Russia’s Information-Centric Warfare Strategy: Re-defining the Battlespace

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 123

Russian military cyber warfare branch (Credit:

Russian military theorists, experts, commentators and officials have long shown interest in moving the country’s military toward information or network-centric approaches to warfare. Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in February–March 2014, which was executed by harnessing a mixture of hard and soft power in what is referred to as “non-linear warfare,” these interests are more fashionable. A recent article in the Russian military press confirmed that some theorists are taking information warfare and network-centric concepts to a new stage—instead of utilizing them to dominate the battlespace, information per se is becoming the battleground itself. Yet, this level of aspiration faces numerous practical challenges in Russia, including tackling corruption in the domestic defense industry as well as redesigning the Armed Forces to fit a potentially important shift in military theory (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 2).

First, to highlight elements of new thinking in this theoretical approach, it is necessary to examine the contours of an article by Major-General (retired) Vasily Burenok, President of the Russian Academy of Missile and Artillery Sciences, in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer. Burenok notes the use of information-based assets in conflicts including Yugoslavia, Libya and Ukraine. He refers to this in terms of using informational tools to spread propaganda, chaos and cause destabilization. Sometimes the results of using this means of warfare are unpredictable as in both Libya and Ukraine. However, the author argues that it is important for Russian defense planners to understand the possible implications of this kind of war for Russia’s military-technical policy (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 2).

Burenok’s analysis is driven by a comparison with developments in the US, though he does not imply that Moscow needs to compete with Washington. He notes that no accepted model of information warfare exists and offers general observations. Burenok assesses the ways and means to manipulate individual thinking and manage social networks, basing this on an analysis of the published parts of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 2015 program. The aim of that program is to “maintain the technological superiority of the US Armed Forces, preventing the sudden appearance of new means of struggle, support breakthrough research, and the introduction of fundamental science in the military sphere” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 2).

In his article, Burenok expresses interest in specific features of the DARPA 2015 program, which he describes below (as translated from Russian):

  • Social Media in Strategic Communication, to track the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes) in social networks, which will continue independently and intentionally initiate campaigns depending on the objectives of the region and US interests.”
  • Program Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales, “associated with the development of applications designed to detect abnormal processes occurring in society, observing inappropriate behavior of individuals and groups of people.”
  • Program Mission-oriented Resilient Clouds, “to ensure the safety of individual server nodes in the cloud and to continue stable operation in situations where components are subject to cyber or physical attacks.”
  • Logan program, “designed to give the US [Department of] Defense advanced warning of cyber-attacks.”
  • Active Cyber Defense, “aimed at establishing technical means upon detection of suspicious activity in real-time means of disinformation that hitters activate, and initiate preventive protective actions by attacking the computer network.”
  • Active-Reactive Cyber Systems, “for the development of technologies that allow nodes, systems and networks to actively identify threats and dynamically respond to cyber-attacks.

Burenok suggests that DARPA is “well aware” that “information is becoming a source of pressure and domination. Modern political scientists armed with informatics tools can actively shape public opinion to manipulate the mind.” In such warfare, Burenok notes, the winner will be the one possessing the best network, enabling the “easy and smooth flow of information,” transforming this to a form and content most suited for the aggressor. This involves “skillful manipulation of the perception of events,” which will become a guarantee of stability. Burenok represents the modern battlefield as the information space itself (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 2). His vision for Russian information warfare—network-centric, electronic and cyberwar—is one of integration, while recognizing the need to conceptualize this before the next ten-year state armaments program.

Much of the responsibility for modernizing information assets under the defense ministry falls on the joint stock company Voyentelekom, which in turn is part of the holding company Oboronservis. However, Voyentelekom has been hit by a major corruption scandal with many of its former executives under investigation for large-scale fraud. Its former head, Nikolai Tamodin, was arrested on September 23, 2013 and is still in detention, with a recent Moscow court order extending his confinement by two months to mid-July. Some former employees of Voyentelekom recently wrote to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu about large-scale corruption in the company while pointing to the strategic importance of its work. The letter also reminded Shoigu that the company has lost “almost all” of its branch directors and senior officers at various levels due to the corruption scandal (CNews, Telekom, July 1).

Voyentelekom’s Director-General Aleksandr Davydov, recently referred to the “nonfulfillment” of contracts in the State Defense Order as reflecting the deeper problems experienced by the company in recent years. Davydov characterizes nonfulfillment as an ongoing problem, but adds, “Since their overdue handover is costing us serious losses, the majority of them will be concluded this summer. That is, we shall fulfill practically all obligations to the defense ministry that we undertook in the period 2011–2012.” This mainly relates to the defense ministry’s “digitization” project as well as repair of electronic warfare equipment (Interfax, June 11).  The existing problems with noncompliance of contracts in the State Defense Order and corruption within Voyentelekom may inhibit the kind of breakthroughs envisaged by Burenok.

Burenok sees developments in “informationizing” modern warfare in a number of conflicts, including the current one in Ukraine. But he calls for an integrated approach that will result in placing the information space at its center, so that “the most diverse, unrelated ideological, social, civil, economic, ethnological, migration processes are manipulated by external operators in order to achieve specific goals.” That aspiration seems a long way off, yet Moscow’s application of a force mixture in Crimea and subsequent efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine suggest that experimentation will continue to be the main feature of Russian military transformation in the years ahead.