This Policy paper and following recommendations are the result of the recently ended workshop, under the name “Information Warfare and the New World Order: Case Study Western Balkans“, which was organized by the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

Situation analysis

The advances in both hardware and software related to information technology over the past 25 years have been truly significant. The technological advancement has facilitated the access to information and the huge growth in global information sharing. Therefore, technology-facilitated abuse is becoming more widespread and normalized. The misuse of the internet and social media has contributed to creation of new conflicts and crisis across whole world. This concept is commonly known as the information warfare involving the use and management of information and communication technology in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent.

This phenomenon Russia has greatly exploited in its internal and external efforts to spread its propaganda and disinformation in order to destabilize the world order, and has been using it to demoralize and destabilize the Western Balkans, as its interest sphere. Since Russia has been aware that it remains politically, economically, and militarily weaker than the combined strength of the West, it has decided to compensate for these weaknesses by elaborating its modern geopolitical strategy.

For many years, the western alliances have tried but failed to get Moscow to accept a more win-win viewpoint that sees democracy and prosperity in this common neighborhood as good for both Russia and Europe. Moscow, on the other hand, assumes that any actions by the EU specifically and the West in general are rooted in the same great-power competition that frames Moscow’s worldview. Russia strongly believes that Europe is trying to spread its norms and values in the Eastern Europe and Western Balkans region with the aim of expanding its sphere of influence at the expense of Moscow’s, with an eye toward enlarging the NATO as well as, potentially, the EU. Russian efforts are the most concentrated on undermining the democratic progress on the territory of the Western Balkan. Consequently, the Western Balkans are notably exposed to Russian pressure reflected in its propaganda and campaigns aimed at dividing us from one another, and undermining our own trust in our own institutions.

Hence, this workshop managed to gather speakers from various countries in order that they discuss the Russian modern warfare strategy and form recommendations for combating the Russian propaganda.

Democratic states and institutions as targets of cyber-attacks

Generally speaking, democracies around the world were attacked, not by traditional weapons, but by deliberately releasing false information, which is a serious threat to the democracy.

Thus, Russia is trying to destabilize the Western Balkans and undermine democratic efforts and progress of countries in the region by using misinformation. The disinformation is one of the instruments for implementing strategic foreign policy interests, strengthening of Russia’s international position and protection of Russian economic interests. However, democratic states must not conduct disinformation campaigns. The fight against Russian cyber-attacks should not be ’’fight fire with fire’’. We need to look for other ways and instruments to go on the offensive and prevent future attacks. Fighting Russian misinformation requires simultaneously managing attack and defense.

The development of information and telecommunication technologies significantly shifted the nature of contemporary conflicts. The information became a key tool for modern warfare.

Consequently, the freedom of the media, speech and information has become a means of combating fake news. If media in a democracy areconsidered biased or aligned with special interests then, the foundation of the democratic system becomes meaningless.

Last year Russia was meddling in the presidential election in the US and thus attacked the integrity of the US democratic system. The same thing happened in Montenegro. Moscow’s goal is nothing but discrediting democratic governance and the existing international system.

Being exposed to conspiracies against the government and to use of negative information campaigns undermining the key values of the society, Montenegro has showed determination in opposing these activities. Moreover, Montenegro’s membership in NATO led to three positive results: it confirms the policy of NATO’s open doors, fosters security and stability of the region, and emphasizes the benefits of reforms, in particular the rule of law and good governance.

Montenegro has to continue implementing reforms in order to strengthen the rule of law and good governance. In that sense, it is not alone in the fight against Russia’s malicious actions in sharing fake information, it can count on the support of its Western Allies.

Western Balkans and Russia’s new chaos theory of political warfare

Russia has a modern strategy, a vision of overall warfare that puts politics and war in the same spectrum of activities – from both philosophical and logistic point of view.

Therefore, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Russia attacked America’s 2016 election, attempted to interfere in France’s 2017 election, and is expected to do the same to other future European and US elections. But perhaps the best evidence of Russia’s malicious attacks on a democratic system is what happened in October 2016 in Montenegro, when Russian intelligence operatives plotted to supposedly overthrow the democratically elected government of Montenegro and murder its prime minister.

Montenegro’s NATO membership would be a signal that becoming part of the Alliance was a real possibility for other nations of the Western Balkans. That’s why, in Russia’s eyes, Montenegro’s October 16 elections was a last chance to stop it from joining NATO and to reassert Russian influence in Southeast Europe.

Russia’s meddling is constant and systematic. It achieves political and strategic goals by the non-military means which exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness.

The models that Russia is relying on, during the hybrid war are: information warfare, misinformation, fake news, instrumentalization of the local population, weaponization of the ethnicity. Particularly, the concept of story-telling is of a special importance. Story-telling is the ability to share fictions and manipulate people to believe in stories. Basically, Putin does not create tensions on the territory of Balkan, but he exploits them. Putin holds a magnifying glass over our weaknesses and manages to take advantage of them by using all the negative models, but the good news is that we control these weaknesses by implementing new social reforms contributing to the reforms of our overall system.

Russia’s malicious actions represent a threat in the region causing instability and unrests. Namely, they are carried out through undermining parliamentary elections, hindering the attempts of border demarcation, meddling in state affairs by means of unreformed, highly corrupt security services, instrumentalizing ethnicity… The problems allowing Russian disruptive influence are: Glorification of war criminals as heroes, corruption, unresolved war crimes and organized criminal. The defense against its negative impact implies the dialogue and accession of Western Balkans to EU and NATO.

Also the economic coercion is another form of Russian aggression reflected in Russia’s ability to use gas as a political bargaining chip. The role of Russia in weaponization of ethnicity has also been significant and the situation in Bosnia is stated as a very good example of it. Thus, Russia recognized the media as a perfect tool for increasing its soft power in Balkan. An instrument which generates high rewards with minimum investments.

Hence, it can be concluded that the media under Russian ownership are likely to be more subjective and ideologically colored. Moreover, information laundering is one of the several Russian tactics for dissemination of fake news. Sputnik is the tip of the iceberg, below it there are sites which pick up these narratives and copy them. So, they find way to the mainstream media.

The borderless web, challenges and opportunities for democracy

There is no doubt that the fourth revolution has occurred – that is digital revolution.

Although, it does not possess better technological and financial resources than the United States (USA) and Europe, Russia still succeeds in generating significant challenges during the extremely important processes. It is only that Russian federation understood before us that IT is keeping the world order.

The Ministry of Defense of Montenegro was several times a target of cyber-attacks before the accession of Montenegro to NATO. Free access to information, speed, anonymity, lack of geographical boundaries are just some of the elements that make these activities much more effective and visible, but they take place at different levels. These levels include not only false news, but also far more significant forms that endanger the security of cyber space and the activities that take place on that basis.

Hence, certain types of solutions are suggested: the short-term and the long-term solutions. The short-term solutions would be technological solutions improving the overall cyber security, where state authorities as well as the academic community, civil society and media play special role.

On the other hand, the only sustainable and efficient solution is education, and not only the information technology education, but multidisciplinary one improving the ability of logical and critical thinking which is key prerequisite for increasing the level of resistance of individuals and society to all forms of IT “warfare”.

Compared to the Western mentality, Russian is based on Marxism (ownership of means of production and control over the labor power of others). Thus, Russia uses media as means of exercising control and exerting pressure over democratic states.

Ukraine is a good example of it, the half of its population speaks Russian and Russian TV networks are in top ten in this country. Thus, its population is constantly exposed to disinformation and fake news coming from Russia. For these reasons, a group of Ukrainian students and professors created a fact-checking project and they started to monitor information and to check whether they are true or not. Hence, they collected thousands of stories, evidences which prove the presence of very well-orchestrated Russian propaganda.

In addition, BBC is considered to be an example of proper public service broadcaster striving for journalism that is accurate, impartial, independent and fair. It has a huge budget but at the same time they have expertise in providing short and accurate reports in no time. The time is very important, the news should be received as soon as possible. Consequently, as they must secure their independence from any influence, strong, financially stable media institutions are needed. Therefore, it is extremely important that media supports and maintains the cherishing of positive values based on their professionalism, since media is considered to be one of the main barriers against propaganda, whose duty is to inform public as accurately as possible. The era of post-truth where we live should be precisely defined.

Review of recommendations

Democratic states and institutions as targets of cyber-attacks

  • Western Balkans as well as all the countries threatened by cyber-attacks need to work on strengthening their democratic institutions and to show the unity, prosperity and stability of their countries.
  • The fight against Russian cyber-attacks should not be ’’fight fire with fire’’. Countries should work on detecting disinformation and on removing thereof.
  • Awareness about the information technologies must be raised as the possible consequences can be very dangerous in the long run.
  • New countermeasures for the combat against our enemies are to be devised. The strategic communications require not only our interaction but involvement of the general public.
  • A cooperation among allies, partners and international organizations is crucial as it would ensure a consistent approach to these challenges.
  • The USA should make an effort in order to strengthen the democratic system and protect human rights.
  • Montenegro must continue to be the leader in the implementation of reforms and to show the world to control its own destiny- the destiny of prosperity and security that can not be disrupted by a bad influence from the outside world.

Western Balkans and Russia’s new chaos theory of political warfare

  • Awareness about story-telling should be raised. The ability of telling stories helps storytellers manipulate information to serve their own interests. Thus, we have to be better at it, to master it.
  • Western Balkans have to be aware of ’’magnifying glass theory’’. Putin holds his magnifying glass over our weaknesses and /monitors our every move, that is why we have to reinforce our democracy and show our unity. We need to build a state of well-being, in order to strengthen our democracy and demonstrate integrity, social reforms contributing to reforms of overall system are mandatory.
  • We need to recognize losers of the globalization process as they pose a serious threat and with their malicious actions can disrupt democratic processes. The best example could be the local political elite manipulating emotions very skillfully, especially before the elections.
  • Instead of negative competition, a positive competition should be encouraged as it promotes an “everyone wins” attitude where regional countries work collectively toward a common goal- strengthening democracy and the rule of law.

Digital revolution as the fourth revolution

  • Looking at the global scene, the liberal democracy is being put on a test as the development of IT technology has enabled people to express freely their personal opinion. At the same time, it is an opportunity for those not having good intentions to foster distrust in institutions by sowing division and chaos in politics and society. There is a duty of the governments to protect their citizens, but also a duty of all of us not to take our rights for granted.
  • Ordinary citizens, young children, even retired people use internet and have several devices in their pockets, but are not aware of the fact that they are monitored in such way. An open and decentralized internet should be promoted.
  • We need to apply Ukrainian know-how to fight against Russian propaganda by monitoring social networks. In that way, we would be able to predict future steps that Russia is planning to take.
  • We need to support our own media institutions representing our defense. Due to the lack of the financial support media organization is susceptible of discredit. News outlets have dropped most fact-checking and critical analysis steps in order to churn out news more cheaply and quicker and as a result daft and untrue stories are appearing in mainstream news. So we should provide media with financial support in order to protect ourselves from information warfare.
  • Whatever measures we undertake, they should be long-term measures for purpose of preventing cyber-attacks to endanger our fundamental values.
  • The key factor in the combat against spreading of fake news and propaganda is education, and not only information technology education but comprehensive one, encouraging people to foster logical and critical thinking crucial for evaluating the claims, ideas, and arguments they encounter on daily basis.
  • We should combat cyber-attack but not by undertaking undemocratic measures. Exactly through this discussions we should raise the awareness about financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts in order to reduce the possibility of manipulation.

The 20th century was a very specific one.  It was a century of extreme violence, as witnessed by the years 1914 and 1939 with the outbreak of the First and Second World War. Simultaneously, however, there were also turning points of remarkable progress of technology and communication. The First and Second World War produced deadly weapons and witnessed wide array of clashes of clashes which resulted in millions of victims. But things have changed. The beginning of the 21st century marked the shift in definition of the power from conventional, military and hard power to its much more non-violent, selective and non-conventional form, in a way that mass media, social media, propaganda and information have become weapons of choice #1.

The relative novelty of modern warfare, labeled as “hybrid warfare”, lays in the ability of an actor to synchronize multiple instruments of power (political, military, economic, informational) simultaneously and intentionally exploit creativity, ambiguity, non-linearity and the cognitive elements of warfare, targeting vulnerabilities across societies in ways that we do not  think about.

“Hybrid warfare” is a concept of a military operational approach that was first employed in 2007 by a former US Marine officer, Frank Hoffman, What makes a war ‘hybrid’, in Hoffman’s view, is the coordinated use of different modes of warfare, both military and non-military to achieve ‘synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict’ within the main battle space. [1]

It can be conducted by both state and non-state actors. These campaigns mainly rely on contemporary technology that characterizes 21stcentury and may not be seen until they are already well underway, as it is customizedto remain below detection radius.

Nowadays, this term is mainly linked to Moscow due to the broad use of different non-military instruments and weapons to further and accomplish national interests. Some examples of such attempts are dividing NATO, knocking down pro-Western governments (Russian military intelligence, for example, is believed to have created a 2016 plot to overthrow the pro-NATO government of Montenegro), annexing territories without the use of conventional forces (Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea,the move that launched the debate over Russian “hybrid warfare”,without the need to fire a single shot using (dis)information as the main weapon, took the world by surprise in 2014). Moreover Moscow tends to increase its political influence, especially on the Balkans (lack of progress to EU membership, persistent ethnic tensions, and Russian cultural and historical links are just some of the main reasons). Kremlin has established a base in Serbia that could be used for covert operations across the Balkans underthe guise of a “Humanitarian Center” in Nis. [2] Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Baltic states represent target areas for the foreign malign influence (due to the ties to Soviet Union).

Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Toolkit

(Dis)information campaigns – Russia has become notably more effective in its use of strategic communications to shape political narratives in many countries. Media outlets such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News are among the most well-known instruments for this strategy, but Moscow also uses targeted television programming, employs large number of Internet trolls, bots and fake news factories. The primary goal is to cast the doubt upon the objective truth. These media outlets and their proxies aim to shape the political discussion and opinion of targeted groups in the desired ways. [3]

Cyber – The Kremlin now has access to a growing cadre of cyber warriors, which allows it to collect valuable information that is used to influence elections and other political outcomes outside Russia’s border. This was the strategy that seems to have been employed by Russia during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Proxies – Russia also uses a range of proxies to further its interests. Proxies are often groups that have broad sympathy toward Russia’s objectives. One of the Kremlin’s typical proxies is the Night Wolves, a biker club and ultranationalist, anti-American gang, whose leader is a personal friend of President Putin. Russia also seeks to exploit European protest movements. For example, it backed anti-European Union (EU) groups in a 2016 referendum on trade with Ukraine in the Netherlands. [4] It is also suspected of supporting the anti-shale gas and other protest movements in Bulgaria that have complicated Bulgaria’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy sources.

Economic influence – Russia uses both direct and indirect economic influence to have more impact on European politics. Moscow used energy as foreign policy tool when it cut the natural gas supplies to Ukraine in the winter in 2006 and 2009 in an overt effort to coerce Ukraine into agreement on the price of its gas. Taking advantage of the vast network of natural gas pipelines built in Soviet times, the Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom and its subsidiaries wield influence over the politics and economics of many European countries. Russia has also offered large-scale investment to build energy pipelines and other infrastructure in countries that are dependent on Russian energy supplies as a means of growing its influence.

Secret measures – Russia also has the ability to use traditional espionage as part of its hybrid methods as part of its broader military modernization program, Russia has invested in strengthening its special operations forces. These forces have a wide range of roles, but one of their most dramatic has been in infiltrating other countries and directing hybrid warfare efforts there. Russian military intelligence, for example, is believed to have instigated a 2016 plot to overthrow the pro-NATO government of Montenegro. Russian Special Forces were crucial in seizing Crimea and supporting separatists in the Donbass, and they are likely operating in several NATO-allied countries.

Political influence – Certainly, Russian leaders also use traditional diplomacy to support their preferred political parties and candidates, offering high-level visits in Moscow, while deriding the positions of political leaders more critical of Moscow.

Hybrid methods of warfare, such as propaganda, deception, sabotage and other non-military tactics have long been used, since the Cold War and even before. What is new about attacks seen in recent years is their speed, scale and intensity, facilitated by rapid technological change and global interconnectivity and as such they require swift response. [5]

The rising hybrid threat to the democracies around the world has been recognized on the highest level and that’s why in July 2017, NATO formed a special unit within the existing Joint Intelligence and Security Division, with purpose to analyze hybrid actions, drawing from military and civilian, classified and open sources.

Brussels Summit Declaration 2018

Moreover, Brussels Summit Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 11-12 July 2018 focused heavily on the mentioned issue.


(source: nato.int)

The Declaration states that the primary responsibility to respond to hybrid threats or attacks rests with the targeted nation, but NATO is prepared to assist any Ally against hybrid threats as part of collective defense. The Alliance has developed a strategy on its role in countering hybrid warfare to help address these threats. In article 20 the declaration reaffirms NATO’s mandate for collective defense against the full spectrum of cyber threats, followed by groundbreaking article 21 claiming that in cases of hybrid warfare, the Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, as in the case of armed attack.

The Document announced the establishment of Counter Hybrid Support Teams, which will provide tailored, targeted assistance to Allies, upon their request, in preparing for and responding to hybrid activities.  These teams will strengthen resilience of NATO allies when facing hybrid challenges.

The last few articles of the Declaration emphasize the importance of Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its resilience against hybrid threats, including intensifying activities within the NATO-Ukraine Platform on Countering Hybrid Warfare.  Ukraine’s significant contributions to Allied operations, the NATO Response Force, and NATO exercises increase security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond. [6]

The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE)

Hybrid threats represent a global issue – the response should be the same. The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), an intergovernmental think tank established in 2017 and based in NATO partner country Finland. It serves as a hub of expertise supporting the participating countries’ individual and collective efforts to enhance their civil-military capabilities, resilience, and preparedness to counter hybrid threats with a special focus on European security. It operates as a center that offers collective experience and expertise for the benefit of all participating countries, as well as the EU and NATO. The Centre follows a comprehensive, multinational, multidisciplinary and academic-based approach. [7]


(source: hybridcoe.fi)

In terms of research and analysis, the Strategic Communications CoE is the leader, having released more than a dozen analysis papers, reports and practical studies of influence operation examples. In addition, Alliance countries such as Denmark have decided to train their soldiers how to combat disinformation before they are posted to NATO service. [8]

Conclusion

Hybrid measures of warfare, such as propaganda, deception, sabotage and other non-military tactics have long been used by many states since the Cold War and even before in order to gain influence and shape the political landscape in Europe and beyond. But the hybrid war tactics that Russia uses today, however, are not identical to those used during the 20thcentury. The reach is far greater and the consequences far more severe due to the globalization and interconnectedness of the societies and countries around the world, through the internet, media and social media being main channels and tools of influence.

Hybrid warfare expands the battlefield across the political, economic and social dimension that extends far beyond the mere military realm.  These campaigns are synchronized and systematic and mainly rely on the contemporary technology that characterizes 21st century and may not be seen until are already well underway, as it is customized to remain below detection radius.

Therefore, national governments should conduct a self-assessment of critical functions and vulnerabilities sectors, and maintain it regularly. National efforts should enhance traditional threat assessment activity to include non-conventional political, economic, civil, international (PECI) tools and capabilities. [9]

Apart from the theoretical solutions, practical efforts have been made against this clear challenge to the EU, NATO and democratic system in Europe, like 1) the Brussels Summit Declaration, 2) forming a special unit within the existing Joint Intelligence and Security Division, with purpose to analyze hybrid actions, drawing from military and civilian, classified and open sources, 3) starting the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats with the goal to work with members, NATO and the EU to understand different dimensions of hostile state influence and enhance their ability to respond and help them to recognize their vulnerabilities, 4) strengthening the NATO-Ukraine Platform on Countering Hybrid Warfare and 5) many more initiatives around the world, especially in Central Europe and Baltic States.

National governments should coordinate and work closely with NATO, the EU, as well as with other international organizations, NGOs and different initiatives around the world to support and develop more practical solutions in ever-changing security environment.

[1] Frank Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007, p. 8

[2] Dusan Stojanovic, “Inside Russian ‘Spy Base’ in the Balkans”. link: URL Link

[3] Christopher S. Chivvis, Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What Can be Done About It, RAND, 2017, link: URL Link

[4] Anne Applebaum, The Dutch Just Showed the World How Russia Influences Western European Elections, Washington Post, April 8, 2016

[5] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_156338.htm

[6] Brussels Summit Declaration, July 11, 2018, url: URL Link

[7] https://www.hybridcoe.fi

[8] The Warsaw Institute Review, qr. 3. 2018, no 6, url: URL Link

[9] MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project: Understanding Hybrid Warfare, url: URL Link