Dupes of Putin

A refreshing new interpretation of Russia’s Information War by a Lieutenant Colonel with responsibility for ‘Info Ops’ in the Belgian Army holds open the possibility that we all have been ‘dupes of Putin,’  both those of us who have sought to explain the Russian position to the world and those in the anti-Putin, anti-Russian camp




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                                            Dupes of Putin

                           by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




As a card-carrying member of the think tank circles in Brussels dealing with security issues, I attend a growing number of colloquia and other gatherings hosted by military authorities, to the point where I am becoming accustomed to registration questionnaires which ask only what is your rank in the service and leave no possibility for listing your highest academic degree.

These events are, by and large, even less inspiring or controversial than seminars hosted by academics for academics, because military officers, at least in public, tend to remain well within the square and avoid exposing their flanks to possible slings and arrows from superiors, junior officers or peers.

However, to every rule there is an exception and yesterday, at the Royal Military Academy, just after getting my name badge at reception, I picked up a copy of the December 2014 issue of the Belgian Military Review, hoping to find something to fill the time before the opening of our session. I got far more than a time-filler. One article by an intelligence officer in the Belgian Army entitled “The conquest of the Crimea by Russia, an example of non-kinetic conquest” is penetrating and, given both the expertise of its author and the authority of the journal, compels us to rethink entirely what had seemed to be an open and shut case, whether we stood on the side of those trying to explain Russian positions to the world or on the side of the anti-Putin, anti-Russian camp.  Indeed it holds open the possibility that we all have been duped by the Kremlin, and also by our own political and military leaders, I might add.

The author shows undisguised professional respect, no I should say admiration for the rare achievement of the Russians in taking control of the Crimea without bloodshed, likening their game plan and execution to texts in Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. However, the most remarkable section comes close to the end of his analysis, when he speaks about how the Russians implemented a series of actions, namely electronic warfare events in the Baltics, so as to provide NATO leadership with a separate issue where they could appear ‘to do something’ about Russian threats without disturbing the Russian hold on Crimea. This was a face-saving gesture to avoid humiliating NATO, with whom, the author believes, Russia hopes still to have some cooperative relations.

The implications of this analysis, which grants enormous vision and strategic as well as tactical brilliance to the Russian side, perhaps more than is justified, take us in wholly new directions of understanding the Russian confrontation with the US and EU, starting with NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, and ending in what we see today in Syria.

This reading implies that until the February 2014 coup in Kiev the Russians never took NATO expansion as an existential threat and their ire ever since 2008 was contrived to serve other political purposes.  It makes comprehensible the German, and more generally the EU, shock that Russia behaved so brutally, shattering their illusions that European soft power carries weight, and defended their national interests with hard power.  It explains the whining I heard at the Schlangenbad Dialogue near Frankfurt this spring, to the effect that the EU and even NATO posed no military threat to Russia given the draw-down of all equipment and personnel over the past decade and a half.

It is beyond good to find that a Belgian military professional understands that the Russians would like to be in a cooperative relationship with NATO and the West if they could be treated fairly and seriously.

The article also shows that NATO saw a critical threat to its infrastructure from Russian electronic warfare materiel and know-how as early as February 2014, and not just in the past few weeks when the Russians blacked out territory in a radius of 300 km over northern Syria to deny the US-led alliance the possibility of establishing a no-flight zone.

My remark that the author calls into question the Russian perception of threat coming from NATO may very well prompt gloating among the great majority of US and EU foreign relations experts who insist that Putin has created a Western enemy to strengthen his domestic position and vanquish the liberal opposition with their pro-Western sympathies. This falls into line with the postulates of their secular religion, namely that authoritarian regimes are fragile and necessarily aggressive in international relations because hostility to the outside world tightens their control over their polity.

However, I will respond that nothing of the sort is needed to justify Russia’s exaggeration of a Western threat while its leaders are busy luring US and European civilian and military leaders into cul-de-sacs like defense of the Baltics or of Poland from Russian assault.  In effect, if such a frame of mind exists in the Kremlin and it is indeed confident of its ability to counter anything that NATO or the US could throw its way, then exaggeration of the threat in the public arena serves the same functions in Russia as exaggeration of an alleged Soviet missile gap and of the numerical superiority of Soviet ground forces did for the Pentagon – and for candidates for the US presidency – during much of the Cold War: this is how you get approval of your military budget and modernization of the armed forces. In addition it also has served the purpose of building Russian patriotism from an abysmally low starting point in the 1990s to something formidable today, if still short of flying the national flag on every building and pinning it to every lapel that we have long seen in the USA.  And it may be leading to a much-needed re-industrialization of the country and diversification away from hydrocarbon extraction.

I can appreciate that the foregoing conclusions may seem a step too far for some readers, and I intend to expand on my argumentation as necessary to persuade doubters in forthcoming essays on this portal.

Although the article does not deal with respective strength of Russian and Western forces, there is no need to posit Russians with an ability to show considerable strength and military skill, deserving NATO’s grudging respect, on a budget that is 10 times less than the US military budget and greatly below the collective military budgets of EU Member States.  The Russian investment has been and remains heavily skewed to defense as opposed to offense, and as Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly his country would respond to US innovations that put the strategic balance in jeopardy asymetrically, finding methods to counter whatever the US invents for its offensive arsenal on the Earth and in space.

The vulnerable point in Lt Colonel Vermer’s analysis is the very argument that is most striking – his notion that the Russians have stage managed the confrontation with NATO to suit their own purposes.  It is difficult to accept that the Kremlin has been so brilliant and that we have a preponderance of dullards on our side.  Time will tell.



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“The conquest of the Crimea by Russia, an example of non-kinetic conquest” by Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Vermer,  Revue Militaire Belge [Belgian Military Review], December 2014


Translated from the French by Gilbert Doctorow


Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Vermer has served in the operational branch of the Ground Forces. He has been sent to operations in Kosovo, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, as well as serving in the US Central Command. Since 2012, he heads up the Information Operations Group in Heverlee (Belgium).


On 21 March 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law creating two new Russian administrative entities: Crimea and the port city of Sevastopol. By this act, Russia annexed a foreign territory of great strategic value, thereby guaranteeing it access to warm seas, a stake in its geostrategic policy.

This conquest was achieved without combat or bloodshed.  The ‘cost-benefit’ ratio of this operation is thus highly advantageous. History knows few examples of such a campaign and such a success.

Campaign? This will astonish some. Without combat, how can one speak of a military campaign? How can you qualify as military a campaign which in the end amounted to deployment of troops and some administrative movements?

However, that is precisely what it was: the implementation of military assets for the purpose of meeting political objectives.  An approach which meets the definition of war according to Clausewitz.  Because without deploying troops, there is no visibility of conquest and of possession of the territory.  The deployment of forces did not give rise to unleashing of violence but led to a perfect victory as defined by Sun Tzu: “The art of war is to subjugate the enemy without combat.”

This ‘combat’ was one of perception and influence. It was played out not on the physical terrain but on the ‘information’ platform in the broad sense of the term using information operations (or Info Ops).

Following the example of the Red Army, whose heir it is, the Russian Army has a solid doctrine of Info Ops. Without a doubt the procedures of propaganda and subversion (Agit Prop) of the enemy of the past have been preserved, even if they have been readjusted and modified to the present age. Compared to the NATO doctrine, there are not many divergences. The objective of Info Ops today, like that of yesterday’s propaganda being to alter the determination (Will), the perception of the situation (Understand) and the ability (Capacities) of the adversary by carrying out actions on the information (data) and its transport resources (Information Systems).

Info Ops is not a capability on its own, but the expression of a coordination of assets that may or may not be kinetic for the purpose of impacting on the Will, Understand, Capabilities (WUC) of the adversary.

In order to illustrate via several examples how the conquest of the Crimea was rendered possible by applying Info Ops, I propose to identify the procedures used, the objectives pursued, the effects expected and the audience on whom they were applied. In Western terms, we shall find these elements in Appendix O of a plan of operations.

First example: the large scale maneuvers carried out by the Russian Army in February in the Center and West of Russia.  Although this concerns activities relating to branches 3 and 7 (operations and training), these activities were certainly coordinated by Info Ops. Their objective was to dissuade any Western intervention in the Ukrainian theater. The expected effect was to reduce Western reaction to a minimum without violating the borders.  The target audience of these maneuvers, even if they were broadly featured  in the media, was Western military decision-makers.  By means of a selective demonstration of the capabilities of the Russian Army, it anticipated that the military decision-makers who advise politicians will automatically exclude any military intervention.  By addressing a target audience of specialists capable of evaluating the level reached by the Russian forces, the Kremlin hoped that the advice of experts would be taken into account by the political leaders of NATO. By this action, the Russians acted on the Will and Capacities of the Alliance.

Locally, the deployment of paramilitary troops, hooded, without distinctive insignia but equipped with modern arms also participated in the effort.  The presence of these troops met two distinct objectives:  on the one hand, to demonstrate the determination of Russia to support the pro-annexation aspirations of the local population and, on the other hand, to maintain for Russian authorities an image of no direct intervention by counting on the uncertain origin of these troops. Thus, there were dual effects.  Looking inward, to reassure the Russian-speaking population of the Crimea, for whom the origin of these paramilitary forces reflected without doubt Russia’s will to establish itself as the sole legitimate authority versus the Ukrainian forces.  And looking outward, to present this ‘spontaneous appearance’ of militia as an expression of the local popular will to rejoin Russia.  Vis-à-vis the new Ukrainian authorities, these militias also presented the advantage of complicating the choice of resolving the conflict by force.  The presence of militias was therefore the local counterpart of the military maneuvers in the North, intended to influence the Ukrainian decision-makers. The target audiences of these actions were therefore both the Russian-speaking population, to reassure them, and the military and civilian authorities of the Ukraine, to dissuade them.  Playing skillfully on the uncertain origin of these militias, and thereby weaving a ‘fog of war,’ the Russians thereby disrupted the perception of the local situation (Understand).

Independently of its own action, the presence and attitude of troops, as well as the determination that it showed, also provided information.  This may be broken down following the acronym PPP (Presence, Posture, Profile) according to the vocabulary used by NATO.  Looking at the unknown paramilitary forces, they showed in all circumstances a professional demeanor, solid discipline and strong conviction.  And this impacted on the ‘revolutionaries’ of the Maidan Square in KIEV, who had driven from power the pro-Russian Ukrainian president.  The possible objective was thus to demonstrate the return to order, to respect for authority, in opposition to the Ukrainian chaos.  The expected effect was firstly to reduce to a minimum extremist reactions including those from pro-Russians, to cool down the political conflict and to visibly display the presence of an ‘authority,’ even if its origin remained uncertain (see above). This information was transmitted via the PPP of the paramilitary forces and was probably oriented towards the pro-Russian groups so as to nip in the bud any assembling of local bands, which are always quick to develop in case of disturbances, and which might profit from a vacuum of power.  Their Will and Capacity were thus targeted.

The use of electronic measures and counter-measures (Electronic Warfare – EW) was also one of the assets that could be coordinated by the Info Ops. In the given case, the electromagnetic activity of Russian radars in the nearby regions of the Baltic States increased significantly.  The evident objective was to demonstrate once again the determination of Russia to implement its military resources as need be and to dissuade any incursion into Russian air space by NATO.  The effect sought was clearly to keep the planes of the Alliance away from the borders and avoid provoking an escalation.  The apparent target audience was thus the military leadership and in particular the commanders of the air forces.  The capability of the Alliance and its will were targeted by these EW actions. But behind these objectives, effects and obvious target audiences was likely hidden another, more nuanced intention.  It is useless to humiliate a potential adversary who remains a partner in the future.  Thus, the Russian authorities knew that NATO must react, at the risk of losing its credibility. By ‘attracting’ the attention of NATO decision-makers to the Baltic States, by raising a threat to these States, the recent Members of the Alliance, the Russians offered to NATO an opportunity to act by deploying its troops (a battalion!!) in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, as well as some additional vehicles and planes.  Their honor was preserved, the political pressure ‘to do something’ was removed from the shoulders of the NATO Secretary General and these gestures did not threaten Russia’s immediate interests in Crimea.

Finally, the action in the domain of Information also targeted international audiences.  The primary vector was shaped by the online site ‘Voice of Russia,’ the modern avatar of Radio Moscow since 1993.

Presenting the situation in a manner oriented towards Russian interests, in 38 different languages, ach on a site suitably tailor-made, this media sought clearly to weaken Western popular support for a military response by NATO. The expected effect was to set up a counter-discourse to the Western pro-Ukrainian argumentation. The question of knowing if this action was part of Info Ops or of public relations is posed by the near-sighted limitation of NATO, where the doctrine differentiates between these two domains.  It is difficult to know if the Russian approach in this matter is identical. In any case, the conjunction of the efforts between the actions in the media and those coordinated by Info Ops was greatly facilitated by a basic message that was clear and unequivocal (a ‘narrative’ in the vocabulary of NATO):  “The Crimea is Russian.”  The existence of a ‘narrative’ is the keystone for using information as a weapon.  The more limpid and simple this is, the more precise and effective the ‘weapon’ will be.  And the easier its use will be to coordinate.


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 © Gilbert Doctorow, 2015



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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future?  (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to eastwestaccord@gmail.com