As Russia flexes its muscles in the east, Warsaw has been emphasising security. This includes plans to spend an additional 800m złoty on defence in 2016, reaching the 2% of GDP recommended by NATO (from the current 1.95%). At the same time, it is becoming clear that investing in military equipment is not enough. A Russian offensive need not involve battered Soviet tanks trundling across the border – or even any kind of physical contact.
“Russia has engaged in a rather remarkable period of the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of the Cold War,” the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, told a Senate subcommittee earlier this year.
The combination of military force and information warfare used in Russia’s annexation of Crimea – and in eastern Ukraine since then – is known as ‘hybrid war’. A glossary on the website of Poland’s National Security Bureau (BBN) defines this as “a war combining different means of violence, including regular and irregular armed action, operations in cyberspace, economic and psychological actions, and information campaigns (propaganda)”.
Russia is taking “psychological warfare” and the “war of perceptions” seriously. Its strategy has moved “from direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay” and “from war with weapons and technology to a culture war”, writes Janis Berzins in a policy paper for the National Defence Academy of Latvia. In theory, a country could be brought to its knees without Russian arms or soldiers so much as touching it.
Russia’s information war efforts tend to be ongoing, without a clear start or finish. Yet this kind of warfare works best “when different tools are used in concert over a short period of time to achieve a limited number of goals,” according to a new analysis on Russia’s infowar by the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
The Polish government is well aware of the key role Russia ascribes to information warfare. In a policy speech in April, Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna emphasised Russia’s “information war to mask its own role in the conflict in Ukraine and to caricature the Western reaction to Russian aggression”. Poland is also being targeted. In his speech, Schetyna warned of “slander campaigns or actions intended to stir confusion in the Polish information space”. He declined to list them, “so as not to play a role in this scenario”.
At the ready?
Poland needs to be ready for hybrid war, said General Stanisław Koziej, head of Poland’s National Security Council, speaking to journalists in Lublin in March. This includes convincing Poland’s NATO allies to prepare for it. But that may not be enough: in cases of hybrid warfare, when it is “unclear whether it is war or not”, it may be difficult to get a consensus within NATO, he added. This makes it particularly important that Poland raise “the interest of all society”, including citizens as well as social and paramilitary organisations who want to help strengthen its security, he explained.
This is not the first time Moscow has used propaganda to try and undermine Poland and other countries to its west. These tactics were honed in the first years after World War II , as Anne Applebaum describes in ‘Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956’ (2012). Her book contains a fascinating chapter on the role of the radio – “the era’s most powerful form of mass communication” – in the communisation of Poland, East Germany, and Hungary. Now propagandists simply have new channels at their disposal, from the internet and social media, to good old television.
‘Russia has engaged in … the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of the Cold War’
When it comes to Russian television, the Baltic States face a bigger challenge than Poland does. Latvia and Estonia are both home to sizeable Russian-speaking minorities, who account for around a third and a quarter of the population respectively. But Russian television is not just popular among members of the countries’ Russian minorities. In Lithuania, the Polish minority – the country’s largest, at almost 7% of the population – is known for its reliance on Russian television. The only Polish channel readily available is TV Polonia, geared toward the diaspora around the world. “It might be interesting for a retiree in Chicago, but not for me,” said a 20-something Pole from Vilnius. Members of Lithuania’s Polish minority could cross the border and buy a Polish decoder, but not all of them bother.
Yet Russian television channels have been reaching further west, with RT (which stands for ‘Russia Today’) in the lead. There is also Sputnik International, a news service launched in late 2014 by an agency owned and run by the Russian government. Sputnik, which calls itself a “provider of alternative news”, has websites a handful of European languages, including Spanish, Finnish and Czech. In February, it launched a Polish version.
Sputnik’s coverage of the conflict in eastern Ukraine is predictably pro-Kremlin, anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western. But the real danger posed by media like Sputnik is not that it will make the Poles, Spaniards and Finns who read it love Vladimir Putin. It is these Russian outlets’ venturing into domestic coverage – the Polish version of Sputnik has a “Polska” section. Bit by bit, it aims to discredit the Polish leadership, spreading half-truths and sowing doubt. “Where are European democracy and law?” opens an indignant article on Poland’s decision in April to refuse the Night Wolves, a pro-Kremlin group of bikers, entrance into the country.
Identifying the threat posed by information warfare is one step, dealing with it is another. General Koziej has suggested that Poland could respond to information war with a “national doctrine of information security.”
Polish news outlets also have a role to play. In his speech, Schetyna appealed to them “to show moderation and common sense when covering topics that are present more in the media than in real life”.
Yet the risk is that if foreign capitals, from Kiev to Brussels, try to beat Moscow at its own propaganda game, they will become just like it. That is a trap that the Russian leadership would love for them to fall into.