Anna Kananen is a master’s student at University of Helsinki focusing on world politics and Russia and eastern Europe area. She has conducted exchange studies in Georgia at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (attended course entitled "Information warfare and security" from the program "media psychology and communications"). She is as a freelance journalist particularly interested in security threats and the means of warfare.
Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have drawn the international community’s attention to the area – again. In fact, for example the United States just recently ordered the families of US diplomats to leave the country in the fear of Russian military action. Clearly, Russia’s actions have raised an international concern of an armed attack in the area.
Not only does Russia’s military action concern the traditional use of armed warfare though. Russia has long used the means of more modern, not-so-visible warfare. This refers to the widely adopted term of information warfare. But what does it in fact mean?
According to the definition by Nato, information warfare is a strategy for gaining an information advantage over one’s adversary. Controlling one's own information space, securing access to one's own information, while gaining and using the opponent's information, destroying their information systems, and disrupting the information flow are all part of it. Although information warfare is not a new phenomenon, it does contain features of technical advancements that allow information to be distributed more quickly and on a greater scale. In Russia the means of information warfare have been long in use – and prevalent in the wars Russia has provoked in the last years.
Blocked routes to Europe
Researchers Vladimir Sazonov and Kristiina Müür say that Russian information operations against Ukraine had a crucial role in Russia's actions in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russian information operations were utilized at all levels of the war from the political level against the state of Ukraine, its structures, and politicians, to the military level.
Of course, the means of traditional warfare were still crucial. The war finally led to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Why is this all taking place in a modern world order where invasion of another country’s territory should be highly prohibited? The reasons can be surely found both in history and in Russia’s future aspirations. For example, journalist Paul Kirby says that Russia has consistently tried to block Ukraine's attempts to join European institutions, particularly Nato.
Not only is Ukraine the only neighbouring country to Russia that suffers both from invasion of its territory and Russian information warfare campaigns, however.
In Georgia, even 13 years after the war, Russian troops are still present in the country’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Analyst Joseph Larsen points out that in 2013 Russia began capturing additional Georgian territory as part of a strategy known as “borderization”. He defines borderization as the installation of border markers, fence, and barbed wire along the Administrative Boundary Lines that separate Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia. Indeed, in Tbilisi graffities, stickers and posters that state “20 % of my country is occupied by Russia” or “Russia is an occupant” are all over.
Similar reasonings for Russia’s actions in Georgia have been presented as in the case of Ukraine. As Larsen points out, Georgians are in general in favor of joining Nato. Nato is seen as a defender, as a military alliance capable of assisting Georgia in defending its borders from Russian aggression. Larsen notes however, that according to the criteria laid down in the 1995, any geographical disputes must be settled before Nato membership can be granted. Larsen notes that therefore, before Georgia and Nato move further, the conflicts with the occupied territories must be resolved.
As in Ukraine, also the non-so-visible threats posed by Russia are present in Georgia. This was especially the case in the 2008 war. According to security expert Marcel H. Van Herpen, Russia has presented its version of the war in Georgia as follows: in August 2008 the Georgians invaded South-Ossetia, and during this period Georgia’s forces killed 2,000 civilians and Russian peacekeepers. As a result, Russia launched a humanitarian intervention. This version, according to Van Herpen, is an example of active dissemination of disinformation.
Indeed, this version is far from the truth.
The Russian version clashes drastically with a report funded by European Union. The report concludes that Georgia initiated the war, however, after long-standing provocations from Russia. According to the report the fighting across the country caused severe damage, killing a total of about 850 people.
Clearly, this differs significantly from the information presented by Russia. Van Herpen notes that immediately after the war started, the Russian regime launched a cyber-attack against Georgia, blocked the Georgian administration and media, and was thus able to present its own version of events.
According to Van Herpen, the Russian disinformation campaign was quite successful, and it succeeded quite well in influencing public opinion. Indeed, researcher Sarah P. White notes that fifty-four Georgian news, government, and financial websites were vandalized or denied service, with the average denial lasting two hours and fifteen minutes and the longest lasting six hours. During the strikes, thirty-five percent of Georgia's internet networks were disrupted.
Russia’s Attacks: Information and/or Invasion?
Researcher Arto Luukkanen points out that the victim of a media war is always an independent media: according to him, the side that gets more media attention will eventually win the conflict or war.
In the end, therefore, the struggle is also essentially about public space. Therefore, in modern wars information warfare has become a real security threat and a mean of warfare, which was indeed the case in the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and in the 2014 war between Russia and Ukraine.
Means of traditional warfare are still of course prevalent in modern day wars. Indeed, the fear of an armed attack is more present in Ukraine than it has been for years. However, also the use of non-so- visible threats – the use of the means of information warfare – must be noted. This must be considered in the current events taking place in Ukraine.
Shepardson, David & Paul Sandle (2022): U.S. tells diplomats' families to leave Ukraine, weighs troop options. Reuters. 24.1.2022. Available in: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia- faces-severe-sanctions-if-it-installs-puppet-regime-ukraine-uk-minister-2022-01-23/.
Kirby, Paul (2022): Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine? And other questions. BBC News. Available in: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589.
Nato: Media – (Dis)information – Security. What is information warfare? Defence Education Enhancement Programme. Available in: https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/5/pdf/2005-deepportal4-information- warfare.pdf.
Sazonov, Vladimir & Kristiina Müür (2017): Russian Information Warfare Against Ukraine I: Online News and Social Media Analysis. In Sazonov, Vladimir, Holger Mölder, Kristiina Müür (ed.) (2017): Russian Information Warfare against the Ukrainian State and Defence Forces: April- December 2014. Available in: https://www.ksk.edu.ee/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/RUSSIAN- INFORMATION-WARFARE-AGAINST-UKRAINE-koolon-I-ONLINE-NEWS-AND- SOCIAL-MEDIA-ANALYSIS.pdf.
Larsen, Joseph (2017): Deterring Russia’s Borderization of Georgia. GIP Commentary, Issue #18. Georgian Institute of Politics.
Council of the European Union (2009): Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia. Available in: https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/HUDOC_38263_08_Annexes_ENG.pdf.
Luukkanen, Arto (2008): Georgia sota – miten mahdottomasta tuli mahdollinen. Helsinki: WSOY.
Van Herpen, Marcel H. (2015): Putinin sodat. Venäjän uuden imperialismin nousu. Translated into Finnish by Kimmo Pietiläinen. Helsinki: Terra Cognita.
White, Sarah P. (2018): Understanding Cyberwarfare: Lessons from the Russia-Georgia War. The Modern War Institute at West Point. Available in: https://mwi.usma.edu/wp content/uploads/2018/03/Understanding-Cyberwarfare.pdf.
From series of MCERC Academic Blogs on "Information Warfare and Security" created by Georgian and International students.