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Russia's Shock And Awe: Moscow Ups Its Information Warfare In Syria Operation

Russia has released an edited video of its warships launching cruise missiles at Islamic State positions in Syria on October 7.
Russia has released an edited video of its warships launching cruise missiles at Islamic State positions in Syria on October 7.

The plumes of flame light up the early morning skies over the Caspian Sea: Russian cruise missiles, fired from a flotilla of ships, rising into the air and then turning westward to hit sites in Syria nearly 1,500 kilometers away.

The spectacle appeared in a two-minute video posted to YouTube by the Russian Defense Ministry just hours after the missiles slammed into targets in Syria.

That Russia’s military is capable of sophisticated air and sea bombardment -- in this case against Islamic State (IS) militants and other Syrian rebel groups -- isn’t novel nor surprising. Under President Vladimir Putin, the armed forces have seen major investments in technology, hardware, and equipment.

What is noteworthy is how the Kremlin is broadcasting its campaign in Syria. With slickly produced videos, quick-cut drone footage of air strikes, animated graphics, on-the-ground photos, and rapid-response Twitter and Facebook updates, the Kremlin has taken a page from Washington’s operations manual, embracing information warfare for the 21st-century media environment.

It is, says Harlan Ullman, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, a variant of "shock and awe" -- the military doctrine that gained notoriety in the early days of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with spectacular air strikes over Baghdad.

"The Russians are smart. They understand that he who dominates the message, dominates. It's Leninism in the 21st century," says Ullman, who helped conceive of the shock-and-awe idea in the 1990s.

"They fire a handful of cruise missiles...and everyone is saying, 'Wow,'" he says. "Now Putin gets great credit for doing the same thing that we did, but he's done it in a political context and then has the Ministry of Defense spin it with Hollywood or Madison Avenue like PR. Through gritted teeth, you have to admire that."

The Defense Ministry video of the Caspian Sea missile launch was posted on October 7 at approximately the same time as a meeting between the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin was televised on state-run TV.

Putin used the opportunity to endorse the makers of the Kalibr cruise missiles, in what may have also been a sales pitch for Russian technology prowess. "The fact that we launched precision weapons from the Caspian Sea to the distance of about 1,500 kilometers and hit all the designated targets shows good work by military industrial plants and good skills of personnel," Putin said.

The video and its rollout was only the latest iteration of the Russian media campaign that coincided with the beginning of the Moscow's air campaign in Syria on September 30.

The ministry's official Twitter handle has posted daily clips of grainy black-and-white silent videos, taken from surveillance drones, of air strikes on sites in Syria. The ministry’s Facebook page is updated with details like the number of sorties flown and targets hit, sometimes more quickly than the ministry's website itself.

Many Western officials have warned that the United States and its NATO allies have been slow to figure out how to respond to Russia's tactics not only in Syria, but also in Ukraine, where the stealth invasion of Crimea by masked, unidentified Russian troops in March 2014 resulted in the peninsula’s annexation by Moscow just a few weeks later.

Six months later, NATO's supreme commander, General Philip Breedlove, paid homage to Russia’s tactics in the Crimea seizure, calling them "the most amazing information-warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare."

'Confuse The Enemy'

Soviet intelligence services honed the tactical use of information to gain a strategic military advantage, deploying campaigns of deception, misinformation, and propaganda during the Soviet Union’s decades-long standoff with the United States, which itself used the CIA and other intelligence and information agencies to shape public opinion throughout the Cold War.

Given that Putin is a former KGB officer, it’s not surprising that these techniques are being repurposed for new tactical goals, says Maria Snegovaya, whose recent report for the Institute for the Study of War analyzed the how the Kremlin used "information warfare" in Crimea and Ukraine last year.

That sort of information warfare is part of the larger strategy known as hybrid warfare, which uses unpredictability, efficiency, and speed, says Snegovaya, who also writes a column for the respected Russian newspaper Vedomosti.

"The hybrid approach is taken out of weakness. It is something that allows you to be efficient given a lack of resources," she says. "Information power works specifically to achieve that purpose, to achieve unpredictability. It works to confuse the enemy."

Since last year alone the Kremlin has learned to centralize how information or propaganda is both generated and disseminated, Snegovaya said.

That mirrors the wider propaganda effort, with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the government-owned cable network RT, previously known as Russia Today, and more recently the news agency Rossia Segodnya, which further amplifies Kremlin messaging.

"They're definitely learning and trying to master the skills, and learn from past mistakes," Snegovaya says.

Michael Kofman, a Russia analyst most recently with the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, says the missile firing videos were slick and, along with the drone footage and regular press briefings being held by military and Foreign Ministry officials, were representative of the Kremlin's effort to "control the information space" in Syria.

"When you look at how Russia is attempting to copy Western style press briefings by the speaks volumes to their understanding of how better to structure public opinion around a military operation," he says. "Still, the effort seems clunky by comparison, but they've not had decades of practice dealing with a free press which is what hones those skills."

The Russian hardware appearing in Syria, documented by social-media bloggers and other observers, is among Russia’s most sophisticated: S-300 antiaircraft missiles, new-generation T-90 tanks, and Su-30SM fighter jets. But the overall deployment is numerically small, and Ullman argues that a sophisticated media campaign thus serves to give the impression of much more fearsome forces.

Invoking the name of bombastic real estate developer Donald Trump, currently a leading Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, Ullman says: "This is a relatively tiny military deployment, which is getting enormous amounts of publicity. You know what it is? Putin is the Donald Trump of world politics. He is getting all this great press coverage."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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