by Alexander Svitych
The following is a guest post as a second part of a new series from the author. Views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISIS Europe.
“We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war.”
From a political comedy movie “Wag the Dog” (1997)
The brave new world
It has been claimed that the world of today has acquired an unprecedented unique shape. Mankind has witnessed a rapid and drastic change in the forms and structures that have defined its development for the last half a century. The world’s geopolitical surroundings have irrevocably changed within the twenty years following the collapse of the USSR. World resources, military and political tools have been redistributed, new power hubs have emerged. As a result, nation-states have faced a number of fundamental challenges that require development of brand new policies and responses.
One of such challenges has been posed by the so-called information wars. Information war can be understood as a series of attacks on the civil or military population of an opponent-state via disinformation and propaganda in order to achieve certain political or military objectives. While researchers and military experts distinguish several types of information warfare (IW)[i] and IW weapons[ii], it is essential to understand the concept of the information war in its broader meaning as defined above, which in this sense can be also referred to as a type of “soft war”. Information wars are closely linked to psychological wars which target, via various techniques, a population’s value and belief systems, as well as emotions and reasoning. With the two concepts combined, we can talk about information-psychological wars that are becoming an integral part of post-modern geopolitics, in additional to traditional warfare.
The term ‘post-modern’ is not mentioned here by chance. An opinion that is becoming more popular nowadays is that the on-going global economic crisis is not just another crisis of capitalism as before. This is a systemic crisis of the current industrial phase of development accompanied by systemic problems of the dominant Euro-Atlantic civilization. In other words, we are now witnessing signs of the end of the Modern epoch that has lasted for about five hundred years[iii]. We are witnessing an economic, social and political earthquake before the drastic changes brought about by a new phase of development. Mankind is in a new phase transition[iv] towards an epoch often referred to as the post-industrial or information one. The contours of the future can already be seen in the works of Alvin Toffler, Zygmunt Bauman, Colin Crouch, and many others. What is interesting is that each phase or technological mode correlates exactly with a wider philosophical epoch of the human history, namely Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern. This can be presented in a table as follows.
|Archaic (natural)||1st phase transition – the agrarian revolution||Archaic|
2nd phase transition – the industrial revolution
|Industrial||3rd phase transition (now)||Modern|
Table 1. Phases and phase transitions
Information wars as phenomenon of the post-modern world
To sum up, there were three large distinct periods or waves in the human history: primitive, agrarian and industrial. Today we are entering a post-modern, or post-industrial, phase, and like any other phase the new one will have its peculiar social, economic, and technological characteristics. Applied to the concept of war, this means the following. In the traditional (agrarian) society wars were waged by trained warriors. The modern society saw development of all sorts of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, brought about by the industrial revolution. Today, however, the information age transforms the whole notion of classical wars into information wars.[v] Some of the unique features of information wars as compared to traditional wars are the following.
|Wave||Physical Security by||War Characterized by||Destructive Capability|
|Agrarian||Warrior class, mercenaries||Representational conflict||Gunpowder|
|Industrial||Professional citizens||Mass armies, high casualties||Mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, etc.)|
|Information||Information knowledgeable leaders||Information attacks, minimal casualties||Disinformation, critical data deletion|
Table 2. The three waves of warfare[vi]
A distinctive characteristic of contemporary geopolitics is thus waging information wars in support of the traditional warfare. Information wars do not completely replace traditional warfare, like the post-industrial society does not completely replace the industrial one, but it is rather constructed on top of it (not to mention that different parts of the world are at the different stages of development). Still, in the new times the use of raw military power and weaponry will be limited. Cleaning up the grounds will be (and already is) carried out by financial, economic, and information-psychological technologies with the participation of weak and corrupted governments.
A paradigmatic example of an information war was made by the 2012 war in Libya, where each real combat was accompanied by a powerful wave of disinformation generated by mass media[vii]. The most recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia originated from the civil protest known as Euromaidan is another excellent case study proving that a powerful disinformation and propaganda campaign can be rather effective in the pursuit of certain military and political objectives.
The lessons of Russia’s information war against Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine has several components – trade war, technological war, and information war. While the trade and technological wars lead to economic losses, the information war has much wider consequences.
Firstly, this information war, which intensified since Euromaidan, reached its peak during the Crimean conflict, and continues today, has highlighted the role of propaganda. The Ukrainian revolution from the very beginning has been seen through a haze of propaganda. Russian media have claimed that Ukrainian protesters were right-wing extremists and that their victory was a “fascist coup”. The incursion into Crimea is another proof that a team of clever journalists and cameramen can make a bigger influence than military weaponry and personnel. All in all, propaganda has been important to Putin’s regime in order to prepare the way for war. As pointed out by Timothy Snyder: “An excellent propaganda apparatus, such as the Russian one, can find ways to repeat its message over and over again in slightly different ways and formats.”[viii]
Secondly, the information war against Ukraine has exposed the fact that the world is still created by TV news and press, even though the Internet and social networks are becoming more and more important. In this regard, how is something said is more important than what is said, with made-up stories creating real motivations that may lead to a radical change of reality. Thus, Putin has manufactured a version of reality to create the discourse he needs to destabilize Ukraine. The concept of the information war entails that the virtual reality affects and even replaces actual reality.
Finally,the Ukrainian case has demonstrated that a side that is preparing for an “old-type-war” will likely lose as it needs to operate within the narrative propagated by an opponent. As pointed in the article by Washington Post on the subject: “Putin is no longer bound by the constraints of nation-state warfare. Years of confrontations with separatists, militants, terrorists and stateless actors influenced his thinking. In Crimea, Putin debuted a pop-up war — nimble and covert — that is likely to be the design of the future.”[ix] While Putin has been “redefining 21st-century warfare”, the Ukrainian state has failed to provide an adequate response and ensure its information security.
The events of the Arab Spring, the defeat of Muammar Gaddafi, the crisis in Syria, the “white stripe” movement in Russia and, most recently, the invasion of Ukraine highlight the following trend: a key element to gain a victory in the present-day wars is the ability to work with people’s beliefs. Beliefs create motivations; motivations create actions; actions change social and political landscapes. What is more important, virtual reality creates real motivations that ultimately bring real changes. As formulated by Milton Friedman:
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”[x]
The concept of war has irrevocably changed in the post-modern world. Unlike the industrial and traditional societies, today it’s not only important to know the number of tanks, aircrafts, soldiers, but also the target audience of the local and global media in a country, the public opinion in it, and the presence of opinion leaders, etc. The propaganda disseminated by Russia’s central information agency ITAR-TASS showed that a team of dedicated reporters and cameramen can have a considerable impact on the outcome of a war.
With all of the above said, the development of specialized bodies, agencies and infrastructures both at the state, regional, and international levels is crucial to deal with possible informational attacks. The same security implications apply to the European Union, in particular, as one of the major geopolitical players. Whether the EU’s recent initiatives, like the EU Cyber Security Strategy, can cope with the challenges of the information wars, will be further discussed in the next post of the series.
[i] See, for example, Winn Schwartau’s Information Warfare, Chaos on the Electronic Superhighway defining three classes of information warfare: personal IW, corporate IW and global IW.
[ii] Some examples of IW weapons include computer viruses, worms, electronic jamming etc. For a more extensive list, see pp. 11-13 of Information Warfare – An Introduction by Reto E. Haeni available at: http://www.trinity.edu/rjensen/infowar.pdf
[iii] For conceptualizing of post-modernity in International Relations see The post-modern state and the world order by Robert Cooper.
[iv] The model of phase transition presented here is based on Alvin Toffler’s books The Third Wave and Revolutionary Wealth.
[v] For more information, see Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s War and Anti-War: Making Sense of Today’s Global Chaos describing three waves in the history of warfare.