is not new, and a historical and scholarly literature exists that examines states’ use of social movements to subvert rivals. Long predating the Internet, and focusing on communism rather than liberal democracy, Whittaker Chambers’s “Witness” documents the support that communist activists in the US received from the Soviet Union.3 Jumping to recent times, three works critical of cross-border democracy-promotion programs are William Robinson’s Promoting Polyarchy,4 Sussman and Kraders’s “Template Revolutions: Marketing US Regime Change in Eastern Europe,”5 and Ieva Bērzina’s Lativian-published “Color Revolutions: Democratization, Hidden Influence or Warfare?”6 Recently, in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been an explosion of news coverage of alleged Russian information operations in the US.
This article assesses two recent analyses by policy practitioners—one Russian, one American—and highlights their common logics. This is followed by reflections on how to develop criteria to assess digital practices, and distinguish practices that enhance democracy from governance-destroying ones.
The Russian perspective on information warfare is articulated in a much-publicized article by Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov entitled, “The value of science is in the foresight.”7 The democratic aspects of Gerasimov’s ideas are further elaborated in an independent but thematically consistent article, “Color Revolutions,” by Gagik Terterov.8 Those documents analyze information warfare techniques allegedly used by Western countries against Russia and its allies, and Gerasimov argues that Russia must develop equivalent capacities.9
According to the Russian analysis, the application of digital technology to democratic practices constitutes a strikingly effective new way of waging war. Gerasimov claims that information warfare can, in a matter of days, transform a thriving society into “a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war... The scale of casualties and destruction...are comparable with the consequences of any real war.”10 Yet despite the scale of destruction, traditional weapons of war play a lesser role. The uniformed military of the invader may appear only in a “concealed” character, such as in the guise of peacekeeping, and only to achieve the final success in an engagement. The real force in information warfare is the “protest potential of the population” together with irregular forces.11 Such popular mobilization under the influence of a foreign power can be as effective as an army.
Gerasimov sees the new weapon of war to be pro-democracy social movements. The Terterov analysis of Color Revolutions elaborates these ideas further. Terterov sees information warfare in the context of a “Second Cold War” between Russia and Western countries.12 He claims that, while information warfare waged against major powers like Russia will not lead to an overthrow of their governments, it can still cause harm, damage reputations, weaken economies, and encourage domestic dissent. Information warfare targeting smaller countries, however, such as Georgia or Ukraine, can have greater consequences. A smaller allied country can be pulled away from Russia’s sphere of influence or at least experience significant economic damage, and become a problem for itself and Russia. According to Terterov, the strategic goal of multiple such campaigns is to create a regional “instability zone” around a targeted major power or its allies.13 According to Terterov, Syria and Libya were so attacked, and “pitched headlong into chaos,” threatening Russia with regional extremism and disorder.14
Consistent with Gerasimov’s logic, Terterov focuses on the role played by the domestic population, identifying prerequisites for external agitation. The main internal prerequisite is “big problems” in domestic society together with the absence of noticeable trends to solve these problems.15 A second, accompanying prerequisite for a revolution is the dissatisfaction of “regular citizens,” especially those living in major urban centers, who want to see more justice and prosperity in their country. Notably, Terterov does not dispute the legitimacy of these prerequisites: big problems demand solutions and concerned citizens appropriately demand change.
In a country with these conditions, the first step toward warfare is democratic in nature and it involves foreign activists and resources centered around non- governmental organizations (NGOs). Organizing discussions and rallies, NGOs connect with local populations, creating an organizational capacity for collective action. Local NGO leaders, designated from abroad as “evangelists of democracy,” form a cadre able to lead future actions.16 Local NGOs typically receive funding from foreign NGOs to support protests, which often trace back to US-funded entities. Mass media coverage diffuses images of the fun and noble activities to audiences around the world. NGOs and the mass media employ techniques of marketing to brand the movements with attractive color names such as the Rose or Orange Revolution, hence, the term “Color Revolutions.” Terterov asserts that these elements ultimately represent the interests of the external influencer country.17
In the final phase of a color revolution, democratic dissent and protest turn into kinetic conflict. Terterov notes that at a certain point the fun and fashionable protests turn violent—and real war is on. Paid provocateurs beat women and children, and shooters kill both protesters and police. The media attribute the violence to the government—or, says Terterov, to Russia.
This violent phase is more closely analyzed by Gerasimov. He claims that actual military conflict is conducted in a largely concealed manner and is performed by special operations forces or by local opposition forces. As noted above, the open use of military forces occurs only at the end of the process for the achievement of final success, when such operations, such as no-fly zones, may be labeled peacekeeping operations or crisis regulation.18
According to Gerasimov, by the end of such a foreign intervention, the local pro-democracy activists are the biggest losers. They end up as the victims of political techniques “urging and preparing people to suicide.”19 Activists experience bitter disappointment when they see the ramifications of their revolution.20
These two articles give a sense of the Russian perspective on information warfare. Naturally, any reader must question whether this account is true or accurate, but an evaluation of the claims made by the Russian analysts, above, (or by the American analysts, below) is beyond the scope of this article. What is notable is that information warfare, even as critiqued by Russian sources, contains much that is consistent with democratic norms.
We can now turn to the American analysis of “information operations.” The document analyzed here was published 6 January 2017 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and is commonly known as “the FBI Report.”21
In what follows, this U.S. report on Russian activities is analyzed as an exemplar of the U.S. view on such information operations.
The FBI Report analyzes one campaign: the alleged Russian campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, most notably the presidential election in which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost to then-candidate Donald J. Trump. The U.S. view is that Russia engaged in an influence operation but not in informtion warfare. The campaign attempted to influence American people, undermining public faith, discrediting a candidate, and fueling discontent. The FBI does not impute to the Russians what the Russians impute to the West: an attempt to sink the country into chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war. According to the FBI, the closest the Russians came to kinetic effects was to fuel protests.22
The FBI report alleges two main avenues of influence by Russia. The first is through information disclosure after Russia gained compromising information by penetrating U.S. computer networks and email accounts. According to the FBI, Russia accessed Democratic National Committee networks and later disclosed damaging information gained by those exploits. This action went beyond normal espionage activity in that it not only collected information but used that information to influence U.S. public opinion and possibly to affect the outcome of the presidential election. In the American view, the Russians—notably President Vladimir Putin, personally—did not want a Clinton victory and preferred Trump. The FBI, however, did not deliver a conclusion about whether Russia’s information operations affected the outcome of the election.
Russia’s second avenue of influence was its media network, RT. Formerly called Russia Today, RT produces and distributes television programming and social media content such that the FBI report describes it as “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” According to the FBI, RT has a distribution budget of $190 million, and its distribution channels include hotel, satellite, terrestrial, and cable broadcasting. In the New York and Washington media markets, RT claims to surpass Al Jazeera in viewership. RT also has a “significant and fast-growing social media footprint” with more than 1 million views per day on YouTube.23
RT disseminates information, images, and opinions that serve Russia’s interests in undermining U.S. governance. Content disseminated by RT has included:
- reports on alleged election fraud in the US;
- third-party candidate debates;
- assertions that the U.S. two-party system does not represent the views of atleast one-third of the population; and
- a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement that described the U.S. political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations.
The alleged effect of such programming is two-fold. First, it undermines viewers’ trust in U.S. democratic procedures. RT portrays American society as rife with racial injustice, suffering from elite political and financial domination, and in need of political resistance.24 Second, RT’s programming undercuts U.S. criticism of Russia’s political system. RT opposed Western intervention in the Syrian conflict and blamed the West for waging “information wars” against the government there.
Thus, both Russia and the US have a vision of how information can be used for geopolitical purposes. Despite their differences, Russian and U.S. approaches to IWO reveal numerous similarities. First, they both see such campaigns as embedded in activities presenting themselves as democratic activism. Russia sees information warfare in pro-democracy movements, and the US sees information operations in disclosures, cross-border news, and propaganda.
However, explicitly or implicitly both accounts also recognize the legitimacy of such activities. The Russian accounts openly acknowledge the validity of citizen concern for big problems that remain unaddressed in a society, and their stated objection to political organizing lies in its foreign origins and not in organizing itself. The American account of Russian activities does not recognize the actions as legitimate, but they are commonly practiced elsewhere. Information disclosures such as those attributed to Russia are also a common tactic in American political campaigns, where “October surprises” that disclose damaging information just before an election are familiar. Likewise, disclosures are practiced and accepted around the world; the FBI report mentions the Panama Papers financial leak and the Sochi Olympic Games doping disclosures, both of which embarrassed Russian leaders. As for the legitimacy of RT, which gives voice to U.S. dissenters such as Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, its distribution of political speech is consistent with the fundamental values embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the core tactics of IWO as identified by both the Russians and the Americans consist of familiar democratic practices.
There are, however, two broad areas where IWO violate democratic norms. The first concerns the involvement of foreign governments in domestic activities. The Russians see Western states behind the NGOs, and indeed considerable funding and organizing expertise comes from organizations, such as the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy. Under the banner of universal human rights, Russians see Western activists as seeking to influence the internal affairs of Russia and its allies. Likewise, the US sees Russian influence in information disclosures and in RT news programming. Foreign support can taint otherwise legitimate political activism, and both Russia and the U.S. analysts are right to question such support.
The second breach in democratic norms concerns the use of force. That some Arab Spring and Color Revolutions ended up as civil wars was, in the Russian view, essential to those events. The initial demonstrations and concern for human rights served to prepare for the subsequent actions of domestic radicals, violent extremists, unconventional forces, and ultimately foreign armed forces. The pro-democracy movements in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and other countries ended badly, with damage comparable to that resulting from conventional war. The use of force violates democratic norms of resolution of conflict through debate and collective decision.
In summary, as described by Russian and American analysts, IWO mixes democratic activism and foreign influence in domestic affairs. The former is legitimate, but the latter is not. To minimize the latter, activists should minimize foreign involvement in their domestic social movements and rigorously avoid violence, in this way reducing foreign states’ opportunities to convert peaceful democratic activism to warfare. From a pro-democracy perspective, however, although such boundaries are desirable, they may not be respected by rivalrous states.
Hans Klein is Associate Professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy and currently the Microsoft Visiting Professor of Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. Klein’s research areas include internet governance, institutional theory, and alternative media. Klein’s current research focus is on holistic modeling of Internet governance and analyzing the intersection of domestic alternative media and cross-border news as it plays out in Russia’s RT.com. Klein was the chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, where he led its participation in the institutional design of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). He has served on the board of Cambridge Community Television and the WRFG/Radio Free Georgia. Klein has a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Princeton University, an MS in Technology and Policy from MIT, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number 1409635. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
1 Valery Gerasimov, “The value of science is in the foresight: New challenges demand rethinking the forms and methods of carrying out combat operations,” Military-Industrial Kurier, 27 February 2013, Robert Coalson, trans., Military Review 96, no. 1 (2016), 23.
2 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution,” (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 2018), https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ ICA _2017_01.pdf.
6 Ieva Bērziņa, “Color Revolutions: Democratization, Hidden Influence, or Warfare?,” CSSR Working Paper Series, no. 01/14 (Center for Security and Strategic Research at the National Defense Academy of Latvia: 2014).