Active Measures in the Information Space

In the wake of the Salisbury assassinations and subsequent diplomatic backlash, the threat posed by Russian active measures may be thought to be limited to London, the Ukraine and even the Internet where the effects are most visible. However, there is a considerably more dangerous and effective tactic in use throughout Europe. One so subtle that it often escapes the notice those not working in the Intelligence field and specifically looking for it.

For various historical reasons Russia’s intelligence services have always demonstrated a level of excellence in political warfare that far exceeds the west. Election interference through propaganda, espionage, subversion, financial and covert support are nothing new. But the expansion of active measures in the information space into the cyber-domain has yielded significant gains in undermining European democracy. Justifiably so, it is also becoming increasingly important in Russian military doctrine.

The Netherlands, France, Germany and the UK have all openly expressed concern regarding the practice designed to undermine support for NATO, European institutions and even democracy itself. But there is also evidence of active measures in Italy, Spain, Austria, Belgium and other European states. And with the rise of anti-establishment autocrats throughout European politics, they should all be worried. The fall of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, Italian leadership in 2016 and the rise of Brexit and the far-right all show evidence of support through active measures.

Due to the nature of these operations, they are almost impossible to identify or counter. Invisibly to the untrained observer intelligence officers are careful in their use of agents, leaving little evidence of government complicity and granting plausible deniability to the state. “Fake news” initiatives launched throughout Europe in an attempt to educate voters to the dangers of propaganda have been met with limited success. As have the EU’s online counter-propaganda efforts.

Influence has been exerted over European election monitoring missions and organisations by manipulating the membership to include a sympathetic majority or those directly controlled by state elements. Such observer missions invariably produce inconclusive evidence or exonerate those implicated from any wrongdoing. Another highly effective method has been embedding state-controlled media throughout European states and using that platform for the distribution of propaganda. Attempts to counter this has also proved fruitless.

"The task of the government is not only to pour honey into a cup but sometimes to give bitter medicine."
Vladimir Putin

Meanwhile the Kremlin officially develops relationships with mainstream officials who naively believe Russia will abandon its conservative values for a liberal democracy. Officials lend political and financial support to disruptive opposition elements within target countries, perfectly aligning covert and overt arms of the state in support of foreign policy objectives.

The European response to active measures has included the expulsion of diplomats, threats of sanctions, counter-propaganda and financial seizures. The scale of some of these responses undoubtedly came as a surprise to Russia in some cases. However, while the effects of these tactics continue to prove devastating to European states and international allegiances it seems highly unlikely that sanctions or tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions will induce them to stop.

Therefore, without intervention isn’t found the threat will persist. A threat that has already contributed to the rise of far-right movements throughout Europe, and could ultimately result in the fragmentation of the EU, NATO and other international blocs that have guaranteed peace and security in Europe for the better part of a century.

This article is a private contribution offered in the interests of debate by an independent registrant. Views expressed are not endorsed by the Institute and do not constitute their official position.