Op-ed

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The Russians are coming, better get ready

by Brett Boudreau

The Hill Times
March 20, 2017

Whatever one thinks of Russia’s recent antics on the world stage, you have to concede they have brilliantly exploited information-age tools to confuse audiences about what is truth, what isn’t, and to set their own narrative. The returns have been massive and out of all proportion to the modest investment.

Much nefarious activity has recently been attributed to Russia or its proxies. There has been mischief afoot to influence the Brexit vote, the American, German and Dutch elections, encouraging the National Front in France, and credible claims of trying to engineer a coup in Montenegro to replace the government with one less inclined to NATO membership. British intelligence warned against threats to its politicians, government officials and think tanks, offering training against Russian hackers. The U.S. Justice Department has just charged two former Russian intelligence officers and two hired associates for cyber-crimes. And, SACEUR Gen. Philip Breedlove called the campaign to wrest Crimea from Ukraine “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen.”

Later this year, Canada will deploy 450 soldiers to Latvia and lead a six-nation NATO Battle Group including forces from Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain. They will liaise closely with other Battle Groups in the region led by Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., to collectively demonstrate NATO resolve against any physical incursion into the Baltics.

Russia is far too clever to send troops across the border of a NATO member, which would trigger the Article 5 provision and a strong Alliance military response. Instead, the Canadian deployment will be targeted with a significant disinformation campaign of industrial scale and scope. The recent mini-brouhaha over Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s family background is just a small taste of what is to come. 

Deterrence, reassurance and confidence-building missions are the most challenging of all operations to publicly explain: counter-insurgency (Afghanistan), counter-terrorism (Daesh), peace-restoration (UN), domestic response and humanitarian support missions are all considerably easier. There are four main reasons for this.

First, “being there” activities like joint exercises, neighbourhood patrols, hockey games amongst soldiers and attending community events can’t compare to the drama and news value say, of special operations forces helping direct fire onto Daesh positions.

Second, the Baltic States are democratic, enjoy a high quality of life, and are deeply supportive of the deployment. There are no dams to rebuild, no schools to repair, no humanitarian support needed, and no villages to wrest from insurgent groups.

Third, for Russia, the information effect is central to its operational effort. The capability is massively resourced, remarkably well done, and is always ‘on’ across multiple information channels, backed by the fearless use of diplomacy, military and economic instruments of national power. 

Fourth, NATO militaries including Canada have been slow to evolve a response to these new threats, excepting some investment in cyber defence. The military mindset is still based on a career of training for physical battlegrounds and the use of kinetic weapons, not missions fought in the information space. Little has been done, for instance, to change the organization, structure, doctrine and policies necessary to best employ and empower our capabilities to fight today’s internet-driven, inform-influence-persuade campaigns.

What should Canadians expect?

Bad behaviour on the part of any national force will be used to discredit the others, and fictitious improprieties will be created. Watch for “honey-traps,” stories of women being molested or raped, reference to occupying forces and the ‘mistreatment’ of the local Russian-speaking population. Thugs may be hired to elicit reactions by soldiers including fighting: these ‘impromptu’ events will be filmed and used against NATO forces.

On-line Canadian news sites will feature massive amounts of commentary from “trolls,” people paid to engage in and dominate the on-line space. Spouses of deployed members might be phoned and told their loved one has died. Soldiers could receive legitimate-looking emails or posts claiming a major crisis at home requiring their immediate attention. Social media accounts of soldiers will be studied for vulnerabilities, and exploited. This is all carefully designed to destabilize, distract and discredit. 

What can the Canadian-led Battle Group do in response? For starters, replace a platoon of infantry with a platoon of communications practitioners. Require every nation in the force to provide people to assist the information campaign. Deploy with spokespersons fluent in Russian and Latvian and embed staff with long experience of serving or living in the region. Monitor media and social media 24/7 in Russian, the Baltic languages, and those of countries providing forces. Put mechanisms in place to share information amongst the deployed forces, NATO HQ Brussels, back home—and to react quickly.

Detail, and enforce a social media strategy. Ensure the tenor and tone of all public communications is professional and appropriate. Equip all patrols with Go-Pro cameras so that events staged to incite NATO responses can be discounted with imagery. Lastly, the government and especially defence need to do more to educate politicians and the public about what is happening, and to forewarn families of deployed forces, the public and media.

Communications technology, particularly the Internet and smart phones, has changed how operations are conducted—particularly non-combat missions—and evolved much faster than our military forces and security institutions have been able to adapt. This upcoming deployment will be the most challenging communications effort of our generation. Let’s hope we learn early this time, not after-the-fact.

Brett Boudreau (colonel retired), is a former public affairs officer, and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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