When it comes to Russian propaganda, we haven't seen anything yet.
Over the past several months, Americans have become acutely aware of a phenomenon that Europeans were already all too familiar with: the pervasive, corrosive nature of Russian propaganda. Russia's purported attempts to meddle in the U.S. presidential election remain a major topic of national debate—one that could, even now, lead to fresh Congressional investigations and a political showdown between Capitol Hill and the new White House.
Yet the scope of Russia's propaganda machine is still poorly understood by most Americans. Many may by now be familiar with Moscow's highest profile media outlets, like television channel RT (which the Russian government funds to the tune of some $250 million annually) and the flashy Sputnik "news" multimedia website (which is likewise lavishly bankrolled by the Kremlin). But the full range of Russia's information operations are still truly appreciated only by the small cadre of foreign policy and national security professionals who have been forced to grapple with their far-reaching and negative effects.
That effort is enormous, encompassing billions of dollars and dozens of domestic and international media outlets in an architecture that dwarfs the disinformation offensive marshaled against the West by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Its objective is clear and unequivocal: to obscure objective facts through a veritable "firehose of falsehood," thereby creating doubt in Western governments, undermining trust in democratic institutions, and garnering greater sympathy for the Russian government (or, at least, greater freedom of action) for its actions abroad.
Last month, in a presentation before the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu formally unveiled the establishment of a new military unit designed to conduct "information operations" against the country's adversaries. The goal of the new initiative, according to Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Duma's defense committee, is to "protect the national defense interests and engage in information warfare."
Not much is known about the newly formed corps, at least so far. In his presentation, Shoigu did not elaborate on the mandate of the new unit, or its size. (The overall number of active duty Russian information operation troops has been estimated at around 1,000, with a budget of approximately $300 million annually). Nevertheless, the announcement is significant for at least two reasons.
First, it marks the culmination of a steady militarization of Russian propaganda. Once seen largely as a political strategy designed to shape foreign perceptions about Soviet (and later Russian) conduct abroad, disinformation (dezinformatsiya in Russian) has progressively taken on a distinctly martial character.
In 2013, Russia's Defense Ministry reportedly established a dedicated "scientific company" with the mandate to train soldiers in information operations. Since that time, the Russian military has waded into the informational space with a vengeance, taking on an extensive—and aggressive—role in molding foreign opinion and perceptions. Today, in keeping with the country's 2014 Defense Doctrine, the manipulation of "information" has become a critical element of Russian military strategy.
This dezinformatsiya has been used to great effect in Ukraine, with which Russia precipitated a conflict in 2014 and where Moscow continues to support pro-Russian separatists in their attempt to destabilize the state. Throughout that time, Moscow has used media manipulation to obscure the full extent of its involvement in the crisis, and to complicate the West's response to it. In Syria, too, the Russian military has taken on an extensive role in molding perceptions regarding the conflict via social media and other news methods. By doing so, the Kremlin has largely succeeded in capturing the popular narrative regarding what, exactly, it is doing on the Syrian battlefield. Both of these efforts, and others, can now be expected to intensify.
But Moscow's new military propaganda unit is significant for another reason as well. It foreshadows an intensification of Russia's "infowar" against the West. In recent years, Russian propaganda has become a pervasive problem throughout Europe, where Kremlin-owned and—sponsored media outlets have attempted to empower fringe political parties, discredit pro-Western politicians, and promote Moscow's vision of world events (PDF). They have also, through "fake news" stories and political mischaracterization, repeatedly sought to drive a wedge among members of the NATO alliance, which Moscow sees as a real threat to its geopolitical ambitions.
Now, this informational offensive is poised to enter a new phase. "Propaganda should be smart, competent, and effective," Shoigu emphasized while inaugurating the country's new informational shock troops. Clearly, Russian officials believe that their new military propaganda force is a step in that direction. Just as clearly, the United States and its NATO allies should consider themselves to have officially been put on notice.