Information Warfare and the New World Order: Case Study Western Balkans

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.