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Opinion Russia’s radical new strategy for information warfare

Russian President Vladimir Putin this month. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press)

Last February, a top Russian cyber official told a security conference in Moscow that Russia was working on new strategies for the “information arena” that would be equivalent to testing a nuclear bomb and would “allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.”

Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Kremlin adviser, made the startling comments at the Russian national information security forum, or “Infoforum 2016,” held Feb. 4 and 5. His remarks were transcribed by a Russian who attended the gathering and translated for me by an independent European cyber expert.

Krutskikh’s comments are important because they may help explain the radical strategic doctrine that underlies Russia’s hacking and attempted manipulation of the 2016 presidential campaign in America, as well as Russian political subversion in Europe. His title is “special representative of the president for international cooperation in the field of information security.”

A senior Obama administration official described Krutskikh as a “senior-level adviser” to President Vladimir Putin and “a long-standing player in cyber issues” at the foreign ministry. The official said he couldn’t confirm the details of Krutskikh’s remarks, but that “they sound like something Andrey would say.”

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According to notes of Krutskikh’s speech, he told his Russian audience: “You think we are living in 2016. No, we are living in 1948. And do you know why? Because in 1949, the Soviet Union had its first atomic bomb test. And if until that moment, the Soviet Union was trying to reach agreement with [President Harry] Truman to ban nuclear weapons, and the Americans were not taking us seriously, in 1949 everything changed and they started talking to us on an equal footing.”

Krutskikh continued, “I’m warning you: We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.”

Putin’s cyber adviser stressed to the Moscow audience the importance for Russia of having a strong hand in this new domain. If Russia is weak, he explained, “it must behave hypocritically and search for compromises. But once it becomes strong, it will dictate to the Western partners [the United States and its allies] from the position of power.”

Krutskikh’s comments may have been a precursor of a new doctrine for information operations announced publicly by the Kremlin in December. The senior administration official described the Russian strategy: “They think of information space as a domain of warfare. In the U.S, we tend to have a binary view of conflict — we’re at peace or at war. The Russian doctrine is more of a continuum. You can be at different levels of conflict, along a sliding scale.”

Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign, as outlined in the unclassified report released this month by U.S. intelligence agencies, is an example of Russia’s use of new tools in this continuum of conflict, the U.S. official said. “Certainly, I believe the Russians are working to increase their capabilities in cyberspace, because they’ve realized they can use cyberspace to pursue their foreign policy goals,” he said.

In Russia’s view, America is pushing just as aggressively in the information space, but denies it. “Things we perceive as free speech, they perceive as aggressive behavior from the West,” noted the senior U.S. official.

Putin, for example, saw Hillary Clinton’s support for anti-Putin dissidents as an attempt to foment a “color revolution.” Russians also claim (without public evidence) that the U.S. orchestrated last year’s disclosure of the “Panama Papers,” which included allegations of Russian money laundering, and last year’s allegations by the World Anti-Doping Agency of drug use by Russian athletes.

In Putin’s mind, the United States attacked first in the information war. Russia is now strong enough to retaliate, as Krutskikh signaled in his February 2016 speech.

Krutskikh and other Russian cyber experts don’t appear to have been deterred by public warnings or sanctions. Krutskikh was quoted by the Russian Information Agency Dec. 29 describing U.S. sanctions announced that day as “the agony of the ruling elite,” reflecting “the personal hatred” of President Obama, and “an attempt to prevent future cooperation.”

“We don’t exclude the lifting of the sanctions after Trump enters office,” Krutskikh said.

Krutskikh’s comments highlight the emerging world of information warfare, where “fake news” and hacking are tools for covert warriors in many nations. The senior administration official warns: “The Russians are particularly advanced — in technology, organization and doctrine. They’re at the head of the pack. But there will be others.”